Real Life

Kristin’s itches: ‘Kids wouldn’t sit with me’

The former nurse has written a book to help children with eczema

Imagine being 11 years old and your classmates shunning you because of an incurable skin condition. Kristin Kelly doesn’t have to imagine. “I was born with severe eczema, which I’ve battled my entire life,” shares the 59-year-old.

“I’ve had some awful experiences because of it, including kids at school refusing to sit next to me because they didn’t want to catch what I had!”

Whangārei-based Kristin has poured her life’s experience into her first children’s book, Mitchell Itches: An Eczema Story, which aims to start a conversation about living with inflammatory dermatitis.

Mitchell Itches

“One in three New Zealanders suffer from eczema, including around 13-15% of school-age children, but we don’t tend to talk about it,” explains Kristin. “If you have eczema, you try to hide it and get rid of it as soon as possible because you want to fit in. I wanted to write an uplifting story for children aged four to eight about a boy who doesn’t let his eczema hold him back from facing his fears.”

Despite the bullying and discomfort, the title character Mitchell finds the resilience to make life more bearable.

“I hope this book helps others with eczema to see that they’re not alone, but also to start conversations about this chronic disease.”

Kristin, who has three adult children and two grandkids, believes her experiences, not just as an eczema sufferer but also as a nurse and teacher, give her a unique perspective of what it’s like to live with the disease.

Kristin’s experiences

“The research for this book has been a life-long endeavour,” she tells. “I’ve incorporated my personal experience, countless appointments with dermatologists, trial and error with new and old eczema therapies, and real-life and online support.”

Kristin is one of the estimated 60% of people with eczema who develop it during the first year of life. In her case, it presented as an itchy rash on her neck, face and behind her knees.

“It can move to different parts of the body as you get older and can also go into remission for a time. But there’s no cure, so I tried everything, from moisturisers to steroid creams and medication, which would usually work, but the second I stopped using them, the eczema always came back.”

Not only did Kristin have to deal with red, raw skin, but the condition also led to her developing allergies.

“Eczema is a risk factor for developing food allergies, and in my case, I’m allergic to eggs, peanuts, wheat and milk. I carry an EpiPen in case I go into anaphylactic shock.”

Eczema wasn’t unknown in Kristin’s family, with her grandmother, two cousins and youngest son Gus, 25, all suffering from it.

“When we were kids, my cousin had it so bad, she ended up in hospital.”

Kristin moved from Kaitaia to Australia with her parents when she was young and recalls her teenage years as being her most self-conscious.

“As a teenager, you’re so aware of your appearance anyway, but throw a skin condition into the mix and it becomes really hard because it automatically marks you out as different. I was always looking for ways to hide my skin, from wearing scarves to applying makeup.”

Kristin’s book aims to stop the suffering she experienced as a girl.

The happy ending

However, the one silver lining of Kristin’s disease was that it made her stronger.

“Having eczema made me develop a personality because I had to do something to attract the boys,” she laughs. “I realised that it wasn’t my appearance that was going to attract people, but other qualities such as my personality and good conversation. That’s a gift that lasts longer than looks.”

It was during her 30 years in Sydney, where Kristin trained as a nurse and later as a teacher, that she started to write books for her class.

And when a fellow teacher announced she was publishing a book, Kristin realised she wanted to do the same.

In 2016, she and her second husband, Australian writer Geoff Bartlett, moved back to Whangārei, where Kristin dusted off a book she’d written 15 years ago about a boy in her class with severe eczema. She sent it to a publisher who snapped it up.

Her writing career was given a boost last year when she won the Storylines Joy Cowley Award for an unpublished picture book manuscript for her second offering.

“That was a total shock, but it’s given me the confidence to cut my teaching down to two days a week to give me more time to write.”

Although her eczema is largely under control, Kristin admits to flare-ups around six times a year.

“It’s usually brought on by stress, so I try to keep that under control by walking every day,” she says. “Hot, sweaty exercise can sometimes make eczema worse, but a gentle walk is fine. It’s also important to ensure I get enough sleep, and treasure my skin with lots of love and moisturiser.”

Pick up your copy of Mitchell Itches: An Eczema Story from Paper Plus now.

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