Spotlight Story Program: Meet Bridget Gum

Meet Bridget Gum

Our latest Spotlight Story comes from the East Coast of the United States, and this is not just any addition into our Spotlight Story Program, but from a special young woman who has worked her way up through InvisiYouth’s programming. 18-year-old Bridget Gum because as a volunteer with InvisiYouth during her senior year of high school, and transitioned into our international leadership program, Global Brand Leaders as a GBL-Ambassador. Bridget has fused her experience living with a rare autoimmune disorder called Transverse Myelitis and her love of advocacy, into a great future for her work as she’s now a student at Rider University with aims of helping others. 

My name is Bridget Gum and on November 11, 2002 I was found in my crib completely limp. Since I was a seven month old baby, it made it very challenging to diagnose me because I couldn’t communicate loss of sensation or ability to move, or even if I lost control of my bowel and bladder capabilities.

After six months of living in and out of hospitals and nearly dying a couple of times, I was finally diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder called Transverse Myelitis. This disorder attacked my immune system as well as my spinal cord, at the C5-C8 level of my spine, right around what the doctors call “Hangman’s Noose”, which is called that because most people lose the ability to breath and die.

Thankfully, for reasons no one can explain, my spinal cord injury is incomplete, which means my sensory and motor level doesn’t just stop at one level.

As a very young child, I was in therapy for an extremely long time so as to hopefully regain as much function as possible, however, I was only able to have movement and sensation from my shoulders up. Finally, when it was time, I was allowed to go to preschool. I was so excited. A couple of years ago, I found a comic that summarized my experience perfectly: a girl who uses a wheelchair at a specially designed desk for a wheelchair completely oblivious to the fact she was different.

My family treated me normally so when I went to school, I was made aware of how different I was. I grew up in an almost entirely able-bodied community, until I was in fourth grade. I finally went to a family summer camp made entirely for others with my disability, which was life-changing.

It was the first time I was with others like me, and not just being sick in a hospital together, actually doing fun activities. This was when I decided to educate myself on disabled culture and to become an advocate, for both myself and others. I began to work with my therapists to become more independent and began to work with my school to get better services and more appropriate accommodations. In eighth grade, I was diagnosed with epilepsy, completely unrelated to my previous disability.

The memory reset and medications from the seizures completely changed me and how I saw the world. I then became more open and helpful to others because I saw how helpful other people were to me and I really wanted to return that favor to the world.

Throughout my many years of hospitalizations and living with this disability, I learned a lot of responsibility and maturity, which is almost a requirement for living with a disability if you want independence. 

These qualities often seep into my personal life to the point where my friends call me the “Mom” of the group because I’m always helping people, listen to their problems, and I’m prepared for every situation, often in case of emergency.

While the lives of people with disabilities are very different, I wish we could live in a world where it doesn’t have to be.

Of course there will always be an element of medical needs that is different than an able-bodied person, I hope that others with disabilities won’t have to fight for accommodations or be surprised and overly grateful when someone makes you feel like an equal, and not someone who needs to be helped or as a burden.

Now, I have graduated high school and will be attending Rider University as a member of their honors program. And I have joined InvisiYouth Charity’s leadership program, Global Brand Leaders. I’m so excited about being a GBL-Ambassador for InvisiYouth because I want to help people and make the world a better place for everyone who lives in it, especially those with disabilities, and this gives me a platform to do that.

 

Spotlight Story Program: Scarlett Aylen’s Story

Meet Scarlett Aylen

Our latest Spotlight Story comes from across the Atlantic Ocean with a fresh take on empowerment and facing the obstacles that life can throw at us. We were so excited to hear from 20-year-old university student from the United Kingdom, Scarlett Aylen, when she submitted her story. Scarlett is an example that chronic illness and health struggles affect the entire person, both physically and mentally, and she advocates each young person should be supported as an entire being.  Her inner strength feeds into her organization RCASS, helping young people and their families after a scoliosis diagnosis. You learn so much through Scarlett’s story about resilience, advocacy, and finding ways to enjoy life.

It all started when I walked into a consulting room and saw my spine, looking horrifically and severely curved on a huge screen right in front of me. I was 12 and was diagnosed with severe scoliosis. I cried and cried to the point where the consultant and nurse had to let me leave the appointment without having one. I didn’t feel like a young girl, but now I see 12-year old’s and realized why my parents were so scared for me. I spent 9 months in and out of the worst time of my life, I was depressed and didn’t speak to my family. I changed.

I hid in a thick jumper and coat at school so nobody could see my deformed back, despite it being 30°C and summer. In the months leading up to the operation, my mental health continued to deteriorate, but the waiting list was preventing me from the operation I was desperate for. After the major surgery to fix the curve in my spine, the recovery was long. It took months. I was so scared to have water on my back. I remember so vividly having a panic attack when it was time to shower for the first time since the operation. It took me months to get into a swimming pool and I would insist on covering myself up. I couldn’t do sports anymore. I used to ride, swim and do triathlons competitively but I gave everything I spent my childhood doing, up. Every time I tried to exercise there was always an excuse. But I was on the road to recovery, so it was ok.

Unfortunately, this was just the start of the problems. I thought I would just get better. Then I started to realize I couldn’t breathe. At one point, it felt like I could barely breathe at all. I also started experiencing severe anxiety on return to school and fought with panic disorder for about a year. I went to the doctors on multiple occasions and each time they told me I was just experiencing breathlessness due to anxiety. I argued and finally got a referral to a pediatrician, who allergy tested me. She said my lungs were the age of a 70-year-old but again, it was just anxiety! Through my GCSE years, I had therapy and I thought the anxiety was gone. It was just hiding. I still could not breathe. Eventually I saw a respiratory specialist who diagnosed me with restrictive lung disease and asthma.  The scan showed that one of my lungs is half the size of the other and my heart is not in the same place as everyone else’s because of this, and that ¼ of my big lung wasn’t even working due to infection.

However, having someone take me seriously was a huge relief. I had special respiratory physiotherapy and now take medication for my lungs. Being me, I was unlucky again.

The respiratory specialist had found a screw in a CT scan of my lungs that was dangerously close to my heart and sent me back to the spinal surgeon. He told me the operation wasn’t urgent, but that he had cancelled someone’s surgery (who waited a year to have it) and that he wanted to do it tomorrow. I woke up screaming in pain. My shoulders and neck have never been the same since. The surgeon couldn’t find anything wrong in a scan afterwards, so he sent me to a pain specialist. He basically said that I had no reason to be in chronic pain so off I go. I went to a specialist and got 3 medications to help with the pain. I have 16 Botox injections every 6 months when I can afford them, and it is the only thing that relaxes my neck and shoulders. The way I would describe the pain is severe, chronic and incredibly tense. They were constantly in spasm, which was excruciating and incredibly tiring.

By the end of my further education, I had missed out on 8 months of school and college due to pain, anxiety and fatigue. I was in so much pain and anxiety during my final exams, that I landed myself in the ER the day before my last ones from a tachycardia attack where my heart sat at 190 BPM for 3 hours.  Luckily, I take medication for my heart and I am symptom free most of the time, but it again took years to diagnose since the GP dismissed palpitations and a fast heart rate as being ‘anxiety’.

Nowadays, I focus on what my body needs. Recently, I discovered that the fatigue I’d been having for years, that kept getting worse was probably a neurological condition called narcolepsy, after the GP just told me it was probably anxiety, but then tried to pass it off as ME (chronic fatigue syndrome) after one appointment. I am now getting treatment for this which is exciting!

One of the perks of dealing with conditions like mine over a long period of time (over 7 years now) is that it has allowed me to learn about myself and what works for me. I understand it now.  Before, I wouldn’t let myself rest if I was about to collapse from exhaustion, but now I give my body time to recover before I start doing things again. I have friends with ME and the tips they have given me for my conditions help me as well, even though I don’t have it.

If I have, what I call a ‘pain crisis’, where my pain is worse than the average daily pain I get anyway, I have learnt to stop absolutely everything. It is hard to do that when you have a lot of goals, but it is an important step towards managing your body. After I turned 17, I started realizing I couldn’t hide from doing the things my friends could do for the rest of my life. I plucked up some courage and started doing things like get back on a horse and going to the gym.

I took a gap year and decided that it wasn’t fair on young people who had to wait for scoliosis surgery to have no support before and after the operation, so I have decided to set up my own organization to help this and called it RCASS.

I want to help young people and their parents after a diagnosis of scoliosis. The end goal is to provide more support in the future and to register as a charity to help provide young people with opportunities to recover confidence after scoliosis surgery. It is still in the starting stage, but I can’t wait to work on it properly!

I took a gap year before I went to university and decided its purpose was to ‘challenge myself to lengths I had not done before’. I went travelling alone, I went up mountains, on hikes, skiing, jumping off cliffs, surfing, volunteering and many more activities. I am incredibly proud of myself, but I must admit, the pain was still there. My biggest achievement to date is building the confidence to wear a bikini on a beach or by a pool. I never used to wear a small amount of clothes, but gradually I have worked up and now I don’t browse the shops thinking about what can hide my back, I’d rather show it!

As for my mental health, I needed the gap year and it did me the world of good. I still have some wobbly moments sometimes, and the anxiety meant I flew home 3 times on my travelling. But overall, I feel that my experiences have made me 10 times as more empathetic, understanding and positive compared to what I would have been like if nothing had ever happened to me! Another life changing moment was when I was told ‘a problem shared is a problem solved’.

It isn’t always easy when it comes to other young people but when I got to about 16 everyone started understanding and now I am so lucky to have incredibly supportive friends after I explain my problems to them, they help me with lots of things that I wouldn’t have help with if I didn’t share my story.

I tend to joke about my past now, and although it has been a harrowing journey, I know I am the person I am today from the experience.  Time has taught me how to look after myself. Although I still have problems, I know how to deal with them both in a better mental mindset and physical one too.

Spotlight Story Program: Devri Velazquez’s Story

Meet Devri Velazquez

Our latest Spotlight Story comes from someone we’ve adored for over a year now.  She’s not only got one of the best Instagram aesthetics we’ve ever seen, but she also has found a real niche for combining artistry with health activism. It is beauty and wellness editor and writer, Devri Velazquez.  Whether she is in Texas, New York City (where our founder, Dominique got to meet her), or Chicago, Devri has maintained her constant push for awareness on the life of a becoming an adult while living with chronic illness, specifically when you’re becoming your own person with invisible illness.

At 20 years old, Devri was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune vascular disease called Takayasu’s Disease. This is “a rare type of vasculitis, a group of disorders that cause blood vessel inflammation. In Takayasu’s, the inflammation damages the aorta—the large artery that carries blood from your heart to the rest of your body—and its main branches. For Devri, it took a series of strange flu-like symptoms and within a few weeks, her diagnosis was found.

Like thousands of the InvisiYouth community, Devri was diagnosed as a young adult, and that is a time in life when you are still discovering so much of who you are, and where you’d like your life to go.

I was 20 when I was diagnosed, so I feel like I had to grow up and mature soon than a lot of people I knew,” Devri said. “I had to quit taking certain risks that young people around me weren’t anywhere close to stopping. I take my self-care seriously, as my life depends on setting healthy boundaries.”

This is an experience that so many older youth have to deal with when maintaining their friendships while taking care of their health needs.

Self-care needs to be a requirement when you’re living with chronic illness instead of just a personal motivator.

Devri’s health journey has absolutely not only shaped the way she lives her daily life, but also how she does her work as a writer and editor on beauty and wellness, which everyone can experience on her website.  “I live and breathe survival everyday, in the places I go and the people I meet,” she said. “This is my lifestyle, learning everyday how to cope with constant pain that fluctuates by the hour. I pour my heart and passion into everything I do because I try not to take a single moment for granted.

Living with chronic illness takes so much daily energy, so when you’re able to achieve your goals, there is an extra large dose of enjoyment that can be felt. Like Devri points out, it completely alters the way you adapt to each and every day based on how your body is feeling and what you are capable of doing. And while that could be a focus of negativity at the challenges life with chronic illness presents, Devri is also able to see how her diagnosis has also given her new perspectives on life.

I always knew I was strong, but this has made me feel unbreakable. Nothing on this Earth and no person’s words or actions could ever hurt me as much as my body does on a daily basis, so I have learned to be more open-minded to a lot of things and not take certain situations as seriously. Everything is temporary, nothing is permanent, so relish the good moments, and know that the bad ones will pass.

There is so much to get empowered with from Devri’s mentality on her health journey. She’s right: no external factors in life can be as damaging as chronic illness is to your health, so you are actually a lot stronger than you think. Devri makes such a fantastic point: when you are having bad health days, you need to remember everything is temporary and with inner strength and willpower, you can to push those bad health days.

This is something we definitely get to experience through Devri’s social media activism on her Instagram account. Another trait of Devri’s that we all adore at InvisiYouth Charity is her complete vulnerability and belief that by sharing her medical journey, she can not only help others but also learn and grow herself.

Vulnerability is something that has help me accept and embrace the illness that my body carries,” Devri said. “I don’t feel defined by it, but it’s a part of my story now, and I’m not ashamed. I’m actually pretty proud of how well I carry this burden. Being open to your community—family, friends, colleagues—is so important, for your own mental health as well as their understanding and compassion in your journey.

What Devri touches on a couple of critical factors every young adult with chronic illness needs to know.  First, is the understanding that we are never defined by our illnesses or disability, but rather they are part of our description. Our health is not who we are, but rather it is part of the way we view our life and world around us, and that is not anything we should be ashamed of.

Second, Devri mentions something InvisiYouth always promotes, and that is the fact that a support network is critical to our daily success in life. Our family, friends and coworkers/classmates, they are all the people that help us get through the bad days, and celebrate the good ones.

This amazing young woman is filled with knowledge, realness and motivation. Not to mention, some of the best writing and photography we ever see! So when we asked Devri what her main message in life for other with chronic illness would be, it is no surprise that Devri would give the best.

Be your biggest advocate,” Devri said. “Learn how to say ‘no’ with confidence. If something doesn’t feel right—an interaction with another person, an environment, a job—it is okay to walk away from it. Do what your gut instinct tells you to do, just trust it with everything and then respond accordingly. That’s your mind, body and soul aligning to work in the favor of your higher self.”

Spotlight Story Program: Sophie Ward’s Story

Meet Sophie Ward

When life brought health challenges into British 24 year old Sophie Ward’s life, ending her dreams of trying out for the 2012 London Olympics, she used her fighter athlete spirit to get to the bottom of her struggles. After a diagnosis of Lyme Disease, Sophie not only focused to improve her health, but worked around the UK with Parliament, on radio/television, and with her blog to bring awareness to Lyme Disease education and prevention. She’s a kind and passionate young women, inspiring others to find their inner empowerment. And as an InvisiYouth Global Brand Leader, Sophie uses her advocacy and philanthropic skills to bring positive change to our international older youth crowd. 

In August 2008, my family and I travelled to Beijing to watch the Olympics. Many of my friends were competing in the swimming events and my dream was to reach London 2012, so it was a perfect opportunity to soak up the atmosphere, support my friends and learn what to expect. Once the Olympics were over we decided after traveling all that way it would be silly not to sight see. So, we did! We were lucky enough to go to the Panda sanctuary and it was AMAZING.

Here is where my nightmare started. I began with a fever after seeing the pandas. I was treated at the time with 48 hours of antibiotics which seemed to do the trick.

On returning home, I was forced to give up my swimming career due to nerve damage after an umbilical hernia operation. I felt lost. The years went on and my health declined; weight loss was the result was increasing food intolerances, migraines, joint pain, muscle weakness, blurred vision, confusion, muscle pain, fatigue, insomnia, temperature sensitivities, itchy skin, rash, nausea and so on. There seemed to be a new symptom every week. I saw doctor, after doctor, after doctor. All of them passed me on to the next or called me crazy.

I was losing the will to keep fighting. Was I crazy? Was it me? My family questioned my health too. Sometimes asking me directly if I was the cause of my health issues and to ‘snap out of it.’ How could I ‘snap out’ of something I zero control over.

2017 began and after going to the hospital for food intolerance tests, the consultant suggested I  see someone who specializes in CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) as at lot of my symptoms matched. The consultant gave nothing away at the time. He just told me to do some blood samples so I did, and returned a month later for the results. We were shocked. I looked at my Mum confused, she grabbed my hand.

I knew for so long I’d been struggling but I still coped. Feeling a bit off didn’t mean I would lay in bed all day. My professor read my results out to me. That stated I had very active Lyme levels and Coxsackie virus. Along with Epstein Barr virus and Herpes 1,2 and 6. At first, we thought FABULOUS a diagnosis… how do we cure it?

Then Lyme disease and the other viruses were explained to us. This fight would be for life, a life-long struggle. The fight would become my life.

I returned to my GP (general physician) with the results and they told me I was crazy, I had an eating disorder because my weight was so low, and I would have to suffer with a ‘chronic disease’ for it to stay so low. They told me my results were false because they had been carried out above and tried to section me. The consultant however, couldn’t find any grounds on which to section me. I was perfectly sane.

I did try inpatient help on my own accord for my eating. It was an utter disaster! I lost 5.5lbs in just 6 days! They starved me on a liquid, low calorie diet and then bombarded me with everything I was intolerant too. I was so sick and hungry. I was forced to discharge myself. This proved to my GP it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my fault and I was perfectly sane. This battle will be is endless and there is no rest.

My health journey has made me PASSIONATE about helping others who are going through similar situations, trying to raise awareness about Lyme disease to prevent people from going through this hell.  A cure, even though we fight for one everyday is a long way of yet. Prevention is key to save future generations and loved ones from the disease at this point.

I am part of the Lyme Discussion UK Administration team and work closely with my local MP (Member of Parliament) to raise awareness on Lyme Disease. I hope my journey and story inspires many who suffer with a variety of chronic illnesses and that we never feel ALONE OR INVISIBLE as our illnesses can often make us.

I strongly believe knowledge is power, so I continue to learn and gain knowledge through meeting people, talking, listening and reading.

People are the best form of lessons and knowledge. Listening is SO important, people relate, people feel less alone and less alien. We pick up hints and tips, look down different paths and doors open.

My work with the Lyme Discussion Group has helped me understand the political fight we face, meet likeminded-people, gain advice, knowledge and FRIENDS. In my work, I have offered support to people who no longer want to keep fighting. My family has fought to have signs and poster placed around Residential and holiday parks across the country and I have my local MP fighting and pushing Government for better tests, treatment methods, research and awareness information.

I am also a Global Brand Leader also work with InvisiYouth Charity!

I hope to make friends, gain further knowledge and help people like myself who often feel LOST, worthless and crazy. I hope to inspire people to find a purpose when there doesn’t seem to be one and celebrate all the victories and pleasures in life to boost our moods and keep us fighting.

And my blog, Sophantastic, has been my own personal journal. A journal to store my research, new knowledge, treatment stories, personal struggles and medical issues with the world in hope that others can relate, and we can find comfort in not feeling alone in our struggles.

I won’t let the world change me, I must change the world. And I must change the world to become more accepting.

So many of us have battled years with feeling like we are ‘alien’ and don’t belong. Just because we are poorly it doesn’t mean we can’t reach our dreams, we can’t make a difference and we are crazy. Our dreams and goals may have to be altered but the constant ignorance and dismissal in the health industry for people with chronic illnesses and chronic disease is not acceptable or healthy.

Society needs to learn to not see our weaknesses in a negative light but as stepping stones to learn and gain strength from. To add power to our strengths. This simple change would help improve lives because everyone knows a strong mind is the best weapon.

My life with Lyme Disease has inspired me to become the stronger person I am today. I have felt pain beyond my limits and become grateful for every moment.

It has taught me that nothing can hold us back, only WE hold us back. We have the power to change the world, empower and inspire people all around the world.

Spotlight Story Program: Shona Cobb’s Story

Meet Shona Cobb

Breaking the stigma-ceiling for chronic illness and disability comes to second nature to British 20 year old, Shona Cobb. She’s used her experience of life with Marfan Syndrome to empower others living with disabilities and illnesses, and change the way businesses, media and society treat disability. Shona uses her successful blog and speaking on TV and radio around England to bring change to disability rights, and as an InvisiYouth Global Brand Leader, Shona’s advocacy can reach an international stage. 

‘Is there a cure?’ is a response I get time and time again when explaining my rare condition to everyone from friends to strangers in the street. Perhaps if I were diagnosed as a teenager, or even an adult, the realization that there is no cure for my condition would have been a difficult one but knowing all my life that I have a genetic condition has given me a long time to come to terms with my prognosis.

Marfan Syndrome is the name of my primary condition, the starting point for all my secondary conditions. It’s a genetic connective tissue disorder, with my Mum having passed it on to me, and it can be visible quite far back in our family tree, with 2 family members dying from associated complications during my lifetime. A daunting aspect of this multi-systemic condition.

Long limbs are one sign of the condition and my unusually long arms and legs were visible on ultrasound scans while my Mum was still pregnant with me. Officially I was diagnosed as a toddler, when I started to meet more of the criteria, but my Mum knew that I had inherited Marfan a while before that.

For most of my childhood I was a happy, energetic child. I had hypermobile joints that I would show off to my classmates and I got ‘growing pains’ a lot more than my peers. Unpleasant but not unmanageable. It was as a teenager that more serious problems started appearing. I found myself missing more and more classes to attend hospital appointments, and the reality of my condition started to sink in. It wasn’t just something I happened to have anymore, it was affecting my daily life.

I was diagnosed with Scoliosis, a curve in my spine, at 13 years old and by 15 I was unable to climb the stairs at school, finding myself doing worksheets in the library instead of joining my classmates on the top floor of the main building.

It was isolating and really affected me because I loved education and learning, I thrived at school and worked hard. So, when I was booked in to have surgery to correct the curve with titanium rods and screws I was over the moon at the prospect of some relief from the back pain. I blogged about my experience, with my Mum keeping a diary of my first week in hospital, which proved to be a good idea as I barely remember that week. I even documented my experience with a complication post-surgery and finding out that I would need a second surgery. That was the beginning of me using my experiences to educate and support others, and it was also the start of my body beginning to crumble.

By 18 I’d had one hip replaced and the other being on its way to needing the same, a difficult thing to get your head round when joint replacements are so often associated with elderly people. I really thought that after my spinal surgery, I would return to life as normal. Then after my hip replacement, I was sure that was it, I’d surely endured enough. It was downhill from there though and now, at 20 years old, I’m a powerchair user with a large cyst at the bottom of my spine being my current issue.

It’s incredible how humans adapt, after every surgery I believed it was over, I believed I could not cope with anymore but again and again I proved myself wrong. Resilient, that ‘s what people would call me. I believe though that we all deal with the hand life gives us in whatever way we can, everyone has struggles and mine happen to be health related. Others deal with grief, violence, homelessness, the list goes on. I was determined to take the hand I’d been dealt and make the best of it.

It would take me all day to list everything I’ve been involved with in the past 2 years. I’ve used my blog and social media to raise awareness of Marfan Syndrome and educate people on disability issues. I’ve talked about how environmental movements can affect and exclude disabled people on the news. I’ve been involved with a national newspaper’s project to document the daily access problems I come across as a powerchair user. For someone who was painfully shy as a child, I’ve certainly come out of my shell, and that is all down to me having a chronic illness and being disabled. I feel I’ve found my calling in life. I’m not currently able to work but I can use my free time and my voice to help raise awareness and make real change.

I’ve helped local shops install ramps to improve access for disabled people and I’ve worked with organisations to improve their inclusivity. Charity work is something I’ve passionate about though, being the Marfan ambassador for The Hypermobility Syndromes Association (HMSA) and being the youngest person in a British Heart Foundation (BHF) patient advisory group. I’ve taken what life has given and done my best with it.

People often speak about disability and chronic illness as though it’s the worst thing, but I feel empowered by disability. I am proud to be a young disabled woman, I am proud of the change I’ve made and am trying to make in this world. Being disabled and chronically ill is a huge part of my identity, why shouldn’t I be proud of that?

I hope to inspire other disabled and chronically ill people to be empowered by their conditions too, as many other disabled activists and campaigners have done for me. I scroll through my Instagram feed and I feel empowered to see so many disabled people not being ashamed of their disability and embracing their bodies.

I’ve still many rocky roads ahead of me, including major open-heart surgery and potentially more risky spinal surgery, but I still look forward, looking back at the past, at a life that could have been, has never done me any favours. I’m looking forward now, looking forward to the change I can make in the world, looking forward to being more confident and looking forward to a time where disabled and chronically ill people can feel empowered by their disability without others telling us we shouldn’t.

I’m excited to fulfill these goals and support others, especially in my new role as a Global Brand Leader for InvisiYouth!

 

Spotlight Story Program: Rachel Mayo’s Story

Meet Rachel Mayo

As a university freshman, Rachel was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, and it changed her way of way. But Rachel decided to take her new diagnosis and not just better her life, but motivate others with T1D to do the same. And she’s been doing that across the United States ever since. Plus…we’re thrilled Rachel will keep working with InvisiYouth as 2018 continues.

I grew up full of energy, always going from one thing to the next, without a need to hit the “slow down” button.

As a freshman in college, when it started to require more and more energy to do basic things, like walk to class, sit through class, even, I began to worry a little. Why did I need a three-hour nap after my 50-minute English class, when just months before, I was fine getting only 50 minutes of sleep every night?

“Worried” probably isn’t even the right word. I just noticed the difference. Since my mom worked for a general physician, I decided to get a general check-up. I figured my hormones were just out of whack, and as soon as I was relieved of the stress of my semester and moved back home for the summer, I would return to normal.

It’s no surprise that was not the cure for whatever was wrong with me. (That would make for an awfully boring story, don’t you think?) The day after my last final of my freshman year, I went to the doctor, and was told that if what they suspected was right, that there was no cure for whatever was wrong with me.

The next day, at 7:15 am, I went to see an endocrinologist, they drew blood, and after several anxiety-filled minutes of waiting, It was confirmed. I had Type 1 Diabetes (T1D).

There is no cure.

I would have to take insulin for the rest of my life.

I was mostly shocked.

Not necessarily angry, but I was sad. Confused. Full of questions. But for the most part, I was okay.

Three days later, I was at the mall with my mom and sister, and we had put our shopping on hold to refuel. (Eat lunch.)

At the food court, over my chicken sandwich and the Diet Coke I was still trying to learn to love, I broke down. I’m talking crocodile tears pouring down my face. I had every emotion running through my veins at that moment and I felt completely out of control.

That’s when I decided that the best way for me to deal with this disease would be to help other people deal with this disease. I had no idea what that looked like at the time, as I still had no idea how to handle my diagnosis. But I knew I could tackle it, and I knew I wanted to use it to help others.

Fast forward and I know what that looks like now. I have spent the last year traveling and speaking to different groups with T1D around the world, helping them to navigate this disease with a positive spirit.

I use social media to share pictures and videos of my life with T1D. I share my victories, my frustrations, and try my hardest to let others with T1D know they are not alone in what they go through.

I also love to educate those without T1D about the difficulties of living with this disease. Since T1D is an invisible illness, it is easy for others to overlook the constant inner battle we fight every day.

While this disease does not define me, it is a very big part of me, and has helped shape me into the person I am today. And if I may be so frank, I really like the person I am today. The person I am today is brave, even when it’s frightening, is adventurous, even when it takes work, and is gracious, even with herself.

But it took work to get there. What has helped me the most is using my story to help others. It is so therapeutic to lay down all of my battle scars for others to see and realize that they have friends who are in the trenches with them.

The community of people I have surrounded myself with has been crucial. I love getting on twitter and conversing with my #DOC (Diabetes Online Community) friends.

It’s like walking into my own special little T1D world where everyone is willing to give you advice when you need it, or just let you vent when you don’t. It’s not weird when I say “my blood sugar got so low my tongue went numb” or “I got a unicorn today!”

My T1D community has truly been life changing for me.

I don’t want it to sound like I have it all figured out and I am completely okay. I’m not. I get burned out. I get angry. I cry so hard I start to hyperventilate.

But that is okay. I have permission to do that, and once I figured that out, it got easier for me to get through those times. It’s okay to feel those things! But it’s not a healthy spot to set up camp.

What I want, more than anything, is for people with chronic illnesses, to understand that they can do anything. Absolutely anything. And YES it might be difficult, but it is so very worth it.

This past year alone I went skydiving, ran a half-marathon, visited 24 states, and five countries including UAE, Mexico, and three countries in Africa.

“I could never do that,” is what I heard from many of my T1D friends after every new adventure. It breaks my heart every time I hear that.

YES YOU CAN! There’s a strategy for everything, and there is nothing this disease can prevent you from doing.

Find a community that lifts you up. Get rid of the negative people, words, and elements in your life. Take baby steps. Look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself how brave you are. Tell yourself you can do anything. And if you still doubt yourself, find me, and I will tell you.

You can do anything. I believe in you.

Spotlight Story Program: Louise’s Story

Meet Louise Cooper

We’ve gotten to know Louise first as one of the cool British health and lifestyle bloggers that followed InvisiYouth, but we are getting to know her even better as a member of the InvisiYouth team for this winter’s Superhero Series Winter Games this December!  She’s an Ehlers Danlos Syndrome warrior that’s found ways to balance her love of sport and travel with her illnesses, and her open honestly makes her one to watch in our book.

My name is Louise, I’m originally from Essex, England. I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, PoTS, Chiari and a whole host of other conditions in 2015 and am still under investigation for a variety of things!

I have always been a “sporty” person, I didn’t find out about my EDS (a connective tissue disorder that can affect the skin, joints, muscles and vascular system with hyper-mobility and hyperelasticity) until three years ago when I was 25, but have been in and out of hospital my whole life and had a back brace for scoliosis at the age of 12 for a few years. The only time I didn’t have to wear my back brace was when I was exercising, so, if there was a sport – I did it! I was also a competitive swimmer throughout my teens, I even made it to nationals (albeit in a relay team by HEY, it still counts!). Unfortunately, after various immune issues and bouts of glandular fever and CMV my exercise started to tail off in my late teens and early 20s.

I held down a full-time job for 5 years, bought my own apartment and car, I had everything I needed! Things came to a head around 18 months ago and my body just said ENOUGH, I was working ridiculous hours at a job in London with the commute, and not looking after myself much. The average person would burn out, let alone someone with a chronic illness, but I guess that’s just the fight in me.

So I started back with physio, some days I’m fine, some days I’m not! I like someone who gives me physio exercises based around the gym – I just respond better that way, I like to be challenged and push myself further however it is SO important to do this correctly and under supervision. Physio will always be a part of my life as I will always have ups and downs in my health but I dont see this as a negative, I learn each time what I can do to strengthen or protect my body in order to prevent or minimize thedisruptionto my body for the next time.

I have found it’s important to use supports, straps and anything else for your physio exercises and gym routines. This will always give you the confidence to know you are safe while exercising! I currently wear, finger, x 2 wrist, knee and back supports when working out. While there’s not an awful lot I can do about my ligaments and tendons, I can strengthen and tone the muscles around my body to get them performing as best as possible! Being back in the gym the last two years hasn’t always been easy. I’ve a fair share of blips along the way with disc tears, bulges and tarlov cysts now appearing, but this has only made me more determined to keep going! Keeping mobile and active reduces my pain, but there is a very careful balance, I have to make sure I dont overdo it and listen to my body!

I also have to make sure that I listen to my health not just through exercise, but through my diet and medications as well.

By health, I mean nutrition, taking my tablets and everything in between. I’ve always had food intolerances, but recently these have become a lot worse. I don’t believe in cutting out EVERYTHING from your diet, it’s everything in moderation and finding out what works for you.

My motto is – listen to yourself. I find my body tells me what I need but generally, I’ll eat meat, fresh veg and a small portion of carbs. Its about trial and error and finding what works for you, and you really, really do have to persevere, it won’t change in a week, it has to be a lifestyle change in order for it to work.

Possibly most importantly – Take your medication!! They are prescribed for a reason – and I know this can be hard, I am forgetful, this is something I’ve really had to work on! It sounds SO easy and its not that I don’t want to take them it just becomes – I’ll do it in a minute! How do I manage it now? I leave my tablets in my room and kitchen, if there staring at me, I can’t avoid them!

When living with chronic illness, it not only can take a toll on your physical health but also your mental health. My mental health impacts on my ability to participate in my exercise plans and my dietary programs. If I am feeling pessimistic (which we are all entitled to at times) or having a bad day, I am less likely to want to go to the gym or look after myself as well or cook my dinner.

Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, nobody in the world is 100% positive all day everyday, but for the most part, I think it is important to have a Positive Mental Attitude (PMA). Even on my bad days, I always try and find a positive. For this reason, I usually have flowers around the house – if I can’t think of anything else nice about my day or if I’m feeling low, I can always look at flowers to give me a “pick me up.”  Negative thoughts cannot change what has happened or the current situation you may be in or what your future may hold. But, what can change it? Trying.

Trying everything, and anything thrown your way.

I moved/travelled to New Zealand, started promotional modeling, made a great group of friends, went on adventures, hiked 4 hours in a bush, appeared on TV (albeit an extra!), my health was the best it had ever been! I’ve recently started a forum along with some Chronic Illness friends and we will be uploading beginners home workouts and basic physio (all are qualified, I will just be performing the routines).

But one day I woke up unable to move and spent the next 2-3 weeks in and out of hospital and have since, pack up my room and sold my furniture in New Zealand and returned to Essex to give my best chance of recover and further testing on what we believe may be neurological.

One thing that I’ve always found incredibly hard – and still do – is I look totally “normal”. I don’t have a cast on my leg or have visible scars so I often hear the phrase “but you don’t look sick”. I’m quite open about my health and try and raise as much awareness as possible, by posting “normal” pictures and trying to change the way illnesses are perceived – just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there!

Am I nervous, anxious and scared? Of course! But I’ll keep trying and determined to keep going, if I’ve learnt anything its that were a lot stronger than we realize and give ourselves credit for.

That is why I’m so appreciative of being asked by InvisiYouth to be a part of their Charity Team for this past Superhero Series Triathlon for disability adaptive sports.  And while I couldn’t compete that day, I am thrilled to be part of the new InvisiYouth Charity Team for the upcoming Superhero Series Event this December, Superhero Winter Games. The work they do is very close to my heart and something I’m so passionate about – I wish I would have had this connection to the community in my teens – before the days of social media!! I cannot wait to support InvisiYouth in the Superhero Winter Games run and hopefully raise a bit of awareness too!

Spotlight Story Program: Shira’s Story

Meet Shira Strongin

There is no joke around the statement that 18 year old Shira Strongin is an OG Sick Chick…in fact, she took her personal experiences growing up with chronic illnesses and built an entire international community surrounding the exact name, The Sick Chicks, all about empowering young women living with illness and disability.  When she’s not motivating others, Shira is motivating those law makers on Capital Hill in Washington DC, fighting hard to make changes that will positively impact the lives of so many youth with chronic illness in the USA.  And now she’ll be going to university in the country’s capital, so female illness empowerment is about to get a lot louder!  

“There’s no treatment. I’m sorry.”

Words no one wants to hear, but especially no child or teenager. But it’s the reality of living with many complex, life-threatening diseases. Growing up I knew I was sick, there was something off that doctors continued to miss, but it wasn’t until a spine injury that was a trigger event, that we realized how sick I was. It turns out I have a vascular subtype of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and other rare comorbidities.

Instead of being in school or doing “typical teenage things” I’ve spent my adolescence in and out of the hospital fighting for my life. I soon realized how absolutely uncontrollable my health was, and decided to turn to advocacy as a way to take back control. I might not be able to change my immediate situation, but I sure as hell would make sure I impacted others’ situations and impacted future health care.

(*InvisiYouth Editing Note: This post was written in August while the fight for Cures Now was happening, a piece of legislation that has now been passed. And yet even currently so much is currently being discussed about healthcare in the United States, so keep on reading why Shira knows healthcare advocacy needs a youth voice!*)

Currently there is important legislation that is a revolution in healthcare that could completely change how complex, rare, and life threatening diseases are treated.

Instead of having to hear the phrase, “There’s no treatment. I’m sorry.” We could have access to previously off-label medication.

There will be research being done.

There is hope for us all, and because this is our future, we must take a stand.

“Congress is working together on a nonpartisan issue that will have a profound effect on the lives of all Americans. H.R. 6, the 21st Century Cures Act, will bring our health care innovation infrastructure into the 21st Century, delivering hope for patients and loved ones and providing necessary resources to researchers to continue their efforts to uncover the next generation of cures and treatments.” – Mission Statement, House Committee of Energy Commerce, 21st Century Cures

Is it just me or do you get chills reading that paragraph?

Finding advocacy allowed me take control of an uncontrollable situation (my health.) Now, one of the pieces of legislation I’m most passionate about and have fought the hardest for is facing it’s day in the Senate.

~ What do we want? Cures! When do we want them? Right. Freaking. Now. ~

We are in crunch time. 21st Century Cures has passed the House, and is now finally going to the Senate after being delayed quite a few times. August is our final time to push for this important piece of legislation. You might be asking things like, “Well, I’m not sick, so why does this affect me?” or, “I don’t have a rare disease, so why do I care?” I’m here to answer those questions.

Health legislation affects everyone. Yes, you might not be sick. Today. But health can change in the matter of seconds, and (God forbid) it ever happens to you, you’ll be hoping that 21st Century Cures in action to produce treatments and cures. Cures are for everyone NOT just rare disease patients. This affects cancer patients, this even affects the hot topic zika virus. But, OPEN Act (something I’m incredibly passionate about that gives bio pharmaceutical companies incentive to make off label medication on label for rare diseases that otherwise wouldn’t have treatments) is only for rare disease patients.

So then comes the question again, “Why should I care?” Because, 1 in 10 people have a rare disease. By that statistic everyone knows someone with a rare disease. So, get involved and care for your bother, your mom, your niece – whoever it may be because without these vital pieces of legislation they might me in the same situation as me…stuck living on borrowed time and who knows how long that lasts for?

For more information about Sick Chicks, the international community all about empowering young women with all types of chronic illnesses, visit their website, or go to their social media pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

 

Spotlight Story Program: Katy’s Story

Meet Katy Baker

Since before she can remember, Katy has been part of the healthcare system dealing with a congenital heart defect called Scimitar Syndrome. But what has defined her medical life has not defined Katy’s personal life.  She’s a university student, on a competitive trampoline team, and rare disease activist that’s using her voice to make a positive difference.

At 3 months old, I was diagnosed with Scimitar Syndrome, a congenital heart defect which also means I only have one functioning lung.

Since then, I have had lots of tests, consultations and been under the care of different hospitals all which I continue to go all through this today.

As I became a young adult in the hospital system, I have now moved to a different hospital, had a new consultant and had more emergency hospital visits which meant needing more tests and observations.

I first moved to a different hospital when I transitioned from pediatric to adult hospital services. I had to get used to knowing my way round a new hospital, the new tests I had to do and get to know my new doctors. And my health still correlated with my life as a young person. 

When I moved to University, this meant signing up to a new general physician surgery where they did not know what my condition was, and even experience going to the emergency room in a hospital I did not know.

From my perspective, being a child or teen in pediatric medical care means that you normally have the same hospital consultant over the period of about 16 or 17 years, or whenever you transition to adult services.

In pediatrics, you are used to the same environment and over time you feel settled, not because you’re in a hospital but because it’s somewhere you’ve got to know and somewhere you know you’re going to be cared for. Being a teen in pediatric medical care is unique because you still have the support from your family and there is no pressure when it comes to whether they are there for your appointments or not. Teenagers who are chronically ill often have to grow up more quickly to understand everything that is going on but they are still children and still need support from others.

Being a teen patient to me is different than being a child patient or an adult patient because as a teenager, you are exposed to a lot more in your life but at the same time, you are going through some other transitions which teenagers can often find difficult.

However, when you’re a child, you are often more dependent on your family and they might not be aware what is going on which in a way is an advantage because as a teenager, you often have more awareness of what you are going through and your illness which can be really difficult not only for your physical but also mental health.

Having to be in hospital as a teenager can be really difficult because of everything else you are going through at the same time in your life outside of your health. But I think that one of the most important things to do is ask for support when you need. Whether the support is a family member, a friend or someone else, having support while in hospital or with a chronic illness can often be useful.

I think teenagers in hospital would benefit from introductions and more information earlier about the transition process into adult health services. Young people often move to adult services when they are from between 14-18 years old and so new environments can seem quite overwhelming. Therefore, introductions and information about the adult services should be in place.

Dealing with my health has been really challenging, however there have also been some benefits because it has shaped me in to who I am today. I created a film last year with a charity about how my condition does not stop me from being part of my University’s trampolining team. Since then, I was in two newspapers, on a local radio station and now being given lots of opportunities to spread my story. I was even invited to speak at a Rare Disease Day event this year, which was such a great experience.

I am also really excited to participate in the Superhero Series disability adaptive sport event this August in England as part of InvisiYouth’s Charity Friends team to show that people with disabilities or illnesses can still achieve like everyone else.

Dealing with my health has taught me to not take life for granted and to take every opportunity that comes my way. 

In the future, I want to complete my Childhood and Youth degree, do a master’s degree and have a career working with children and young people in a hospital.

For me, it’s as if my life will be going full circle from my personal experiences and professional future.

Spotlight Story Program: Brittany’s Story

Meet Brittany Foster

Her heart may have given Brittany Foster lots of medical struggles throughout her life, but she has one of the kindest and passionate hearts out there. Brittany has used her experiences through pediatrics into adult healthcare to give back, to inspire others to take control of their health journey and become their own medical advocates.

From birth to 24 years old I have been diagnosed with quite a few conditions. Some chronic, others have been able to be “fixed” or “treated” with surgery.

At birth I was born a “blue baby” and would later be diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, right aortic arch, and a large VSD. These conditions have later led to having a thoracic bypass surgery due to anomalies related to the right aortic arch, atrial tachycardia, congenital sinus node disease, sinus pauses, bifascicular bundle branch blocks, and a permanent pacemaker implant.

My other conditions I faced as a child were a surgical repair for currarino triad syndrome which is a sacral teratoma. Throughout my teen and early adulthood, this has left me with chronic bladder control problems, and chronic lower back pain. An intestinal surgery I had for a blockage as a newborn later affected my late teen years due to scarring of the fallopian tubes. This led me to have both fallopian tubes removed at 18 years old as well as one of my ovaries removed at 21 due to endometriosis and large cysts.

Continue reading Spotlight Story Program: Brittany’s Story