I have to admit, I’m not really up on my superheroes. I understand things have moved on a bit from Thundercats (I wasn’t allowed to watch He-Man and the Masters of the Universe because it was on ITV and therefore infra dig). I’m painfully aware of the PJ Masks, thanks to my six-year-old and YouTube, but the whole Marvel Empire is largely a mystery to me.
However, I really don’t feel I’m missing out because I have daily contact with at least three superheroes of the absolute superest kind: my children.
Leader of the gang, Benjamin, is ‘Captain Endurance’ because the number of unpleasant, frustrating, and downright tedious things he puts up with (and, often, sleeps through) without any fuss whatsoever is frankly astonishing.
He’s coped with four-hour seizures that were exhausting just to witness, not to mention the drugs needed to stop them – enough to put a horse to sleep. He’s undergone multiple surgeries under general anaesthetic. He tolerates being physically restrained for MRI scans, and multiple attempts to get a cannula into his veins at every hospital admission. Every few months a radiologist sticks a wire into his stomach and intestines, pulls out his feeding tube, and pushes a new one back in – a process that can take anything from ten minutes to four hours and generally makes Benjamin feel pretty sore and sick for a couple of days, not mention that the radiology suite requires a deep-clean afterwards to get the bile out of all the equipment.
Benjamin doesn’t complain at the worst pain of all – the application and subsequent removal of dressings each time his permanent IV port (he really is half-boy half-robot) is accessed, and that of the hyoscine patches that go behind his ear to reduce his dribbling. He is subjected to an unpleasant round of beating, shaking and squeezing going under the name of ‘chest physio’ twice daily (or more, if his little sister takes it upon herself to emulate the procedure).
At intervals throughout the day (up to half-hourly depending on how poorly he is), a catheter is forced down his nose and into his throat to suck out all the gunk that accumulates there – a procedure that must at the very least be uncomfortable if not distressing, yet Benjamin puts up with it; sometimes he even sleeps through it!
He’s on medications that can make you drowsy, medications that make you agitated, medications that taste horrible, smell horrible and drip all over his trousers. He’s fed nasty-smelling milk into his jejunum (the first part of the intestine) and is nil by mouth so he never experiences the sensation of food on his tongue or the satisfaction of a full stomach. From his vantage point in the kitchen he spends hours every day watching the rest of the family cook and eat meals, smelling curries bubbling, cakes baking, fish suppers fresh from the chippy, without ever getting to taste them himself. Yet he never seems to get frustrated or complain. Remarkably, neither do his wonderful carers who also arrive at tea-time yet aren’t allowed to partake.
However, this is preferable to what went before – months of being fed into his stomach only for the milk to reflux up his oesophagus and down into his lungs causing chronic chest problems. It’s also preferable to what went before that – a constant barrage of bottles and breasts trying to force milk of any kind into his undernourished little body, not being allowed to sleep for more than three hours at a timebefore another feed was due.
Then there’s the hours of waiting at out-patient appointments. There’s being weighed and measured and having the details of your bowel movements discussed in excruciating detail by your parents and a team of consultants and medical students. There’s sleeping constrained by a system of wedges that forces you to lie in a straight line no matter how much you want to curl up cosily in a ball. There’s never having shoes that fit, because by the time they’ve arrived from the Orthotics people you’ve inevitably grown out of them. There’s never having glasses that fit, because, well, no-one seems to be able to make glasses that fit you.
I think the thing that would frustrate me the most – although Benjamin bears it with beautiful grace – is never having control over even the minutiae of his own life. He is poked and prodded when he wants to sleep, and put to bed when he is not sleepy. He is constantly climbed on by his sisters, forced to watch their choice of programme on TV. He is cared for by carers he had no say in choosing (although he clearly loves them to bits), sent to respite when it suits the rest of the family, and generally surrounded by people with whom he can rarely communicate his desires. As yet, he shows no sign of annoyance at all the things he has to go through, no sign of frustration at the things he cannot do. I don’t know whether to wish for him to grow and develop to the point that he does get frustrated, or to want him to stay forever in a state of more-or-less blissful ignorance. And, since Benjamin’s condition has no overarching diagnosis and therefore no prognosis, I have no idea which scenario is more likely.
So yes, Benjamin is super-patient, super-tolerant, super-uncomplaining. He is Captain Endurance. He’s also super-amazing! Before he was born, it was predicted that he wouldn’t survive birth: he not only survived, he needed nothing more than a little rub to get him going, he registered the same APGAR score as his sisters, he spent zero time in the neonatal unit, and was discharged from hospital five days after he was born. It was predicted he would never be able to breastfeed and would need an NG-tube from day one: this superhero breastfed like a trooper until the age of 17 months. It was predicted he would be blind and would never recognise his family: Benjamin sees, recognises, tracks and smiles at the faces of people he knows and loves. Our little man works so, so hard to achieve every tiny milestone, superhero-style.
And is this a surprise? No, because Benjamin comes from a family of superheroes; just look at his sisters, ‘The Imperturbable Girls’! Among his little sister’s first words were ‘syringe’ and ‘suction.’ At the age of two, she can conduct a pretty rigorous round of chest physio when Benjy is least expecting it. At six, his elder sister can look after the little one when I need to look after Benjy; she fetches nappies and muslins, passes me the right size of suction catheter, and knows how to dial 999. Both accept uncomplainingly that they never get to travel further than Granny’s house, that sometimes we can’t go places that have too many steps or no suitable toilet; that we have strangers in our house every evening, that most school holidays will involve at least one long boring day playing on the iPad in A&E.
They put up with all of this because they don’t know anything different. Neither of them can remember a time before Benjamin. Neither of them has seen enough of other children’s home-lives to know that ours is unusual. They don’t know anything different – yet. Unlike Benjamin, they will definitely come to a point when they realise they are missing out. When they start to count the differences between their lives and their friends. Already, although they sleep through the ambulances arriving in the night, they remember for months the mornings that Benjamin wasn’t there when they woke up.
Having a ‘SWAN’ (Syndromes Without a Name; a child with a condition of unknown cause) for a brother will make this harder, as there is no easy explanation for any of us to fall back on. I can’t tell Benjamin’s sisters why he is like he is, and they can’t explain to their friends either. They live in a world of uncertainty because I can’t tell them what will happen tomorrow, next year, or in ten years’ time, for Benjamin or for them. So, imperturbable, yes; unaffected, no, and increasingly no as they get older.
In many ways, caring for Benjamin is easy: it’s all practical stuff. I can lift him, bathe him, feed him, medicate him, clear his airways and time his seizures. I can call an ambulance when I know I’ve done all I can. All I can do for my girls is to try to provide them with the support they need when they might need it: their school teachers are aware, they are on the waiting list for our heavily-oversubscribed young carers’ group, I try to let them know they can talk to me about anything and I will do my best to make things right. Perhaps the best way I can help them is to build on their superhero abilities by making their superhero status super-cool! They are part of the SWAN club! They get to join SWAN days out, share SWAN balloons, wear funky hoodies in groovy colours, and meet other SWAN siblings with similar superpowers. And I know – along with their SWAN pals, they will grow up to be super-accepting, super-inclusive, super-tolerant, super-gentle, super-strong, and with a super sense of fairness and justice. True superheroes.
As to Benjy, how will he grow up? Will he continue to push the boundaries of what is possible? Will he become a ‘SWAN graduate’ with a firm diagnosis? Will he join the ranks of SWAN angels gone far too soon but held forever in our hearts? Whatever happens, he’ll always be a superhero to us.
Friday 27 April is Undiagnosed Children’s Day 2018. Support the Superheroes: Text SWAN18 £3 (or any amount up to £10) to 70070. #UCDsuperhero