This week, Wendy had four doctors appointments. Four times we packed up and schlepped to a specialist or pediatrician. Four times in the waiting room, four times for triage, four times in the exam room, five conversations with doctors, three with nurses, and one blood draw.
It was a tough week, a frustrating week, a week that even for us in this point in our lives is unusual. Sure, we have more doctors’ appointments than the average family, but because it was school vacation week, we loaded up on the specialists so Wendy didn’t have to miss academic classes. Add in a few problems and we got a few more appointments. It was dismal. It was awful for Wendy and was awful for me.
It could have been the worst, however, for my younger daughter, Penny.
Penny. I got pregnant with Penny while we were waiting for a kidney transplant for Wendy. We decided to name her Penelope after the wife of Odysseus. In The Odyssey she is often called “Circumspect Penelope,” who is smart and shrewd, who has all of the skills of a politician, but who is known first and foremost for her patience.
We needed patience while waiting for the kidney.
There aren’t many worse times that I could have gotten pregnant. I couldn’t handle some of Wendy’s medications because it was bad for the fetus. I couldn’t go into the operating room when the kidney arrived because there were too many risks with anesthesia for a pregnant woman, and at the time I was in my second trimester. We moved back to Vermont from Boston when I was in my 39th week; I gave birth three days later. Her arrival to our family was both joyful and grounding: it served as a reminder that we couldn’t live in the past of Wendy’s medical history. Suddenly there was another person who needed love and protection, patience and understanding.
Penny has never known a moment of her life without a sick sister. To her it is the normal thing. I remember when Penny was in kindergarten and she asked me when she was going to get her own kidney, when she was going to be a diabetic just like her sister whom she adores more than anyone in the world. It was the same kind of questioning that I got when she asked when she could play soccer like her sister, run in triathlons like her sister or get her ears pierced like her sister. The medical issues were just part of the deal.
When we go to the doctor now, Penny packs herself a bag of things that keep her occupied. She’s reading chapter books now, so she brings one, along with an intricate coloring book and some markers. Sometimes she will bring shopkins or stuffed animals to play with. She is exceptionally good at keeping busy. She almost never complains she’s bored. But sometimes she wants to be on the exam table with her sister. She often requests a snack after an appointment. At our last appointment, she wrote me a note that said, “Mom, I love you. And I’m Hungry.”
When I was a kid, we had dinner together as a family every night and 95% of the time my parents had cooked it. I thought that’s what every family, everywhere did, and was shocked when I found out differently. Sometimes I wonder if Penny will think that every family, everywhere knows exactly where to park at Massachusetts General Hospital, doesn’t need a map, knows the back door entries, walks to the science museum after a doctor’s appointment, goes to the park or picks the perfect place for lunch after an ultrasound. That every family is comfortable in this environment, because we are.
I also wonder, and worry, whether Penny will look back on this time in all of the doctors’ offices and think it was all a colossal waste of time. For now, she’s too young to stay home alone, and we try to do fun things around the visits so they aren’t too onerous. She is also too young for any support group for siblings of sick kids, and I wonder if she’ll want to go to them once she can.
The unavoidable truth is that a child’s illness doesn’t just affect the child who is sick, it affects the whole family, siblings included.
That’s one of the reasons that we moved back to the Boston metro area from Vermont. When Penny was three years old and Wendy was post-transplant for three years, we weighed the pros and cons of moving to a town closer to Boston. Yes, we were certainly moving to have Wendy closer to her medical home, but we were also moving so that there would be a community of support for Penny, so that we wouldn’t be four hours away from her when Wendy was in the hospital, or she wouldn’t be four hours away from her school, friends, and activities once she got older. We were reassured that we had found the right community when numerous families offered to take Penny while Wendy went into the hospital a few months after we arrived in our new town.
Luckily, Penny is the kind of kid that just blends in with families, and even more luckily, we haven’t needed to rely on the good grace of our friends because Wendy’s been overall healthy.
One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was, “As a mother, you are only as happy as your least happy child.” We have to pay attention to the needs of both kids, as much as we can, and help them to be good, strong, empathetic, resilient adults, whether they have special health care needs or not.