For the past three weeks, I’ve been battling Covid, having tested positive on 27th October. I was, in fact, due to receive my booster jab the following day. Bloody typical! Despite being double vaccinated, the virus hit me hard, really hard.
Physically disabled from birth, I’m one of the many considered ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’.
My condition, Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy, is rare, progressive and affects lung function. This is made worse by a spine that’s as crooked as a question mark and a squashed torso.
I’ve always been a “sickly kid”, susceptible to respiratory viruses, which become more and more difficult to overcome, the older I get.
Throughout my 32 years, a considerable amount of time has been spent in hospital. I’ve endured several bouts of pneumonia, pleurisy and a collapsed lung. Furthermore, my immune system is very much suppressed and affected by at least 15 surgeries under general anaesthetic – I stopped counting after a while.
It’s fair to say, my fragile, little body has taken a battering. And I am tired.
These days, it takes at least a month before I even begin to improve. Life quite literally comes to a stop. Once symptomatic, I become dependent on my BiPap ventilator 24/7. I go from bed, to chair, to bathroom. And that is how I exist. Time becomes meaningless and the days merge into one.
~ I’m not including photos of myself whilst ill because, well, I don’t want to. I don’t have the energy or interest for selfies, and, I don’t want pity. I don’t allow anyone other than my parents to see me in this state, it’s simply personal choice. ~
Few people really empathise and grasp the seriousness of the situation, which I totally appreciate. It’s difficult to comprehend something you haven’t seen or experienced for yourself. Admittedly, 20 year-old me wouldn’t understand either.
Life back then was very different. I was a night owl, regularly staying up until 4am and feeling fine the next day. I completed a coursework focused university degree, spending some days on campus from 9am – 9pm, followed by a 40 minute drive home. Though never a party girl, I did my fair share of drinking and socialising. Trips away with friends involving going out all day and every night, then clambering back to the hotel in the early hours just didn’t affect me. I had the energy and ability to do the things I wanted to do, and it was fun.
These days, it takes everything I have to get out of bed (assisted by carers) and shower.
It’s not the life I wanted or hoped for. But it’s all I have to work with. And yes, it does affect my mood, attitude, point of view and relationships.
A LOT of my time is spent resting. Of course, I would much rather be out, exploring, experiencing, making memories, living it up, and doing fun, daring, exciting activities. But I simply can’t.
Though I try to hide the severity of my condition, a select few people, whom I trust and am closest to, know how much I struggle.
I only told four people about my Covid diagnosis. Mainly because, well, it isn’t the happiest subject, is it! And right now, all of my resources are focused on recovery.
Inevitably, word gets around, and neighbours as well as family friends are also now aware. And they’ve been absolutely incredible.
To the people who expressed genuine concern, care and support – thank you so very much! You know who you are, and I value each and every one of you.
The generous gifts, cards and daily messages have been a huge comfort. I’ve even received medical supplies, vitamins and immune boosting supplements from friends! Real friends who step-up when life is pretty shitty.
Knowing that people care is worth more than anything in life.
To close this rather rambly and inarticulate post, I want to pay the biggest tribute to my parents, particularly my mum, who has patiently cared for me throughout, and not left my side. It’s not only my life that’s been put on hold by Covid, but theirs too.
For those who don’t know, I still live with my parents, in their home. It’s far from ideal and we do butt heads from time to time. But the love and loyalty is unconditional.
My mum is 67, suffers from arthritis, and, four years ago, underwent knee replacement surgery. She’s lead an incredibly challenging life, which I won’t go into. She is an UNPAID carer. She does not receive a single penny to care for me, and yet, she does it without question or complaint.
To whoever is reading this, please acknowledge the country’s thousands of unseen, undervalued, unpaid carers. Let’s raise awareness of the situation and show them some care, support and gratitude!
Those who work regular 9-5 jobs get to come home at the end of the day and relax. For family carers, the work never ends. It is relentless, grueling, and it impacts their lives as well as their mental and physical health.
For me, being stuck at home for prolonged periods of time, due to chronic illness, is the norm. Hospital admissions, operations, cancelling plans and missing out on events and opportunities is a way of life.
Over the years, many birthdays, holidays and celebratory occasions have been lost to my condition. Whole months have been wiped out to repeated bouts of pneumonia, pleurisy and pneumothorax.
~ This is the case for thousands of disabled and chronically ill people throughout the UK! ~
I know what it is to struggle, to feel trapped, isolated and helpless. Such an existence really puts life into perspective and opens your eyes to what is truly important.
Attitudes to Lockdown Restrictions
Since lockdown began, I’ve seen and heard many petty complaints from ignorant individuals, which I find incredibly frustrating.
People whining about being unable to go out partying or bar hopping to get pissed.
To those self-absorbed cretins ~ GET OVER YOURSELVES!
Despite warnings, many continue to flout the rules, refuse to wear face masks and generally take life for granted, with little regard for the wellbeing of others. Some naively appear to think they’re invincible.
Trust me, it’s a hell of a lot easier to breathe through a protective face covering than a ventilator!
So please, have a little care and consideration. Protect yourself and others.
During lockdown, I can honestly say I did not miss going to pubs, restaurants, cinemas, shops or salons. To me, these are life’s luxuries.
Yes, we all need that escapism and we all enjoy going out and socialising, myself included.
But, when the time comes to look back on my life, I’m pretty certain I won’t be thinking, “damn, I wish I’d done more pubbing and clubbing”.
The one thing I REALLY missed during lockdown was quality time and physical contact with my family and closest friends. Being able to sit with them, touch them, hug them and talk face-to-face.
~ It really isn’t what you do, it’s who you do it with. ~
This week, the UK government issued new measures to suppress the spread of Covid-19. From Monday 14th September, social gatherings will be limited to 6 people.
In all honesty, I can’t say I’m surprised at these restrictions. From my perspective, as a physically disabled shielder, it seemed inevitable.
Our government has actively encouraged people to return to work, to school, the High Street, the salon, the gym, to pubs and restaurants.
Of course, we all want a return to some sort of normality. And while it is essential we sustain our economy through supporting businesses and minimising unemployment, it would appear BoJo favours wealth over health.
Those at greater risk have been largely neglected; the elderly, disabled and those with underlying health issues.
Many, like myself, have been shielding since March. We have been isolated in our homes, watching the world go by from behind closed windows.
Some have endured months without medical support. Personal carers, though essential, pose a risk to the most vulnerable. And others are forced to leave work, since there is little to no support for disabled employees.
I am very fortunate to have been able to continue accessing my routine hospital appointments throughout lockdown.
Despite initial anxiety and fears from friends, I felt safe and protected during every one of my 6 hospital visits and 2 GP appointments since March – all thanks to our invaluable NHS.
However, after waiting almost a year for a much-needed respiratory referral, I fear my upcoming appointment may now be cancelled, due to the latest guidelines.
My discussions with various medical professionals over the past few months reveal concerns for a second lockdown around October.
With Flu season approaching, this warning poses an even greater strain and impact on the elderly, disabled and NHS.
Though we all must now adapt and change our way of life somewhat, it’s important to remember this is only temporary. Things will improve.
I’ve heard people complain about the restrictions; mostly young, fit, able-bodied people. Yes, it’s a pain in the fat ass! But it isn’t forever.
Also, please be aware that many disabled and chronically ill people are repeatedly forced into prolonged periods of self-isolation throughout their lives. Plans are often cancelled last minute due to poor health. This isn’t new to them.
So, before you complain because you can’t go out partying with your mates, or to the pub, please consider those for whom limitation and isolation is a way of life.
Show your thanks and appreciation for the NHS and those working in health and social care.
Be mindful of the most vulnerable in society, and help out if you’re able to.
Please don’t panic buy or stock pile. This isn’t the apocalypse, people!
A Life Update | Muscular Dystrophy & Chest Infections
Once again, I’m out of action with a chest infection. Although unpleasant, this isn’t generally a concern for the average person. But for those like me who live with a neuromuscular condition (in my case, UCMD, a rare muscle-wasting disease) a chest infection is not to be taken lightly. It can develop scarily quickly and lead to more serious complications such as life-threatening pneumonia.
I have always struggled with chest infections. Every time I catch a common cold, it heads straight to my chest. As a child this necessitated a course of banana medicine (Amoxicillin), chest physio and a week off school (okay, so it wasn’t all bad).
As I have aged and my condition has deteriorated, I now find chest infections much more difficult to cope with. It can take me a month, sometimes longer to get back to any sort or normal. In the meantime, life comes to a complete standstill.
Due to the severity of my impaired lung function, I struggle to cough effectively and clear secretions, making the seemingly simple act of breathing incredibly difficult. As a result, I become totally reliant on my BiPAP machine, and find removing it for a mere 10 minutes a major challenge.
When I feel myself getting ill, I throw everything at it:
• Respiratory physio
• Stay hydrated and eat as much as possible for energy and sustenance
• BiPAP to support breathing
But in the end, for me, it really is a case of waiting it out and remaining as positive and defiant as possible.
Obviously, this is just my personal experience. There are many forms of muscular dystrophy, and each individual reacts and responds differently to respiratory illness. But one thing is true for all of us –
chest infections are no laughing matter!
You may often see members of the NMD community banging on about infection control and the importance of the Flu jab, and with good reason! For us, this really is a matter of life or death.
1. What is your disability and how does it affect you?
Lauren West:I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I’ve never walked independently and got my first powered wheelchair at the age of two and a half.
Despite the severity of my SMA, I passed my driving test, went to university three hours from home, and moved to London to start my working life. I now still live in London with my partner and with support from live-in PAs who do all my personal care and domestic tasks.
Michaela Hollywood: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I commonly say that I can do pretty much nothing without assistance except speak! Although, I have recently learned to drive using hand controls.
Possibly the biggest impact of my SMA is my breathing and the impact of chest infections, which can make me sick quite often. I’m also deaf, and have pancreatic insufficiency which affects my ability to digest food, and that can cause a lot of pain and fatigue. My motto is; I can drive a van, and boil a kettle but I can’t make a cup of tea!
Emma Vogelmann: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I’m a full-time electric wheelchair-user and since contracting Swine flu in 2009, I also use a portable ventilator via a tracheotomy.
2. How and why did you become involved with MDUK Trailblazers, and what is your role?
Lauren West: I became involved at the very start of Trailblazers, after I left the Whizz-kidz Kids Board. I felt I had a campaigning void in my life after leaving the board, so I was really excited when I heard about Trailblazers. For a long time, I was the only Welsh Trailblazer and so I formed a great bond with the original team, Bobby and Tanvi.
I stayed involved throughout university through participating in work experience and attending events like APPGs. I was delighted after a few years in different jobs to be offered the role as Campaigns Officer, as I’d always wanted to work for Trailblazers. It was then super exciting to take up the role of Trailblazers Manager at the beginning of 2016.
Michaela Hollywood: I was involved with Trailblazers from the very beginning, before it even started!
I was at a MDUK Family Weekend when I was 16, and, because of my disability and access requirements, I couldn’t book tickets to see the band McFLY perform in my local arena. Consequently, I spoke to the then Chief Executive of the charity Phil Butcher, and said we need a “young people’s forum”. My idea at the time was that those of us with a muscle wasting condition have powerful voices that weren’t being heard, and too many non-disabled adults were making decisions that affected our lives without even thinking of consulting us. And out of that Trailblazers was born!
I volunteered for the first number of years, and directed the organisation from Northern Ireland for a year before it became official. I went to university and did my undergraduate degree in Public Relations, followed by a Masters in PR and Communications, specialising in political lobbying. I then joined the team from home in Northern Ireland a little over 3 years ago.
Emma Vogelmann: I was invited by MDUK to a Parliamentary roundtable meeting about disability employment. I really liked that a prominent charity was directly engaging with young disabled people and their lived experiences. After that, I asked if there were any opportunities to get involved with the organisation which led to a 4 month internship with the Campaigns team. I absolutely loved it, so when the role of Employability Officer was advertised I knew I had to apply. The rest, as they say, is history!
3. How do you feel about being an influential career woman with a disability? Has your disability made you more determined to pursue your career goals?
Lauren West: I don’t think I would describe myself as an influential career woman but if I am seen that way, then that’s a real honour.
I think my disability has made me much more determined in all parts of my life, not just my career. I have always been quite driven and even when I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to follow, I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference.
But I genuinely think there’s been one driving force behind my ambition and that was a social worker who was sorting out my university care package. She made an off-the-cuff comment about how when I was done having fun at university, I’d come home and she’d help set me up on benefits in a little flat. Whilst this is needed for some, this is not how I wanted my life to go, but I knew I’d face similar beliefs and attitudes throughout my whole life. So I was determined to fight against that societal expectation.
Michaela Hollywood: For me, I think it made my education very important. And it’s made me steely and determined. It’s a good advantage to be able to use my voice as communication is so important when your impairment is so physical. I’m proud to be in the position I am, and try to keep my focus on what I can do for others.
Emma Vogelmann: I never really thought of myself as an influential career woman in all honesty. I suppose you just crack on with your day-to-day work, so you never stop to think about it.
Now I am starting to see the impact my work has on other people, such as my employment work. I’ve seen the people involved in my project access jobs, find a careers mentor and so many other meaningful changes. That’s incredibly rewarding for me.
My disability makes me more determined to do a lot of things, but definitely in my career. Someone in a meeting I ran summed it up perfectly, “disabled people feel the pressure to be exceptional just to be considered equal to their able-bodied co-workers”. While this is not the culture at MDUK, I do feel that internal pressure to prove myself constantly. I’ve learned first-hand and from others that it is unfortunately really hard to enter the working world as a disabled person, so once you’re there you feel like you need to show your employer why they made the right decision.
4. In relation to employment, what challenges have you faced due to your disability, and how have you overcome these obstacles?
Lauren West: Throughout school and university, getting a typical student job just wasn’t on the cards for me. For one thing, I just didn’t have the stamina to study and work. But also the usual student jobs just weren’t physically accessible to me. I was worried that this lack of work experience would put me at a severe disadvantage for getting a job once I’d graduated.
I was lucky that Trailblazers found me an internship at my local MP’s office, so I did one day a week there for three months in my final year of study. I also did work experience at MDUK which gave me a great taste of living and working in London.
I was incredibly fortunate to secure a job in London prior to graduating from my Master’s degree. However, when this job turned out to not be what I expected and complete with a very abusive boss, I had real trouble finding a new job. I mainly applied to charities and many claimed to be part of the ‘two ticks scheme’ which offered guaranteed interviews for disabled applicants.
However, it was rare I’d even get called for an interview and it took many unhappy months before I was offered a role as a mental health advocate. The same year, I started working for MDUK and I love being part of a charity that values diversity and inclusivity.
I think the only way I’ve overcome challenges within employment is just through stubbornness and determination. I really think there are organisations out there for everyone but it can just take a long time to find the right fit.
Michaela Hollywood: The biggest one is my health. Self-care is important to keep me ticking over. I’ve been really lucky to work for a group I wholeheartedly believe in, and where we see real help and progress happening. I try to make sure others are afforded the same opportunities I have been lucky to have.
Emma Vogelmann: I struggled to find an employer willing to give me a chance after university. Of course, this is true for most graduates. But I do feel that being a disabled graduate made it harder. I remember asking Lauren West for advice before I started working at MDUK about when, where and how to disclose my disability, because I didn’t want to be counted out too soon for jobs, but I also didn’t want to hide something I consider a strength. I decided to always disclose my disability, though this is a very personal choice that isn’t necessarily right for everyone. I work within a disability charity, so it is extremely relevant to say I’m disabled, but I know a lot of people who aren’t comfortable with this and that’s completely okay too.
As someone who was part of Trailblazers from the start, being able to bring those 10 years together through an incredible event in Parliament was just the best experience. Seeing over 100 people all in one room celebrating their successes of the past 10 years will be forever one of my best moments.
Michaela Hollywood: This is a tough one! My dad, Michael, likes to tell anyone and everyone he meets to “Google” me because he is so proud of what I’ve achieved.
Emma Vogelmann: What a tough question! I suppose it would be winning my case against a taxi driver who discriminated against me due to being a wheelchair-user. It happened on my second day of work at MDUK and it was a difficult experience to go through. But to have two courts agree that wheelchair-users cannot be overcharged was a great feeling. I really hope it will empower other wheelchair-users to not accept discriminatory treatment from taxi drivers.
Many thanks to the brilliant Emma, Lauren and Michaela for answering my questions.
The dark nights are drawing in and the weather is turning increasingly colder. The harshness of winter fills many disabled people, myself included, with dread.
How can we best prepare ourselves for winter?
We are 80% more likely to catch a cold during winter.
Bearing that in mind, here are my top tips to stay well and defend yourself against those nasty winter viruses.
Click here for Part 1 ~ Top Tips to Keep Warm through Winter!
1. Stock up on supplies: Medication –
• It’s always advisable to keep a stock of essential supplies in your home. Several factors, including adverse weather, can prevent you from getting hold of medicines at short notice.
• All my medications are on repeat prescription so that I don’t have the bother of getting hold of a GP every time I need something.
• As someone with Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy, a common cold for me can develop scarily quickly, and so I ensure there’s always a reserve of antibiotics at home, should I need them.
• It’s important to go and get your Flu jab annually and, where relevant, the pneumonia vaccination. Don’t leave it too late to protect yourself from influenza – it takes two weeks from the time you’re injected for your body to build up an immunity.
• It’s good practice to have a list of contacts, in case of an emergency. Include medical professionals (e.g. doctors, consultants, physiotherapists and hospital ward/department direct lines) so that you or your next of kin can contact, should you become ill. Keep your list somewhere easy to find, such as on the fridge, and make copies!
• I choose to take supplements including a daily multivitamin and probiotics, in order to boost my immunity. Supplements come in various forms: tablet, capsule, liquid and powder. If you struggle to swallow pills, there’s always another option out there for you.
• I’m not a fan of water, so I drink a lot of herbal teas, such as lemon and ginger, to keep me hydrated and flush out toxins. Both ingredients are naturally antibacterial while ginger also helps ease migraines, inflammation and nausea (the latter being a common side effect of antibiotics). Add some honey for sweetness and to soothe a sore throat.
• I find smoothies and soups are an easy way to get your recommended allowance of vitamins and minerals. It’s really important to eat healthily to aid your bodies defence against all those coughs and colds circulating throughout the winter months. Remember: you are what you eat!
• Top Foods: lemon, ginger, garlic, onion, kale, cinnamon, turmeric, honey, apple cider vinegar, grapes, natural yoghurt and chicken soup.
• I keep a little bottle of antibacterial hand gel in my bag (you can buy them really cheaply from most shops nowadays). I use it when out and about or using public transport. It’s a simple way to prevent the spread of germs from surfaces and person to person.
• It’s stating the obvious but wash hands with soapy water and maintain clean surfaces within the home. It’s often difficult to prevent all members of a household becoming ill when one gets sick. But simple precautions such as this could make all the difference.
• Grab yourself a few packets of antibacterial wipes and remember to clean phones, remote controls, computer keyboards and door handles regularly. You’d be amazed how much bacteria harbours there.
• Be considerate and try to cough and sneeze into a tissue rather than the air. It’s a good idea to keep plenty of tissues in stock. Please don’t do what my Dad does and carry a snotty cotton handkerchief around with you all day – bleurgh!
• Replace your toothbrush after you have fully recovered from an illness.
• It’s beneficial to stay as active as physically possible, particularly throughout winter as immobility makes us more vulnerable to infection.
• I am completely non-ambulant and so this is a major issue for me. Immobility results in muscle decline and poor circulation, which in itself leads to further complications.
• Although I cannot exercise in a conventional fashion, I basically wriggle and move about as much as I can. For example, I flex my feet & wiggle my toes, lean back and forth and side to side in my chair. Don’t be afraid to put some music on, loosen up and just MOVE however you can, for as long as you can.
• If you are able, go swimming as this is the best exercise for those with physical disabilities.
• Remember to pay attention to your lungs! Deep breathing exercises are an essential daily requirement for me. Following the Active Cycle of Breathing Techniques (ACBT) helps to keep me as strong as I can be.
5. Avoid Germs:
• I am particularly susceptible to respiratory viruses. If I go anywhere near someone with a cold, 9/10 I will catch it. For me, a common cold can quickly progress into a much more serious condition, I do my best to limit exposure to infected people.
• I avoid overcrowded spaces and public transport when I’m feeling run-down, whilst taking and shortly after a course of antibiotics as this is when my defences are the lowest.
• At times when coughs/colds are prevalent within the local community, I try to stay away from enclosed public places e.g. trains, buses, cinema, supermarket/stores, pubs, clubs etc.
• If you must go out, remain in the fresh, open air (but wrap up warm).
• Wear a scarf when out and about. When necessary, I can use it almost like a mask, pulling it up over my face. This prevents me from inhaling and contracting airborne viruses.
• Why not add a few drops of Olbas Oil (eucalyptus) to your scarf. That way, when you do need to pull it up over your nose and mouth, you can breathe in the fresh scent and it won’t feel stuffy.
I really hope this was helpful! Please SHARE this blog post so that others may benefit.
I’d love to hear from you – what do you do to stay well throughout winter?
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?