This is my latest interview in an occasional series – A Parent Perspective. I spoke to Serena about her experience raising her son JamJam, who has a rare genetic condition. JamJam has defied the odds but keeping him healthy is complex and Serena is often fighting for him. I hugely admire Serena and I loved hearing how she approaches life with JamJam within her big family.
My son, Ben, is 12 and I knew very little about disability when he was born. My experience of being his mother has been a rapid education in the issues surrounding raising a disabled child. I find it helpful and interesting to read stories about other people with similar experiences and I hope you might too.
How would you describe your family?
We have a big family. Between my husband and I we have eight children – four older girls in their 20s, a son who’s 16, a daughter who’s 13, a five year old son, and JamJam who is four.
I love having a big family. I love for us to be around the table together, hearing about their days. Sometimes I take a step back and listen to the laughter and think, that’s me. I’m the mum to you guys!
Tell us about JamJam.
He is the most chilled of all my children. He lights up the room, laughs and smiles a lot. The minute he hears the beat to some music, he’s dancing. As soon as he hears your voice he’s moving his head. He does trampolining at school and he really enjoys that. He’s happy outside with fresh air on his face. He’s an amazing boy and we love him.
He goes to a fantastic school. It was a battle to get him there because it is out of borough, but we are so happy with everything that they do for him. Because JamJam is blind, he doesn’t have the cues from light and dark perception and his sleeping habits are really erratic. Since being at school his sleep is much improved. He’ll sleep for five hours in a stretch now which is a big difference for us.
Patau syndrome is the official name of his condition, but it’s commonly known as Trisomy 13 – he has three copies of chromosome 13. The prognosis is typically quite bleak – if children survive the pregnancy, they tend to live seven to 10 days. 90% of children die before their first birthday. It was a complete shock when we found out. We had seven healthy children and I come from a really big family where there are no disabilities. I wasn’t worried when I did the amniocentesis. We got the results on 16 August 2017 at 9:35am. It was my son’s 12th birthday so there were lots of his friends in the house up bright and early, wanting breakfast. We were expecting the call and my husband and I went into the kitchen when the phone rang. The geneticist said, ‘I’m really sorry, he’s positive for trisomy 13’. We were stunned. Neither of us said anything for what seemed like ages. We hugged then I went into the toilet and I cried and cried. Then I had to wipe my tears and get on with the party. Our lives changed in that moment.
And then how as the rest of your pregnancy?
We had options. Because this condition is seen as incompatible with life, you have the option to terminate at any point in the pregnancy. They explained that after 22 weeks, they would inject through my abdomen into the baby’s heart to stop it, then contractions would start and I’d give birth. The thought of it was horrendous, like I’d be murdering my child. We were in turmoil and only had weeks to decide what to do because we knew 22 weeks was going to be the cutoff point for us. Also we found out I was pregnant nine months after having a baby, and during the previous delivery I was really unwell and was in theatre for over nine hours as they tried to control a bleed.
What made the difference for me was our faith, because we’re Christians, and then also reaching out to the Trisomy 13 community. Our geneticist and consultant told us things based on the knowledge they had, but we entered a whole new world when we joined the trisomy 13 community and saw that children do live. There are children who are 4, 6, 30 years old with the same condition, and that gave us some hope that our child could be in the 10% that survive beyond their first birthday. We decided to let him write his own story – to give him the chance and deal with whatever life throws at us.
How were you both when he was born?
I was absolutely fine. JamJam had been put under palliative care during my pregnancy and offered comfort care only. We had to battle to have that decision overturned and for him to receive medical intervention. Fortunately we were successful because he wasn’t breathing when he was born and he was resuscitated. He had lots of issues maintaining his blood sugars and needing platelet transfusions. When he was three days old, an ophthalmologist examined him and said he had been born without eyes. Shortly after that we were told he was deaf. He was only in hospital for two weeks and when we got home we did more hearing tests. On the third test, they said that he did have muffled hearing. We prayed about everything. I know his hearing isn’t muffled – the minute you walk into a room, he hears it.
When he was eight months old, I was praying for another miracle for his eyes and 15 minutes after he opened one eye for the first time in his life and there was an eye there. Very small, but it was there. Later that day, he opened the second one – another eye there. No one’s been able to give us an explanation, but he has them. He is our miracle boy, he continues to defy the odds. Of course, it’s tough – he has epilepsy and apnoeas which are fairly frequent. He could be playing and then you notice that he’s quiet, and he’s completely blue and stiff. Then we need to grab the oxygen, try and stimulate him.
He’s completely nil by mouth and PEG-fed. We’ve been meticulous about what we feed him – he has a vegan ketogenic blended diet with lots of fresh, organic vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts. We were told he would fail to thrive but he’s putting on weight, although making his food is very time consuming. We weigh everything and cook lots of batches of food, cool it down, label it, freeze it, and then it goes so quickly and you’re back to doing it again. I’ll never pretend that I enjoy doing a lot of the things that we have to do, but we do it because we want the best for him.
Do you have any help?
We are very fortunate to have a very good care package with seven nights and four days of support, which is needed. Also he has all his brothers and sisters – even my five year old can recognize what’s happening. He’ll say, ‘Mum, Jam Jam’s having a seizure,’ which is great in one sense, but it’s also quite deflating in another. In emergencies everybody knows what to do. One grabs the oxygen, one’s calling the paramedics, another one’s taking the younger children out the way.
I’m really proud of our children – they’re very compassionate, loving, and tolerant. They’re also very vocal – they’re advocates for JamJam and they speak about issues in society. My children love to debate, expressing their opinions, and it’s amazing. Having JamJam as a brother means they’ve got a level of maturity that otherwise they probably wouldn’t have had.
I guess you’ve unfortunately become really familiar with hospitals.
We’re even familiar with paramedics. Some of them arrive, turn to their colleagues and say, ‘I know JamJam. His mum doesn’t like any shoes on the mat!’ We know the protocols – if JamJam is really unwell he’s going straight to Resus 8 and we’re going to be there for a while, and then we’ll go to intensive care or HDU. Everybody knows him.
The doctors will say, ‘What do you think Serena? You know him best. Has anyone in your group experienced this before? Obviously they are trained, they are the professionals. JamJam is all we have experienced, but it’s good to have a relationship and exchange experiences.
Are there ways that you have changed since having JamJam that you are grateful for, even though it’s been very difficult?
Time is so precious and things that may have seemed really important before have less value now. I’ve learned to really value being around the children. I also try and have one to one time with each of the children. Before, the children would be talking to me and I’d be getting on with something. But now, I’ll pause and actually look and listen, giving them all of me, even if it’s just five minutes. I want all of my children to feel that they are important, to know that their needs, desires, the things they want to do are being supported. I often hear myself saying, ‘One minute, please, I’m just doing this for JamJam.’
My children are all so different. I’ve got one who is incredibly studious with so much drive and ambition. My 13 year old is an actress and I want to ensure she’s able to do the things she wants to. She had an audition when she was eight and we were running late. I had to take JamJam out the car, get him in his chair, he had his NG tube and I was syringe feeding him, rushing with my other son. Her agent called me and screamed down the phone at me and I burst into tears. When I got to the audition they said they were running behind anyway, but all I could do was cry. I felt like I’d let my daughter down. Thankfully she got the job but it was so stressful. You just want to be the best mum you can to every single one of them and meet all of their needs, but it’s really tough.
I think particularly coming from a Caribbean background, a lot of Caribbean women have got to be seen as strong, holding it together and able to cope. But if I’m not managing, I’m going to say. If I feel like crying, I’m going to cry. If I want to take a holiday and leave my children for a while so I can recuperate, that’s what I’m going to do, and I do it all unapologetically.
What are the things which frustrate you, that you feel need to change?
The disparity that I see between families. We go to hospital, and see families who have their nurses or carers there with them, supporting their child. We can’t have that and I find it so frustrating. We see families who have so little. I saw a lady recently who I’ve met in hospital and she’s carrying a 16 year old up and down the stairs in temporary accommodation. It grieves me, it’s so unfair. Not everybody has the support we have. There are parents that need so much more and they’re not getting it. It also makes me very grateful.
I think it makes a huge difference to know that you’re not alone. There are many people in different situations, but there’s so much that we have in common. When I realised there was a whole Facebook group of people with me, I realized we were not alone. We’ve met so many wonderful people and people we’d never have had the opportunity to speak to.
You can find Serena on Instagram @mum.of.faith
Her book for kids, JamJam Can!, is available to order here