t is to most mothers just another childhood illness that all children have to go through. Indeed, many will attend parties to ensure that their child comes in to contact with it. Others are simply upset that their little one has not had it yet. For Katie Wilson however, when her two-year-old contracted chickenpox, it led to the worst week of her life.
Mum Katie (38) and husband Maurice (33) from Worcester Park, Surrey, have two sons, Luke (3) and Joshua (2) and daughter Matilda, now two months old.
Their home is situated on a residential leafy green street and as I arrive to meet Katie, it strikes me how peaceful everywhere is. I park and a neighbour waves to me. This surely is suburbia at its best.
Sitting in the back room with Matilda in her arms and both boys playing out in the garden, it really is just another day for this family, but as mum Katie begins to chat, I realise it was very nearly a different story entirely.
I look at Matilda and ask was it a surprise to have a girl after two boys? ‘Oh yes indeed.’ Katie says with a smile. ‘Tilly was a total surprise. We couldn’t believe we finally got a pink one!’
And how have the boys taken to their new baby sister? ‘Oh they love her to bits. It was a little chaotic at first. Luke strutted in to my hospital room and told me he wanted a boy. But he soon came good.’
Katie shouts out the window for the boys to move away from where Daddy has been preparing foundations for an extension and Matilda begins to cry. It strikes me that at times for Katie this peaceful suburbia I experienced on her doorstep must feel a million miles away.
With three children under four years of age, a dog and countless DIY missions, the Wilson’s home is full of merriment and mayhem. Katie and Maurice are clearly used to the occasional drama. Yet nothing could prepare them for the dramatic events that took place the week before Katie gave birth to Matilda.
Katie recalls, ‘I was hobbling around on crutches thanks to developing a condition called Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction (SPD) in late pregnancy. It is a particularly painful condition where the weight of the baby can literally lead to your pelvis splitting in two. Because of that I was booked in for a Caesarean section and was thankful to have got to the point where I was counting the days.
‘It was difficult to cope with but when both boys became unwell, life was even more challenging. Chickenpox was doing the rounds and I wasn’t surprised when Luke caught it with Josh following fast. I was glad when all the spots had eventually dried up and they were both back on form.’
Two weeks later, Katie and her boys were at a friend’s house when Joshua fell off a ladder and bumped his head.
Katie told me, ‘It was a ladder he had climbed time and time again. I put it down to one of those things and was relieved that he hadn’t appeared to hurt himself. There certainly were no obvious signs of any trauma at the time.
‘But the following day he was not himself at all, he was miserable, and by that evening he had developed a raging temperature. Through the night he was a very poorly boy.
‘Next morning when it came to going downstairs I managed to put him down. I could barely walk; lifting him was out of the question. Trying to balance my full term bump was difficult enough.
‘I encouraged him, ‘Come on sweetheart. Please help Mummy. I simply can’t carry you darling.’ He looked up at me with his big eyes, helpless and confused and it was then that I realised something was dreadfully wrong.’
Katie, Mo and the boys rushed to Kingston hospital where within a few hours Katie would face the shocking news that Joshua had a potential tumour or bleed on the brain.
Katie said, ‘We hadn’t been at A&E long when we next tried putting Josh on the floor. But it was like he was drunk. His left leg simply did not work. The triage nurse gave us her initial diagnosis: a broken femur.
‘I then of course mentioned Josh’s fall two days before and immediately felt a surge of guilt that he’d broken his leg and I hadn’t known. How could I not pick up on something like that?
‘Then I remembered Josh had slept the following day for three hours; something he never does. He was reasonably chatty afterwards but it was as if he couldn’t really be bothered with anything. But we’ve had days like that before, so I still didn’t think anything was amiss.’
Quite quickly Joshua’s paralysis progressed to both legs and a consultant assumed it was a spinal injury. At that point Joshua was admitted to paediatrics and a friend picked up Luke.
Katie said, ‘Once on the ward, Mo and I could see Josh rapidly declining; he was definitely looking worse in as much as he had started to lean to one side. Mo and I were thinking the same and were frightened there was something wrong with his brain. We voiced our concerns to the consultant, who nodded, saying, ‘I’m afraid that is the direction we are appear to be heading in.’
‘He then looked Josh over fully, and noticing his chickenpox scars seemed to think it could be related. Apparently chickenpox (medically known as varicella) can cause a virus that has similar symptoms. He started Josh on antivirals.
‘At 11pm I had to go home to Luke. It was the worst thing ever as Josh was clearly fading. But they had to keep taking bloods from him, and needed someone who was strong enough to hold him. At nine months pregnant and on crutches I knew that could not be me.
‘My husband talked sense in to me. You have another son at home who needs you. Josh looked so small. Somehow, I walked away from him. But then I sat in the car, unable to physically leave the car park and my boy behind.
‘I spoke to a friend for support and then came home. The first place I went was to Luke. I held him as my silent tears fell. Sleep was out of the question and at 4am I ran a bath. At 5am I had a cup of tea and by 7am, I was back at hospital.
‘I hobbled in to find Mo sobbing. He had not left Josh’s side the entire time and hadn’t slept either. Josh was so much worse. He was conscious but looked like he had had a stroke, his head lolled, he was drooling, he had lost the muscle control of his torso and slumped forward, he had now lost the use of his arms and hands as well as his legs and he could no longer speak.
‘It was simply the worst moment in my life, yet I had to find a smile for my boy as I approached him.
‘When Josh saw me he attempted to say ‘Mummy’ but failed miserably. I burst in to tears. I wanted to see a doctor immediately so it was just as well a team of them arrived at that very moment. I stood there shaking, demanding, ‘what’s happening? Please do something. We are losing him.’
‘They jumped quickly and organised a CT scan, lumber puncture, more blood tests and a catheter. It was a relief to watch them move.
‘When Josh went for the lumber puncture, Mo and I sat outside holding each other listening to our poor boy scream. It was a sound I’d never heard him make before. It was endless and I hope never to hear it again.
‘Eventually the results of the CT scan came back and we were told it was not a bleed on his brain or a tumour. I cannot describe the relief we felt. How parents faced with that news ever cope, is beyond me.
‘Mo and I followed the same routine; I had to leave again, yet I was more hopeful. I got home to my parents who were holding the fort with Luke. My mum and I simply sat and cried.
‘I went back first thing and it was not so bad as Josh seemed peaceful. The doctors wanted him up, moving, but he kept falling over. That was obviously difficult and distressing for us to watch.’
That same afternoon Katie watched Joshua definitely start to improve. She said, ‘At first we noticed his torso sat up a bit straighter. Then, when he was put on the floor he actually tried to walk; like a baby taking his first tentative steps.’
Katie and Maurice then spent the time encouraging Joshua with some simple toys, puzzles and books. But Joshua tired quickly and fell asleep a lot. Katie felt more optimistic than she had in days, although she now had something else on her mind.
‘Over the last few days Braxton Hicks contractions had become stronger and more frequent. But they were suddenly horrendously crippling. I leant against the wall and through gritted teeth told Mo we needed a plan as I honestly thought baby was on its way before its proposed caesarian.
‘The plan was for my mum to stay with Luke, my dad with Josh, and Mo with me. I didn’t want to think about a natural delivery at that point and my pelvis potentially splitting in two.
‘Fortunately I didn’t need to for the contractions eased up and I moved back to my priority of dealing with a sick child. One who was beginning to show signs of recovery; we couldn’t believe it.
‘I think the best moment for me was when he giggled and called me pooh face. I have never been so happy to hear those words in my life! Then he took a wobbly walk around the ward with Mo. His speech although slurred was more decipherable and we understood ‘Don’t let go yet Daddy’.
‘The following day we brought our beautiful boy home. He was far from 100 percent, but Mo and I were assured by the doctors that in time he would be. His full recovery could take anything up to five months. We knew we had to take one day at a time.
‘On reflection, Josh’s recovery was fascinating. It was like watching a baby’s whole first year of development happen in one week as everything slowly came back.’
And could Joshua’s fall from the ladder have been a catalyst for his brain injury? Katie explained, ‘No, we were reassured that even though it was two weeks after his chickenpox spots had dried up the virus was still in his system and his fall would have had nothing to do with it. It purely highlighted the fact that his motor skills were already dropping out and his cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for movement coordination, was indeed already affected.
‘We were told that the hefty antivirals Josh was given technically did nothing to help him, but that the problem was caused by Josh’s own immune system. His white blood cells attacked the chickenpox virus but went in to overdrive and also attacked his cerebellum. Only once it realised that the cerebellum was not a virus, did it begin to recover and then, remarkably, cure itself again.
‘Fortunately for Josh, he is a toddler and young children are known to recover far quicker from this illness than their older counterparts. As a little one, Josh has no inhibitions, so is not embarrassed to get up and fall over, he is willing to try and responds to being asked. All of which results in the brain regenerating itself much faster.’
In fact, Joshua made an amazingly fast recovery, and within a month the only signs that he had been so incredibly unwell were that he continued to dribble and fall over a little more than usual. His bladder and bowel control needed to be retrained but after a couple of months he was beginning to regain those too.
Three months on, Joshua is running around in the garden playing with his brother Luke and Guinness the black lab, occasionally looking in on his new baby sister. Katie smiles as we look at them through the window. I ask her how she felt she had dealt with the whole situation? She replied, ‘Hey, what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.’
Affecting one in a thousand, cerebellitis is a brain infection caused by the chickenpox virus. One child in every 50,000 will end up either seriously disabled or die. When it comes to your child's health, it's always better to be safe than sorry. If you are ever in doubt about your child's health, talk to a health professional. Serious childhood illnesses are rare. But, if you think your child might be affected, always trust your instincts and get medical help straight away.
CHICKENPOX - THE FACTS
• Chickenpox (medically known as varicella) is caused by a virus called the varicella-zoster virus. It’s spread quickly and easily through the coughs and sneezes of someone who is infected.
• Chickenpox is most common in children under 10.
• Children usually catch chickenpox in winter and spring, particularly between March and May.
• It has an incubation period of 10-21 days. The most infectious time is 1-2 days before the rash appears, but it continues to be infectious until the spots have dried up, which is usually about 5-6 days after the start of the rash.
• It starts with feeling unwell, a rash and a slight temperature.
• Spots develop, which are red and become fluid-filled blisters within a day or two. They eventually dry into scabs, which drop off. The spots appear first on the chest and back, then spread. They don’t leave scars unless they’re badly infected.
WHAT TO DO:
• You don’t need to go to your GP or Accident and Emergency (A&E) department unless you’re not sure that it is chickenpox or your child is very unwell or distressed.
• Give your child plenty to drink.
• Use paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve the fever and discomfort.
• Baths, loose comfortable clothes and calamine lotion can all ease the itchiness.
• Try to stop your child scratching or picking at their spots as this will increase the risk of scarring. It’s hard for children to do this, so give them plenty of praise and encouragement.
• Let the school or nursery know your child is ill in case other children are at risk.
• Keep your child away from anyone who is, or who is trying to get, pregnant. If your child had contact with a pregnant woman just before they became unwell, let the woman know about the chickenpox (and suggest she sees her GP or midwife). In women who have not previously had chickenpox, catching the illness in pregnancy can cause miscarriage or the baby may be born with chickenpox.
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