This Christmas, CF meant only one thing: Courageous Fighter

I had my next post all planned in my head. It was to come hot on the heels of Eva’s second birthday in mid December, and it was going to be a celebration of her two years of CF butt-kicking, hospital-free, in-your-face, loving-life existence. But she had this lingering cough which in turn made my fingers linger. I’d had her checked out a couple of times and been told that everything was fine, but I was reluctant to put the post out and put the mockers on ourselves.

I first had her cough checked on the 11th December as a precaution, firmly believing she was OK, which the doctor confirmed. On the 19th, the cough started to sound a little fruity so I got it checked again when I got home from work. She had a slight wheeze and an inflamed throat so the doc gave a course of steroids and an antibiotic ‘to stop it going South’. I kept in contact with her team in Temple Street and they were happy with the plan. By the 23rd she started going off her food. Now I was worried. My girl has her Mammy’s appetite and we don’t stop eating for just any old illness! I rang her team and explained that I didn’t like where it was all going. They reviewed her the morning of Christmas Eve and an X-Ray showed some shading on her previously perfect lungs. I was devastated but they assured me it wasn’t too bad and to follow a hefty schedule of nebs, steroids and oral antibiotics over Christmas.

Eva spent Christmas chained to the nebuliser and there was one thing I was sure of – the antibiotics weren’t doing a damn thing. But what did that mean? A virus that just had to run its course? Or a nasty antibiotic-resistant bacteria taking up residence? (Antibiotics are a necessary evil in CF, often used even with a viral illness to try and ward off a secondary infection. It’s not the same as a regular person stupidly taking antibiotics every time they’re under the weather!)

Eva perked up the evening of Stephen’s Day and we breathed a sigh of relief. She sat up at the table with a gang of us with her knife and fork eating a second dinner of chips after a feed of stew. She was dancing, messing, performing – my girl was back! But when she went to bed it all blew up. She just couldn’t stop coughing, her temp started to climb and her sats (oxygen saturation) started to drop. Wrong direction-ville. Next stop: A&E.

In A&E her sats hovered around 92 (the lowest they can be before hospitalisation really). Her breathing was laboured, but not consistently, and I think because she was sitting there munching rice cakes, they thought she’d be OK and sent her home. I have to say in future, at this point, I’d refuse to go home. Her form was deceptive, but I knew she wasn’t right. By 5.30 the next morning she was on fire and her breathing was so laboured, it was petrifying.

We took her back to A&E and her sats were down in the 80s. She went on a rapid decline and was put straight on to oxygen. As the hours ticked by her oxygen dependency grew. Every time she pushed the mask away her sats would drop lower and lower, and the litres per minute at the wall went up and up. The put in a feeding tube and IV line and admitted her – our Eva was but a shadow of herself in the space of a few hours.

I spent the night following her face around with the oxygen mask because sick as she was, she wasn’t letting the elastic around her face! But the alarm going off on her sats monitor every five mins had me beside myself. To go from defying the health odds to unable to breathe was impossible to comprehend.

The next morning it was finally Monday and her team were back in work (their short 4-day Christmas was the longest four days of my life). Her wonderful consultant Fiona came to see her and expressed concern over how much oxygen she was needing. Thankfully I had left to see Danny and sleep for a few hours when they repeated the X-Ray and mentioned two dreaded words to my husband – pneumonia and ICU.

Thankfully, Eva managed to avoid ICU thanks to a clever machine they put her on called Air Vo. It basically pushed humidified air into her lungs to help her breathe and to help open up her airways through constant pressure – even when she exhaled, the tubes were pushing 15 litres of air in every minute (90% of which was oxygen).

The rest is a blur – my husband and I doing 12 hour shifts each at the hospital, hoping and praying that she’d turn the corner, a corner that was oh so slow to appear. Eva had stopped speaking. If she sat up in the bed for more than 5 minutes, her eyes would roll in her head and she’d have to lie down again. She had developed this strange coping sound, an extended ahemmmmmmmmmm, which she used to self soothe through the constant canulas and physio. One doctor said to us  that her coping sound was a clever one, as the vibrations from her heartbreaking hum would be helping to open her airways. Clever little sick bunny.

When nothing was improving, they changed her IV antibiotic to a stronger one while we waited for the results of her sputum swabs (5 working days, in other words FOREVER). Her bacterial swabs actually came back clear (although they’re not totally reliable – you might only cough up what’s at the top of your lungs) but her viral swabs confirmed she tested positive for a nasty virus called RSV (Ruthless & Shitty Virus, as I like to call it). This at least in some way explained things – she was a little under with a cough already then got hit with RSV which led to bronchiolitis (where the small airways fill with mucus reducing air entry – add that to CF lungs which have extra mucus anyway and it’s a bug party down there) which led to pneumonia.

When she finally started turning that corner, glimpses of our crazy curly girl started appearing. She’d make me hold every sore bit with my hands – her toe that the sats probe was on, her elbow where the plaster over the cannula had caused an allergic reaction, her hand from one cannula, her other hand from another, her other elbow from a failed PICC line insertion, her bruised feet from bloods and cannulas – clearly I hadn’t nearly enough hands! She slowly started to talk – mostly ‘my very sore’ and ‘my want to sit on your knee’. But God were we delighted to hear that hoarse little voice. She never stops talking and it felt like we’d never hear her cheeky chat again. As the days went on the got more sparky – ‘my want chips’, ‘my want ‘moothie’ (smoothie) and ‘my want George’ (the Curious One) – all better indicators than any tests that her little body was finally winning the war.

She’s home now after 12 days in Hotel Temple Street. She’s still chained to the nebuliser, but she’s on her feet and rosy cheeked; demanding second bowls of stew and second episodes of George; insisting on going to bed with a sun hat on; ringing people on her hammer to tell them ‘oh no, I’ve lost my boat’; requesting baths at regular intervals and generally ordering the three of us about like only Eva can.

All I can say from the experience is that I’ve never known sadness like seeing my child with tubes up her nose and IVs anywhere they could get a vein. I’ve never know fear like seeing her sats plummet to the 70s when they changed her nose prongs and she was without oxygen for 30 seconds at most. I’ve never know despair like holding her down for bloods and ng tubes that she kept pulling out, knowing she was thinking ‘why aren’t you protecting me?’. I’ve never known helplessness like seeing her have diarrhea every time she coughed. But I’ve also never known pride like seeing her fight her way out of this. I’ve never known admiration like seeing her pull open her vest so the doctor could check her chest. I’ve never known amazement like seeing her explain that the probe on her toe put the numbers on the screen and the tube put milk in her tummy. And I’ve never known love like seeing a vulnerable little girl make all who cross her path light up with her crazy, determined ways. Eva, you’re the ultimate tonic.

What’s a weekend without the fear?

I (vaguely) remember the days when the fear was brought on by too many vodkas of a Saturday night. These days it feels like the fear is never far away, but it’s brought on by something entirely different. The cough.

A simple huff or puff is all it takes to send this CF Mama (and most others) into a tailspin of chaotic, neurotic worry. And let’s be clear, the fretting freefall doesn’t only happen when Eva coughs. It happens when anyone dares to expel some irritating substance from their respiratory tract in her presence. Anyone whose brain even thinks they might need to bark it out. Because obviously every single bacteria and virus in the world has the sole purpose of infecting my daughter. Insane? Completely and utterly. But it’s ok once you acknowledge that, right?

Of course the most difficult part of this cough-phobia is when it’s someone in the family that’s hacking. Bad enough if it’s me or the hubby. We’re pretty swift to cover our mouths. But oh my sweet baby Jesus the absolute petrification when poor Danny gets a cough. Danny is four, so can’t possibly grasp the seriousness of the situation. He just knows his sister’s lungs need help to work as well as ours. But I have to hand it to him, he’s pretty damn good for a four-year-old. I’d say he’s had at least six coughs since Eva was born, including croup twice, yet she’s only ever caught one dose off him. My saying ‘cover your mouth’ about 600 times a day is clearly paying off.

But isn’t that sad in itself? That your poor wee man is under the weather and you spend your time nagging him because you’re in a cold sweat about his sister catching it. It really can’t be easy to be the sibling of little person with CF. Of course I’m totally aware of giving Danny bucketloads of TLC and I always err on the side of a doctor’s visit if I just don’t like his form. But  I catch myself at times, harshly snapping ‘cover your mouth’ out of sheer frustration, and then the wave of guilt comes. Before Eva arrived, I’m pretty sure I was a sympathy machine to his every snuff and puff. It’s not that I care less now, I just have to worry in two directions. I can’t wait until he’s old enough to understand all of this so I can tell him he’s a hero for covering his mouth and washing his hands with (mostly!) good humour at such a young age. Eva is lucky to have you Dan. You’re the right person for the protective big brother job, even if you don’t realise it yet.

Both Dan and Eva are coughing today, hence the post – but fingers crossed the fear remains just fear.

Not sure why, but today is the day.

My amazing, brave, salty sweet daughter, Eva, will be 2 next month. Eva was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at just 3 weeks old – a day that struck fear in my heart and a  knife in my stomach. A day that changed me and my family forever.

I’ve started a blog about this little lady a million times in my head, and more. I’ve written hundreds of posts in my brain. And yet I’ve never actually committed my fingers to the keys. This evening I feel tired, weepy and foggy so it’s beyond me why today is the day my fingers are fumbling for an outlet.

I have no reason to think that anyone should have any interest in reading my ramblings. In truth I’m probably writing as a form of self-counselling. A way of dealing with and ordering the constant barrage of thoughts and emotions that bombard my brain on a daily basis.

Cystic Fibrosis is Ireland’s most commonly inherited genetic illness. To be born with it, both of your parents must be carriers. And in Ireland, 1 in 19 of us are. As a carrier, you are essentially symptom free. You need to be unlucky enough to inherit a dodgy gene from both parents to actually have CF.

When you’re a pregnant woman who’s 32 and healthy with no immediate family history of CF, you have no reason to suspect your baby will be born with it. You think you’re playing it safe by having your kids while you’re under 35. You think you deserve to have a healthy baby because you didn’t drink when you were pregnant. You didn’t eat unpasteurised cheese. You didn’t eat more than a tin of tuna a week. You took your folic acid. You took your Vits. You did pregnancy yoga. You waddled down the road a few times a week to get exercise. You did everything by the book. But Mother Nature doesn’t have a book. And you never know when your family is going to get picked on.

I say that like I’m bitter. But in fact there are times I feel like the luckiest mother in the world. I have an appreciation life that cannot be explained. I treasure every single nanosecond that I spend with my daughter, my son and my husband. I have renewed perspective on life – no matter what goes wrong, I can deal with it once Eva is ok. I love every hair on her crazy curly head with an intensity that I never thought possible. If she was only on this earth for 5 minutes, it would be the best 5 minutes of my life.

When Eva was diagnosed we were told that her life expectancy would be in the 30s. I was a few weeks shy of 33 as those words were spoken. It seemed impossible to comprehend at the time and, if I’m honest, it still is. Except that I don’t believe for a single second that it’s true. Treatments for CF are advancing at a phenomenal rate and there is so much hope. I don’t think it was a coincidence that Eva was diagnosed on a day that Kalydeco (a life-changing treatment for people with CF with the G551D gene – Eva doesn’t have this mutation) was all over the news. That was someone trying to reassure me that we’ve got this. We’ll have to fight at times but this family and my daughter intend to put Mother Nature in her place. And every time I look into my sparky lady’s little eyes, I just know she has that fight in her.

Eva baby, we’ll go a long way.