Why I’m so proud of my brave little girl

Ellen's daughter, after her surgery

Ellen's daughter, after her surgery - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

My six-year-old daughter has spent the last few weeks recovering from surgery.

I planned to write about her operation just after it happened but it’s taken me until now to find the words.

Watching your child have any kind of invasive medical procedure is not just emotionally draining. It’s terrifying.

And I have no doubt that any parent who has had to sign a consent form to allow their child to undergo general anaesthetic will understand this.

In most cases there is an urgency or necessity for spending time in a hospital.

What made our decision to go ahead even more difficult was that in our case, there was no pressing medical need for the procedure. Our daughter was healthy, well and fit.

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Her surgery was to fix a squint – an eye condition also known as strabismus – which she developed at age two.

And like some other surgeries - to minimise the impact of a facial birthmark, correct a cleft palate or pin back protruding ears for example - it could be considered more cosmetic than life-saving.

For obvious reasons, making decisions about surgically “fixing” someone’s appearance is much more complicated than making a decision to medically manage asthma or diabetes.

But doctors are very clear that correcting facial anomalies can be immensely beneficial and we accepted that growing up with strabismus would have caused our daughter difficulties.

After all, it’s a lucky person indeed who survives their teenage years and comes out the other side completely unscathed.

Young people have a knack of pinpointing anything that’s different about their peers and teasing them mercilessly about it.

For me it was my freckles. For my husband it was orthodontic braces. My sister wore glasses. My brother was rubbish at football.

I didn’t want my daughter subjected to cruel taunts about something I had been given ample opportunity to rectify.

We knew surgery was on the cards from the moment our GP noticed that her right eye was turning slightly inward in 2009.

She was referred to highly-respected pediatric ophthalmologist Gill Adams at Moorfield’s Eye Hospital in central London for a more detailed examination which confirmed she had a form of strabismus called amblyopia, caused when the brain starts ignoring input from one eye.

When her treatment began she was all but blind in the right eye which meant it had become “lazy” and tended to drift when she was focusing on a fixed point. She also had no 3D vision which made it tricky for her to judge distance and meant she could be clumsy.

She was given her first pair of glasses – huge frames which swamped her delicate face – and had to wear a patch over her good eye for four hours every day - an attempt to spur the bad one into action.

It was difficult for her. She couldn’t see very well, she cried endlessly and to make matters worse, developed an allergy to plasters which made her face itch whenever a patch was applied.

But through sheer determination, perseverance and a pack of coverlets for sensitive skin, we managed to get her right eye to work again. By the age of five it had reached driving level standard.

Sadly however, the treatment did nothing to fix the squint.

And, having exhausted all the non-surgical options, her doctor spoke to us about an operation which involved tightening several muscles within the eye to encourage the pupil to centre itself.

No parent wants to put their child though the pain and discomfort of surgery.

My husband and I talked about it endlessly, wondering if we should wait until she was a bit older.

And eventually we sat down with one of the surgical specialists at Moorfield’s and asked hundreds of questions about the risks of surgery, the surgery itself, how it would help, and what we should expect the outcome to be.

We realised two things.

First, despite her young age, there was no advantage to waiting. In fact, the younger she was, the more flexible and adaptable her neurology.

And second, her age meant she was less aware of what the surgery entailed and therefore less anxious than an older child.

Funnily enough though, despite our worries about how we would broach the subject with her, it was our daughter who made the final decision to go-ahead.

Kids at her school – out of curiosity rather than malice - had started to make comments and ask questions about her “crossed eyes” and she came home upset one day and asked if they could be fixed.

We talked about the surgery – and promised her a pink fairy doll if she was brave – and then rang the hospital to confirm our operation date.

I have only praise for the care and attention she received at Moorfield’s, one of the world’s leading eye hospitals.

On the day of her operation we arrived at 7.30am along with four other children scheduled for surgery.

We had our own cubicle on a ward full of toys and games and incredibly patient and caring staff – doctors, nurses and play co-ordinators.

Our daughter was second on the list but as our anxiety grew with every minute, she was keen for it to get under way.

The most difficult part for me was holding her in my arms as the general anaesthetic was administered, and then walking away and leaving her on the operating table.

But an hour and a half later she was wheeled out again, wrapped in blankets with a big white bandage across her face.

Three weeks later I can already see the benefits.

Her eye is bloodshot and her cheek still tinged purple-green from the bruising, but it is clear there is an improvement in the squint.

It’s possible that she may need further surgery in the future – her eyes never learnt to work together and so the weaker one may start to drift again – but right now her confidence is sky high.

Life is full of challenges, obstacles and problems.

But this is one that my brave and beautiful little girl has overcome and I am terribly proud of her.

Please email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.