When our daughter Elisa was a toddler, she started to walk with a terrible limp. We were initially just fobbed off with “That’s how toddlers walk”. Later, however, we insisted on getting X-rays and - to our distress - she was diagnosed with DDH (Developmental Dysplasia of the Hip). This meant that her hip socket was the wrong shape and too shallow, and that her thigh bone was totally dislocated from it.
We were referred to an orthopedic specialist in the children’s hospital and went through a series of operations which totally failed to solve the problem. (For other parents of children with DDH, I have given a more detailed account of the different medical procedures Elisa went through here.)
We were left with the horrible feeling that the right choice of treatment might bring normality and health to our child, while the wrong one might damage her even further. And Elisa was walking again but heavily limping between treatments. This was easily the worst period of my life. We felt so fragile and powerless, bursting into tears at work and despairing about what to do.
Eventually, we decided to go with the most experienced surgeon at Great Ormond Street Hospital, who recommended a form of surgery which eventually proved successful. In the meantime, however, Elisa was put in a cast from her ankle all the way to her armpit. She was very heavy but had to be carried everywhere. Keeping her busy was tricky, so we bought a huge beanbag to prop her up into a more or less sitting position. We also found a wide table and tried to keep her amused with stories, colouring books and jigsaw puzzles. On top of this, my wife was heavily pregnant and had a very aggressive allergic rash. All of this was in the middle of the summer in our one-bedroom flat. Needless to say, it was a most difficult and stressful time.
As parents of a sick child, you don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself. You just focus on the problem at hand and make the situation as comfortable as possible for your child. If you had a magic wand, you would instantly take upon yourself their sickness and pain. But you can’t.
Yet even in these times of darkness and despair, there are always moments of joy and hope. Our determined daughter was always so positive and refused to let a full body cast hold her back. She somehow learned to crawl around the room, using her arms and foot to push herself around.
It was then that we made up the story of a bouncy little squirrel who has an accident and loses its tail. The bright woolly new tail at the end of the story was partly inspired by the brightly coloured casts. But it also represents our hope that, even if our daughter has a weaker leg and a “dodgy hip”, it will never hold her back in life.
So that’s our story. You can see a much shorter version in this video.
We now live in a house with a garden and have a third child, who loves The Squirrel’s Tail. Elisa has a healthy-looking hip and plays basketball but still has to do physio exercises to stay strong. But we’re doing fine. So while the story was originally for Elisa, I hope that The Squirrel’s Tail book can give other families a moment of joy in their struggles and help parents talk about these difficult issues with their children.