Our precious cargo

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From the moment you were born I had this instant love for you. I couldn’t stop smiling. We called you our ‘Precious Cargo’ and to us you were perfect. I had the odd sad moment, with random thoughts that perhaps you would never get married or go to a night club (yes they were the thoughts that came in to my head!) but of course I soon realised you could do any of those things.
Perhaps because you had Down Syndrome it somehow made me even more determined to show you the world and all it had to offer. I started to sign to you at 3 months old which seemed a little early but it paid off as by the time you were 11 months old, you were signing too. Sure Start centres were a godsend and we spent a lot of time at baby signing classes, toddler groups and all the other groups.

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By the time you were 5 you were attending swimming, gymnastics, trampolining and your favourite, drama classes. It came as no surprise to us that drama and dance was your favourite as you come from a large family of dancers and actors, so as well as your much loved PSDS drama you attended the local drama school, first in the special needs class and later in the mainstream class too. I did wonder how you would cope with this but all my fears were put aside when I watched your first showcase. You were a little star, what you might have lacked in timing you sure made up for in enthusiasm and your beaming smile.

A couple of years ago we decided to enrol you into a model/performing agency and it wasn’t long before you were called to a casting in London. It was for a Sainsbury’s TV commercial. I didn’t really know what to expect but when we got to the audition there were lots of other children there they all had a disability too. It was great that Sainsbury’s wanted to include a child with a disability in their TV commercial. You went into the audition room on your own, which you were more than happy to do as you were full of confidence. Before you went in I could hear from previous auditions that the children had to dance to a One Direction song. Great I thought, as you have a real disliking of One Direction from something you didn’t like to watch in one of their videos (sorry boys), but luckily it wasn’t the song you associated with the video and you came out of your audition beaming. A good experience and good for confidence building I thought and we went back home.
A couple of days later I was informed by your agency that you were heavily pencilled in and then the next day it was confirmed that you had the job. We were all over the moon for you. A few days later you were called to wardrobe where you met your screen mum, dad, brothers and sister.
The fun started when you were called to film the commercial. You had the time of your life and learnt so much about lighting, cameras and following directions. It was hard for you as you were not told what you had to do until you got on set so there was no preparing you for what you had to do but you coped amazingly. On the other hand I felt a little nervous as there were understudies standing by in case you or any of any of the other children didn’t do what they were supposed to! But I soon learnt to relax as I knew you would just be you, whatever that might bring. You had such a fantastic time getting to know the cast and crew. You filmed for 2 days and got treated like a prince. It was a fantastic experience and I can honestly say you were not treated any different to the other children. The commercial was shown on TV around Easter time 2014 you loved watching yourself and your school showed the commercial to your classmates. It was great for your self-esteem.

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A few months passed and you were called to another casting in London for a Superfast Broadband TV commercial. This time you appeared to be the only child auditioning who had a disability. I went into the room with you, there were about 20 adults in the room but you didn’t let this phase you, amazingly you took it all in your stride. They asked you lots of questions and you answered them all with confidence. I was a bit worried when one of the ladies auditioning you who was American asked you what your favourite candy was. I thought to myself you are not going to know what candy means but luckily you had recently been trick or treating with friends and answered ‘popping candy’ as you remembered you had got some popping candy in your bag. “Phew, saved the day,” I thought.
A couple of days later we were all thrilled again to hear from your agency that you had been chosen to be one of the 2 children in the TV commercial, again you spent a fantastic time filming. You had to pretend to win a game on an iPad, not so easy as the iPad was actually just a blank screen but we managed to get around it, when one of the crew shouted ‘Spiderman’, you were able to pretend to win the game. Another great experience and more friends made. The commercial was shown on TV around Christmas time and again you loved watching yourself and showing your classmates!

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In August you auditioned for a corporate film that was filming in Brighton. You had to do some apple bobbing with another little boy who was also 10years old. You made another great friend who didn’t judge you in the slightest. The crew were fantastic although you were clearly after the director’s job!

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You have gone from strength to strength and are currently on two TV commercials;

In March you filmed for Lloyds Bank TSB where you were a background actor. You got to see the beautiful black horses. It was lovely to see you in between shoots interacting and playing with the other boys totally accepted and treated no differently (there were about 30 other children there!)

The following week you filmed for a CBBC ident which we were told is shown 10 times a day for the next 5 years! You just love watching yourself and love buying things with the money you get. You have already chosen to buy Darth Vader gloves when your payments come through! (all those who know Ben know he is a huge Superhero and Star Wars fan)

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So now you are looking forward to your next job and as long as you are happy to continue we will be behind you and support you all the way. We are so proud of you.

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So here’s to you Ben…Follow your dreams our ‘Precious Cargo’.

Hindsight is an illuminating thing

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I am Lu, I live with my partner Derek and my two sons, Nathan aged 8 and Billy aged 6. Billy has Down’s syndrome (DS). Both my boys are brilliant and of course I love our family unit. I have to say that I haven’t always been comfortable with Billy’s diagnosis, this may have been down to the negativity and lack of support I received when DS was detected. Let me explain…

…….Our first round of antenatal screening detected a 1 in 100 chance of the baby having DS. That’s OK we thought, we don’t need to know. The anomaly scan at 21 weeks showed nothing unusual ; ‘congratulations your baby is completely normal’ the consultant sonographer informed us. The terminology now gets under my skin, what is ‘normal’ anyway but at the time it went over my head.

At 30 weeks duodenal atresia was detected in the baby – this is a condition in which the first part of the small bowel has not developed in to a tube but is closed. This is very common in babies with DS so we decided to have an amniocentesis at this point to be sure and be prepared. We were given the results over the phone and asked to come in to hospital to talk about life with a child with DS. The midwife we came to ‘discuss’ it with, said she didn’t know much about DS and did we want a leaflet? She handed over a wholly inappropriate booklet but it was the only one she could find. It was from an American DS research company and contained some great statistics about DS and childhood leukaemia not to mention early onset dementia –no wonder I wasn’t very comfortable with the diagnosis!! When we went to ‘discuss’ this with the same consultant sonographer, he remembered that we wouldn’t have terminated the pregnancy and just told us that ‘nothing had changed’. Hindsight is very illuminating thing and retrospectively I think he was trying to put a positive spin on my baby who will battle leukaemia and dementia …….as you can tell my pregnancy brain was not thinking logically and inside I was fuming!! Nothing had changed???? Nothing had changed??? The only thing that HADN’T changed is that we were having a baby!

No support was offered, no explanations of what life with DS might mean. I was in a panic, I wasn’t strong enough to cope with a disabled child, I didn’t know anyone with DS. Do they speak, do they walk, do they learn, are all adults with DS badly dressed and have bad haircuts and hold on their elderly mothers hand while in the supermarket? Blimey I wish I had heard of PSDS back then! Literally all the knowledge I had of DS was a VERY out-dated stereotype!
Thankfully I didn’t have much time to panic as Billy arrived 6 weeks early and parental instincts took over. Billy had his corrective bowel surgery within one day, I really don’t remember feeling out of control, just quietly terrified.

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When I had finally calmed down, being surrounded by the comforting arms of Portage (a home-visiting educational service for pre-school children with additional support needs and their families) and had had appointments with paediatricians, I finally realised that we had another wonderful son. This one would have different challenges but with help we could cope together.

We have been members of PSDS since 2011 and honestly it has been one of the best things we have done. PSDS are so positive about DS and that still affects me profoundly. Why shouldn’t we be positive about DS? Our children are clever, cheeky, stubborn, naughty, fun…everything other children are but they have an extra bit of cute with that extra chromosome!

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Now, 6 years down the line I think ‘it’s only bloody Down’s syndrome’, (when I’m having a difficult day I think ‘bloody Down’s syndrome!”). Yes, Billy has challenges but they aren’t insurmountable. If we can’t meet the challenge head on, we go round and find another route, we cope. I’m not saying it has been easy, it hasn’t, there are endless hospital appointments, regular blood tests (very traumatic when your blood vessels are nearly invisible) not to mention the chasing of appropriate support at school, developmental targets which need to be practiced and the bucket load of patience you need which can sometimes be the toughest obstacle. Conversely it isn’t all tough, Billy is still a brilliant son and brother (did I already mention the extra bit of cute?!)

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My journey with DS (and it is a journey) has motivated me to talk to midwives about how important their language is when giving a diagnosis of DS…not to use the words ‘risk’, a term which infers danger, harm or loss, or ‘sorry’ which infers sadness, distress or pity. Professionals need to make sure that “congratulations” is among the first words new parents hear. Changing the language used with DS is so simple, costs the NHS nothing and makes such a difference to the start of the DS journey.

Also together with our local DS support group and an extremely supportive midwife supervisor, I have developed a ‘Congratulations pack’ which will be given out to new parents as soon as their baby is born. It contains appropriate Down’s Syndrome Association leaflets, Portage leaflets, PSDS leaflets and information about where to get DS support. The aim, locally at least, is that new parents are properly informed about DS and are signposted where they can get appropriate advice and support should they need it. I want to show new parents that DS is probably not what they would have wished for but it WILL be OK. Hopefully new parents won’t be as scared, bewildered or as ridiculous as I was!

I have also talked to year 6 children at Billy’s school to emphasise that it is OK to be different and like any other person they come across in life they should be accepting of the differences. Inclusion is definitely a 21st century phenomenon and in some ways our children have been born at the best time (don’t get me started on the non invasive pre natal test!).

Six years since the start of my DS journey and I now consider myself a bit of an expert. Most of my friends have children with DS, the children have fashionable hair dos and are dressed fabulously. As I said, hindsight is such an illuminating thing.

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Our tiny little star

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Alix and Justin live in Guildford with their two gorgeous sons Charlie and Sam…

I’ve always been of the view that there’s a reason for everything, and that whilst it might be impossible to see it in the moment, in time I’ll begin to understand ‘why’.
That philosophy has particularly been in the forefront of my mind over the last 6 months as our family take a ride on the rollercoaster that you jump on when you have a child who happens to have DS. Sam is the younger brother of Charlie, and my husband Justin and I didn’t know before he was born that Sam would have DS. To be honest neither of us knew much about the condition, so when, within the first hour of him being born, it was confirmed by the paediatrician that she suspected he had an extra chromosome we had no idea what that meant in reality. In states of shock we were handed some leaflets about DS and left in a private room to get our heads around the news. I remember being scared to let myself bond too closely with Sam as he wasn’t the ‘perfect’ son I’d expected, and worried about whether Justin & I were up to the job of bringing up a child with additional needs. Little did I know then that Sam would bring something to our family that we never knew we were missing in the first place.

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Sam & I stayed in hospital for 5 days. On top of getting to know our new little man and grappling with all the normal challenges of a newborn (feeding was terrible!) it seemed like every hour another specialist was coming to see us to do tests or with more concerns they had about Sam’s health; we saw haematology, physiotherapy, audiology, ophthalmology, and on our final day cardiology. Sam spent some time in SCBU too having a platelet transfusion after concerns that he might have a bleed on his brain. It really was the toughest time emotionally, and completely at odds with the joyous first week we’d spent with our first son Charlie.

The thing I had no appreciation of when we were first told about Sam, was quite how many significant health problems are linked with DS. In hindsight Sam seems to have been quite fortunate, as the main 2 things he’s had to contend with are 2 holes in his heart (a large VSD and a small ASD) and complications with his bloods involving having very low platelet levels, low haemoglobin, and abnormal white blood cell counts (a condition we have learnt is unique to children with DS called TAM). Whilst 2 holes in his heart might seem the more significant issue, it is the imbalance of his bloods that have caused us most concern as we understand that 25% of kids with TAM will go on to develop childhood leukaemia, predominantly around 1-1.5 years of age. For the first couple of months of Sam’s life we seemed to be taking him to have his blood tested on a virtually daily basis, but throughout all the medical stuff Sam has been just amazing. He has an astoundingly sunny and laid back character and not once has he complained about having cannulas inserted, bloods taken, or scans carried out. His immense strength has I am sure made it easier for Justin & I to support him through it all.

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Within Sam’s first week we were referred to the Cardiology and Haematology teams at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. I had heard people say that GOSH is an amazing place, but having spent so much time there I really can say that whilst the facilities might be amazing and the place kitted out more like a nursery than a hospital, it is the staff at GOSH who make the place so unique. Sam had his open heart surgery when he was 3 months old. The experience of watching your little baby be sedated in the anaesthetic room and handing him over to be operated on was awful. ‘Keep yourself busy whilst you wait for news that he is out of theatre’ people told us, ‘Don’t hang around in the hospital’ they said. So Justin & I duly took Sam’s empty car seat and set off (without going too far!) to try and take our minds off what was happening to our precious little boy. Needless to say we couldn’t divert our thoughts from what might be happening in the operating theatre, so after much traipsing the streets of London we found ourselves in Wagamamas ordering food. I don’t think I’ve eaten that many noodles or dumplings in one sitting in my life! After about 4 hours we headed back to the hospital and arrived just as Sam was coming out of theatre to be taken up to ICU. He’d thankfully done amazingly well and the doctors were really pleased, but the relief of the positive news coupled with seeing our tiny little star hooked up to tubes, monitors and chest drains in ICU was the point the tears finally started rolling down my face. Both Justin & I were elated, but also absolutely exhausted.

It was before Sam’s operation that we joined PSDS, going along to one of the monthly family gatherings at Lloyd Hall in the hope that we might meet families similar to ours who could help us learn more about the journey ahead of us. I vividly remember entering the hall on that first Saturday in February and being so warmly welcomed by Helen, Vicky & Sarah. Very quickly we learnt that Sam’s problems with feeding, putting on weight, and the holes in his heart were ones that many people in the room could identify with. And it gave us real comfort to look around the room at all the gorgeously happy children playing without a care in the world, having come through the other side of operations like the one Sam was facing.

We’re now just over 6 months in and the difference in Sam since he has recovered from his surgery is amazing – and it has been like getting to know a whole different baby. He now actually cries, something he’d probably not had the energy for before. He is no longer on high calorie formula as he can now feed well without getting knackered, plus we even started weaning our hungry little boy onto purée at 5 months, which he seemed to thoroughly enjoy, evidenced by the amazing rate at which he’s been piling on the pounds!

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Fortunately his bloods also look to be improving for now. We’ll still have to get them tested regularly until he’s 5 years old, and we have to get through the ‘danger zone’ age of 1 – 1.5yrs before we can really relax, but at least we can have confidence that he’s being closely monitored by the best in the business.

So now at 6 months old things are settling down a little; Sam is much more alert and inquisitive, and we’ve finally got around to going along to a few baby groups. This is presenting a whole new challenge for me as his mum as I’m adamant not to let Sam’s DS be the thing that defines him. I have empathy for the other mums who clearly don’t know what to say to us because they can see Sam is a bit different, as this could well have been me 6 months ago. So I’m trying to work out whether there’s a way that I can make it easier for others to not feel awkward around us or sorry for us, but I guess that only by getting to know us and seeing how my gorgeous little boy lights up the room will they get that.

Back to my first point about ‘why’; I can already see so many positives that Sam has brought to our lives and feel sure there are even more to come. On a personal level I feel far more balanced and considerate than I used to be and able to focus on the things that really matter in life. Justin & I are certainly much stronger with Sam in our lives as we’ve pulled together to get through the tough times. All our family and friends are completely behind Sam, wanting the very best for him and showing both him and us more love than I ever thought possible. And we’ve met and made friends with a whole new group of lovely people who I know are going to enrich our lives even further. On top of all that my crazy husband Justin felt compelled to run his first 54 mile ultra marathon last month in gruelling conditions across the South Downs, all to raise money for GOSH and to help children like Sam – something I’m sure he’d never have considered before.

When we met Sam for the first time and were sitting in our hospital room feeling sad about his diagnosis, I never imagined what a positive impact such a little person could have and how far away from sad I would feel today. Sure, we’ve had a challenging 6 months, but I’m no longer afraid of the future as, whilst I know Sam might need a bit more time and support on his journey, I’m excited about doing whatever I can to help him get to wherever he wants to be.

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Love and Time mends

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Our second son George was born in November 2015

My wife Caroline had a ‘good’ pregnancy and George arrived speedily in the early hours of Friday morning.

We were left to sleep for a couple of hours, George then had a thorough round of baby checks, it was assumed (as he was our second) that he’d take to breastfeeding and we were discharged.

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With the excitement of a new baby and introducing George to his brother Ben and one set of grandparents, we were as happy as parents can be.

But over the course of that first day it became very apparent that all was not as it should be.

George was unable to feed from a breast or a bottle.  More milk ended up on him than in him and there was no movement at the other end either.

It got bad enough that George started choking and turning blue when we tried again to feed him and within 24 hours we were back at the hospital where he was born, exhausted and scared.

The A&E Doctor took us through a little charade of not knowing what was wrong (he knew – but 2am was rightly not the time to tell us) and kept George in for “observation”.

The following day after doctors rounds, a consultant lead my wife and I into an office, sat us down and in a matter of fact way told us:

“I’m pretty sure George has Down’s Syndrome”.

Our world crumbled.

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It’s difficult to put into words everything that flew through my mind in that split second after diagnosis.

As I stared at Caroline in open-mouthed disbelief – my mind raced forward, detailing 20 years of George’s life.

Why us, why him, did we do something wrong, will he be deaf, will he go to school, will he make friends, will he be bullied, will our other son be bullied because of him, will he fall in love, will he get married, will he find a job, will he be independent, will Caroline go back to work, how will I hold down my job, will we have to sell our house, will it crush our marriage, what will happen when we’re not there to look after him?

All of that and more, before I could even utter to my wife “it’s going to be ok” (I believe they call that – putting on a brave face).

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There was more in store for us in that first 48 hours as George still hadn’t passed anything and started to cough up a foul sludge.  The boy was so poorly.  There were moments I thought he wouldn’t make it.  My heart broke again and again.

On the Sunday, he was transferred by ambulance to the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Brighton for intensive care.

He had/has Hirschsprung’s disease – a condition where the intestine is unable to pass stools.  Surgery would be required.

Let’s jump forwards…

George spent his first month in a hospital bed, came home in time for Christmas and we provided very hands-on care at home (3 enemas a day).

In February George underwent a ten hour surgery for his stomach condition.

In laymen’s terms, he hadn’t poo’d for the first three months of his life.  Two days after surgery he could.  I have never been so happy to see a dirty nappy in my life.

It’s now April and George is just shy of six months.  To all intents and purposes he’s just like any other baby now.  He sleeps, he breast feeds, he cries, he giggles, he poops.

I want to finish here by talking about where my head is now.

Lots of those worries I had when I first heard the label ‘Downs Syndrome’ are still there, but everything has slowed down and it’s all easier to process.

Caroline and I take one day at a time and we have been overwhelmed by the care and support we have had from our friends, family and the countless medical staff we’ve met along the way.

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We’ve also reached out and met new people in similar circumstances – and are so grateful there’s an organisation like PSDS who’s members can fill in any knowledge gaps and offer more than support – friendship is the word.

Every parent of a child with Downs Syndrome has a different story to tell, just as every child who has Downs Syndrome is different.

The unifying experience seems to be one of love.

Nobody asks for Downs Syndrome to enter their lives and it’s an overwhelming occurrence when it does, but love and time mends that.

George is George and we love him dearly.  He’s a child and not a label.

You can read our story and keep up with George’s progress at  www.georgejonessite.com

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Dreaming of the future

 

imageIt was late evening on Easter Sunday 2012. We had a wonderful afternoon out at the pub with friends, probably our last as a family of three, as ‘Mr Chipper’ was due in 3 weeks time. Our 2nd boy to complete our family. I fell asleep dreaming of the future… an adventure holiday camping in France, kayaking down the Dordogne River with my two boys diving in and out of the water as the sun set….

Lance was born on Easter Monday morning just before midday. He was perfect with a complete head of white blonde hair with a ready made mohican. I remember lying in bed listening to Mike introduce himself to his son and describe him… his button nose, beautiful blue eyes, round face just like Mums. He was perfect. We were happy.

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Then it happened. As I was cuddling him he looked at me and whatever he did with his face prompted my head to go “Don’t do that!! It makes you look like you’ve got…” The seed was planted in my head. Down Syndrome. Then like the best Sherlock scene all my senses were heightened.

They didn’t do that check with Dexter.

Why do they keep checking his hands?

That was a ‘look’ from the midwife to the paediatrician.

The midwife’s smile no longer looks as natural.

In slow motion I listen to the paediatrician say “Because it’s Easter Monday and a Bank Holiday I can’t discharge you, I need the Registrar to come check over Lance before you can go home. There’s nothing to worry about. I’m just going to page her to come down. OK?” Then I knew. Everyone left the room and there we were… I was sitting on the bed putting Lance’s very oversized baby grow back on and Mike was standing by the window. At that moment I made the hardest decision of my life. I opened my mouth and said “Sit down Mike and look at Lance, I think he has Down Syndrome”. Mike replied “No… Really?”. Then after what seemed like an eternity of silence he said “Yes, I think you’re right”. My perfect Dordogne holiday imagine shattered like a mirror into a million pieces. One of the happiest days of my life just clouded over. But he was there in front of me… this beautiful, helpless, perfect little boy. I was his Mum.

And then the door opened and the Registrar, Paediatrician and Midwife walked back in.

When they finally said “we think your son has Trisomy 21… some people know it as Down Syndrome” we were prepared and didn’t actually make any reaction; just nodded in agreement. I later found out that this freaked them out.

The next couple of hours and days were a haze of emotions as we adjusted our expectations, defaulted to our new normal and got on with life as a family of four.

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Six weeks (and a LOT of routine hospital checks) later we were delighted that Lance hadn’t been born with any of the heart or other major organ problems often associated with Down Syndrome. But soon after the ‘niggle’ started. Mike was the first to comment that his eyes didn’t seem to be focussing on anything. Then at the routine Ophthalmology appointment at nine weeks, it was confirmed that Lance was not ‘fixing and following’ – a milestone normally achieved by week six of a baby’s development. They assured us not to worry as Lance was born three weeks early and this combined with the fact he had Down Syndrome just meant that he was probably slightly slow off the mark. We were told to come back in eight weeks for a follow up.

Every day of that eight weeks we celebrated the joy of having two wonderful sons and settled into family life… at the same time the paranoia set it. Can Lance see this? Was that a fix and follow? Grasping at every little glimmer of hope but no matter how much we willed it to happen, we had to admit that he couldn’t seem to see. The days leading up to his next eye appointment seemed to pass very slowly. And they confirmed what we already knew – yes, he’s not fixing and following. Since his eyes were physically healthy they concluded that he most likely had ‘Delayed Visual Maturation’. Although this is not a common diagnosis it isn’t unusual and, as the title suggests, the expectation is normal vision just slightly later than the norm. We were told to come again in eight weeks! And she even used the phrase “we’ve just got to wait and see what happens”… surely no pun intended.

Needless to say Google was the first point of call when we got home.

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Delayed Visual Maturation (DVM) is characterised by an otherwise normal eye exam in an infant that does not fix or follow or otherwise respond to a visual object. In an infant with DVM, the eyes, including the retinas and optic nerves, appear normal and the infant is otherwise neurologically normal. By definition, however, at some point in time, usually by about 5-6 months of age, the infant will start to fix and follow and will then appear as a visually normal infant.

But is Lance ‘neurologically normal’ given that he has Down Syndrome?

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It was at this point that we were introduced to PSDS, came along to a Family Morning and became part of what we now know as our ‘extended family’. They were a world of information and answers, of positive stories and beautiful children. Children with Down Syndrome can achieve their full potential with early intervention and the right differentiated education. They are brilliant visual learners… but all the children could see. No one had heard of DVM. No one had faced the challenge of getting a blind child with DS reach their full potential. But they did know someone who might be able to help and gave me the details of Maggie Woodhouse.

Next point of call was to contact Maggie, a Lecturer & Optometrist at Cardiff University who specialises in visual impairment associated with Down Syndrome. She was able to confirm that DVM was in no way connected to having Down Syndrome but, given that she had never experienced this combination before, she wasn’t sure if the fact that Lance had got Down’s would affect the how long his vision would take to mature. Her advice was to get a referral to a Visual Impaired Teacher (i.e. a Teacher who works with the visually impaired) and get stimulating his eyes.

So that’s what I did.

A wonderful woman from Surrey’s Physical & Sensory Support Team came to visit us and taught me how to stimulate his eyes. Twice a day for ten to twenty minutes I did a visual workout on Lance’s eyes. Anyone who came upon us raving with glow sticks under a foil insulation blanket would have probably called social services but whatever it took I was willing to give it a go… because I couldn’t imagine the alternative. Although I am the eternal optimist, every day that went by the elephant in the room just got a little bigger. What if it isn’t DVM and Lance is blind? My heart would sink and eyes would well up… Down Syndrome was easy to accept but blind as well, tough. Family and friends were a great support but every time one of them said “I’m sure he just looked at me” I was getting more and more frustrated. All of Lance’s other senses were maturing as normal so he gave a good impression he could see but I knew if you stripped away the sound, touch and smell there was no reaction from him. A mother knows and I knew.

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Weeks passed and soon Lance was five months old. We had acquired black and white books, flashing balls, tinsel pompoms, mirrored blocks and a spinning, LED heart wand in our box of tricks but still nothing. He made no reaction when I crept up to his cot in the morning and put my face right in front of him. Cracks were starting to appear in my optimism.

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Then it happened. I had bought an ‘Infant Stimulation Mobile‘ with high contrast, visually stimulating shapes especially for infants with developing eyesight a couple of weeks before and finally got around to putting it up in Lance’s cot. We were doing our normal bedtime routine and I put Lance in the cot whilst I ran his bath. When I came back in to get him he was lying directly under it, hands clasped together looking at it. How did I know he could see it? It was just obvious and when I tapped it gently his eyes followed it. I called Mike up and told him to go into Lance’s room. I didn’t say why as I wanted Mike to see for himself and form his own, unbiased opinion. He came out of the room smiling! We hugged. The collective relief and overwhelming joy both of us were feeling went unspoken. We just knew that everything was going to be ok.

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His next eye test confirmed that he was fixing and following – at six months he had finally achieved the six week milestone. Get in there!

He was finally smiling back at me and at the spoon offering him food. He took his time but he got there. And he taught me the importance of staying positive, having patience and maybe, just maybe, made me realise that there are harder things to deal with than Down Syndrome and we should count ourselves very lucky that we have a very healthy, happy boy.

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Lance is now almost 4 years old and he is very much achieving his potential. With the help of PSDS, Digbies, Central Surrey Health, Barnettwood Pre-school, Happyminds, Childminder Jane Bull and the support of friends and family, Lance will be starting mainstream school in September. And I am back to day dreaming about that adventure holiday kayaking down the Dordogne with my THREE boys (and before you ask… yes, my family is now very much complete!!!).

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PSDS and Sam turn 10

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10 years ago this week, a midwife handed me a gorgeous boy – Samuel James Michael Brackett – our son. He is handsome, smart, vivacious, engaging and has a wicked sense of humour and PS he has Down syndrome. Within weeks of his birth he inspired us to set up the wonderful charity, PSDS with two other families who are now very close friends. PSDS now supports nearly 70 families and to celebrate the 10th anniversary of PSDS (and Sam), I thought I would share some stories.

For the regular readers of the PSDS blog, you will be familiar with the scenario Pete, Kate and I experienced in February 2006: a baby, but not quite what any of us was expecting. From the moment a team of doctors scanned his heart at two days old and I squeezed my own mum’s hand throughout, I knew I would love him unconditionally and forever. Now I know that I was handed a gift on 1 February 2006 that only a few families will ever experience.

Week 1 – February 2006 – 10 things the doctors told us:

1. He will never get married

2. He will never drive a car

3. He will always be different

4. How sorry they were

5. He won’t have a normal life (who does?!)

6. “Downs” are very loving

7. He won’t develop like other children

8. He will probably suffer quite a lot of illnesses and has a high degree of risk of life threatening illnesses

9. He might speak but probably not clearly

10. Poor you.

WRONG, WRONG, WRONG

Week 520 – February 2016 – 10 things he has achieved:

1. He is in mainstream independent prep school

2. He can talk clearly (and read and write)

3. He can ride a bike, swim and ski

4. He loves roller coasters

5. He loves the most scary zip wires

6. He can play the drums

7. He can ride a scooter

8. He makes us laugh every single day

9. He beats me on the Wii

10. He sings in the school choir (in Latin!).

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But more seriously, what has this little chap taught us? Sam is tenacious; everything he does is harder for him than the average child but he perseveres; he laughs; he gets annoyed; he does not judge; he makes no pre-judgments of people and he has the highest emotional intelligence quota of anyone I know. People stop in the street to speak to him, stroke his head (bit weird) and just smile. He unites people; the group hug is a daily feature in the Brackett life and he succeeds. He is embraced by his peers; supported by his school and the community and never ever fails to stop amazing me.

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In his ten years so far he spent his first few days in SCBU, has had four bouts of pneumonia (always hospitalised), two operations for grommets, wears hearing aids, wears glasses and has had major open heart surgery so he has taken us through our paces and tested my stress levels but he soldiers on. On the day after his open heart surgery aged 5 I walked into ICU to find him surrounded by “his ladies” (the nurses) hunting for his favourite DVD. At school he has his followers – “my Jemima’ and “my Isabella” – the kids don’t patronise him – they adore him. His relationship with his sister, Kate is special – close, supportive and engaged.

One story his TA shared with me encapsulates how he impacts on his friends. A new boy came to his school to look around and spend the day. At break the boys went out to play football (oh yes – he can do that too) and as usual Sam was running up and down with them and then the boys (all only 8 at the time) slowed the pace of the game and the ball was passed gently to Sam for him to kick – his turn. The new boy not knowing the rules barged through and kicked the ball only to be met by a huge shout of “That’s Sam’s ball – give it back to him”. He is included in his own way. He is one of the gang.

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So what does all of that mean? It means that Sam proved those doctors wrong. It means we still have work to do as a charity to ensure that messages that are given to families faced with the news that their child has Down syndrome include positive stories. But most of all it proves that Sam is just an ordinary child; a boy who gets dirty, is naughty, cheeky and funny; a boy who has friends, enjoys his life and brings joy to everyone around him.

I just want to end with another list of 10 – 10 things I have learned from Sam:

1. Face your challenges with a smile and tenacity

2. Do not pre-judge those around us

3. Be happy – every day

4. Care about those around you

5. Never ever under-estimate

6. Always celebrate your achievements

7. Hold your head up high and be proud

8. Group hugs work

9. It is ok to cry

10. Life may throw you the odd curve ball but embrace it and you will be rewarded.

Thank you Sam for what you have done for us all.

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Marathon Man

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Simon is married to Penny and they live in Tandridge with their children Erica (5) and Austin (2). They have been members of PSDS since 2010.

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“I’m going out for a run !”…and I shut the door and marched up the road in a huff. I’d had a disagreement over something that seemed very important at the time, and was out for some fresh air. It was early 2008 and the truth was, I hadn’t ‘run’ since doing cross-country for games afternoon at school many moons ago. As I started to break into a jog, I got about 100 yards before my legs seized up. I challenged myself there and then to be able to run one kilometre without having to stop.
Fast forward to autumn 2009 and I was crossing the finish line to complete my first marathon. It was a small event in the New Forest, and as I slowed to a stop, my wife Penny, 7-months pregnant put her arms around me and told me how both she and baby were so proud of me. We were very excited about becoming a family, and when Penny was having a rest or decorating the nursery, I was plodding around the area, logging the hours and miles, while completing another audiobook. Preparing for and completing the marathon had been both a tough and an emotional challenge.
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When our daughter Erica was born at the start of 2010, the process had not gone by-the-book, and we were delighted when the nurse asked us to look up and we saw Erica for the first time. We chose not to know the gender in advance and we both shouted “It’s a girl !” in unison knowing immediately what her name would be. 30 minutes later, we were back in a room and while Penny held Erica, I had just ended a call to my Dad to tell him that he was a grandfather for the first time when the midwife caught my attention and told me, “Simon, we have seen markers which make us think that Erica has Down Syndrome.”
I can’t really remember precisely what happened over the next couple of hours but neither Penny nor I could really take in what this meant, as the pre-natal tests had been ‘normal’. When a doctor came in and said he did not think Erica had Down Syndrome, I have to be honest when I say that I felt much better, even if I was confused. However, the midwife told us that we would see a senior paediatrician the next morning and we settled into what seemed to be the ‘normal’ post-delivery routine of starting feeding. That evening I searched the internet for information about Down Syndrome and read pages and pages of the Down Syndrome Association’s website.
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The senior paediatrician visited the hospital room the next morning and told us that he believed Erica did have Down Syndrome. He also told us that he would be getting a blood test done asap and we would be going to see the heart doctor that day to check Erica’s heart as that was a risk for babies with Down Syndrome. By the end of the day, we were glad to know Erica only had a mild heart murmur, but she did have to go into an incubator due to an infection. The separation of Erica from Penny was very tough on Penny and she was inconsolable. The upset of that night must have given Penny a super-human recovery as, caesarean notwithstanding, Penny was marching down the hospital corridor, from her ward to the SCBU, on a regular basis to spend time with Erica. Before I Ieft that night, I had changed my first teeny-tiny nappy with my arms through the windows of the incubator…I like a challenge !
A few days later, while waiting for the news of our blood test, we were overjoyed as Erica had left SCBU and her cot was wheeled into our room. She had taken it upon herself to remove her feeding tube to make it clear she was ready !
As the door opened to wheel Erica in, the additional presence of five or six solemn-looking people was not even registered by Penny, who was overjoyed to have Erica returned to her side. For me, the solemn-looking people meant it was a “yes”, so now I should listen to what comes next. After they all left the room, I cried like I had never cried before, but these were not tears of sadness or disappointment, I believe they were my way of saying goodbye to what I had thought our new life was going to be. We all have hopes and dreams (however idealistic) of what the future may hold for our children and that was not the way it would be now. However, as Penny handed me my new daughter for a cuddle, we were clear we were blessed and this was only the beginning of a new and different adventure.
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One of the doctors who came that morning had handed us a leaflet. It was for a local group which was started by some mothers who all had babies with Down Syndrome at a similar time. It was called PSDS. I had a look at their website and when we got home we discussed if we would contact them. The discussion lasted about eight seconds as we both thought it was a good idea and Penny called the number one day when I had gone back to work. She said she’d had a lovely conversation and had been invited to a coffee morning with some other mothers. Within a few months we had been to our first Saturday morning family meetings at Lloyd Hall and were delighted to have a new circle of friends and a way to learn more about Down Syndrome and how we could focus on ways to assist Erica’s development and enjoyment as she grew.
Fast forward again, to 2015. Erica is enjoying school, she has a younger brother and Penny and I are overjoyed as PSDS goes from strength to strength into its 10th year…which leads me to my current challenge….remember I like a challenge !
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Having failed to get through the London Marathon ballot for the last few years, when I heard that PSDS had won a charity place and was offering members the chance to put themselves or friends connected to them forward to take part, I eagerly put my name in the hat. On hearing that my name had been pulled out of that hat, I was honoured and excited to get going.
PSDS have done so much for us as parents and Erica as, first a baby and now a growing girl that I feel a duty to do this to help continue the great work and services available to the member families and as a massive thank you to the Trustees, Digbies staff, background admin team and committees who keep PSDS going every week.
With just over three months until the big day, I am passed half distance in my training and feeling positive about the event and raising lots for PSDS. I usually train three times a week and that involves about 10 to 15 miles one week and then 10 to 20 miles the next. Last year my total “mileage” was 324 miles, but 104 miles of that have been logged since November ! If I can’t get my mid-week runs in during my lunchtime I’ll get them in during the evening.
Despite the cold and wet weather, as I walk out of my front door and walk down the road before trotting off, I like to think about life the universe and everything, but as the miles pass by, however wet I am, a significant portion of my thoughts are about family and what the future holds. With PSDS going from strength to strength that future can be more exciting.
If you’d like to sponsor me, please go to https://www.justgiving.com/SimonRance01/ and PSDS can claim back gift aid on your donation too. Many thanks ! Simon.
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