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How Jean felt like she’d been plugged into the National Grid

For years Jean Foster suffered ill health but had no idea why.

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looks good enough to eat: Jean Foster and Harry Douglas-Brown show off some of the gluten free baking made by Jean

From severe anaemia and scarlet fever to tuberculosis and recurrent miscarriages, the 63-year-old went through it all.

For decades, doctors could not work out what was wrong with her.

It was only 14 years ago, when she suffered severe weight loss, that she reached a turning point.

She had no energy and even the simplest of tasks was a battle.

Then a blood test revealed that she had coeliac disease.

Jean, of North Street, Maryport, recalls: “I said ‘what’s that?’. The doctor said, ‘I’ve got no idea; we’ll learn about it together’.”

She soon found out that the condition meant that gluten, found in wheat, barley and rye, triggered an immune reaction in her body, damaging the lining of the small intestine and causing other health problems.

Problems she had experienced in the past, from regular mouth ulcers and cold sores to the loss of three babies, were linked to the illness.

Initially she stopped eating, unsure about what was safe, but then she joined the support organisation Coeliac UK and received guidance on how to cut out gluten while maintaining a balanced diet.

Jean says: “Within weeks I felt a whole lot better.

“I felt like I’d been plugged into the National Grid. I never go to my doctor now.”

Her story mirrors that of 11-year-old Harry Douglas-Brown from Workington.

Aged eight, Harry, of Stainburn Road, had several bad bouts of tonsillitis and missed a lot of school.

Then a blood test revealed it was 98 per cent certain he was coeliac.

A biopsy confirmed the diagnosis and since then he has also enjoyed good health thanks to a gluten-free diet.

Neither likes to think of their condition as a disease.

Harry’s father Gareth says: “It’s a dis-ease until it’s diagnosed but once you have got a diagnosis and you’re managing it it’s fine.”

There are two main obstacles that coeliacs face, according to Jean and Harry.

One is making sure that the food they want to eat is suitable.

Harry has his own butter at home to avoid contamination, as even a humble bread crumb can provoke stomach cramps and sickness in a sensitive coeliac.

Jean says: “In the 14 years since I’ve been diagnosed, gluten-free food has come on leaps and bounds, especially the bread.

“Some of the breads I had in the early days you’d throw out for the birds and even they wouldn’t eat it.”

Some staple foods such as bread and pasta are available on prescription as they can cost three or four times as much as wheat-based alternatives.

The other issue is the lack of awareness among many people, which can make coeliacs feel devalued and considered an inconvenience in some cafes and restaurants.

At home Gareth cooks all the family’s meals from scratch and can adapt them to meet Harry’s needs.

He makes individual gluten-free pies for Harry, for example, while his parents, twin sister Georgia and four-year-old Faith, share a pie with wheat pastry.

Eating out can be more of a challenge.

Some cafes and restaurants have little or no understanding of the condition or how big an effect it can have on sufferers if the slightest bit of gluten gets into their food. Gareth says: “Some people are very responsive and very good. Others just don’t seem to care.”

Clear ingredients listings are key to a successful gluten-free diet and Gareth says the catch-all “may contain gluten” message which appears on many products is not helpful.

Jean is group organiser for Coeliac UK’s North, East and West Cumbria support group.

As well as offering guidance to newly-diagnosed coaliacs, the group organises social gatherings and an annual food fair.

The Coeliac UK website – www.coeliac.org.uk – contains listings of places to eat out and where to buy gluten-free foods and the local group has its own section on the site.

During Coeliac Awareness Week, which runs between May 14 and May 20, group members will step up their efforts to make people aware of the condition.


THE theme of this year’s Coeliac Awareness Week is challenge and coeliacs across the country are challenging others to live with a strict gluten-free diet for a week.Support worker Jean Foster has challenged the Times & Star’s chief reporter Sarah Nicholls.Armed with a box of staple foods and booklets about the do’s and don’ts of gluten-free eating, Sarah will be reporting on her experience on her half marathon training blog at www.timesandstar.co.ukOthers taking up the challenge include Keswick chef Peter Sidwell and a group of dieticians from Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital.

Have your say

I remember a friend of mine years ago was diagnosed with the same thing. For years she had felt ill to varying degrees and it became a joke among her family, 'Oh dear, [she's] ill again', (No names obviously). When she found out what she had she said that she had gone to see her family and told them what she thought of the fact that they had never believed her, even though she felt so ill at times she could hardly function. She felt so good about herself after that it was a joy to see. Everything she had said was proved to be true.

Posted by Mary on 15 May 2012 at 02:03

Well done Jean getting the message across - and well done to Harry, for showing its children who get diagnosed too. Shows just how capable people can be with such a significant dietary change in their lives!!

Posted by Sally on 11 May 2012 at 14:23

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