In medical school, the cystic fibrosis lecture was memorable. The lecturer, I do wish I could remember his name because I want to thank you for the hope he instilled, was passionate. He conveyed his excitement about the new drugs in development for CF, raved about the possibilities of gene therapy and said ‘there will be a cure one day’. It was like a performance, an uplifting speech, much of which went over my head as he talked about delta F 508, CFTR and so on. Interesting, I thought, but that will never apply to me as we don’t have the CF gene in our family. For sure we don’t; I’d have bet £1 million that we didn’t. Especially as I’m half Ghanaian. No way. That’s the thing, you imagine that these things always happen to other people. That’s what my doctor husband thought too when he sat through the same lecture one year earlier.
Our daughter’s life had a brief 3 week period of no known CF. We received cards and gifts, fell in love with her and celebrated her welcome into our life. She will be my last baby and she took quite a journey to get here. We were thrilled to meet her.
It’s always on the power of hindsight you look back and see hints of things to come. The newborn heel prick was memorable as she was reluctant to give her blood. The midwife came another day to try again. I nearly said ‘don’t bother’ as those things won’t apply to her. The test took longer than usual to come back. Odd I thought, I think they are repeating it. Still, I thought nothing of it. Some three weeks later while feeding in the middle of the night I thought, ‘it’s still not back I better just give a call’.
Didn’t need to because at 9am one Tuesday morning a worried sounding health visitor called to say we needed to go to the children’s hospital at 2pm that day. She sounded like she didn’t want me to ask her any questions. Panic ensued and I Googled the name of the person we were to see. Palpitations set in as I saw that she was the CF specialist nurse. My husband tried to reassure me saying it was probably nothing and that the blood tests were going to be repeated.
Now, I often tell patients to use the Internet with caution as there is a lot of misinformation out there. Googling positive CF newborn screening I found such misinformation. Confident that this was a big mistake and that the test would be repeated we went down, I nearly told my husband not to come. As a doctor, I had no idea that the heelprick test could be diagnostic. Merely a screening tool for other tests I believed. There she was a lovely healthy baby with nothing wrong with her.
As we arrived at the hospital I knew something wasn’t right. We were ushered into a room quickly, taken out of the waiting room. I felt this to be a bad news room. When the specialist nurse and consultant walked in carrying and large folder with our baby’s name on I thought, this isn’t good. This isn’t good at all. Why was the consultant there, what did he want?
They began by asking how the pregnancy went and how she was doing. “Fine, OK, she was just breech that’s all,” I said. From then on he explained how the test had shown the 99.5th percentile for the enzyme produced in CF patients. The blood sample had already been sent all over to labs here and there. Long story short, two genes were found. “That means that she has a positive diagnosis of cystic fibrosis,” he said.
I looked down at my baby. It was like I had been told she was dying. That’s what it felt like, looking back on it now. I was shaking so badly I thought I would drop her. My dear 3 week old baby, what life does she has ahead of her I thought. Tears ran down my face as I looked at hers, so innocent and so new. How was this tiny baby going to live her life like this I grieved. “Is there any chance that its a mistake?” I asked. I knew it wasn’t but just had to be sure. I was simply unprepared, not that you could be, for the diagnosis. I would pull myself together for a few minutes then burst into tears again. My two year old tore road the waiting room as if nothing had happened. We asked questions, we absorbed answers, though probably only a fraction of what was said. It seemed completely surreal. This couldn’t possibly be my child. My husband looked pale, in shock and spoke quietly. He felt the need to be strong, matter-of-fact, optimistic to support my postpartum collapse.
I felt that her future had been re-written. I felt that she was facing an unknown world. I wondered if we were up for the job for looking after her. I remembered patients I had cared for on a respiratory ward and I remembered the battles these patients had faced, the antibiotics, their life in hospital, their lines, their life. I remembered the lady I helped prepare the papers for her lung transplant. All of this flashed before me. In a moment, I imagined quitting my job, my child being ill, my family and a trillion other worries all at once. Our family’s future was also re-written. It was too much to take in.
This is where the consultant said, “you must not change any of your hopes and dreams for her or for you all.” “You must live a normal life.” Lots more was said about her going to university, school and travelling the world. I realised by the end of the two hours we spent there that we did need to carry on as normal. She needed us to be strong for her, to be her rocks of support, her advocates and love her unconditionally.
Coming to terms with the diagnosis and quest for information I found it hard as words like, life threatening, fatal, lung transplant and so on stood out. I chose not to read information that told me her life expectancy is 41. I know now that those diagnosed through screening can do very well because we catch it early. We are now around 3 months into prophylactic antibiotics, Creon, daily physiotherapy and the amazing multi-disciplinary care team support we have for her. This is where I truly understand and appreciate how each individual contributes synergistically to brilliant care. I shall not go into details as every patient has their own care plan and experience of this journey. What I will say is that now, more than ever, I know we must be grateful for the NHS and the service it provides.
Reactions from family and friends were unpredictable. That was very hard. All I can say is call people, communicate even if you don’t know what to say. We experienced a sad sense of abandonment which will stay with us forever. If you don’t know what to say, say just that “I don’t know what to say”. Cards and gifts stopped and her birth stopped being celebrated. Some even said “I bought a present for her but I feel that I shouldn’t send it now”. Please do. It has taught me that no matter what every child’s life must be celebrated and welcomed. Each child has taken a difficult journey to get here. That said, support has been great. It’s brought many family members closer together. Our family unit of six seems stronger than ever. I’m extremely grateful for my rekindled relationship with my youngest brother, who has been outstanding. Thank you to him and to you all.
If you would like to know more about what cystic fibrosis is please look at the CF Trust website. If you have a few spare pennies or pounds (not that many of us do these days) please consider a donation to the charity. In America? Try the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
I am hoping that in her lifetime we shall find a cure. I believe her future, though uncertain, looks bright. But there’s much to be done.