Catherine Bland was hospitalised 13 times in one year – just because she kept being sick. It had been happening since she was 15 months old, and still happens now she is 20 years old. She has a little known condition called cyclical vomiting syndrome (CVS): prolonged attacks of nausea and vomiting up to four times an hour with no apparent cause. Between attacks people are perfectly healthy, but when they are vomiting, they can become dehydrated and develop chemical imbalances.
Catherine’s mother, Veronica, a district nurse in Shropshire, battled for years as doctors admitted her daughter to hospital and carried out tests which failed to show anything wrong. She felt she was labelled as over-protective of Catherine because 12 years earlier she had lost a daughter, Lynda, also at 15 months, to septicaemia.
When Catherine was ill, Mrs Bland says: ” I was careful I didn’t leave her on her own too long. She would just lie on the sofa, listless, but not unconscious. By lunchtime, just as I was thinking of calling the doctor, she would get up and ask for something to eat”.
Catherine realised the problem when she was about five. ” I was being sick for about a week and then going into hospital,” she says. “But other kids were sick and recovered straight away”.
As time went on Mrs Bland was less anxious about the episodes, knowing that Catherine would “come to” after a few hours. But then they became longer – Catherine would vomit almost constantly for two or three days. “We would get the doctor in and he would send her to hospital, but perhaps she wouldn’t be sick again and we would look a bit silly”, she recalls. “She had every test she could have, then they would send her home with a diet sheet”.
The episodes became more regular and lasted longer as Catherine got older. They peaked at around the age of eight, when she was in hospital 13 times in one year; episodes lasted as long as five days.
“At one point I was bringing her home on Wednesday and she would be back in the following Saturday”.
When Catherine was 13 a nurse suggested that they contact the CVS Association. They were put in touch with other families in the same position, and through the group found David Fleisher, a US doctor specialising in CVS. He told them about Zofran, an anti-emetic drug that stops nausea and vomiting and is used with patients undergoing chemotherapy.
Mrs Bland says: “The group has helped a lot. I have become great friends with some of the other mothers and we all support each other. We used to think we were the only people coping with this illness. We were lucky that our consultant was very supportive, and during the next attack he willingly followed the treatment regime. It was amazing – the vomiting stopped within hours of the drug being given”.
As a district nurse, Mrs Bland had the skills to administer the drug herself. After the GP okayed it, she gave Catherine Zofran as an intra-muscular injection, which reduced the length of the attacks, now happening just once or twice a year. But she says: “If we had to go to another hospital when we were away, I didn’t tell them I was a nurse. Doctors and nurses are very wary if they know a patient or a relative is in the profession, and in those situations you want to be treated as a patient”.
Mrs Bland, who had four other children to care for, used to devote much of her time to Catherine. ” It had a really devastating effect on the rest of the family”, she says. “The other children were concerned about their sister, but I was spending most of my time at the hospital”.
As an adult, Catherine works in the catering department at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital – the same hospital where she is treated for her increasingly rare attacks.