We didn’t have the Internet or social media to research and connect with others living with muscular dystrophy. And, until I reached adulthood, I didn’t know of anyone else with the same condition.
It was difficult enough leaving behind my group of primary school friends and moving on to a different middle school. I felt very lonely and was struggling to integrate, when came the added pressure of immobility.
Prior to this, I could only ever walk short distances – around school and home, but never steps or stairs. Then, at age 10, I suddenly found myself unable to stay on my feet, constantly covered in cuts and bruises from falling, and I didn’t know why.
I was referred to a counsellor, but met with them no more than 3 times, as I found it utterly pointless. How was talking with a complete stranger holding a clipboard going to help me? I couldn’t walk anymore and that was that. Get on with it, Carrie.
Yes, I was stubborn and sceptical even as a child!
People often ask me if I miss it – walking. In all honesty, I tend to fob them off with a half-hearted response; “nah, not really. Moving on…”
But the truth is, my life could and would be so very different if I could walk.
I recently asked my fellow wheelies, on Instagram, what they would do if they were able to walk…
Some of these answers really made me laugh, while others are more thought-provoking.
What would I do? Run! You wouldn’t see me for dust, mate!
Muscular Dystrophy is an umbrella term for a group of muscle diseases.
There are nine forms (see image above), which then divide into many more sub-types.
The various forms of MD differ significantly in which areas of the body are affected, severity, rate of progression, and the age of onset.
Some are born with the condition, while others do not display symptoms until adulthood.
2. What causes it?
A faulty or mutated gene. It is therefore, a genetically inherited condition.
If one or both parents have the mutated gene that causes MD, it can be passed on to their children. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean the children will have the condition. But they may be carriers.
I have a rare form of congenital (from birth) MD, which is an autosomal recessive disorder, meaning you inherit two mutated genes, one from each parent – as shown in the image below.
I am the only known member of my family to be affected by muscular dystrophy. My unaffected parents (both carriers) had never heard of the condition, and so, it was a huge shock to receive my diagnosis at the age of 4.
3. What form do you have and how does it differ from other types of muscular dystrophy?
I have a rare form of congenital (from birth) MD, called Ullrich.
I have severe contractures in all of my joints (knees, hips, elbows, wrists), and a severe scoliosis (curved spine). As a result, my balance is very poor.
UCMD affects my respiratory function. 7 years ago it became necessary for me to use a BiPAP machine (non-invasive ventilation) nocturnally.
For me, a common cold can very quickly develop into a serious respiratory illness, such as pneumonia (which I’ve had numerous times).
I experience chronic fatigue due to the progressive muscle-wasting and my squashed torso, which prevents expanditure of my lungs.
I try to live as “normal” a life as possible, having attended university and learnt to drive (though this is no longer possible as my condition has deteriorated).
8. Pros and Cons of living with UCMD?
The cons of my condition are mostly listed in the previous answer. The most bothersome of these are the respiratory decline and chronic fatigue.
You might think being unable to walk would be the most frustrating thing. And while I do wish I could walk, jump and run, this has never really bothered me all that much. It is what it is, and you learn to adapt.
The pros I would say, include the network of people I have in my life, people I wouldn’t know if it weren’t for my condition.
I have made some amazing friends through blogging and living with muscular dystrophy. For this, I feel incredibly fortunate and thankful.
Other pros include my Motability WAV (wheelchair accessible vehicle), blue badge for free parking, and being able to skip to the front of the queue at tourist attractions!
9. Has it changed/got worse over time?
Yes, my condition is progressive and life-limiting. My symptoms have got worse over time.
The term life-limiting can, understandably, be scary for many to hear. While I don’t expect to live to be old and wrinkly, I have no plans to pop-off anytime soon!
After all, if you’re a smoker you are limiting your life expectancy!
As a child, I could walk short distances wearing custom-made leg splints.
Joint contractures and the severity of my scoliosis has increased.
My lung function is significantly worse as an adult.
10. What are some of the common misconceptions?
There are many! Here are just a few assumptions…
I have family members with the same condition (I don’t).
I can’t have children.
I can’t have sex or a loving relationship (some even assume I wouldn’t want to).
Many assume I can walk, even when I try to explain I am completely non-ambulant.
People think I take lots of pills and potions – if only there was a miracle cure! I’d take it in a heartbeat.
For more examples, check out this blog post I wrote all about societal preconceptions related to being a wheelchair-user.
As a non-ambulatory wheelchair-user for the past two decades, I’ve experienced many frustrating encounters with lifts/elevators.
~ Being unable to fit inside because they’re occupied by physically fit (lazy, ignorant) able-bodied people
~ Getting stuck in them (once on a very old ferry!)
~ Getting stuck out of them (broken/out of service)
~ Waiting, waiting, waiting…
As a teenager, I went shopping to my local TJ Hughes store (super cool!), which was on three floors. It was a crappy old lift but nevertheless I travelled to the top floor because, well, I wanted to!
When I came to use the lift again, it wouldn’t work – it was completely unresponsive.
Unable to walk at all, I was stranded on the third floor in my manual wheelchair.
More than a little irritated, I started hammering the call button on this lift, “you WILL bloody work!!”
At this point, I was left with no other option than to be manually carried down two flights of stairs by a member of staff. Talk about awkward!
Well, it was either that or, frankly, I’d probably still be stuck there now.
Thankfully, I’m teeny tiny, my wheelchair was lightweight and foldable, and the guy who carried me was young and smelt amazing! I was tempted to ask what he was wearing but thought better of it. I’m not that weird…
It was fortunate that I wasn’t in my current powered wheelchair. If I had been, I honestly don’t know what would have happened…forever stranded in TJ Hughes!
It’s a memory that’s imprinted on my mind. It shouldn’t have happened, it was annoying, undignified, embarrassing and yes, at the time, I was thoroughly pissed off!
Although, on reflection, it is pretty funny. Got to laugh, right!
Of course, it made me wary of using lifts in the future. But I really don’t have a choice! I’m not going to avoid them and miss out just in case something bad happens.
It’s inconvenient at the time but always resolvable.
IF I do ever get stuck again, well, then I’ll worry about it…IF.
Side note ~ If you are fit and able, and have two fully-functioning legs, please use them! Kindly take the stairs and let those in need access the lifts/elevators. Ta muchly!
At the time, I had no idea why I was going to see a Consultant orthopaedic spinal surgeon. I was nine! To me it was just yet another appointment.
There was no faffing around; this doctor was straight to the point! I was told I needed imminent corrective surgery to prevent further decline. I was horrified to hear the graphic details, the lengthy recovery period, and how it could even prove fatal.
Of course, I now appreciate that with any surgical procedure, doctors are obliged to inform the patient of every potential risk and outcome, including death. But this was unexpected news to take in at a young age.
How I Made My Decision
As a child, I annually attended Birmingham Heartlands Hospital, where I saw a paediatric neuromuscular Consultant.
My parents and I were never given a prognosis nor any indication regarding if or how my condition might progress. Life expectancy was never discussed and no doctor could tell if I would, in time, come to rely on a wheelchair. We were very much in the dark, living day-to-day.
Frankly, these appointments frustrated and bored me to tears! We would wait hours to see the doctor, and would leave knowing nothing more than we did before.
I have, in all honesty, learnt infinitely more as an adult through my own research, social media and from others with muscular dystrophy.
My point here is that my parents and I had nothing to base our decision on.
It is now twenty years since I was told I needed a spinal fusion. This was pre-Google and pre-social media. We weren’t put in contact with anyone who had experienced the operation. So, other than a verbal overview from the Consultant, we had no other information or point of reference.
After leaving the appointment in a state of shock, my parents told me that ultimately the choice was mine. I decided I didn’t want to put myself through such an ordeal. I was, at that age, considerably more able than I am now, and none of us had any reason to think I would deteriorate as severely as I have.
Do I Regret My Decision?
At the time, it was, or at least seemed the right decision. I was able to weight-bear, finding clothes wasn’t an issue, I was pain-free, and did not require any inhalers, medication or respiratory support.
The procedure back then was very different compared to today, and I was very young. My condition was stable, I was happy and relatively able. Under those circumstances, the disadvantages outweighed the potential advantages.
However, I do often wonder how different my life, body and health might be had I said yes to a spinal fusion.
No one predicted that just a year after the offer was made, aged 10, I would become completely non-ambulant within a very short space of time. Had I any indication that this might occur, my decision may have been different.
Though my scoliosis was considerable, the ‘S’ shaped curve is now much greater. Consequently, my respiratory function is significantly affected and basic comfort is a distant memory.
On bad days, when I’m in pain and struggling for breath, or when I’m ill for months (yes, months) with respiratory infections; I do regret forgoing my one opportunity to correct my skeletal deformity.
But, what’s done is done, and cannot be undone. I’m stuck with me! I can’t change past decisions. I simply have to make the best of what I have and keep moving forward.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with scoliosis and spinal surgery.
– Have you turned down corrective surgery?
– Have you had a spinal fusion? If so, how has your life changed as a result? Is it better or worse?