Two weeks ago I took part in the Diabetes blog week and looked at my changing attitude to my T1D over the past 3 decades as well as changes I hope will happen in the future. My plea for improved education about T1D vs. T2D is closely linked to my longing for increased awareness about EGID and has resulted in my efforts to bring the focus of family, friends and our local community to the subject through local media coverage and social media during National Eosinophil Awareness Week.
During a music break in my recent radio interview, the presenter asked me an interesting question: whether I'm upset when people misunderstand EGID? We had been discussing off-air the fact that there is often recognition of the food allergies side of the illness, rather than the disease itself and whilst I understand that allergies are something easy for people to understand, I'm frustrated that that's what gets people interested in finding out more. I pondered his question for a while and once the session was over was able to give him my honest answer: No. I'm not upset that people misunderstand EGID because I'm usually impressed that they know something about it. The truth is that they must have heard of EGID in the first place to be capable of misunderstanding this complex disease and therein lies the problem. Ignorance of EGID and the unseen effects it has on individual and family alike means that those of us living with it are sadly often viewed as making it all up or wildly exaggerating the severity. That attitude can leave a family feeling very alone at a time when emotional and practical support is needed most.
The truth about EGID is this: It's not just about the food allergies, that's the easy bit to understand and, in many ways, the easiest bit to live with. It's about much, much more than that. It's about the unexplained joint aches, the never-ending tummy cramps, the relentless feelings of nausea or reflux whenever you eat. The dark shadows under the eyes, the manic mood swings, the overwhelming lethargy, or the inability to fall asleep and stay that way. The damaged bowel, the fear of not being near enough to a toilet whenever you need one, or knowing that you'll never get there in time anyway. The fear of your friends making fun of your allergies or finding out that you're still wearing a pull-up because your bowel can't be relied on when you most need it to. The daily medicines, restricted diets and the feeding tubes. The chronic pain that can reduce you to tears, yet you don't complain because nothing helps, even when it's at its worst and you're familiar with just about every pain chart created in the history of man.
And it affects the whole family, not just the one with the diagnosis. The endless merry-go-round of numerous hospital appointments, medicines to be taken and food to be cooked safely, avoiding cross-contamination at all costs is exhausting. The keeping of meticulous daily records of food eaten and symptoms experienced to try to find a link and make sense of what's going on, and dealing with the self-recrimination when you miss a day out because what if that was the one that would give you more answers? Day trips, meals out, holidays all require military precision to organise and every decision is coloured by whether needs can be met or not. The feelings of isolation, for parent and sibling alike, because it's frequently the case that there is no-one else nearby who has the same experiences or can truly understand. The lack of any conversation that doesn't revolve around toileting and being too worn out to come up with an alternative subject. The sense that I, as the parent, know more about the intricacies of my son's chronic illness than any medical professional we meet along the way and the frightening realisation that my children know infinitely more than them too.
At our recent admission at GOSH, one of the gastro consultants told me that it is widely recognised that children with gastro conditions have the worst quality of life of any child living with a chronic illness. EGID is an invisible illness, one where the individual frequently learns to hide, disguise and survive their struggles and just carries on regardless, accepting this life as their norm. Families supporting a loved one with EGID often feel isolated - not just from their circle of friends, but from the medical community, who know little about it and may question the integrity of the very people who are fighting to get the best care they possibly can. It's not a parental fad about food allergies or an over-anxious Mum fussing about the small things; and it's definitely not a figment of anyone's imagination. The effects of EGID can be cruel to experience and devastating to see. So a change in attitudes is not only important, but a necessity for all those living with this diagnosis.
Now you know a little more about EGID and just how it impacts, take some time to think about how you can support those you know living with this disease. Don't think that there's nothing you can do to help. An offer of a cup of tea once the school-run is over, a home-cooked meal for the parent not in hospital or checking to see if there's anything they need from the shops is more than enough. No gesture is too small: a smile, a text message or even a FB like or comment on Twitter will let that family know that they're in your thoughts and that there is hope for change in the future.