When the phone rang at around 9:30pm last night and my mother-in-law was on the end of the line telling me to tune into ITV because an episode of Doc Martin was showing a case of Kawasaki Disease, my stomach did a little somersault. A prime-time TV programme mentioning KD? I could hardly believe it. I switched over a little too late so set the programme to record on ITV+1. As more and more comments and messages came into the various Kawasaki support group pages on Social Media sites, including Freya’s Story, the adrenalin was pumping. You could almost feel a collective buzz as parents of children who have suffered at the hands of Kawasaki’s from all over the UK tuned in to witness KD getting a voice.
I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride in being part of this campaign for raised awareness. I cannot claim credit for the inclusion in this TV programme, or the coverage in The Daily Mirror last week, but I would like to think that somewhere along the way there will be a link with Freya’s Story and the small bit I have done to help raise Kawasaki’s profile. I can claim credit of over 300 signatures on the Kawasaki Support Group UK petition (change.org/kawasaki), and I know that a lot of the 500+ people who now follow Freya’s Story on Facebook and Twitter will not have heard about Kawasaki Disease before;
“This evenings episode of Doc Martin includes a case of Kawasaki disease, wouldn’t have known what it was without this page and good coverage to help raise awareness.” (Posted by Facebook user on http://www.facebook.co/freyasstory)
“I saw the Mirror, I have read nearly all of Freya’s story, I have cried for you and smiled at the lovely pictures. It’s amazing though what you have done, I knew you were strong and raising the awareness is fantastic.” (Friend, and follower of Freya’s Story on Facebook)
But I’m not doing this for praise or thanks. I’m doing it because I don’t want another parent to have to go through what we did, what so many parents have, because of a lack of knowledge and understanding of this disease.
So, what did I really think of last night’s episode of ITV’s Doc Martin? Initially, I was excited and amazed that Kawasaki Disease had even managed to make in into the public eye in such a dramatic way. One of the nation’s most prolific TV channels mentioning something much of the country has never even heard about! Fantastic! And then I watched it.
What were the positives? Well, you get to understand the symptoms of the disease. The little girl has a temperature, a red tongue and a rash on her body. They allude to the fact that she may have peeling skin on her hands when a little boy remonstrates about having to hold the sick child’s hand on a school outing. The child eventually collapses, and the show’s ‘hero’ appears. After one look at the child, he makes a rather pompous statement, which went something like “this child hasn’t been eating sweets, she has Kawasaki Disease”. And just like that, after seconds of seeing the child, he makes his diagnosis and drives the child at high-speed (she may die within 30 minutes apparently) to get her the treatment she needs to avoid the risks of a coronary artery aneurysm. Amazingly the medication is waiting for them on arrival at the hospital and the child receives the treatment. In terms of the programme, this whole thing took 3 minutes. Remarkable.
So why the long face? It didn’t take long for the celebratory feelings to wear off once I let what I had just watched sink in. Part of me still wants to believe that no matter how the issue was covered, any coverage is good for raising awareness of a disease that most haven’t heard about. But (you could see that but coming couldn’t you!) it was scripted in such a glib and blasé manner that I wouldn’t be surprised if the message was lost on most viewers. I suspect many won’t even remember the name of it today, let alone the symptoms. And if they did remember it, I do not believe that anyone who hasn’t experienced KD first hand will have one iota of an idea about how serious, or how scary this disease is.
I know that the ITV would argue that Doc Martin is a medical comedy drama series; it does not profess to deliver messages in a serious manner (that can be left for the likes of Panorama and Casualty who gave KD some airtime about 20 years ago, in the mid-90’s). We can be grateful that such a rare disease has even made it on the ITV radar, I guess. But when you’ve watched your child battle with this disease, you can’t help but be left with a sour taste in your mouth after watching the episode. In fairness to the programme, however, I am not a regular viewer so am unfamiliar with the usual format and scripting, and I know that they are likely to come under attack from victims of all manner of illnesses that they cover; they’re never going to please everyone.
If you watched the programme, and you think that Kawasaki Disease is a funny sounding illness, maybe even fictitious, then please know that it is very real, and is the leading cause of acquired heart disease in children. If you think that it is easy to diagnose on first look at a few symptoms, please know that is not the case and often the symptoms come and go, disappearing just when you needed them to be seen. In fact in many cases, not all the symptoms are present. If you agree with Doc Martin’s assessment of the child’s parent being negligent by not noticing the signs, then please know that most medical professionals in our country have never heard of Kawasaki Disease, and many mis-diagnose the illness, sometimes with catastrophic results. If you think that the treatment is readily available, please know that intravenous immunoglobulin is in short supply, and it is expensive. It’s a product derived from human blood; we’ve probably all seen the marketing campaigns from various blood donation schemes recently – there is not a bottomless pit full of blood that we can all tap into at any time. And if you think that all cases of Kawasaki Disease have a happy ending, you’ve just got to be a part of the support groups on social media sites to know that isn’t the case. There are children currently fighting for their lives, and many that have lost their fight altogether.
I am disappointed in the programme, not only for its flippant handling of the illness, and think they could have done more to make it clear that this is a sinister disease that needs some real focus. Many programmes include messages in the credits to support people who may have been a victim to the contents of an episode. I think the ITV could have at the very least put up a public message about Kawasaki Disease, making it clear that this is very real, and even just supplying a link to NHS Choices for further information.
In order to reach a diagnosis, I had to watch a 7-week old Freya battle constant temperatures above 39 degrees for over 2 weeks. Her heart rate was dangerously high. She was resuscitated in a high dependency unit after her body started to shut down. She had cannulae in every site possible in her tiny body, delivering a cocktail of various potent antibiotics, ibuprofen and paracetamol, and she was being fed through a tube. She had blood taken every day for a period of 6 weeks, sometimes twice a day. She had an MRI scan, ultrasounds, x-rays, ECG’s and echocardiograms. She had 2 lumbar punctures, one under general anaesthetic which they performed at the same time as performing a bone marrow aspiration to test for Leukaemia. She received a blood transfusion when her haemoglobin levels dropped dangerously low. And she has received intravenous immunoglobulin – a product that is derived from thousands of blood donors – as well as a drug that shuts off the protein that is instrumental in the body’s fight against cancerous cells. She is not even 6 months old yet.
Sounds shocking to read it all like that, doesn’t it? See all the tests that she underwent, just to try and work out what this illness was. Kawasaki Disease threatened to take her life. If the Rheumatology Consultant that came so see her on Day 12 of her illness had not suggested performing another echo “just as a precaution” the damage to her heart would have remained undetected, and her coronary arteries would have continued to dilate further and further until perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to stretch any more. That means rupture. Rupture means sudden, unavoidable, unpreventable death.
Now think about what you just read about Freya, and imagine now that her case is not the worst by far. Yes she had a severe presentation of the disease, and her life was in very grave danger. But as I type there are parents fighting against doctors won’t entertain a KD diagnosis, parents whose precious children have been in hospital for weeks struggling to fight off the disease, parents who still co-sleep with their children for fear of losing them, and worst of all there are parents sitting at home wondering how they will ever recover from the death of their child.
I cry every day. I cry when I hold Freya in my arms and am overwhelmed with how much I love her. I cry because I can’t shake the images in my head of how close we came to losing her. I cry when I see other people happy, without a care in the world and no appreciation of just how lucky they are. I cry because I am still heartbroken that this happened to my baby girl, before we had even had a chance to get to know her properly as Freya, just Freya. I cry because I am so scared about the future. I cry because I daren’t take Freya to baby groups for fear of her contracting chicken pox or the flu (as they can develop into another rare and potentially fatal disease, Reyes’ Syndrome) and I cry from guilt that she is missing out on a massive part of her development as a result. When I visit the children’s ward at the local hospital where this all started, I have panic attacks. Even this week, when I thought I’d be ok and felt no anxiety approaching the hospital, I was suddenly struck by uncontrollable sobs, and I couldn’t breathe. I cry because I am grieving for the loss of my child’s health – she was perfect when she was born; Kawasaki stole that from me far too soon. I cry because I feel the pain of every parent who is going through this, or something similar. And I cry with frustration that more isn’t being done to improve the advice and support that is currently being offered by the medical profession. Chances are I cry a lot because I sleep for less than 4 hours a night; not because I have a young baby – she sleeps through the night – but because I am permanently researching the illness or related issues, or communicating with parents and doctors on the other side of the world. I cry because I am devastated, because I am sad, because I am frightened, because I am exhausted, because I am frustrated. I cry because I cannot forget the journey we have been on, and am haunted by the playback of the last few months, which is constantly on repeat.