Wednesday, May 2, 2018

As a child, 'my strength faded away'

By Terrence Bishundayal

At the age of six I began losing my childhood.

In 2002, my family came from Guyana to Canada. I started first grade at North Kipling Junior Middle School. Immediately after, I noticed that I had trouble climbing the stairs. I would lose my balance and fall. My teacher suggested I walk on the opposite side of the stairs, while the class walked on the right, so I could take my time.

My legs hurt when walking long distances and I would ask to be lifted. I didn’t realize it at that age, but my muscles were getting stiff. Sometimes when I was walking I would trip.

In gym class, I couldn’t keep up with the other kids doing sports. My gym teacher told my parents she thought my shoes were too big. At the time, none of us thought it was anything serious.

By the end of Grade 1, I was using the elevator.

My dad took me to the doctor and he ran tests and referred me to SickKids. I had surgery which determined that I had Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). This is the continuous weakening of all of the body’s muscles over time.

To be honest, as a kid, I didn’t really understand it.

By the spring of 2003, I was using a manual wheelchair. This confused the other students. “What’s with the chair?” they’d ask. “I’ve seen you up before.” They weren’t mean, but more curious.

The same thing happened when I was given easier things to do in gym class. If we were playing basketball, a hoop was put on the floor and if I got the ball in the hoop, that counted as a goal for my team. The students wanted to know why that just applied to me.

“I have a leg problem,” was my response. That was all I knew about DMD at the time.

In Grade 3, I was prescribed Deflazacort, which is a steroid medication taken by patients with DMD. My parents told me “If you take these pills, your muscles will be better.” I thought that meant I’d be like the other boys. But while they were getting stronger and able to do more physical activities, my strength faded away.

I was living with my cousins at the time, and one day we noticed that they were all growing taller and I wasn’t. It was the first time I noticed I was shorter than other kids. I didn’t know Deflazacort would affect my growth, and I wanted to be tall like the others. I was clearly upset about this and I became more emotional and sensitive.

The school had a large playground outside but I couldn’t play during recess. My wheelchair was hard to push over grass and a couple of times I flipped over. Many times I’d just sit by the door so when the bell rang I could get back to class quickly. In the winter, my wheelchair could get stuck in the snow or slide on ice.

In Grade 4, the teacher picked other students to help me at recess. She would assign one boy and one girl. I wanted to hang out with the guys, but often the boy assigned to me would say ‘I’m going over here to play basketball,’ or would just throw me off to the girl.

Then my homework started to pile up. My hands got sore when writing, and I couldn’t work at the same speed. I’d often do homework from 4:30 to 9:30 at night, and sometimes I still had to get up early the next morning to finish it. I didn’t know how to tell my teacher what was happening. I was the kind of student who didn’t want to show up at school with incomplete work.

Eventually I got frustrated and cried, and my mom called the teacher. After that my homework was reduced. For example, instead of 30 math questions, I’d do 15, or instead of a full page of journal writing, I’d do half a page.

Students started to tease me. I was gaining weight because I wasn’t getting as much exercise in my wheelchair. Nobody had told me anything about wheelchair sports. They called me fat and an emotional wreck.

Kids can be mean, and they didn’t understand what was happening to me. I did report it to the teacher when I thought a student was going too far, but it involved many students.

In Grade 5, the teachers began planning a three-day trip to Ottawa. I was excited to go, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to. But I had to stay home because they didn’t have knowledge about how to do my personal care, and my mom was working. I was very upset about that.

If I was talking to a younger student with DMD now, I’d say to always report teasing to your teacher, no matter how small, because it can get worse if you don’t.

When you feel down or sad, it’s best to talk it over with an older adult who you trust. It might not be your parents, because they may be working, or you may be scared to tell them. When I tried to talk to other classmates about what I was going through, they didn’t understand. Their greatest worry was what they were going to do at recess, or getting a snack.

I was a patient at Holland Bloorview, and sometimes I was invited to attend events with other kids with DMD. But I didn’t want to take part in any of that. I didn’t want to talk about the pain I was feeling, and I didn’t want to look at someone older and to think “this is what will happen to me.” It’s kind of ironic, but I was scared of people with disabilities, because everyone was able-bodied at my school. I was the only one who was different.

My elementary years weren’t all bad, but many times I didn’t feel good. It was hard to have a disability when the other 800 children didn’t. Whenever I felt angry or sad, I would try to get back to a calmer mood. I never had any counselling. No one ever told me if you feel angry, there are things you can do, like listening to music.

Growing up I thought of myself as a storyteller, whether telling real stories or fictional ones. I was very big on movies, and I wanted to learn how to review them. I’ve just finished my second year in journalism at Humber College, and I’m learning how to tell stories in many different ways.