Tuesday, October 31, 2017

'Trust your instincts. That's what I tell parents'

By Louise Kinross

Fahima Afroze is a biomedical engineer with three daughters. Myreen, 11, has autism and Zafreen, 8, has cerebral palsy.

When Farzeen, now 4, was hospitalized at six months old, Fahima knew her way around the health system.

“They thought Farzeen had a bone infection, but she kept getting other infections,” Fahima recalls. “She caught hand, foot and mouth disease, and had yeast infections in her tongue. They brushed it off and said ‘she’s a kid,’ but my other kids weren’t that susceptible. I kept asking if we could call someone to look at her immune system, and they looked at me like I was the ‘crazy mom.’ One day a doctor left her medical record in the room by mistake, and I read it. I saw her neutrophils dipping to a dangerous level. Neutrophils are a component of the white blood cells. Without them, you have a suppressed immune system. When I showed the doctor, his eyes widened and he paged hematology and the cancer clinic. They gave us the diagnosis of Neutropenia, which is the body’s inability to make neutrophils. I knew something was wrong with her immune system! I had a maternal instinct about my child, and I was collaborating. But they were renowned specialists thinking ‘she can’t teach us our job.’ Trust your instincts. That's what I tell parents.”

With three daughters and three diagnoses, Fahima juggles over 300 medical appointments each year. “If they had the same thing, I could take them to the same appointments,” she says, but each child sees different specialists. Because she can never be certain about the length of visits, “I often have to drag the other two with us. Your sense of normalcy changes when you have a child with special needs. Our new normal is spending the whole day at hospital, or the whole day getting a leg casted.”

When she's not ferrying her children to doctors and therapists, Fahima is advocating for their inclusion.

One of her greatest frustrations is disability stigma. “It’s how people treat your special-needs child,” she says.

After her daughter Myreen spent a few years in a contained ‘community classroom,’ Fahima fought to have her educated in a regular class. “It’s the mindset at the school board that children who are differently abled don’t flourish in the regular class, and have to be segregated. They are very proud of their community classrooms.

“My whole philosophy is that there are no community classrooms in life. There is no community classroom in the workplace, in a place of worship or at an amusement park. We are expected to thrive in regular society. The school board is giving these students the mindset that they don’t deserve to be with socially ‘normal’ people. How do you impart social skills when you segregate students from society? Their peers are their best mentors.”

In the community class, Fahima says Myreen didn’t learn the regular curriculum. “They teach life skills, and it’s up to the teacher how she wants to teach life skills. My child was taught that the stop sign is an octagon for three years. Here’s a child who’s so bright, she knows all the polygons in the world.

“The community classrooms assume the students aren’t going anywhere. So while other students graduate with a diploma, they will graduate with a certificate. We’re closing doors on them before they’ve even tried life.”

All three girls are now in regular classrooms. “My kids have learned to manage in life,” Fahima says, yet they're socially isolated.

When Myreen joined a regular class, she “did well, getting lots of As and Bs. But she didn’t know how to handle the bullying,” Fahima says. “The other students put her up to do things, and she got in trouble. I proposed a buddy system, where an older student would support and mentor a younger student, and could be vigilant to prevent bullying. But the school didn’t do it. That would be going the extra mile.”

Fahima’s second daughter, Zafreen, is in Grade 3 on the ground floor of the same school. She wears leg and hand braces. Fahima is concerned about next year, when the Grade 4 classes move upstairs. She hopes the school will let Zafreen use the elevator. “Every time I ask for the littlest things, it’s like I asked for a kidney or money out of their own pockets, and the push back is crazy. I’m labeled as ‘that mom.’”

Fahima says it’s draining to advocate constantly. “How much can you preach and teach people along the way? I feel I’m doing this over and over again. Every year, I have to battle with a new set of teachers and reinvent the wheel.”

Because her children fall in a grey area, “they aren’t good enough for inclusion, but they’re too good for services,” she says.

Fahima pays for most of her girls’ therapy privately. “I have a new way of counting money,
” she says. I call it ‘therapy hours.’ If I see a $600 coat, I know that’s more than five hours of therapy, so I’m not buying that coat.”

Outside of school, her children tend to participate in adapted or special programs. “Even with camps, you have to choose the special-needs camps, because they will have the accommodations,” she says. “I can’t believe this is 2017 and I’m fighting for inclusion.”

Fahima recalls meeting a social worker who asked how she was coping with three children with chronic conditions. The social worker noted the increased risk of depression in parents who have only one child with disabilities. “I showed her my schedule of 300 plus appointments a year, and I told her I volunteer at places like Holland Bloorview. ‘I don’t have time to get depressed,’ I said.” Fahima laughs. “I guess I could pencil depression in on Tuesday, from 12 to 2.”

“I would be lying if I said it was easy. The hard work, the blood, the tears are too real. But, once you go past the grieving point, you have to hope for the better. You have to make the best of what’s handed to you.”

Volunteering keeps Fahima motivated and energized, she says. She co-founded the York Parent to Parent Support group, which helps parents advocate for their children at school and in the community. She also sits on Holland Bloorview’s Research Family Engagement Committee. “It’s a way for me to give back and a way for me to connect with people,” she says. “It’s not only my children whose social lives have suffered. When I’m volunteering, I don’t feel alone. I see other people in similar or even worse pain, and it’s a humbling experience. I get a reality check. I also like to share knowledge so that someone can learn from the lessons of my life. I hope that someone else may be able to bypass some of what I’ve experienced. And I feel supported when I hear other people’s stories. It’s not just me.”

Fahima recently spoke at a golf tournament by the Ontario Glass and Metal Association, which was dedicated to Holland Bloorview’s Family Support Fund. After talking about how her family has benefited from the fund, which supports equipment, recreation and respite, a participant offered to match the $3,000 that had already been raised. Most recently, she shared her story with Holland Bloorview research students.

Fahima became a family leader at Holland Bloorview even though her daughters are not clients. “We fall out of the catchment area because we live in Markham,” she says. “I’m allergic to the words ‘catchment area’ and ‘mandate.’ Every rejection letter I get has these words in it. We have nothing that compares to Holland Bloorview or SickKids where we are. Diseases don’t come by catchment area. It’s unbelievable that there would be such a difference in services just 40 miles from Toronto. I intend to speak to the CEO at Holland Bloorview about it, if I can.”

Fahima grew up in Iraq and Kuwait, and her family were refugees during the Gulf War. “When you’re a refugee, you’re not even treated as a human being,” she says. “You’re treated with no respect. You’re at the mercy of other people.” Eventually, the family was able to get a “flight from Jordan back home to Bangladesh.”

Fahima was studying engineering in Utah at the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “I volunteered to speak about what it means to be Muslim, and that terrorism is not a religion,” she says. “No religion preaches to harm humanity. Instead, they preach unity, brotherhood and love for mankind. I wrote a paper called The Gulf War: Facts vs. Fiction and I got an A for it.”

Fahima came to Toronto 11 years ago. She is a Canadian citizen. Her oldest daughter Myreen hopes to be a surgeon and a pianist. She already has perfect pitch, her mom says. Zafreen wants to be a teacher. And Farzeen has her sights set on being a dancer. 
“We have the same dreams as any parent does,” Fahima says.

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