A Blocked Tube

Ben’s gastrostomy tube blocked last week. I’m not sure why – perhaps a rogue lump of crushed medication – but it’s normally not a big deal. We keep a spare button at home and I can replace it easily. I do this roughly every three months anyway, and have been doing for the last seven years.

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(Unrelated selfie of us all having lunch at a service station to be thankful Ben’s tube was working fine on our nine hour journey from London to Lancashire over the summer.)

Ben doesn’t eat or drink. He has a gastrostomy which means he has a ‘button’ in his tummy which we connect a tube to on the outside and then conveniently push fluids, food and medication directly into his stomach on the inside. It is a simple yet amazing piece of medical engineering which allows us to feed him while bypassing his mouth.

The button is kept secure by a little inflatable balloon which sits inside his stomach and prevents it falling out. To change the button I can use a syringe to suck the water out of the balloon, except last week the valve that I connect the syringe to had fallen out. We found it in Ben’s clothes and replaced it, but it was bust. Not being able to deflate the balloon meant the blocked button was stuck there, which meant Ben couldn’t have the remainder of his breakfast nor any other food or water until we sorted it out.

These are the kinds of unexpected situations we find ourselves in. Compared to his button being tugged out of his stomach in Sussex and our only replacement being in London, or the horror of needing to reinsert nasogastric tubes when Ben was a small baby, this was not that big a deal. We haven’t had to do an A&E run for a while which has been good, and this wasn’t something we were very worried about. Ben was fine as long as we entertained him. We live close to a hospital so we packed some electronic entertainment devices and headed there to find someone who knew how to solve our problem. We took Max with us since his school is close by and reassured him that everything was fine. He didn’t really believe us because it’s not that normal to accompany your brother to hospital before you go to school.

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As we arrived at A&E, nice and early so mercifully quiet, James said, ‘I bet there’s some really simple low tech solution to this’. I called the specialist feeding nurse whose number I still had from when she had first taught us how to feed Ben by tube and as we were called into triage she was telling me we just needed to chop the button in half with scissors just next to Ben’s tummy. The balloon would deflate and go into his digestive system as if it was food, the stoma would be clear, and I would be able to pop a new button in. I explained this to the A&E nurses, and then to the doctor, who had never come across this problem before. Within twenty minutes, just as a nurse was checking I was happy to cut the button myself, the feeding nurse appeared with some scissors. She cut, I pushed a new button in, and we were back in business. Next time we’ll know what to do.

As I got Ben back in his wheelchair, the feeding nurse reminded me that when Ben was a few months old there had been a problem with his nasogastric tube and I had called her. She had been at home, trapped by one of the numerous snowstorms that were the hallmark of Ben’s early months, but talked me through what I needed to do. 

I had forgotten that occasion, but I remember calling her. I always called her when we had a problem with his feeding tubes, because of all the people we met in those early months she was the one that could offer us the most helpful advice. She knew all that we needed to know about feeding Ben and always answered the phone. When I was struggling to pump breastmilk she put me in touch with another mother who had been through the same. When the end fell off his feeding tube she explained how to fit a new one. When Ben’s gastrostomy was infected she would arrange for it to be swabbed. She was the person we needed at that time. Most other people we saw then either never dealt with a gastrostomy, or did occasionally whereas feeding tubes were this nurse’s bread and butter.

And now, almost ten years later, she solved our problem again whilst commenting on how big Ben is. He’s big because we’ve been feeding him though all of these various tubes which she helped us to feel were manageable. 

James had delivered Max to school mid-button chop so we phoned the school office so someone could tell him that Ben was totally fine, then James drove Ben to school. Crisis efficiently averted. There was a simple solution. Hurrah for the people who know the solutions and always answer the phone.

Changing Places

As Ben gets older it seems to me that his life is a challenge of inclusion. As he get bigger and heavier, the places and buildings he can go and the types of transport he can use are restricted to those that are accessible by wheelchair. As the gap between his way of communicating and his talking peers widens, his ability to communicate with those around him becomes harder. Since he attends a special needs school, the amount of time he spends with non-disabled kids reduces.

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Ben is now pretty heavy, and quite long, and so it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to compensate for the lack of accessibility around us, a trend hastened by me injuring my back earlier this year. Where we would – without giving it a lot of thought – lift Ben, or his wheelchair, up to where he needed to be, or to see something otherwise obscured, we do so less often now. He is now often hoisted at home (a ceiling mounted hoist lifts him in a sling from, for example, his wheelchair to his bed) rather than us lifting him, something I find emotionally tricky.

Add in two other children, and the odd vomit or grumpy mood, and it can feel like it’s easier for us all to stay at home. We have to constantly nudge at the boundaries of what is expected of us and what we expect of ourselves – partly because it’s the right thing to do, partly because otherwise we all get unbelievably bored and tetchy.

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Last week we had left the car near Ben’s school in central London and so rather than one of us going to get it while the other stayed at home with kids, we went on a whole-family trip to retrieve it. Our local train station has lifts, as does a station reasonably close to his school. We looked like a small parade as we pushed a wheelchair and a buggy, carried a car seat, and Max dropped Lego on the floor. We walked through the City, past St Pauls Cathedral, got some lunch and hung out in a playground, and then drove home. It was fun! All of the kids liked being on the train, with each other. We liked doing it with all of them. We should do it more often!

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(Not possible to get a good photo of all of our kids)

But one of the things that really restricts where we can go as a family, and for how long, is whether there is a place to change Ben. I am going to attempt to talk about this clearly, without compromising Ben’s right to privacy.

Ben wears a pad which needs to be changed regularly. At home, we have ceiling hoists and two changing plinths (like a high padded bench) to do this on. We need to be able to lift him out of his wheelchair and lie him on a surface that will accommodate his full height. There is a name for places that have these facilities in public buildings: Changing Places. It’s not rocket science – they are places where people like Ben can get changed.

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(photo of one of the changing benches in our house, folded up)

Changing Places are not disabled toilets (though there are facilities that combine both functions). Disabled loos are just slightly larger-than-normal lavatories. We have used them, often, to change Ben in the absence of anywhere more suitable. This involves us laying the mat on the floor of the loo and lifting a heavy child down on to the mat. No-one wants to lie on the floor of a public toilet, so I think it’s obvious why this isn’t at all acceptable.

Changing Places are also not baby change facilities. Ben is the height of an average seven year old. He will not fit on a babychange unit (though we did this for years in the absence of anything more suitable).

Changing Places came about because a campaigning organisation with the same name has relentlessly lobbied businesses and public institutions to install appropriate facilities for disabled people. They have had some success – we can now plan our drive to Cornwall using their website, which means Ben can be changed appropriately in two service stations en route.

There are five Changing Places in central London. Clearly that’s better than none, which was the case a few years ago, but it makes it pretty unlikely that we are near one on any given outing. Which means our outings can only last a few hours. Can you imagine if you were told that, in the middle of a capital city, your nearest loo was over a mile away? I’ve had three kids and drink a lot of tea so that would spell absolute disaster for me.

And it’s not just public buildings or businesses that are failing here, it’s also hospitals. Our local hospital, where Ben has appointments at least four times a year, often more, has nowhere for Ben to be changed – awkward when waiting times mean we are there for two hours, and then will have an hour journey to take Ben to school. Nor indeed any ability to weigh him beyond me carrying him while standing on some scales and then the nurse subtracting my weight. I did this for years but it is no longer feasible. Nor do they have any way of measuring his height, and therefore calculating his BMI. This is pretty core information that would be really helpful in, say, a discussion with a gastroenterologist.

The social model of disability tells us that disabled people are disabled more by their environment than by their own condition. True inclusion means creating an environment that allows disabled people to participate in society: we took a family trip past St Pauls Cathedral because two stations have been adapted to allow Ben in his wheelchair to travel on the train. The length of our trip is then determined by whether we can change him. It’s not Ben’s disability that’s the problem – it’s the lack of appropriate facilities.

I have no particular desire to discuss the toileting habits of any of my children, but to not talk about what Ben, and kids and adults like him, need in order to be comfortable is to perpetuate the current situation which encourages exclusion. Providing appropriate facilities for disabled people is intrinsically entwined with avoiding isolation. It’s not a question of optional luxury, it’s an issue of basic dignity and social justice.

 

Appreciating good doctors

Our family, and Ben in particular, are pretty intense users of the NHS. I breezed through my twenties with barely a GP appointment but in the last six years we have been really getting to know the people and processes that make up our national health service.

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In the last three months Ben has had brain surgery followed by eight days in two different hospitals. In that time, he has also had six outpatient hospital appointments (one of which lasted 3.5 hours and involved three different professionals), one appointment with our community paediatrician, two orthotics appointments and one visit to the wheelchair service. That doesn’t include his frequent contact with physios, occupational therapists and speech and language therapists at school.

Making our lives the best they can be relies on building relationships with good doctors and therapists, and when the NHS works well it works really bloody well. This was really been demonstrated last week.

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(Photo of Ben in a hospital waiting area. Every time we go he stares avidly at this explanation of wind speed measurement until we read it to him.)

On Tuesday we went to a clinic we had never been to before, where Ben was seen by a consultant paediatrician, a specialist speech and language therapist and a specialist technologist in order to look at the way he communicates. Before we even got there, the team had already made contact with our community paediatrician, three different speech and language therapists who have worked with Ben, and asked us to fill out a questionnaire. Ben’s school speech and language therapist came to the appointment with us, and after hours of working with Ben and much chat, everyone concluded that they needed to spend more time with him. So all of those professionals will visit Ben at school in the coming weeks and months and then we will meet again.

Later in the week we saw Ben’s neurologist, let’s call him Dr D, who we have now known for the entirety of Ben’s life. Following a discussion about Ben’s brain stimulator, he called the neurologist who fitted Ben’s stimulator (at a different hospital) to check he would see us at another appointment next week. We then ran through all of the major aspects of Ben’s life, discussing progress and options, and he warned us (in a friendly way) not to underestimate Ben’s intelligence.

The same night, at 6.30pm, I got a phone call from our GP regarding recent problems with Ben’s medication. After discovering that there is a national shortage of one of the medicines that Ben takes daily, he had called the hospital pharmacy and one of Ben’s neurologists, and had worked out a way of us getting the medicine in the short term until the normal supply is resumed. He had made about six phone-calls on Ben’s behalf, to find a solution, and only called me when he had fixed it.

I would like to take a moment to give some advice to anyone who finds themselves in a situation similar to ours, who sees as many doctors as we do. Our GP practice is the one that Ben was registered with when he was born. It has not been the closest surgery to our house for several years but I took a view that I would rather have the consistency of a practice I knew and doctors I respect than move to a more geographically convenient surgery. Of course I get frustrated with their phones being engaged and with nurses who won’t give Ben the flu spray, but these niggles are far outweighed by having access to a good GP who knows Ben and the rest of us.

Similarly, Dr D is based in our local hospital where the outpatients’ clinic is always too hot and there’s nowhere to change Ben. There is another hospital a bit further away, that has a fancy new children’s hospital building, excellent changing facilities for disabled children and a Marks & Spencers Food shop.

It has been suggested to us that we should move neurology consultants and have everything at the other hospital, but I can’t quite tell whether this is because they think the doctors are genuinely better at the swankier hospital or because they have been seduced by the surroundings. Either way I see no reason for us to move – Dr D is excellent, knows Ben, knows Max, knows us, and calls doctors in the other hospital on his mobile to talk about Ben if he needs to. Most importantly, we like him and, as far as I can tell, he likes us. So we’re sticking with him for the time being, and if that means buying a limp ham sandwich for lunch rather than having the option of M&S sushi, then so be it. If you find a doctor you respect, stick with them.

I haven’t familiarised myself with the recent specific arguments between the Secretary of State for Health and junior doctors, largely because I’ve been spending a lot of time sitting in hospitals. But it is worth taking some time to appreciate the level of commitment and expertise of the doctors (senior and junior) involved in Ben’s care, how hard they work to solve problems, how late they stay to resolve medication issues, and how very nice they all are about it.

Brain surgery

Ben had brain surgery last week. It was an elective operation, in which electrodes were inserted into his brain. These are connected to a battery pack about the size of a cigarette packet on the right side of his tummy. The idea is to try to reduce his dystonia and therefore give him a bit more control over his body. It’s called Deep Brain Stimulation.

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Ben spent a week in hospital after the surgery. He was discharged yesterday and is now back at home – recovering well but still in discomfort. We are relying heavily on paracetamol and films.

We chose for Ben to have this surgery. We entered in to it open-eyed – we knew the risks and we knew it would be hard. We hope that the benefits of reducing Ben’s dystonia, and therefore his disability, will outweigh the pain and disruption of the procedure. We thought hard about whether the gains would be enough to compensate for Ben never again being able to trampoline (in case the wires that now run down his neck snap), and not being able to swim for three months.

Having a child go through major surgery and recovery sends you into a hole. The intensity of the emotion and the level of care required is enormous and exceptional.

It feels all wrong to spend your child’s life taking so much care over who looks after them – we have never previously left Ben with anyone except trusted family, carefully chosen carers, at nursery or at school – then leave them with a group of doctors and nurses who you have only just met, and who are going to do unthinkably invasive things to him while he is unconscious. These places are so weird – full of people for whom this is all in a days work, while James and I are reading Ben knock-knock jokes and trying to convince him and ourselves that everything is going to be okay.

The six hours that Ben was in surgery felt like being in the eye of a storm. Everything calm and controlled, but filled with anxiety and waiting for the call to say he was in recovery. I tried not to dwell on the thought that if Ben’s brain was damaged for a second time I would never forgive myself. Then the call comes, and in we go, and the storm sweeps across us all.

We only really emerged from the swirl of hospitals, and cannulas, and exhaustion yesterday. Here are a few thoughts as we come into the light.

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When Ben has been in hospital previously, we only had one child and this time we had two. This made a bigger difference to our ability to cope than we expected. Someone who knows Ben well needed to be with him all the time – partly because he was sensitive and sad, mainly because he can’t communicate with anyone who doesn’t know him beyond crying. I had created a rota on a geeky spreadsheet to ensure there was always someone with Ben and someone with Max, but the reality of organising it was so tricky.

The easiest solution was to largely have me or James, or both of us, with Ben and for Max be with family and carers. We knew he’d be confused and annoyed, but hoped new Playmobil pirate sets and promises of cake would get him through. And it did for the first few days. Then, he realised that he hadn’t seen his dad for three days and Ben wasn’t at home. He didn’t understand why last week he’d been on holidays with the four of us hanging out all day, but now he never saw his parents in the same place, his brother was in this mysterious hospital place, and we kept trying to offload him on other people. He was so confused. At one point the fact that both of our kids were struggling nearly broke me. Things improved a bit once Max started visiting Ben at hospital, realised he wasn’t too far away and just looked like Mr Bump, and found out that hospitals have not only play rooms but also cafes that sell croissants.

I am raw to Max’s feelings about all of this. He shows such insight and accommodates so much. On the day before surgery, he asked where we were going to be while he was staying with my sister. We explained (again) that we would be at the hospital with Ben, that he was having brain surgery, that we hoped it would help Ben control his muscles. His first question was, ‘Will Ben be able to eat after the surgery?’. No, he won’t. But the three-year-old is asking all the sensible questions. Be still my heart.

Pulling together

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Our family is kept on the road by us all pulling together. For eight days I have spent up to 15 hours in a small room of a hospital. Sometimes with company, largely on my own with Ben, reading The Twits for the sixth time and eating fondant fancies for lunch because I can’t leave Ben for long enough to buy a sandwich. It’s not been that much fun.

But being James has been quantifiably less fun. James did six night shifts with Ben in a row. We were meant to alternate but the kindness of my husband and the frequency of my tears led to him doing every night. These were nights of Ben being miserable, almost no sleep, frequent observations and intravenous antibiotics. This last week, our family has been kept together by this man.

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Ben and James developed an amazing kind of symbiosis from spending all of these hours together in adversity in a small room. By the end of last week James knew what Ben wanted or needed from the smallest facial gesture or the subtlest wriggle. He knew when Ben wanted to be held, or how to get him to sleep. Oh man, these boys of mine.

Meanwhile, our families have been at our beck and call. My sister Maddy has once again proved that her capacity to sit in hospital rooms for hours is one of her most valuable skills (photo below of Ben and her just before his surgery). Along with looking after Max for days despite him almost continually insulting her.

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It will be okay

So here we are. We’re on Day 9 and Ben is well as he could be. It’s all held together with Calpol and constant entertainment, but we’re home.

A few weeks before the surgery we had a party to celebrate our new house and summer. It was our normal combination of friends, prosecco and semi-naked small children. Uncle George brought his decks and at some point before bedtime he played this song: Can’t Do Without You by Caribou. James and I went to Latitude Festival in July and we arrived, via horrific food poisoning, an emotional final assembly at Ben’s school and six hours of Ipswich traffic jams, to Caribou playing this song on the main stage. I love it.

As we then danced to this song in our garden at our party a few weeks later, with James holding Ben and Max jumping around, I had a moment. A little bit of clarity that Everything Is Okay – Ben is happy, our family is amazing, and we can all dance together at a party with our friends on a summer evening. I imagined looking at us from the outside and thinking ‘they look happy, that little family of four’.

As I sat in the hospital room when Ben was in surgery I listened to this song. As I stood in our kitchen at midnight during the last week, having just returned from the hospital but needing to make Ben’s meals for the next day before I could go to bed, knowing that I needed to be up at 6.30am to get back to Ben and James, I played this song. I imagine that many people associate this song with taking drugs on dance floors, but it’s become my anthem of Deep Brain Stimulation. I absolutely cannot do without my little gang of boys, we just need to get through this little patch of discomfort.

Cuddling

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The other day my mum sent me a link to a blog by Alain de Botton about psychoanalyst John Bowlby and his work on attachment theory. “I’m not sending it for any particular reason by the way”, she added a little nervously – presumably just in case I thought she was accusing me of raising children with attachment disorders.

I know very little about psychoanalysis and so a lot of the detail is unfamiliar to me. Essentially I understand from the article that Bowlby looked at how our experience of early maternal care shapes the way we form relationships throughout our lives, suggesting that kindness does not smother and spoil children.

“Bowlby poignantly invokes loving care that a little boy needs: ‘all the cuddling and playing, the intimacies of suckling by which a child learns the comfort of his mother’s body, the rituals of washing and dressing by which through her pride and tenderness towards his little limbs he learns the values of his own…’ Such experiences teach a basic trust.”

The typical development of children is that they are wholly dependent when babies, in a tactile, floppy, defenceless way and then as they grow they get more physically and psychologically independent. They begin to sit in a highchair rather than your lap, they crawl and then run away from you, they talk to people without needing you to interpret. Much of this trajectory is stalled or disrupted for Ben; he is still dependent, he cannot move away.

This means we retain the lovely physical proximity of a child on your lap, of a small head nestled in your neck. We now know his body almost as well as he does and he knows exactly what we feel like.

In the 1950s Bowlby researched the trauma experienced by children who were separated from their parents during hospital stays, when visiting times were restricted and mothers not allowed to hold their sick children.

 “It took a long time for Bowlby’s ideas about the importance of the early bond between the mother and child to get broader recognition and support. But it did happen, eventually. There was no single dramatic revolutionary moment. Many thousands of people changed their minds in small ways: an idea that sounded stupid, came to seem mildly interesting… so that today a child facing a frightening operation is surrounded by love and kindness and her parents get to sleep in a bed beside her.”

I wasn’t able to hold Ben until he was four days old when he was still surrounded by wires and tubes. On day six we visited the hospital and were holding him for most of the day. A nurse said we should be careful we didn’t spoil him – if he got too used to cuddles he would want them all the time. I think that was an incredibly mean-spirited thing to have said to people in our position. I couldn’t imagine anything better than being able to cuddle my son all the time, and hated that we left him there overnight while we returned home. The saving grace was that we didn’t really know him yet and he was so ill that he needed nurses more than he needed parents.

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Recently we have spent two days in a different hospital while Ben has had general anaesthetics for tests. He knows exactly what’s going on and puts up with the whole thing with extraordinary patience. No-one loves being in hospital – that unique combination of lack of control, limited daylight and sitting around makes me feel more exhausted than after a run. But the bit of the day that is almost unbearable is the period of time when I know Ben is sedated and that he will wake up soon, but I can’t be certain they will come and get me immediately. So there may be a moment when he opens his eyes and he’s in an unfamiliar room, confused by the fading anaesthetic, surrounded by strangers. I don’t know if it’s a legacy of the early hospital stay or the fierce protectiveness of motherhood, but it makes me feel incredibly sad. Imagine if we weren’t there at all, if we weren’t allowed to be there.

Bowlby’s work suggests that children need parents to be consistent and loving, to meet their needs and make them feel safe. That, he argues, is how children develop into adults who can form healthy relationships.

Ben’s disability means he is dependent on many adults; he has more physical contact than an average four year old would have with people who aren’t his parents. More intimate tasks undertaken by people he hasn’t necessarily chosen. James and I can’t do all of the ‘mothering’ that Bowlby describes so we have to broaden the circle and hope that we can still produce a child who is secure in his attachment, who feels safe and has healthy relationships.

Ben needs a village, not just two parents, to tend to his washing and dressing, the feeding and cuddling. He and we are used to him being looked after by other people, some paid some not. We hope that by making sure these people are kind and competent he feels secure. He can tell whether he can trust people – whether they are holding him safely and will meet his needs.

We are looking into having someone stay at our house overnight to get up with Ben when he wakes. Almost five years of getting up most nights is a lot of missed sleep and I like the idea of someone else doing it. It is the next stage in a life that will only involve more paid carers, not fewer.

But of course, the reality is that someone else will be going in to Ben, into his bedroom at 3 in the morning, when he expects it to be me. We can interview suitable candidates and check their CVs but really you want someone who will cuddle correctly in the middle of the night and that’s tricky to test. We have to have high standards – there is nothing more important than a four year old boy feeling safe in his own bed. It is our responsibility, and it’s making us anxious.

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Top photo: Ben with my sister Maddy when he was 3 months old