When we made the horrible decision to withdraw Pudding from the clinical trial he was on I felt relief in a way because I would finally be able to write a long ranting post about the things that had gone wrong for us. A post that I didn’t dare write before.
But… four months on and I’ve still not written it. Why not? Well, ranty posts really aren’t me. There are definitely aspects that I would love to have been different: if decisions had gone another way then I think my boy could have had a real chance at this treatment working for him. But the treatment IS working for other boys and righteous anger isn’t going to help anyone, least of all Pudding. So instead, here’s my honest view of what life is like inside a clinical trial.
Whilst I knew a fair amount about research and trial design from my chiropractic degree, life as a participant (or in my case parent of a participant) is quite different from the theoretical facts.
Travel. This is the first aspect of trial life that made my heart sink and it continued to be one of the most difficult. Of course the ideal would be a trial centre close to home but in the world of rare disease research that is always going to be unlikely. We had a journey to Manchester every four weeks, and other families I know travel further, every week. Although travel costs are covered or transport tickets provided, that doesn’t take away all the stress. We had the choice of me driving (and god, how I hate the M62) often making a 12 hour day, or braving the disapproving stares of train commuters while Pudding kicked out or threw his tablet at them. Never quite worked out which was worst.
Numbers. A clinical trial is all about numbers. Trials for common diseases often have hundreds or even thousands of potential participants, but with rare disease the numbers are much much smaller. Those developing a treatment need to be able to prove it works and, particularly when dealing with such a limited group of participants they do that by removing as many varying factors as they can. Data is anonymised, you are given a number. Everything is measured, quantified, recorded on scales. In some cases, parents believe that they can see a difference in their child’s progress and well-being but if the numbers don’t agree, the treatment won’t get approved, the pharma company won’t make money. Bang, trial closed. This is a hard lesson to learn, but I think is a very important one for any parent thinking of entering a trial – to a big pharma company you will always be just a number.
Guilt. I’ve often mentioned that as a mother I think I’m hard-wired to feel guilt. That’s upped as a parent of a disabled child. And once on a clinical trial – let’s just say stratospheric. Pinning your child down for a procedure that he doesn’t want and doesn’t understand is heart-breakingly awful. But it is ten times worse when you know it is something that you have chosen to put him through. You can argue to yourself that you have chosen this for all the right reasons and that it has the chance to save his life, but at the time it makes not one bit of difference. In that moment, you just want to pick him up and get the hell out of there. But you don’t…and you continue feeling guilty.
The left behind. While we’re on the subject of guilt, this is a big one. As I mentioned above, a trial needs to ensure it’s looking at as a similar a group of participants as possible. And that means inclusion/exclusion criteria. For the IT trial we were on they were certain health requirements and being within a certain range of intelligence (55-85% of ‘normal’). I know a number of families whose children weren’t eligible for the trial or were diagnosed after the numbers were filled up. Pudding himself only got in with one mark to spare. Any time I complained about the difficulties of trial life I would feel so much guilt because I knew that we were the lucky ones, the ones who had the chance that any parent would give the world for. At least that’s one thing that I no longer have to feel guilty for now that we’ve joined the world of the left behind. But I also don’t feel envy for those who continue to see progress on the trial or who will hopefully benefit in the future, just sadness that it will be a long time yet before this condition will no longer be described as life-limiting.
Families. Although it often means leaving your own family back at home, one incredible benefit of trial life is spending time with others. Living with a rare disease is pretty isolating. Gradually you do make friends with others in a similar situation locally, but there is nothing quite like being with those who completely get what you are going through with no need for explanations. People who understand all the ups and downs of the trial. The staff too can begin to feel like family – we saw the same nurses every month for almost four years and it was so hard to say goodbye.
Hope. This is what it’s all about really. With any trial treatment you choose to get involved presumably because of the hope that it will make things better. After diagnosis of a life-limiting condition then this hope becomes more important than ever. Particularly in those first few months after we heard of MPS, life was pretty bleak, and without hope – hope that he would get on the trial, hope that it would help – I’m not sure I could have got through it. The negative thoughts and beliefs never disappeared, but that’s ok. Hope balanced with caution is the approach that made the most sense for me.
Reality checks. One thing I never expected was how I would feel during the regular psychology questionnaires. These are designed to assess everyday skills as reported by parents so has reams of questions about reading, writing, toileting, social interactions and so on. Even before Pudding started losing skills (meaning that I was answering no more and more) this relentless barrage of things he couldn’t do was something I came to dread. I’ve come to realise, as many SEND parents do, that celebrating small achievements and not focusing on the negatives is pretty much the best way to stay sane. So this was a reality check that I really did not need.
Juggling. Planning ahead, notifying school and taxi, fitting in other appointments while we were there, making sure someone would be able to pick T up… Not too hard, seeing as I don’t work and have reliable friends and family around. But still extra stuff that needs to be kept on top of.
Looking back over all of this, it does seem to paint a fairly negative picture. So if we had our time over again, would I still choose to go down this same route?
Absolutely, I would. No question.
We always knew that one of the reasons we got involved was not just for our own possible gains, but for the greater good. Without research and clinical trial particpants, no new treatments can ever be developed. I do, of course, worry that Pudding’s experience will make those all-important numbers look a bit worse, but we can’t change that.
And I know that in the future I will be able to look back and say ‘We tried.’