Your Story Matters, Share It

Do you know  how sometimes there’s a synchronicity and you’re not sure what it all means yet, but you know it means something?

That happened to me.

A few months ago, I was asked if I would speak at a college event called “Your Best 10.” They asked 10 people to speak for 10 minutes on a topic they are passionate about.  After a lot of thought, I decided to talk about the importance of sharing stories.  After all, I am a peddler of stories, as a history professor, I feel like that’s a lot of my class and a lot of my life.

But it took me a long time, perhaps too long, to realize that my story was important too.  I always thought that my story wasn’t worth telling.  But a lot of research has been done recently that shows that telling your story is both healing for you, and creates connection and empathy with the person listening to the story, even if that person is not in the room with you.  That is why programs like “Story Corps” or “The Moth” are so successful on the radio.  People like to be told stories, and they stay with you long after the story itself is over.

Two weeks ago, I was at a meeting for the Family Advisory Council at Massachusetts General Hospital.  The speaker was a woman named Dr. Annie Brewster. She is a doctor who has started a non-profit organization called Health Story Collaborative.  It’s a non-profit that facilitates a patient telling his or her story with a person that they can talk to, and audio equipment with which to record the conversation.

Then people can listen to your story in a sound booth or online.

But, what if the person you are telling your story to is your doctor, and the story you are telling is about your health journey?  Wouldn’t that create connections and empathy with someone whom you really want to connect?

This has become a movement in healthcare, encouraging healthcare professionals to take a few minutes and listen to their patients tell their stories, not just rely on the data presented. It has been used as a tool for residents and fellows.  It is now part conferences for medical professionals.

I gave my speech for Your Best 10 yesterday.

Unrelated, today I got a phone call.  I was asked to speak at a Patient Experience Summit at Massachusetts General Hospital.  It’s funny how things work.  First I speak about the importance of telling your story, and then , the very next day, I get a call to ask me to tell my story.

What’s funny is that I don’t think my story is any better or worse than any other story.

The difference is that, now,  I’m willing to tell it.

 

 

Match Day! March 17!

This Friday is Match Day.

Match Day is always the third Friday of March, and it pairs soon-to-be medical school graduates with hospitals for their residency.   These medical students have been interviewed and vetted.  They fill out their top preferences, and so do the hospitals.  Then it all gets sent to a centralized matching service.

The results are this Friday.

After graduation in May, they then pack up their things and move to the teaching hospital that they have been matched with.  The old residents, those who are moving onto fellowships or into private practices, leave at the end of June, and the brand spanking new residents start on July 1st.

It’s an inside joke that the beginning of July is a bad time to get sick.  Now you know why.

Wendy entered the hospital at the end of June of 2007.  By the time we got a handle on who did what, and some familiar faces, they all changed on July 1st.

As a parent, I have a different idea of Match Day and new residency now.  At first I hated the July 1st day, because everything would change, and change is hard.  Now, I go in and talk to the new residents on their first day, to tell them what it’s like to be the parent of a chronically ill kid, to tell them what it’s like to basically be a professional hospital parent.

The truth is, parents know a lot, but we still manage to be scared and feel helpless when our kids are sick and in pain.  We can’t help it, that is the way we are wired.

Another truth is, a lot of new residents don’t have kids yet. They’re in their late 20s, they’re just starting to settle down with a life partner. They haven’t had kids, and even if they do, they might not have sick kids.  Yes, they are super-smart, in fact they are used to being the smartest person in the room, but they might not know how to talk to kids, how to talk to parents, to understand what life in a hospital bed is like, what a hospital room feels like. They don’t know to rely on a parent’s hunch that something isn’t right. They don’t know how to go from technical speech to parent speech, and then to kid speech.

They don’t know these things Yet. But they will.

We are a part of their learning process. We give them space to ask questions.  One of the medical students asked the question, “What if I don’t know the answer?”  Imagine, if every doctor asked that question and was given a safe space to talk through it.

I saw a quote today that said, “Making Mistakes is Better than Faking Perfection.”

Do you know doctors whom you wish had been given permission on their first day of residency to ask that question?

I do.

March 17th is known as St. Patrick’s Day.  Here in Boston it’s also known as Evacuation Day, the day that British Troops Abandoned Boston during the Revolutionary War.

But this year, It’s also Match Day.  I wish those new soon-to-be residents the best of luck, the Luck of the Irish.

I’ll see them at the end of June, to tell them my story.

Related:

Last year’s blog post:  What If I Don’t Know the Answer? (6/20/16)

Mothers on the March

This is a blog about Kids with Chronic Illness and the parents who care for them.  Today, though I’m going to talk about the  mothers,both in history, and my understanding of being a mom.

For those of you who don’t know, I teach at a small college, Mount Ida, in Newton, MA. I teach history.  I think I’m the luckiest person alive to get the opportunity to interact with students on a daily basis and help them to become better readers, critical thinkers, and better citizens.  I teach a whole range of classes, different topics, different genres, pretty much anything they ask me to teach I will do it, because it gives me an opportunity to look at a topic in a whole new way, and help guide my students through the tricky parts of history.

The other day, in my American History 102 class, from Reconstruction to the present, we were talking about how Jim Crow Laws created the Great Migration.  Jim Crow laws were laws designed to oppress former slaves and their descendants in the south after the Civil War.  They included separate schools, separate doors, and restricting the use of public facilities like bathrooms, pools and water fountains.  These were the laws that the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 sought to abolish, and what Brown v. Board of Education reversed.  It took a hundred years from the end of the Civil War to the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.usa-north-carolina-1950-par41687

How did families react to the Jim Crow Laws?  Well, if they had the means, if they had the ambition, if they had the guts, they left.  They moved to northern cities, got factory jobs, and set up a whole new life in a northern city.  Thousands of black families travelled from the rural south to the Urban centers of the North in the early 1900s.  They used their feet to voice their unhappiness, to make a better life for themselves and their families.

Women played a central role in this movement, because they wanted a better life for their kids.  When you stop to think about it, when mothers get involved, it’s almost uniformly because they are thinking of their children.  This is true for the Great Migration, where mothers travelled with their kids, or sent their kids on ahead to uncles, aunts, or grandparents, and then followed behind.

It’s also true for the bread riots across the centuries.  When mothers see their kids hungry or in pain, they go to war.  Literally.  That maternal instinct kicks in and they are fierce.  They fight for their kids.  Here is an article about the Richmond Bread Riots from the Civil War, but it’s not an isolated case.  You can google mothers and bread riots, and you can find any number of examples.

You will also hear tales of heroism about mothers who go to extra lengths when their child is sick, it is a hallmark of many moms.  Moms will learn everything they can, they will be tenacious in their pressure on medical providers, or insurance companies.  I have been inspired by many women in the work that I do as a volunteer at the hospital or in talking with other moms of kids with chronic illness.  We became mothers not knowing what it is all going to entail, and it’s a lot more than we ever thought, but those are our kids and we are going to fight for them.

I recently went to the Women’s March on Washington, not to protest the presidency of Donald Trump, but because I was worried for my daughters and their future.  I was worried that access for their healthcare would be limited (especially my daughter with chronic illness,) that they would have fewer choices for their reproductive rights, that they would face opposition if they chose to be journalists or would have their free speech curtailed, that the planet upon which they live would be more polluted.

I do not have a statistic, but I would say that many women at the March on Washington were mothers.  Many of them brought their children.  Why would so many women take the time, make the trip, knit the hats, write the signs, and march?

The answer is because they felt threatened, both for themselves and their children.  And they were there to show the world that they weren’t going to go backward in time.  Even before the March, I was asked why I was going, how I felt about the iconic Pussy Hats that were created, and my answer was that I was going for my daughters, and I wanted to be a part of history.

Speaking of history…..

Many people wonder what effect this will have, and I  want to leave you with one more history story.  One hundred years ago, after the election of Woodrow Wilson, on the day before his inauguration, Women Marched on Washington.  The Suffragettes took to the streets with banners and signs.  suffragette-march-1913

This was 1913.  It took seven more years for women to earn the right to vote in 1920.  When women were “roughed up” by men along the parade route, and they asked police officers why they didn’t help, the police informed them that “If they had stayed home, this wouldn’t have been a problem.”

My point is, we don’t know yet what an effect this will have on policy, but we do know that with that many women, that we are there for our daughters, and for generations to come, that we are not backing down and we are not going away.

It’s a moment in history that future history teachers will be teaching, and my daughters and grand-daughters will be able to say that I was there.

And, I hope it will embolden them to be active in what they believe in too.

***If you were a woman who marched and would like to donate your Pussy Hat as a historical example of craftivism, the Fuller Craft Museum is looking for donations.

If you have a handmade knit or crocheted Pussyhat to donate, please contact Beth McLaughlin, Chief Curator, at bmclaughlin@fullercraft.org or 508.588.6000 for information.

Impatient, Empowered

Yesterday, Wendy received the Patient View Impact Award, the only national award given to patients who make a personal impact in medicine. Payette was given a special award too, for being a champion of the project.  (In reality, without them it wouldn’t have been possible. )  The awards were given by the Patients’ View Institute, a non-profit organization committed to organizing and amplifying the patient voice, so we can have more impact on the quality of care we receive.

The Patients’ View Institute collects patients’ stories, organizes them, and allows them to be viewed by others going through similar circumstances.  It also awards a few great stories once a year at the annual meeting of the Leapfrog Group.  The Leapfrog Group is a non-profit committed to transparency in medicine.  Hospitals send them their quality and safety reports, and Leapfrog gives them an A-F grade based upon their reporting. The best hospitals are brought to this annual meeting to receive their award.

So, Wendy was given an award in front of representatives of the best hospitals for quality and safety in the nation.  Think on that for a second.  If you could tell three hundred people who have the power to change the day-to-day  operations of a hospital, if you had their undivided attention, what would you say to them?

Here’s what struck me about the day.  Everyone in the room was trying to make healthcare better.  Everyone was worried about the cost, the consistency, and the safety of healthcare.  But most of the people were looking at it from the institutional side of it, the bean-counting side, if you will.

Wendy’s story was one of a few individual stories of patients who were empowered to make change in the medical world.  The most prominent story, however, was the keynote speaker, Epatient Dave, who talks about patient engagement and empowerment.  His TED talk is one of the most viewed talks in history.  I highly recommend it.   He empowers patients to know their health history, and to connect with each other.

Another parent was there winning an award, named Becky White, is also the parent of a medically complex child.  Not 0nly did she go back to school to get her nursing degree, but she went back again to get her MBA.  She stressed that as a parent of a medically complex child, that she needed to know how to speak three languages:  the language her child would understand, the language the medical world would understand, and the language that the business world would understand.  She invites hospital administration to round with her when she is taking care of children so that they understand what is necessary for caring for a medically complex child.

Another parent, Liz Minda, is an advocate for her child who has had over 11,000 seizures in her lifetime.  Liz advocates for medical marijuana, and has spoken to media and legislatures about its impact on her daughter’s health.

You can read about both of these women here in the PVI press release.

It took me some time to process the whole day.  There was so much information, so  much intention by everyone in the room to improve health care, that it was hard to keep it all straight.  I took copious notes.

What struck me about the other patients and parents, though, was that they were both empowered and impatient.  They were there because they were creating change.  Wendy and I were there because we wanted change too.  The kids in these stories are extreme cases, but they don’t have to be, they don’t have to be the kids who are frequent fliers in the hospitals.  I think, though, that the amount of time our children spend in the hospitals make us as parents want to make the entire medical experience better.

Some people write books about their experience; some write blogs.  Some people speak at TED talks.  Some people create cartoons.

What can the average person do?  That’s what I was thinking about last night. Does it have to be such a grand gesture?  Of course not.  Those things get noticed, surely, but lots of good can be done without a media blitz surrounding it.

I came to this idea of the Patient and Family Advisory Council.  It is a council at hospitals that really bridges the divide between patients (or families) and providers.  Let’s say a family has an experience at a hospital and they know a way that it can be improved.  For example, a family notices that there are no pediatric wheelchairs.  Where can they go to get them ordered?  The Family Advisory Council.  A family notices that the pain medication that was prescribed in the Emergency Department doesn’t transfer up in the orders when they reach the floor.  Who can they tell?  How do they create the change?  The Family Advisory Council can point them in the right direction.

When Wendy and I wrote the story for the Emergency Department Cartoon, I brought it to the Family Advisory Council to help me figure out what to do with it.  The co-Chair of the FAC, Sandy Clancy, helped me to create a committee of people who needed to see it to approve the content, including doctors, nurses, social workers, child-life specialists, psychologists, you name it.  There would have been no way for me to know whom to contact or how to do it.

Likewise, the Family Advisory Council is a resource for the hospital as well.  Different departments come to us for advice about any variety of things.  New blueprints for new departments are brought to the FAC to see if they have any suggestions.  FAC members review and edit information that is given to the public. Parents speak to residents on their first day in their new job about the importance of bedside rounding.  We even sponsor a Grand Rounds every year about family centered care.

I wrote a piece about family advisory councils for Courageous Parents Network a few months ago.  You can read it here.  (It lists me as Casey Daniels, though.  🙂

If you want to be a part of a Family Advisory Council, contact your hospital and see if they have one.  Usually there’s an application process.  If your hospital doesn’t have one, consider starting one.  The Institute for Patient and Family Centered Care has created a whole series on how to start an FAC in your area.  You can look at their information here.

In conclusion, though it’s not exactly important what I said at the conference with 300 quality and safety people in it, since I posed the question, I will tell you what I decided to say, concerning the cartoon.

I said, since we all arrived by airplane and every airplane in America has a safety introduction before they take off, everything from fastening your seatbelt to what to do in the event of a water landing, why don’t we have introductions to every Emergency Department in America, when people are sick and scared and hurt?

Though it may not change anything, hopefully it gave people something to think about on their flight home.

 

 

 

 

 

Support For the Holidays

There has been a news story going around, about a group of NICU babies that got Halloween Costumes.  It really will melt your heart, have a look:

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http://www.abc10.com/life/these-tiny-babies-in-tiny-costumes-in-nicu-will-melt-your-heart/344400254

It’s been rolling around in my head this weekend though, why do people go to the trouble to dress up babies who will have no memory of such an action? What motivates them to take their precious time and energy to do such a thing?  Because, really, it’s not helping the babies at all.

The answer is that it helps keep the morale up of the parents.  Imagine being a parent in that situation, waiting for your premie to gain enough weight to go home, it’s like watching paint dry.  But the world goes on without you while you’re waiting and it’s easy to feel down around the holidays because not only is your kid in the hospital, but your kid is in the hospital on a holiday.  So are you, the parent.

One year, 2007-2008, we were in the hospital for every major holiday:  Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Wendy’s birthday, and Valentines Day.

I’ve got to tell you, it’s really hard to be in the hospital during all of those holidays.  I did not cry much while we were in the hospital, but I remember crying on both Thanksgiving and Christmas Day that year, because the hospital was the last place I wanted to be.  I’m not the kind of person that thinks, “It’s not fair,” but that year, that’s EXACTLY what I was thinking, sitting next to my daughter’s hospital bed while even the staff was going home for holiday celebrations.

Mostly, it’s hard because you’re helpless.  For the big holidays like Christmas, it’s hard because it means that your kid is really sick. They try to clear everyone out for Christmas.  And it is hard because you remember how nice those holidays were in past years.  The truth is that if your kid is really sick, they don’t really notice the difference, because one sick day runs into the other.  It’s the parents who keep track of the days.

For Fourth of July we saw the fireworks.

For Halloween, we had to drape Wendy’s costume over her because she had just had an abdominal surgery.  She was going to be Fiona from Shrek.

For Thanksgiving, We ate Thanksgiving in the playroom on real china that the Child Life Specialists set for us.  Wendy was unconscious.

For Christmas, Wendy got presents and a visit from Santa.  There were some special toys like build-a- bears.    We had Christmas lights in the room that we took down every day and put up every night so we didn’t get in trouble.  The nurses knew but didn’t tell anyone.

For New Years, we saw the fireworks.

For Wendy’s birthday we had a cake, no candles, because of the fire hazard.

For Valentine’s Day, there was pizza and valentines in the Family Lounge.

I know people who feel down around the holidays, because loved ones are now gone or because their kids are grown and out of the house.  I would encourage you to contact your local hospital, especially pediatrics, and see if you can volunteer over the holidays.  You have no idea what the smallest gesture can do to make a family feel better, one who has been in the hospital for a while.  I would also encourage you to find a way to go in and volunteer in person, and see the grit and determination of these kids who are fighting so hard to get well and who are resilient and kind.  You might get  a lot out of the experience as well.

Today is Halloween.  You have the time you need to contact your local hospital in time for the holidays.  Yes, we all get busy during the next eight weeks, but imagine all that busyness and having a kid in the hospital. It makes our problems look easier, doesn’t it?

If you do volunteer,  let me know about it. I love to read these stories.

Cover Photo:  Wendy, almost age 4, on New Years Day.

 

 

 

What If I Don’t Know the Answer?

For a number of years now,  I have had  the honor of speaking to the brand new residents at our hospital.  These are often young doctors who likely graduated from Medical School, top of their class, in May.  I speak to them sometime in the third week of June, giving them enough time to pack all their worldly goods and travel to their placement between graduation and new residency.  They begin seeing patients sometime around July 1st.

A large proportion of these doctors do not have children of their own.  So they are experts on the anatomy and physiology of a child, but not necessarily experts on how to talk to them, or how to talk to their parents.

I get to speak to them on their first full day.   It says a lot about the administration of Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, that on the first day of the new residency, these new doctors speak to parents.  It sets the tone that the hospital is committed to family centered care.  It means that they are serious about good communication between doctors, patients and parents.

Every year, a few of the parents from the Family Advisory Council go together to this rather informal discussion.  We all introduce ourselves by way of our child’s illness.  We are what is known as “frequent fliers” in the hospital world, or kids  who are often in the hospital.

On this day, the first day of residency, we talk about bedside rounding.  As its name implies, bedside rounding occurs around the child’s hospital bed.  Everyone comes in and has the discussion together:  doctors, the child’s nurse, a pharmacist and the family.  The lead resident gives an introduction about the child and and her illness, and then discusses what they have done and what they need to do before discharge can happen. They will often discuss specific lab and test results.  Then they make a plan for the day, ask if there are any questions, and then move on to the next kid.

But it is a very different experience when doctors are talking among themselves and when they are talking to families.  Families haven’t gone to medical school, they don’t know the lingo.  They don’t know that afebrile means that the child doesn’t have a temperature.  They don’t know that emesis is vomiting. They don’t know what the thousands of maddening acronyms mean.  So the residents, who have spent all of this time learning all of these official terms, need to rethink the way that they report when the family is there.

The new doctors also have to deal with the fact that the parents, normally the ones who are in charge of every action and detail of their child’s life, are feeling helpless and scared.  That the child in the bed is also feeling that way, along with being in pain or discomfort.  The terms of the situation make matters worse.  No one is at their party best, so to speak.  Parents deal with this in different ways. Some parents don’t want to know anything technical, they just want the doctors to fix it as soon as possible so they can leave. Some parents want to know everything, down to every acronym and decimal point, so they can figure out what is going on.   Sometimes parents are hostile or sharp with the doctors as a defense mechanism.  Sometimes they burst into tears.  You never know what you’re going to get.

The temptation is to race through the bedside rounding, to cut corners, or to not answer all of the questions that the families have.  After all, these doctors are in charge of multiple children, multiple illnesses, hundreds of balls in the air on any given day.

We, the parents, are there to say that bedside rounding is important, even when it’s uncomfortable, sometimes especially when it’s uncomfortable.  We are a team, all of us, and we all need to be on the same page.

A team relies on trust.

Which brings me to my favorite question, that is asked every year:

“What if I don’t know the answer?”

These new doctors are used to knowing all the answers.  They are used to being the smartest person in any given room. They have encyclopedic memories.  They have been tested and they have been victorious.  But what happens if, for some reason, they are caught off guard and don’t know what the answer is to a question that a parent or a patient asks?

They are afraid that they will look like a fraud.

But who in the world knows all the answers anyway?  That’s not why they are there.  They are there to find the answers. They might not know them all.  And if a team is built upon the mutual trust of the participants, it is up to the doctor to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I will find out and get back to you.”  And the key is to follow through and do that.  They will win the respect of the family if they make that combination of confession and commitment to the truth.

It’s important to say one more thing, and we as parents say this every year too.  When we are all together in the hospital room, we are modelling behavior for our children. We are showing our chronically ill children, who will one day grow up and have to speak to doctors all on their own, how to be empowered to do so.  We are showing them that trust in medicine is important, that integrity is important, that bonds form when everyone is present in the discussion.

It is important to parents of chronically ill children to address the issue, try to fix it, with honesty and integrity, and to model this behavior for our children.  If you think about it, that’s the way life should go, but especially within the confines of a vulnerable situation like a hospital room.  Everyone needs to feel heard, everyone needs to feel respected, and great things can happen.

 

 

 

 

“A Difficult Decision Was Made”

A room full of people, a room full of stories.  That’s what we encountered the other night.  It was the opening ceremony of the Transplant Games in Cleveland, Ohio.  Attended by over 6,000 people from 40 different teams around the country, there were recipients, living donors and donor families, a term given to those who lost loved ones and even in their time of acute grief, decided to donate their loved ones’ organs and tissue.  You can read the open letter I wrote to Wendy’s kidney donor’s mother here.

The emcee for the evening started the event by saying, “We are all here tonight because a difficult decision was made.”  It’s important to get it out there right away, because it was the elephant in the room.  Everyone was there because of a donor.  Now there are living donors, and that is no small feat, someone who willingly gives a piece of themselves, literally, to keep someone else alive.  They are not only honored at the games, but they are invited to compete as well.  More than that, however, are the donor families that need to be honored for their loss.  Lives were cut short, and lives were extended.  Just because it is a celebration of life, hell, the name of the event is the Donate Life American Transplant Games, doesn’t meant that there aren’t hundreds of people hurting because they have lost someone whom they loved. They wore their loved ones on pins, they posted their pictures on placards, they wore necklaces.  I spoke to a woman who told me all about her son who died when he was in his early twenties, and she said to me, “His friends are all getting married and having kids and I miss him every day. Every day it hurts.”  The emotions will always be raw for them, but it helps ( I hope) to have them see that their loved ones helped to extend the lives of so many more.  That’s what the games are all about.

This was the first time we went to the games and I had to really think about what we were going to say about donor families and what “giving life” really means.  Before the opening ceremonies we talked a little with the kids about Wendy’s donor and how he died and how his parents decided to donate his organs, and that it was likely that they were going to hear a lot of those stories tonight.  The stories would be emotional, but they are powerful and important to bear witness to them.  And, of course, we could talk about it after if they had any questions.

But this is hard stuff.  Life is messy.  This topic is something you don’t often talk about, and here we are sitting in a room full of people, an AUDITORIUM of people, talking about it.  When a story came up on the screen about a father who donated his son’s organs after he had an asthma attack, Penny leaned over and said, “This is one of the stories you warned us about, Mom,” as she held my hand.

Here is the thing that goes along with this knowledge, that people died and their organs were donated:  Palpable gratitude.  An auditorium full of grateful people:  recipients and those who love them.  Families and friends.  Whole teams of people who have gotten together to celebrate this extension of life.

And these people are competing and attempting sporting events they might not ever have done before, because they were given a second chance.  I have lots more stories, there will be more blog posts about these games because I’ve learned a lot in the past few days about  community through resilience, about the power of multiple generations coming together, about giving voice to the pain and the grief and the gratitude all at once.  About how your story is just a part of the thousands of other stories, creating a mosaic of meaning.

I’m going to say one more thing before I close.  Register to be an organ donor so that your loved ones don’t have to make the decision.  Over and over again, I heard how much easier it was for them to donate their loved ones’ organs because they knew it was what the person wanted.

Don’t make your loved ones make that decision.  Make it for them, so they can just follow your wishes.

More to follow.

Photo:  The Auditorium at the Donate Life Transplant Games, waiting for everyone to arrive.

Don’t Count the Days

“Don’t Count The Days, Make the Days Count.”  This is a quote by the late, great Mohammad Ali.  There were a lot of amazing quotes by him, all dragged out this weekend when it was learned that he had passed away.  One of my favorites, though, was the “Don’t count the days” quote.

As you know by now if you’ve followed this blog, I’ve got a chronically ill kid, who has gone through various stages of wellness.  When we were waiting for a kidney transplant, we decided to move closer to the hospital.  Wendy was on five different blood pressure medications and a medication for her heart.  Besides that she had medications to help her kidney function, and of course, she was a diabetic.  So, in a nutshell, she took fourteen different medications in a day, by different routes (patches, oral medication and injections), in different combinations, about every two hours, around the clock.

She was four years old.

You can imagine my shock, dismay, and utter fear when she decided that she wanted to play soccer.

We didn’t know if we could do it.  Could we manage  the medical part and keep her safe while letting her play soccer?  Was it even possible?  Could we emotionally handle it, knowing that her body was already going through a ton of modifications just to keep living like a normal kid?

It would be so much easier for everyone if she didn’t want to do it.  But she wanted to play, she wanted to play BADLY, and we wanted to make it happen for her.

We spoke to her doctors and their answer was:  If she wants to, let her do it. Her body will tell her when she’s had enough.

So we did, with some guidelines in place.  She could play sports that weren’t a ton of contact…..so ice hockey, or football, or even gymnastics were out.  Of course we had her insulin and sugar at the ready.  We also had a glucagon with us, which is an injection in case she passed out. We had snacks.  We packed up her medications and gave them to her at her normal times.  We filled out the waiver with all of her medical history.  We agreed that one of us would always be at every practice, every game, every time.

We held our breath, and we let her go.  And, the child has NEVER looked back.  Here she is, three months from a kidney transplant, playing soccer:

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She got her kidney transplant.  The next year,we found out that she was fast.  In fact, she won first place for her age group for the mile run the first time she ran:

Wendys first run

Which eventually led to the swim coach asking her if she wanted to swim competitively, and guess what? She did.  Guess what else?  She was good at that too.  Here she is with her continuous glucose monitor on her arm at the suburban championship, where she placed first for the backstroke:

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Oh, and did I mention that my kidney transplant recipient, diabetic child decided that she wanted to do triathlons?  Yep.  She won those too:

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The point was, and still is, that these things terrify me.  Truly.  But Michael and I have never put limits on what she can do.  If she wants to do it, if she wants to try it, we are there as a team to support her.  And she has shown us, over and over, that she is a tough competitor who has this inner drive to succeed.

And we are there, every practice, every game, every time.

It’s a huge amount of support.  Wendy isn’t a drop and go kid, I can’t run errands or go to the supermarket while she is playing.  I have to be there.  And when she goes down, when there’s a problem, I totally want to rush on that field and take care of her.  But I take a breath and I let the coach handle it, and if the coach calls for one of us, we go over.  We do not keep Wendy like a china doll, because that’s never what she wanted to be.  She is making the days count.  We are making them count with her.

And I have to say, that Wendy has set a good example for our younger daughter, who also plays soccer and races in triathlons, who also is tough as nails and who wants to be just like her big sister.

I’ve been reflecting on this because this week we will be traveling with Wendy to the American Transplant games in Cleveland, Ohio.  This is our first venture into the national scene of competition for Wendy. It’s like the Olympics for transplant patients.  I want her to do well, but I’m also just so grateful to be going, to be a part of it, because it’s what Wendy wants to do. She is a competitor, she is a fighter.  She always has been.  And we will be there to support her.  I imagine that I will have a lot of reflections from the American Transplant games. This is just the first.

Don’t count the days, make the days count.

Photo at the top:  My girls after a kid’s triathlon, enjoying some ice cream.

 

 

 

#projectW

This is a story of determination and luck.  And maybe some magic.

Once upon a time there was a little girl who had a lot of medical problems and saw the inside of a hospital for  many, many days.

She got sick, then a little better, then a LOT sicker, then better, better, a little better, and then better still.  But she still went into the hospital from time to time, by way of the Emergency Department.  It’s just the way life was for this little girl, and it wasn’t fair, but it just was.  It was nobody’s fault.  She made the most of it, by making routines of walking her mommy to the door every night with her father, through the halls of the hospital, to the farthest building that was still connected, and then going to see the fish in the PICU, and coming back and reading Harry Potter until they fell asleep.

She learned how to flush her IV lines and when unsuspecting people would come in, she would squirt them with the flushes she kept in her bed.  Then she would laugh maniacally.

She and her parents would set up Christmas Lights at night, and then take them down during the day so they didn’t get yelled at.

She would ride on her IV pole when no one was looking.

She would have her toenails painted by her favorite nurse.

Sometimes she would sneak downstairs with her mom and get a hair cut, or go to the chapel, or go to the gift shop to get a prize.

That’s when she was feeling well, which wasn’t all the time, but she and her parents made the best of the times that they had when she was feeling better and in the hospital.

All together, she spent over two hundred days as an inpatient at Massachusetts General Hospital.

She didn’t really know it, but she was becoming AN EXPERT at being a hospital patient.  And she knew a lot more than other kids about it.

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Her name is Wendy, and she’s my daughter.  While this was happening, she was between the ages of 3 and 5.  Now she’s twelve.

A few years ago a neighbor called us.  You see, both of her kids were in the hospital.  One was an expected surgery and one was an emergency appendectomy.  The mom called us a few times to ask questions about what to bring, what to do, what to expect.  Wendy and I answered her questions together.  We realized together that we knew a lot of things that average people don’t about hospitals and how to handle them.  We decided to write a story about our experiences.

The story was designed to help kids who were waiting in the Emergency Room, and were probably in pain, and likely nervous or scared.  If those kids asked their parents what to expect, a lot of the times, their parents didn’t know how to answer and were worried themselves.  Wendy and I thought that together we could help both the kids and their parents.  Once we were finished, we wondered what in the world should we do with it now?

We decided to give it to the hospital, and find a way to get it published.  We thought it would make a great coloring book.  Well, like many things in a hospital, it had to have a committee, so everyone could look at it.  So with the help of the chair of the Family Advisory Council, a committee was formed, with doctors and nurses, and social workers, and child life specialists, and a few other people.

They said they loved it….but could we change it?

So we did.  We made it more technical, explaining more and more things.  But we hated it because it didn’t feel like Wendy’s story anymore.

The committee hated it too.  So we started all over again, and this time made it more personal.  That felt better.  We had a good working draft and it was approved.  Yay!

Then….tragedy struck.  The Emergency Department decided that when it went through renovations that it was going to go paperless.  So no book.

What do we do now?.  Then I thought maybe we could get it animated.  But money was a problem, I didn’t have any to put toward a project, and so I looked into an internship at the hospital for a student of computer animation.  We made a job description, we found a mentor at the hospital, we filled out all the paperwork.

We got an intern!  Yay!

But, then tragedy struck again.  It was too much for the intern to handle, too big of a project.  He didn’t tell us until the internship was over that he basically had nothing to show for his time.

And I thought, this is it, this is the end, after two years.  How in the world am I going to tell Wendy?  I had run out of options, and I did something I rarely ever do.  I felt self-pity.  I was so unbelievably sad.  I wrote about it on facebook, saying just that.  I had run out of ideas and I was going to have to give up, something I hated.

LOTS of people responded with ideas.  Lots of people gave names of people who could help.  One friend asked for the transcript, so I sent it to him.  Then Stu said, “Would you mind coming in tomorrow to talk to my team about it?”

And I said Yes, thinking that I was going to have to pitch the story to this group of people in an architecture firm, so I planned what I was going to say and I went to the meeting.

That’s when something magical happened.

The had already decided!  They were going to animate it!

Yay!  Again!

And so we have been working on this project with them for almost six months.  Wendy has given her voice to the story, and she will be the narrator outside of the scenes. The Architecture firm, Payette, has been to the hospital to take pictures of the rooms. They have drawn a cartoon Wendy.  They have recorded her voice.  It should be mostly ready in a few weeks.  And I just can’t help but marvel at it, at all the kids it’s going to help.   It’s right now being called #projectW.   The idea now is going to look like this:

A child and his/her parent come to the emergency room.  They go through triage, and are sent to the pediatric portion of the ED, a separate place.  While they are waiting for treatment, they will be given an Ipad with the story that they can watch, which will be about 10 minutes long.  Wendy will tell them lots of what they can expect.  It will be her person who will reduce their anxiety.  It will be the pictures that Payette has drawn that will show them the way.

I just can’t wait the few more weeks until this is finished!!!!  Those of you who know me have been bored probably to tears hearing me talk about it, worry about it, work on it, or explain the many iterations.  I am sorry if that has happened.  But I promise that when it’s over, it will totally be worth it.  I just cannot wait!

Wendy is totally taking it in stride, like she becomes a cartoon character every day.  That’s just the way she is.

Like I said, determination, luck, and magic.

Photo:  the first working cartoon drafts of Wendy’s character.

 

 

Siblings of Sick Kids

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.