A Christmas Gift for Syria

For two weeks now, I’ve felt proper sorry for myself, wallowing in a sea of tissues with a voice that’s no more than a croak and a brain that’s as sharp as blancmange. The world can feel like it’s ending when you run out of LemSip, and neither husband nor cat will get near you for the stink of menthol and eucalyptus.

symptomatic relief for a cold

Then I turned on the TV.

After six years of war, the humanitarian situation in Syria is catastrophic. Hospitals and medical staff have been deliberately targeted. It’s a war crime, and it has left hundreds of thousands of civilians without access to medical care, even as the bombs rain down.

There is no children’s hospital left in Eastern Aleppo, and about 250,000 people are estimated to be without medical care.

But that could change by Christmas.

The People’s Convoy is crowdsourcing funds to build an urgently needed new children’s hospital. Dr Rola Hallam, a UK-based doctor (founder of CanDo and previously headed Hand in Hand for Syria), launched the campaign a few days ago. Here’s a piece from Channel 4 News which includes her interview. 

Laden with supplies for the new children’s hospital, the convoy will set off from London on Saturday 17th December for a seven-day overland journey arriving in Turkey. There it will meet the Independent Doctors’ Association (IDA), the Syrian medical/humanitarian organisation that is still operating in Northern Syria. 

incubator

The supplies will then be used to refit an existing building as a new hospital, which will be the first crowdfunded hospital in the world. It’ll be in the countryside north of the city, and will serve 185,000 people.

The convoy is a collaboration of leading medical relief agencies, humanitarian organisations, medical workers’ associations and campaign groups, including Medics Under Fire, the Independent Doctors’ Association, Physicians for Human Rights, Doctors of the World, and the Syrian American Medical Society, as well as Rola Hallam and David Nott, considered one of the world’s most experienced war surgeons. 

While governments fail to resolve the crisis, people can act, and you can help right here: The People’s Convoy.

You can keep up to date with the campaign and the convoy here: CanDo.

doctor examining baby

This is more than a convoy of medical supplies. It’s a convoy of hope, sending a strong message of solidarity and support to courageous Syrian medical and relief workers, telling them that they aren’t forgotten or alone.

It’s also a convoy of defiance: a strong message that humanitarians and human rights’ advocates will not be silenced or stopped from their life-saving work.

Please help spread the word, and give what you can to the People’s Convoy.  

It’ll do far more good than a box of tissues.

FreeImages.com/T. Al Nakib

December 18 update:

If you’ve already donated, thank you very much. The campaign exceeded its target, and the convoy left central London yesterday, as you can see in this piece from today’s Sunday Times.

A Parent Worries Forever

Seen that touching Lloyds Bank photo where the mother is hugging her ‘baby’ before he nonchalantly sets off for university? I can’t reproduce the image here, but you can check it out by clicking on Lloyds Bank.  I showed it to some of my friends, who variously remarked on the mother’s height relative to her son, the blissful smile on her face, and the flimsiness of rucksack on the son’s back. 

Those with children noticed none of these things. Their reaction was just terror.

When expecting your first child, there’s usually a golden moment during which you’re thrilled at the prospect of having a baby but haven’t yet realised you’re heading for a lifetime of worry. Well, savour it while you can.

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My twin boys arrived when I had one son already. In a flash, my anxiety levels trebled. The children seemed intent on working their way through the alphabet, with accidents, asthma, appendicitis, and (scariest of all) anaphylactic shock.

Some letters stand out more than others. D was for Duplo, a normally safe toy, except when you stumble face first into it. G was for golf club, as when eldest son was smacked in the face by a 5 iron at the school fete, necessitating yet another tip to A&E.

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Occasional false alarms brought light relief. At eighteen months, one son was on the bus, sitting forward in his eagerness to miss nothing. When the driver braked suddenly, my son’s face collided with a metal handrail. He screamed, and bright red stuff poured copiously from his mouth. I laughed hysterically when I found he’d only been chewing on a red crayon.

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In my novel Hampstead Fever, I couldn’t resist including a super-anxious new mum. It’s not just the prospect of mishaps that cranks up her worry levels. She has studied the parenting books, so she’s aware of potentially lethal conditions like sepsis, where symptoms can be minimal in the early stages yet take a child to death’s door within hours. Like many parents, Laure suspects it’s dangerous to let her guard down, because that’s when things are most likely to go wrong.

Worry can drive mums (and dads) to become over-protective, turning into helicopter parents and doing for their children things that they should be learning to do for themselves.

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For some parents, anxiety becomes hard-wired. I’ve seen them make idiots of themselves as they continue to stalk their kids on social media throughout their teens and even twenties, panicking if they haven’t posted anything in the last few hours.  

Not me, of course. I’ve finally learned to ditch unnecessary anxiety about my offspring. I’ll tell you how I did this. Not this minute, though, because first I need to text my sons to see how they’re doing without me.

Samsung mobile

The Dangers of Learning to Walk

Bringing up a child is the most natural thing in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, as forty-year old Laure was finding.

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Jack was toddling now, with a confidence far in excess of his ability to balance. To stop himself falling, he’d grab at whatever came to hand. It could be a tablecloth or a lamp. Today he got brave and weaved his way unaided across the middle of the living room, screeching with pride once he reached the little table on the other side of the room. He lifted one foot after the other off the floor, then took both hands off the table. He squealed with glee a few more times and promptly fell, mouth open, onto the edge of the table.

Laure rushed to gather him in her arms. The bleeding was torrential. Had he torn an artery in his mouth? Or knocked out one of his new teeth? She struggled to take a look but he screamed and wriggled and kicked and cried. Each scream pumped out scarlet blood mixed with saliva.

“Poor baby, poor baby,” she incanted as she grabbed paper towels from the kitchen. She could see a jagged wound right through his lip to the inside of his mouth. No wonder he was howling.

She felt her breathing change. Harsher at first, then faster. And her heart was beating all over the place, especially in her chest and her temples. Her hands trembled despite herself.

“There, there,” she intoned, barely audible above his screams. He had spat out the paper towel. She could smell his blood, his baby smell, her own helplessness.

Who was there to call? The health visitor was elusive after 10 a.m., and the GP was never available.  

She tried some ice. Jack didn’t like it, but the bleeding was easing off.

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Calmer now, Jack dribbled a little blood-stained saliva onto his beloved blankie.

As he was happily playing with his toys, Laure left it. She also left the bloodied paper towels on the kitchen counter as exhibits for Dan when he got in.

He breezed in from work, his kiss reeking of garlic.

She gave him a blow by blow account.

“Relax,” said Dan. “He’s learning to walk.”

“He could have really hurt himself.”

Jack chose this moment to beam at Dan and say, “Car,” as he offered him a plastic vehicle.

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“Yeah, but he didn’t. It’s only a cut.”

She frowned at him. “It’s a very deep cut. Have you actually seen all this blood?”

“It’s stopped now,” Dan pointed out.

Laure’s heart was still racing.

You can read more about Laure, Dan, and their friends in Hampstead Fever, available online and in bookstores.

 

What You Can Do for London’s Lungs

Take a nice deep breath. For thousands of people living in London, that’s a luxury.  

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With its plethora of parks, our capital may be one of the greenest cities. But it’s also one of the most polluted. For the last five years, London has been in breach of EU safety limits on NO2.

I’ve noticed it getting worse. For an instant lesson in air quality, head for the outer reaches of one of the Tube lines and see how fresh the air feels when you step outside. 

Pollution isn’t just an irritant to the throat, nose, or eyes. It’s damaging to health, increasing the risk of lung cancer and chronic lung disease, and driving up hospital admission rates for those with pre-existing lung or heart disease.

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Children’s lungs are most vulnerable, yet around 330,000 London kids go to school in areas with illegal levels of pollution.

Pollution has also been linked with damage during pregnancy, including low birth weight and pre-term birth.

I’ll cut a long story short: at least 9,500 deaths a year in London are linked with air pollution.

We may not have the pea-soupers of the 1950s that smothered London in soot and sulphur dioxide for days at a time. But we have a haze of small particles, especially PM2.5s, along with the toxic gas nitrogen dioxide NO(not to be confused with laughing gas because this one isn’t funny).

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PM2.5s are fine particles, less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter. They come from things like motor vehicles, power plants, and wood-burning, and they’re harmful because they’re small enough to reach the deepest recesses of the lungs.

Nitrous oxide comes largely from diesel cars, lorries, and buses. It follows that pollution is worse near busy roads, which is often where less advantaged families live. But even short-term exposure to air pollution can damage.

Why am I banging on about it now?

Because on May 5, London elects a new Mayor. As a parent, a doctor, and a Londoner, I whole-heartedly support The British Lung Foundation’s #Londonlungs campaign. It calls for the next Mayor and Assembly members to prioritise lung health.

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So much could be done, from tree and hedge planting schemes to improving transport strategy and extending the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) eastwards – where there’s a lot of deprivation and air pollution.

You too can help by getting on board and asking all the mayoral candidates whether they pledge to protect Londoner’s lungs. You could also share the campaign on social media with the hashtag #Londonlungs.

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What else can you do?

There are obvious individual steps to help protect the lungs and heart, like not smoking.

Driving less, for instance by sharing cars or using public transport, helps drive down vehicle emissions. If you’re buying or leasing a car, choose a low-emission model.

Take the longer route on foot or cycle via a less polluted area if you can. You may be interested in the Clean Space app

The British Lung Foundation has some great tips for when air pollution levels are very high. You can find them here

 

The Disease Nobody Knows About Until it’s Too Late

If you know much about sepsis, chances are the condition has affected your family.

Sepsis has a high mortality and kills 37,000 people a year in the UK, about 1,000 of them kids. So this week I’m parking the levity and using my blog to sum up what you need to know about sepsis. Photo by Jean Scheijen FreeImages.com/Jean ScheijenUnderstand what it is.

Sepsis is when the body responds to severe infection in such a way that it attacks its own organs and tissues. Without treatment, this quickly leads to organ failure and death.

Most people have heard of blood poisoning (septicaemia) which is much the same thing. But doctors now prefer the term sepsis because there isn’t always blood poisoning in this condition.  

Sepsis isn’t exactly a household name – yet. Personally I think ‘sepsis’ sounds weaker than either septicaemia or blood poisoning, but we’re stuck with the term that scientists agree on.

Know the signs.

The symptoms depend on age, but the main point is that there isn’t any one specific sign like, say a swollen jaw with mumps. A child with sepsis can have a high fever, or an abnormally low one. The younger the child, the vaguer the symptoms.

Here are some signs to look out for in children (from the UK Sepsis Trust’s Paediatric Pocket Guide):

symptoms of sepsis in children

And here are some signs to watch out for in adults (from the UK Sepsis Trust’s excellent Symptom Checker card):

symptoms of sepsis in adults

If I could highlight just two consistent points about sepsis, they would be these:

You or your youngster will be more unwell than expected.

Things get rapidly worse, especially in children.

Understand who gets it.

Anyone can develop sepsis from a bacterial infection (or sometimes a virus or fungus). But some are more at risk, like the very young, very old, pregnant women, diabetics, and people on long-term steroids.

The initial infection can be a serious one like meningitis, or seemingly trivial, like a horse-fly bite.

Surgery can be linked with sepsis, especially emergency operations on those in poor health, or with peritonitis or bladder infections.

scalpel

Know what to do.

Sepsis is a medical emergency and needs urgent hospital care. Don’t waste a single moment.

Sepsis isn’t one disease, but rather a syndrome that cuts across almost every medical speciality. The first doctor you see could be a paediatrician, a gynaecologist, an orthopaedic surgeon, or your GP, and sepsis may not feature at the top of their list. That’s why it’s so important for you to mention it. When you see the doctor or nurse, make sure you say, “I’m worried about sepsis.”

Thanks for bearing with me.

Litmann type stethoscope

Here’s a selection of further reading if you’re interested.

The UK Sepsis Trust is a charity founded to save lives and improve outcomes for survivors of sepsis by instigating political change, educating healthcare professionals, raising public awareness and providing support for those affected. For their general factsheet on sepsis, click here

Sepsis Awareness Month: Rory’s Story. One mother’s personal account.

Three and a Half Heartbeats by Amanda Prowse. A novel of love, loss, and hope about a family devastated when their child dies of sepsis. And proceeds go to UK Sepsis Trust.

Plunkett A, Tong J. Sepsis in Children.  BMJ 2015;350:h3017. A detailed medical article from the British Medical Journal.

Next Stop for Gene Editing: Designer Parents

Gene editing has been all over the news these past few days. 

While the technique is still experimental, it holds the hope of bypassing defects that lead to life-threatening conditions.  I suspect the level of interest has a lot to do with the universal desire for a baby that’s perfect in every way.

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But, with tongue now travelling towards cheek, I wonder: what’s the point of a perfect baby, if the parents happen to be deeply flawed?

In gene editing, enzymes are used as molecular scissors to snip out certain sequences of DNA and replace them. If I were making a template for a designer parent, here’s what I’d cut out:

FreeImages.com/Jean Scheijen

1 Violence

Should be excised from a parent’s repertoire. It’s not even OK to give the little terror a taste of his own medicine. If he kicks you and you kick back, you’re only saying that aggression is acceptable.

2 Swearing

Oh, all right. So Go the Fuck to Sleep was hilarious, momentarily. On the other hand, I’ll never forget the woman who brought her three-year old to speech and language therapy because he knew so few words. But he was fluent at saying, ‘Bugger off’.

3 Impatience

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I’m guessing you too have felt the urge to yank your toddler’s arm out of its socket when he dawdles. Unfortunately, kids learn by example. How do you want to be treated when you’re in your dotage? Enough said.

4 Constant criticism

Yep, even when it’s slick and sarcastic and makes you feel bloody clever, a critical drip-drip-drip of erodes a child’s self-esteem.  Check out Dorothy Lawe Nolte’s poem Children Learn What They Live. 

5 Selfishness

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Only a better-than-average saint could put someone else’s needs first all the time, but that’s roughly what parents have to do. Obviously, it would help if gene editing could also do away with the need for sleep, privacy, quiet, and going to work.

6 Overindulgence

Here I’m thinking of overindulging the child, which is almost as bad as neglect. Growing up without rules or limits doesn’t make for a happy person who knows his place in the world. But, while they’re at it, some parents could also cut down on drink and drugs.

So those are my thoughts on being a designer parent. Sorry if I failed to mention Gucci, Prada, and Tom Ford until the end.

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Are you a parent, or perhaps a keen observer of family life? What do you think?

The Dreaded Christmas Newsletter

The Christmas cards are fluttering in through the letter box, and so are the round robin letters, lovingly composed to bring you up to date with all the people you no longer remember. This may be my favourite so far.

holly garland

Dear friends

 

 

 

My, doesn’t time fly! I supposed that’s what happens when you’re our age. 2015 has been a very special year for us although, as John likes to points out, it hasn’t quite ended yet.

Our exciting year kicked off with damp-proof treatment to our lounge. The builders got plaster dust literally everywhere, including in my beloved knitting basket. After the re-plastering, we re-decorated. We spent many an evening debating the relative merits of Magnolia versus Almond White. John got the Almond White he wanted. Well, he is the Man of the House.

Here is where I usually include some of the best photos of our year. Our 2014 Christmas letter featured an xray of my new hip, so this one, taken in our garden, is rather different.

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Not, alas, the much anticipated bumper crop of berries on our pyracanthus, because John had a bit of a go with the pruning shears right after his latest parking ticket.  At least this time he didn’t punch the traffic warden, which you will agree is a good thing if you recall our Christmas letter 2013.

Since John and I have long retired, the most interesting career developments are the children’s. I am excited to tell you that daughter Tabitha has finally decided what she wants to do, and is now a tattoo artist’s model.

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Our son Graham, who takes more after me, has found his knitting business has really taken off. To complement his range of egg-cosies, he now offers knitted ties, and he has sold three of them in just four months!

In March I had another bout of shingles, and John had an attack of gout. However this did not stop us from enjoying foreign travel. John and I went to Scotland in April. The weather was not as sunny as we had hoped, but we got to play a lot of gin rummy.

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Six months ago, I joined a book club which seems quite fun. We do not yet have a Book of the Month. There are however a number of wine labels that are required reading.

The rest of our year was taken up with the replacement of my hip replacement. Here I must thank all our medical friends who got in touch just after receiving our 2014 Christmas letter and pointed out that the stem of the prosthesis was incorrectly positioned. 

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Wishing you and yours all the blessings of the Christmas season, and a wonderful new year to come with peace and prosperity to all (with the exception of ISIL, as John wants me to point out).

Love from

Judy and John

 

 

 

holly garland