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.

And the Total is in! InvisiYouth’s Charity Teams for England’s Superhero Disability Triathlon Raised a Total of…

By Dominique Viel

September 8, 2017

After months of fundraising, campaigning with family and friends and online through our GoFundMe Page, InvisiYouth’s Charity Teams that participated in England’s first inclusive disability adaptive triathlon have ended their fundraisers.

We received donations online and donations in the mail and on our website’s donate page too! We are happy to announce that our Charity Teams fundraised a grand total of $1,000!

All these funds are going directly into building InvisiYouth’s new illness management tools and programs that will give back to so many teens and young adults with chronic illnesses.

These tools and programs will be unique, showing a wide older youth illness and disability community all the life hacks and tips to navigate life while living with illness, or as we call it, the non-medical side to medial experiences. 100% these donations are going to help build them!

Each of our teams competed in three sports at the Olympic Dorney Lake in Windsor, England: swimming, running and cycling.  Different teams of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses came out from across the country, along with their supporters of friends and family (and sometimes dogs too), all who worked together to complete these events.

InvisiYouth Charity loves supporting disability sports and the way adaptive athletics can play such a critical role in the life of a teen and young adult living with chronic illness and disability.

It is a way to get them back into a routine, physical therapy, and teamwork mentality. It is a powerful force that needs more attention and support group to it!

Our teams consisted of lifelong friends, and competitive athletes in university, supporting their friend with a rare disease. Another team was filled with family members and siblings.

And we even had a married couple that are passionate physiotherapists and exercise therapists who want to work with InvisiYouth to train and bring adaptive sports to more older youth across England.

One InvisiYouth Team member, 21-year-old university student Katy Baker, felt the benefits of being part of Superhero Series Triathlon.

“[The Superhero Tri] proved that people like me, with chronic illness, can take part in sports with their family and friends,” said Baker. 

Watching our teams cross the finish line at the Superhero Triathlon was unlike anything we could have experienced. So much joy and excitement from accomplishing their goal, and watching all the other youth, families, friends and supporters crossing the finish line and earning their medal.

It is clear to say that anyone can get so motivated watching such a strong group of people competing in all types of sport!

Now…InvisiYouth Charity is happy to announce that we will also be part of the next Superhero Series event, the Winter WonderWheels on December 3rd at Dorney Lake once again!  This will be a massively festive disability adaptive sporting event where anyone can cycle, walk, run, push/be pushed around Dorney Lake for different distance challenges: 1km, 5km or 10km!

AND WE NEED YOU TO JOIN OUR TEAMS!

We want to have a full set of teams so if you want to compete with friends and family FOR FREE, contact us, and we will sign you up for a fun and festive event to end 2017! 

All of Those Exhilarating Peaks and Mega Excitements of My England Travels for InvisiYouth Charity

August 31st 2017

I recently took a trip to England all in the name of expanding InvisiYouth’s new programs and meeting with some of the amazing InvisiYouth supporters we’ve come to love and support over the years and charities we’ve admired for a while.  We have heard from some many of you that you wanted to hear all about my trip, and how I was able to handle all of that travel.  Now…I cannot give too many specifics about our new programs because we’re in development (and really, what would the surprise be if we told you everything before our prelaunch)!  But I can certainly share all the behind the scenes of my England trip and travel.

There are two big reasons why I wanted to make sure InvisiYouth made its way across the pond to England as our first major international InvisiYouth trip. One was the fact that England has been the first and most overwhelmingly supportive community since the day we launched.  The first teens and older youth with chronic illness and disability to follow InvisiYouth were all British.  And the first charities to reach across and want to lend support to InvisiYouth’s mission were from the United Kingdom.

That support network has continued to grow during our two years. We’ve even had an InvisiEvent in London last autumn, proving that InvisiYouth reaching beyond geographic, we are designed for older youth and can reach them anywhere!

The second reason to go to England was due to our Charity Friend role in the first Superhero Series Triathlon.  This was England’s very first adaptive disability triathlon, where people of all ages, disabilities and illnesses could compete in swimming, running and cycling with as much support and adaptive equipment as needed.

With the backdrop of the 2012 Olympics venue of Dorney Lake, the event was going to be unlike anything experienced before.  And with InvisiYouth having a group of teams all competing on behalf of InvisiYouth to fundraise for us, we had to make sure that we were there supporting them on their amazing job well done.

I have to say, what made the experience of bringing InvisiYouth even further into the UK even more special was that I was able to bring my entire family over with me, and getting some awesome memories of family time included in the work trip.  When life gets so chaotic and crazy, which can easily happen owning a charity and almost 25 years old, it is special to make memories with your family.

These are the people that have been my support system throughout my entire life, and even more than most families because they have become my rock throughout my health struggles.  Going through a chronic illness, growing up and finding myself as an adult with health struggles, is more complicated and challenging than any amount of words can describe.  But it has been my family that has help pull me through all the complexly stressful hardships that having RSD and EDS can really bring into your life.  I am thankful for them beyond belief, for their love and devotion, and their support of InvisiYouth Charity and our mission!

The England experience was an amazing opportunity to meet with individuals and charities who are going to be part of this new, evolving chapter of InvisiYouth Charity as it expands its advocacy education with our new tools and programs.  These illness lifestyle management tools are going to be the backbone of InvisiYouth where our events and speaking engagements will feed off as we continue to grow in the years to come.

I have always said that InvisiYouth’s focus is the age demographic in the illness/disability community, not the specific illness or disability, and we focus on the nonmedical side of the medical experience.  There are so many facets of life outside of illness when you live with one, so InvisiYouth cannot be more excited to provide support to help these young people live life and navigate life with illness so it can be fun, empowered and fulfilled in all its unique, adapted ways.

It is important for InvisiYouth to have more than just supporters in the UK, we need to have partners and lead volunteers in these other regions in order to engrain and expand the InvisiYouth tools and mission.  So it is completely obvious that these British older youth and charities will become part of our expansion and part of the InvisiYouth family. I am literally ripping at the seams wanting to share with you how fantastic each of these meetings were, how amazing these people are, and how completely overwhelmed with joy the InvisiYouth team is to know these organizations are going to be part of something we’re creating.

It is a massive THANK YOU to the always dedicated nonprofits like Once Upon a Smile, English Federation of Disability Sports, The Mix UK and CP Teens UK.

It is a gigantic THANK YOU to the empowering and fearless leaders like Sarah Alexander, Chloe Tears, Catrin Pugh and Emma Franklin.

There were even so many other British older youth and charities that we didn’t get to meet in person but we are going to be connecting with through the powers of technology and Skype now that we are back in the states.

Now, coming off such a successful meaningful and fun trip, we gotta break down the peaks and pitfalls of travel with a chronic illness like RSD.  I always joke that the pain and symptom peaks feel worth it when the experience is so worthwhile, and going over to England and creating these connections to expand InvisiYouth’s work even deeper into this nation was worthwhile.

Sitting on planes for almost nine hours straight doesn’t work well with RSD, so you must accommodate to your medical needs.  Getting medical documentation from doctors about being about to move around plane, to have people required to sit near you to help if side effects arise, all important to have.  And if you’re like me, and you are partially bionic like I am with rods and screws in my spine, then it’s always a good idea to have a medical letter notifying your metal (titanium or not) because it’s best to be safe when you’re going through airport security.

Make sure you have your own checklist for your medical needs (like medications, adaptive equipment, and what I call ‘checkup tools’).  I always like to make sure that my staple backups of support like Tylenol, KT Tape, bandage wraps, mini heat packs, resistance bands, and much more.  And you gotta make sure your wardrobe can match too.  Bringing additional layers when I deal with my limbs going too cold, shoes that can adapt to swelling easily, and dresses with slits so I could easily bring respite to my knee.  All these fashion tips made my travel easier.

But a major savior for me was timing.  I had to make sure my schedule was planned with work, with touristy stuff, as well as my medical rest time.  I had to make sure that when I was travelling, whether on a train, a cab, an Uber ride, or even a plane, that I was using my off-time wisely to recuperate from my symptoms to make it through each day.  And when I had resting time at the end of the day, it was all about heating, massages and elevation.  When you put time into your travels to focus on your health, it actually becomes a true travelling vacation and fun experience.

Yeah, when I got back to the states I had to put in some additional PT sessions, resting time and acupuncture, but with some focus on how to combat travel with a chronic illness, you can get through anything and ease what can be a setback on the return home.

Truth be told, I think England is now going to be a staple trip for Team InvisiYouth each and every year!  And while we’ll be having a team of supporters in the country year-round hosting and supporting all things InvisiYouth, I’ll be making sure that the UK is a top priority visit for us as we grow.  Not only did I love the people, culture, architecture, and cities, but I loved how warmly InvisiYouth’s mission and belief system was received and that deserves lots and lots of more England trips to come!

So…where will I be heading next for some InvisiYouth fun and work?  You’ll have to check out the InvisiYouth website for next month because we’re crossing country borders yet again!

~Dominique

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: 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.