Happy Father’s Day to all the Kickass Dads Out there.

Father’s Day is a hard day for my husband, because it was on Father’s Day 2007 that Wendy first announced she had a stomach ache.  That stomach ache turned into a life threatening bacterial infection, that turned into cascading organ failure, sepsis, and an eventual kidney transplant, abdominal surgeries, and a variety of secondary diagnoses.

I can understand why he doesn’t like the holiday. But I wish he would get over it because he’s a kickass dad and we need to celebrate that.

When Wendy was in the hospital, over 200 nights as an inpatient, he spent almost every single night with her.  They had their own routine: They would walk me down to the entryway, come back, set up the beds, brush teeth, get in pajamas, and then read Harry Potter.  While in the hospital they read almost the entire series.  After hours they would sometimes go for walk in the hospital, to the PICU to see the fish tank, or to look in the gift shop window.  When I arrived in the morning with coffee, we would both stay to listen to rounds and then he would head back to our hotel room to take a nap, because honestly how much sleep did he honestly get on a tiny bed in a hospital room?

When Wendy was released, and the family still had to live in Boston to be close to the hospital, my husband looked for an apartment that we could afford and where I would be comfortable being there alone with her.  He found one that not only fit those requirements, but also allowed for a free shuttle back and forth to the hospital. Then he went back to work in Vermont, working three twelve hour days at work, and driving down to Boston for the long weekend, and to relieve me a little bit of the child care.  When he was offered a new job, even though he was worried that he couldn’t commit to it entirely because of Wendy’s health and said so, his boss said, “So you’ll be at 80 percent the first year, and you’ll make it up in the  coming years, I can live with that.”  And so, Michael took a new job as we waited for a new kidney.

When I found out I was pregnant with our second child, also while waiting for the new kidney, I was terrified of telling my husband, because I was scared that it was the one thing that would put him over the edge.  But he was so excited, so happy, that I couldn’t be that worried.  Ok, I was still worried.  New job, new kidney, new baby, in that order.

Now we’re in the present, with two girls who are relatively healthy and stable, and he goes to every sporting event, every recital, every activity.  He arranges the family schedule and sends me and Wendy our invites.  He is his happiest when he is watching his girls perform, especially sporting events, but also for music recitals and art shows.  Everything else comes second to those things.

I am lucky to have a kind and caring partner, who loves being a dad as much as this man does.  Our road has been bumpy with health problems and moves and changes of jobs, but he remains constant.  And so, I really really want to celebrate him on Father’s Day, even if he doesn’t want to be reminded of it, because it’s what started all the trouble, but in its own way, it also started all the grace and greatness of this man.

Happy Father’s Day to all the kickass dads, especially those who are fathers of chronically ill kids, or those who carry an extra burden as a single dad. The world doesn’t give you enough credit, but I certainly do.

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The Heroes We Need

I don’t know what I thought motherhood was going to be like so many years ago, but whatever I thought it was, I was wrong.

I recently ran across this quote from Joan Ryan, author of the book, The Water Giver:

“Motherhood is about raising and celebrating the child you have, not the child you thought you would have.  It’s about understanding that he is exactly the person he is supposed to be.  And that, if you’re lucky, he might just be the teacher who turns you into the person you are supposed to be.”

Of course this reminded me of the quote from Batman, our kids aren’t the heroes we deserve but  the heroes we need.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to hear the remarkable story of Ario Nour and his family.  Ario had a brain tumor and had to go through a therapy that requires you to remain perfectly still with a mask on your face as you are put on a medical bed in a room, alone, while you have targeted radiation therapy.  It’s called proton beam therapy, and it’s necessary for little kids, to zap the tumor but save the precious brain tissue surrounding it.  As you can imagine, this can be terrifying and many children need anesthesia to undergo this treatment.  The problem is, this isn’t a one time treatment, it’s five days a week for many weeks.  That’s a lot of anesthesia.

Ario, at the age of seven, was very clear when he began his treatment:  he didn’t want anesthesia every day, he would find a way to stay still all by himself.  And he did.  The nurses and social workers were so impressed with him that they had an idea:  Maybe Ario could teach other kids to lay still too.  He tried mentoring another child. It worked.

And this peer mentoring program was born. Kids with brain tumors teaching kids with brain tumors what to expect, what to do, how to lay still.  To practice at home, before the treatment, kids try lying on the couch for increased amounts of time, often with something over their faces, like a washcloth or a spaghetti strainer.  They are allowed to listen to music, books on tape, or something else that will keep them occupied.

Then they get their mask specially made to form fit their face. They get to decorate it, and they use it every time they get treatment.

Other kids, after going through treatment and surviving, went on to mentor other kids.  They are proud to be the experts at something, and to show newbies who are sick and scared that they’ve done it and succeeded. That it was possible.

And the program grew.  It wasn’t just one kid helping one kid. It was a program.  Ario had started a peer mentoring program.

I got to hear him talk at the Family Centered Rounds at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children. Ario has had to go back three times for more treatments.  (Read:  He’s had more than one brain tumor.)  Now he’s in high school, and he’s a normal kid.  Smart, shy, humble.

His parents spoke too.  Not only do they support Ario’s efforts for the peer-to-peer program, but they also support and ride with him for TEAM ARIO, where they ride their bikes 50 miles in the Granite State Quest and raise money to fight pediatric cancer.  Ario and his family have raised over $300,000 and Ario has been honored as one of “The One Hundred.”  It’s a dinner that honors one hundred people at Massachusetts General Hospital who have worked hard to fight cancer.

As I listened to this story, truly an inspirational story, it’s important to remember, Ario isn’t cured. He has recurring cancer.  And his parents have this burden to carry, something no parent ever wants to deal with.  And yet, here they are, parents of a child who started a peer-to-peer program, who’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, and yet, who is still chronically ill.

He’s not the hero they deserve, but he may be the hero they need.

Of course, Ario is a dramatic example, but think about your kids and what they have taught you. Have they taught you patience?  Selflessness?  Sharing? Have they taught you how to communicate better or how to fight more fairly?  Mine have.

I’m including the video of Ario here, for you to watch. Grab your tissues.

And take a moment to think about how your kids have changed you for the better.

Holiday Landmines for Kids with Dietary Needs

Happy Springtime!  Well, it doesn’t feel like springtime quite yet for much of the country, but the calendar tells us that the Spring Equinox has already  happened and Passover and Easter are just around the corner.

This can strike fear in the hearts of a lot of parents, especially parents of kids who have allergies or other dietary restrictions.  The reason is because a lot of spring holidays have ritual foods that go along with them, foods that are supposed to be used to celebrate the holiday, either through religious decree or family tradition.

A good friend of mine found out that her daughter has egg allergies. How do you celebrate Passover without eggs?  Its one of the parts of the traditional plate, and it’s the key ingredient for many traditional dishes like Matzoh Brei and Kugel.  It was just inconceivable that they would have to go without eggs during the eight day holiday, where they can’t eat any leavening either. They decided to continue using eggs, but to minimize the use.

There’s no doubt, sometimes you need to get creative if you have a child with dietary restrictions, and this creativity can be seen as assertiveness, not always in a positive way.  Traditions are hard to break.

This might lead to a few family misunderstandings, so thoughtful communication and patience is necessary.  One friend told me of her child’s tree nut allergy and how a lot of Passover recipes have tree nuts in them, so they need to be careful not only looking at the labels, but also informing friends and loved ones to be diligent in their preparations for Passover.  She also finds that she needs to ask on the day of the family gathering to make sure all the rules were followed.  Not everyone loves to be reminded.  Sometimes that means your mother in law might tell you how much better the dish *would have been* if the nuts had been added.  Another friend has a child with celiac disease, so they don’t have Matzoh with wheat in it, and if someone brings Matzoh with wheat, they need to eat it outside.

When it comes to Easter, if your child has allergies, you have to get creative with holiday traditions as well.   A lot of the times that means making new ones with ties to the past.  One friend in Vermont told the story of how she has tried to recreate her mom’s cinnamon rolls using her dietary restrictions.  One friend told of how they make their own food and their own traditions around allergies.  One family only has easter egg hunts at their house because they need to know that peanut free chocolate never touched the inside of a plastic egg.

Here’s a great resource for kids with allergies and Easter Products they might enjoy.

For parents of diabetic kids, you realize quickly after diagnosis, that every holiday revolves around food, and that since all food has a certain number of carbs, you need to keep track. This leads to some awkward encounters…who really wants to count the number of jelly beans for one serving?  Did the child eat one ounce of the chocolate bunny’s head or one-and-a-half ounces?  Do you weigh the bunny before and after?

Suffice to say, the holidays can be stressful. But it’s important to take a moment and be grateful for the things you have:  children who are happy, family who loves you , food to eat, a warm house, and laughter.  The rest are hurdles to be jumped, and stress that comes along with it can be managed. Just remember, parents of Brave Fragile Warriors, you’re brave too.

Whatever spring holiday you celebrate, I wish you the best of health and  happiness!

Family Centered Care is a Partnership

When you take your child to the doctor, or to the hospital, how much do you know about them?  How much do you influence them?  How much influence do you have over the nurses and the front desk staff, the phlebotomist or the technician?  Have you helped create the design of the location, or the layout of the room?  Have you influenced the way the providers interact with you?

How much influence do you want to have?

When Wendy was first sick, many years ago, we had no experience with doctors or hospitals.  We walked into a brand new situation, filled with well meaning and empathetic providers and a brand new Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.  But the unit was so new that no one knew where anything was, and I remember watching doctors rifle through drawers when Wendy was having a hard time breathing in order to get the right equipment to intubate her (put a breathing tube down her throat.)  I remember when she was breathing on her own again and a resident came in with a weird breathing apparatus that they wanted us to use so that Wendy’s lungs could get stronger, and then after the resident leaving, the nurse whispering that she would get us a bottle of bubbles instead.

I remember in this brand new PICU facility having the problem that Wendy wanted to pee on her own (at the age of 3) and there not being a toilet for her.  And I remember in this nice new facility that the television where we were watching the football game caught on fire.

All of these things were totally normal, understandable, but also preventable things. (Well, maybe not the Television Fire.) If a parent had been around to help with the planning of the spaces, to talk with the residents, to be a part of the process, then maybe some of these snafus wouldn’t have happened.

This is the idea behind family centered care.  The idea that as doctors, and nurses and other staffers, you’re not just treating the illness, you’re treating the person.  And with the case of little kids, you’re not just treating the person, you’re treating the entire family.  Lots of changes have been made since the day we walked into Massachusetts General Hospital almost eleven years ago.  Since our first day, the hospital has instituted bedside rounding, where the doctors go into the room to talk to the patient and the families to make a plan for the day, to see if the family has any questions, and to make things as clear as possible.  The nurses call once you’re discharged to see if you have any additional questions, or might have forgotten something, and to help you set up follow up appointments with your providers.  And you have the opportunity to rate your hospital stay, to mention what has worked and what hasn’t worked.

These are great improvements, real changes to the quality of care and the way parents and patients feel a part of the team.  These have been life changing improvements.

But whet if we could do more?

What if family centered care included the systemic planning of the care to begin with? What if families were asked to meet with providers before care ever took place to make the care itself better, seamless care?

I’ve been working toward this goal for a long time, as a member of the Family Advisory Council at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children.  First, I should tell you about the Family Advisory Council.  The FAC is made up of parents, doctors, nurses, social workers, child life specialists, and administrators.  Its goal is to foster better communication between patients, parents and families, and to make the hospital experience better all around.

One of the things that we do is work on projects that we feel are important, like a pediatric wheelchair pilot program.  The hospital didn’t have pediatric wheel chairs, can you believe it? So a group of concerned parents got together with administrators, went through all of the wheelchairs out there, and with the help of an occupational and physical therapist, chose the best one that would serve the needs of the most kids.  The hospital ordered a bunch and the results have been overwhelmingly positive.

Here are some other things that the Family Advisory Council does:

  •  Meet with new residents the very first day of their residency and talk to them about what it’s like to be parents of chronically ill kids and the importance of communication.
  • Meet with fellows who have been through residency and are now seeing patients in clinic and let them ask us questions about challenging interactions with patients and parents.
  • Host an annual Grand Rounds that usually surrounds communication between patients, parents, and providers.
  • Review public health documents before they go out to the public, to make sure that they make sense, that they have  met their goal of communication.
  • Review plans for new spaces to see if there’s anything that might have been missed (more electrical outlets or hooks for coats for example.)
  • Facilitate workshops on the difference between being “courteous” and “helpful” for front desk staff, because it’s possible to be very polite but not the least bit helpful at all.
  • Interview key new staff members who will interact with families, like nurse managers, etc.
  • Sit on standing committees in the hospital including Ethics, Quality & Safety, Inpatient Satisfaction, etc.

The idea is that if parents are a part of multiple systemic areas of the hospital, that the whole experience, for every patient and family, is better, because parents have been a part of the process.

This has been an evolution, each step was challenging.  Just a few years ago I asked if I could be a part of interviewing for a new position and was resoundingly told no.  Change has also been over a long period of time.  I’ve been the parent of a chronically ill child for eleven years, and all of this work is voluntary, and I have a job on top of that.  Other parents on the FAC have similar stories.  You have to have the will and the drive to make the hospital a better place and you have to find champions within the hospital who are willing to see the change as innovation.  Sometimes, that means being abrasive or sitting through discomfort.  A lot of change relies on trust, and trust needs to be built both on the personal level and on the institutional level.  It’s a partnership.

I’ve put this list here not because I want to trumpet our horn, but because these are concrete examples on how your hospital can move forward toward more patient and family centered care. I learned of a lot of this though an organization called The Institute for Patient and Family Centered Care. They are a non-profit organization that helps hospitals really self-evaluate where they are on the care spectrum and how they can move forward.  They’re having an international conference this summer in Baltimore Maryland.  I’ll be there.  If you come, please come by the poster session and say hi.

In a world where health care is already scary, its really great to minimize problems.  Having patients and parents be a part of the planning for systemic care can help to minimize those problems, but because this hasn’t often been done in the past, it’s often met with resistance.   Work through the resistance.  Sit with the discomfort.  Move forward together with trust.  Become a partnership.

 

 

 

“Wonder”: Review by a Mom of a Sick Kid.

The movie “Wonder” is the story of a young boy, Auggie, who has a facial deformity.  He has been in an out of the hospital for his entire life. The whole family revolves around his care, and everything else gets put on hold:  Mom’s academic career, sister’s attention, and poor dad doesn’t even get a chapter devoted to him.  Auggie, however, has the hardest time, he knows that he looks different from other kids, and now he has to face the horror of going to school for the first time, in *gasp* middle school.  Now, let’s just say it here and now, middle school is tough for everyone involved, but to start at a school for the first time with a noticeable difference, well, that makes it all the harder.

I admit, I cried for at least 75% of the movie “Wonder.” (Wendy cried for the whole movie.)  And why not, there were moments that I could relate to, because at some point in her childhood, my beautiful teenage daughter looked different from other kids, but she was too young to notice.

Because of Wendy’s incredibly high blood pressure, she was taking five different  blood pressure medications.  One of them, minoxidil, is a vasodilator; it expands the blood vessels, which lowers the blood pressure.  You might have heard of the drug, minoxidil, it’s the main drug in Rogaine.  It’s side effect is that you grow extra hair, hair that is darker and more coarse.  For Wendy, she went from a blond to a brunette in just a few months, and her hair grew so quickly that I needed to get her hair cut every three weeks.

Wendy had other things going on, a patch that she wore just below her collar bone for another drug that helped control her blood pressure, and the hair wasn’t just on her head, it was all over:  arms, legs, forehead, back.  She looked….well….different.   Obviously, different.

Wendy was only four, and being the vibrant child that she was, she didn’t notice. We still went to museums and the park, and walked to the hospital twice a week for blood work.  She still swam in the public pool and played in the splash parks. She had an easy smile and a friendly, outgoing personality with other kids.

But the other moms, well, they looked a little nervous around my child.  And the kids, well, they would ask what was wrong with Wendy, why she looked like that.  Thank God, Wendy never noticed.  I would explain that Wendy has an illness and she takes a special medicine to make her feel better, but the medicine makes her grow extra hair.  That satisfied the other kids, maybe not so much the other moms.

Then there were the times where people who knew Wendy didn’t recognize her because she had gone from a blond to a brunette, because she had the puffy cheeks due to her kidney failure, because she had the patch below her collar bone.  Those people would see me and ask where Wendy was, and then visibly startle when I pointed to the child next to me.  Those are the ones Wendy noticed.

There was a woman who cut Wendy’s hair, every three weeks, at Supercuts. We would arrive, and the other beauticians were visibly concerned over how to cut Wendy’s hair, and this woman would just scoop her up, ask about her day, give her two lollipops, and say, “See you in three weeks.” I loved that woman, because she didn’t make a big deal about Wendy.  Wendy was just another kid to that woman.

I cried because I could relate to some, but not all, of the feelings that the mother, played by Julia Roberts, was going through.  Yep, my life had been put on hold.  Yep, my life revolved around Wendy’s care.  Yep, I still worry that Penny doesn’t get enough attention.  Yep, I worry about every new step forward that Wendy has to take ( like going to Washington DC this spring with her 8th grade class for a week without me.  I think I might die.)

But the truth is, that most of us, thankfully, are not Auggie, and we are not Auggie’s mom.  Most of us aren’t Auggie’s sister, or dad.

Most of us are Auggie’s friend, Jack Will.

Jack knows that Auggie is different, and doesn’t know what to do about it.  He’s nice to Auggie because he has been asked to be, and because he is a scholarship student, he’s feeling like he really has to do it.  But he learns that Auggie is sweet and kind and funny and smart, and they really become friends.  But Jack still knows that Auggie looks different. Jack says the wrong thing on Halloween, about his appearance, hurting Augie’s feelings and having to make amends.  Spoiler alert:  it turns out to be ok. Jack Will realizes his mistake when Auggie starts to avoid him.

Jack was my favorite in the book, and he was my favorite in the movie because while Auggie’s family doesn’t have much choice, they need to be supportive of Auggie.  Jack does have a choice, and he chooses to be kind.  Which is the point of the story.

The author, R.J. Palacio, wrote the book Wonder because of a real life experience.  Her young son burst out crying, seeing the face of a young boy with a facial deformity at an ice cream shop.  She was so mortified, because her child wasn’t emotionally prepared to be kind to this young boy, and she went home and wrote the book, from multiple perspectives.  Each perspective in the book speaks from one of the characters (except the Dad, which gets me angry).  Each perspective shows that living life with a loved one who is ill isn’t easy, but you make room for kindness. Bad days will happen, but you move forward, together.

Auggie’s presence changed the tenor of the school, because he was kind as well.  And the other students became protective of him when they saw how the outside world viewed him because they didn’t know him.  You would be tempted to say that the moral of “Wonder” is don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but you would only be half right.

The other half of the moral is it’s ok to be afraid and kind at the same time.

That’s the lesson we want to teach our kids.

 

 

Where Unicorns Run Free

My cell phone rang one hot August evening, it was a friend from college.  He and I often text, but hardly ever speak on the phone. I could tell almost immediately that something was wrong.  It didn’t take him long to get to the point.

“Charlotte has been diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes,” he said, and then “I thought maybe we should talk to you about it.”

We have been friends for twenty years.   He and Michael never lived more than two doors away from each other the entire four years of college.  One summer, the four of us all lived in the same apartment, working random landscaping jobs for extra money.  We had shared laughs and beers, practical jokes and serious moments, accidents and deaths and then marriages and births.  When Wendy was in the hospital, Charlotte’s mom was pregnant with her and she never came, but Charlotte’s dad came and mustered other friends to help.  He brought books and jokes.  He sometimes just sat with us when it was all too terrible for words.  That was ten years ago.

We are still present in each other’s lives.  Michael and Charlotte’s dad go out for an occasional beer after work.  Our kids just recently were in a film together to promote the National Park Service.  When I was approached about looking for kids who would be willing to tromp around Minute Man National Park with tri-corner hats and wooden muskets, I could not think of a more perfect family to share this adventure with.  The kids learned about the Revolutionary War, and the adults got two whole days to sit around together.

Once a year, all of the adults (including other college friends) go out for a giant fondue dinner, three courses, lots of wine, more jokes and more laughter.  This year, due to unforeseen circumstances, I had to cancel at the last minute, and these friends made a “Pocket Darcy”:  a picture of me pasted on a Popsicle stick, to be a part of all of the pictures so I would still feel loved and a part of the night, even though I was reading 300 names at a college commencement that had been rescheduled.

When Charlotte was diagnosed, her parents had an idea that something was wrong, she wasn’t acting like herself on their summer vacation.  But she was diagnosed just a few days before school was about to begin, and so they were thrown into a whole new world of counting carbs, and blood sugar checks and two am wake ups to check it again.  They had to trust the nurse with something they had only just began to tackle themselves.  They were nervous.  They called a few times, and we tried to be supportive.  Michael strictly instructed me to be a good listener, not to give out too much advice.  When I told Charlotte’s dad this he responded, “No, I don’t care how much advice you give, I just want to hear your voice and tell me it’s going to be ok.”  So that’s what I told him.

And it was the truth.  Sort of.

The truth is that when your daughter gets diagnosed with diabetes, your world changes. There’s a lot more structure built into every day, . There are a lot more plans that need to be made about birthday parties and sleep-overs.  There is more worry, there’s no way to sugar coat that.  It’s manageable, but it’s lots of worry.

Charlotte’s mom would occasionally email me for advice, and at some point she asked if Charlotte and Wendy could get together, and I suggested Wacky Weekend at The Clara Barton Center for Diabetic Girls.  I’ve written about the camp before, it’s Wendy’s favorite place, and I thought that Charlotte would love to try it out for a weekend, with just some time alone with Wendy. Oh, and with dozens of other kids who have diabetes too.

Charlotte was SUPER EXCITED ABOUT IT!!!!

Her mom and dad were nervous.  She was only ten; she had never been to sleepaway camp before.  They asked me if I would be the emergency contact for the forms.  Then we decided that maybe Charlotte’s parents should just spend the weekend with us.  Their younger child and our daughter Penny could soak up all of our attention, while Wendy and Charlotte enjoyed camp.

It was a win-win.  We dropped off the girls and then took the younger kids to museums and National Parks.  We had card games and sleepovers at our house.  But throughout the weekend, understandably, Charlotte’s parents were nervous that she would be unhappy. They were nervous that the nurses wouldn’t be used to her.  They were nervous that Charlotte would be homesick, or wouldn’t like the camp, or she and Wendy wouldn’t get along as roommates in a cabin.

All of these worries, while understandable, turned out to be unfounded.

Sunday afternoon, when we all arrived at camp to pick up the girls, Charlotte came running up to her camp, hugged them both, told them how much she loved the whole place, and gave them a tour.  She told them she really wanted to go there for the summer camp program.  She read them her journal that she wrote a few times a day about all the fun she was having, even though she missed her parents.

They cried.  Out of joy and relief.

And I had to walk outside and dry a few tears of my own. Who would have thought that this would be something that we shared too.  Our daughters with the same condition, going to the same camp, twenty years later.

I walked to the fire pit in the center of the camp, where bricks have names and inscriptions written in them along the walkway and around the ring of stones.  Written among the bricks is a poem by Shel Silverstein:

This Bridge

This bridge will only take you halfway there

To those mysterious lands you long to see;

Through gypsey camps and swirling Arab fairs

And moonlit walks where unicorns run free.

So come and walk awhile with me and share

The twisting trails and wondrous worlds I’ve known

But this bridge will only take you halfway there–

The last few steps you’ll have to take alone.  

Our girls would have a whole history without their parents, but with each other, at camp.  They wouldn’t be alone.   They would always have someone who understood what they were going through.

So would their parents.

There was something sweet in knowing that.

CAREgiving, defined

We will all be CAREgivers at some point in our lives, whether it be to a parent, a spouse, or a child.  When you are a parent of a chronically ill child, it is likely that your CAREgiving duties will overlap, because your child needs constant care, but other people in your life get sick as well.  It can feel overwhelming and isolating all at the same time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what being a caregiver means, and I’ve come up with a helpful acronym.  A CAREgiver Coordiantes, Advocates, Manages Resources and Educates:

Coordinate.  You coordinate your child’s care.  You arrange for doctors’ appointments, other therapists appointments, prescriptions, food and drink limitations or special considerations. You calibrate any medical devices that your child needs.  You coordinate the care that is necessary daily, weekly, monthly yearly:  finding the people and the products that will best serve your child.

Advocate.  You make sure your child has what they need to be successful in all areas of their life.  You talk to your school administrators, you request an IEP (Individual Education Plan), or a 504 (Individual Medical Plan).  If your child needs certain accommodations, you arrange for them, whether it is a nut-free table at the school lunchroom, or an extra ramp to enter a room more smoothly. Advocating also means making sure the janitor doesn’t wipe the peanut tables and the peanut-free tables with the same sponge.  In my case, advocating means asking the school nurse to write a letter home at the beginning of the school year to remind parents to keep their kids home if they are sick, because they can put my daughter in the hospital. It can also mean speaking out for other children who have the same medical condition, or one similar.  Additionally, it might mean joining a Family Advisory Council or advocacy group in your child’s specific illness, to make the world a better place in the future for your kid and those like your kid.  It’s a large umbrella.

Resource management.  I don’t need to tell you this.  Medical supplies are expensive, even if they’re covered by insurance.  My daughter wears two medical devices, neither of which are fully covered by insurance.  Also not covered are the tegaderm films that go underneath each device.  Occasionally the devices cause a skin infection, so we have to make sure the certain antibiotic topical ointment that works is always at home and always available.  Her anti-rejection meds are covered by insurance but her supplements (that the anti-rejection meds strip from the body) are not.  Quarterly visits with specialists are necessary, along with their co-pays and the occasional trip to the Emergency Room rounds out the payment.  What isn’t said are the things that aren’t bought or are pushed off because of the payments that fulfill medical need.  I’ve had the same snow boots for twenty years and I live in New England, so they get used.  Most of my clothes come from thrift shops.  Michael wears his shoes until literally there are holes in the bottom.  This is how you make money stretch.  And I consider us to be very lucky, we live a good life, with good food and a warm home.

Educate.  Parents of chronically ill kids are constantly educating. We are educating the other adults in our child’s life:  for birthday parties and sleepovers and soccer games. When the time is right, parents educate their children about their illness and (hopefully) help them slowly transition to self-care.  We often educate the public, bringing awareness to our child’s condition, or the condition of those like him or her.  We also educate ourselves, we are mini-experts on our child’s diagnosis and condition, we keep up on the newest technologies and research studies.

This is what we do both as parents and as caregivers, but it’s amplified when you are both parenting your child, and also are a CAREgiver to them.  Now, add onto the fact that other people get sick too, in the short and the long run. What happens when your spouse or your parent, or God forbid, another child gets an extended illness.  Now all of your specialized training gets stretched or even thrown out the window.  You may know all there is to know about your child’s disease, but you’re not a medical professional, you don’t know all the illnesses.  You need to learn a new language, a new set of doctors, a new protocol of medicine.

It’s a terrible burden, and it’s constantly shifting.  It reminds me of the picture of the world, that is being held up by elephants on the back of a turtle.  It’s heavy, unpredictable and unrelenting.

I hate to be gloomy about this because there are beautiful moments to being present in the difficult moments of your loved ones, but it takes practice to see the beautiful moments, the sunrises and the warm cups of coffee, the smiles and the small favors.  None of us knew what we were signing up for when we decided to become parents, there was no instruction manual or warning label.

I take the month of November as a month of gratitude, and write down one thing a day that I’m grateful for.  Some things are quite large and some are tiny. but it’s an actual daily vigilance, because let’s face it, some days really suck.  But even in the worst days there is something to be thankful for if you look hard enough.

Good luck, CAREgiver.  Try to find something beautiful in each day, something you’re grateful for.

 

 

The Power of Moments: A Review

The Heath Brothers have released their newest book, “The Power of Moments.”  It discusses how certain moments stay with us through a combination of factors.  Conveniently, the factors form an acronym, EPIC:

ELEVATION:  Defining moments rise above the every day. They’re special.

PRIDE:  Defining moments capture us at our best, moments of achievement or courage.

INSIGHT:  Defining moments rewire our understanding of ourselves or the world.

CONNECTION:  Defining moments are moments we share with others.

They give good examples for each of these areas.  Then they challenge you to make more of your interactions moment-worthy.  How do you break the script of the every day?  How do you build in moments that are extraordinary for others?

I’ve never read a Heath Brothers book before, but I enjoyed this one.  Of course, I am biased.  One of this blog’s stories is in the book, the very last story in the very last chapter.  It talks about a moment when Wendy had been in the hospital for many months and two nurses decided on the day that there was a huge snowfall, that they would team up to figure out a way to get Wendy some snow.  This was complex because at the time, she was in heart failure and had a severe water restriction, and of course she was going to eat some of that newly fallen snow.  So, the nurses scooped up some snow, measured it, melted it, measured it again, made a calculation, and then went out into the snow AGAIN and got more fresh snow to bring into Wendy’s room. You can read my blog post about it here.

Dan Heath shared with me while we were talking on the phone, that not only was it a wonderful, defining moment for Wendy and our family, but also for the nurses as well.  It was a tangible thing they could do to bring joy to a little girl from Vermont who had been in the hospital for months.  It was connection.  It was elevation.  It was insight.  It was pride.  And it didn’t cost a penny, just some time.

I really enjoyed reading the book, and I’m so grateful to the Heath Brothers for including our story in it.  One day an advance copy just arrived in the mail, with their special thanks. It is unlikely I will ever meet them, but it’s really cool that our story, Wendy’s story, is now in a book.

You can purchase the book today as it has just been released.  If you read it, please let me know what you think of it.  Here is the link to the book on Amazon.

When to Divorce Your Doctor?

I was hot.

I was furious at Wendy’s endocrine practice.  This had been the third time in four years that I couldn’t get Wendy’s school orders without multiple phone calls that required phone trees and leaving messages on answering machines and waiting for someone to get back to me, multiple times. Every delay each year was for  a different reason:  wrong address, new medical management system, most schools start after Wendy’s school.  But I had had enough.

I decided that I needed to look elsewhere for another place for Wendy and for me.  This just wasn’t working for us.  This divorce has been a long time in coming, but like real marriages, there are positives and negatives to a medical relationship.    It’s when the bad outweighs the good, that you can safely feel like it’s time to walk away and join another practice.

But I didn’t want to do it just because I was angry, and it wasn’t because I had gotten bad news that I just couldn’t accept.  An important thing I learned is that in medical relationships, as in most relationships,  you can’t expect perfection, but you should expect to feel satisfied with the way you are being treated.  And I didn’t feel like we were being treated well.

Add to this the fact that Wendy’s actual endocrinologist was leaving for another opportunity, so we felt like if we were going to make a move, that now would be a good time, because we were going to have to meet and use a new doctor anyway, so we might want to consider going to another facility all together.

Luckily we had many other options, living in a city like Boston.  Not only do we have our hospital, but there are two other pediatric hospitals in the city.  Additionally, we have the Joslin Diabetes Clinic, the oldest and most prestigious medical center for diabetes in the world.  We had a lot of choices, and Michael and I really weighed them, because all of them were good options.

We decided to go with Joslin, because like Mass General Hospital, Wendy could transition from a pediatric patient to an adult patient within the same institution.  Also, since Joslin is a clinic and not an inpatient facility, Wendy’s hospital home would still be Mass General (as she would still see nephrology there.)  Finally, with Joslin there was an opportunity to possibly be part of new and interesting clinical trials that used a large sample size available to Joslin.  Taken all together, it was worth a try.

To be clear, we did not go down in a blaze of glory, when we left the endocrine practice, we just called Wendy’s primary care doc and stated that since Wendy’s doctor was leaving that we’d like a referral for a new doctor at a new clinic.  We made the appointment at Joslin with a new endocrinologist, a new Nurse Practitioner, and a dietician.  We were told to expect to be there all day and to bring Wendy’s records.

The night before the appointment, I was really nervous, because it was the first time in a long time that we were dealing with new doctors in a new place.  I may have punched the printer in the morning using colorful vocabulary because it wouldn’t print Wendy’s labs from the patient gateway.

Ok, I may have punched it twice.

And the drive there was awful, it’s in a super-congested part of the city, there’s no good way to get there.  I thought to myself, “This better be amazing, because to drive here four times a year is really going to suck.”  Parking was just as bad, and there ‘s no coffee shop, no food of any kind in the building.

But the nurse practitioner was great.  She was patient and she answered all of our questions.  Wendy liked her right away.  She looked at Wendy’s numbers and made a few small changes, and then gave us all of her information as to how we could get a hold of her personally, not through multiple phone trees and receptionists and answering machines.

Wendy said that she felt like she knew this nurse practitioner more in the fifteen minutes we spoke to her than in the many years she knew the endocrine nurses at Mass General.  She also admitted, later, that she might have felt better about the new nurse because she wasn’t super sick when she met her, and because we already knew about diabetes.  Both observations were astute especially for a teenager.

When we met the doctor, who had been a fellow at Mass General, she complimented Wendy on her video for the Emergency Department, because she had been at the Grand Rounds where Wendy spoke about it, and she remembered to say something to her about it.  This had an instant effect on Wendy.  It was a great way to build rapport.

We broke for lunch and walked around the corner for sandwiches, and Wendy was excited to go to a new place to eat. When we go to Mass General, we often go to the same restaurants, as if in a rut.  Partially it’s because it’s easy and it’s comfortable. But Wendy really liked trying somewhere new and said so.

We arrived back to the clinic in time to meet the dietician.  Wendy really liked what she had to say. They went over her daily intake, each meal, each serving.  She helped Wendy come up with a plan to eat a little more calcium, a little more protein, which involved a cup of high protein chocolate milk with dinner.  Wendy was thrilled.  I gave in to the pressure and we now have it in our fridge.  It’s a little treat that makes Wendy feel like she’s in more control of her life.  Oh, and it’s chocolate.  At dinner.

After we got home, and after dinner, we all sat down together to debrief the day and figure out if we really wanted to make the change.   We decided we did.  Wendy liked the staff and felt heard.  I felt like Wendy was getting positive messages from adults that weren’t just me and her dad about her diabetes.  I also liked that Wendy was taking a little more control of her health, even if it included extra protein chocolate milk.

I called the old endocrine practice and cancelled our next appointment.  I just said we have decided to go with Joslin instead since Wendy’s doctor is leaving.  I need to decide if I’m going to write a letter to them explaining that we just didn’t feel like we  were getting the attention we needed with hard to attain answers to questions, no meetings with dieticians, and no real transition as Wendy got older.  I need to figure out the right tone, because we were grateful for the care we got when Wendy was younger, it just didn’t feel like we were being supported as she was entering her teenage years.

I’m still thinking about that part.

Divorcing your doctor is hard because you’ve built a relationship and sometimes it’s all you know.  But if you don’t feel like you’re being heard or taken care of, it’s worth it to look elsewhere.  You already know what you have, you don’t know what is possible.  So go find out, gather your data, and make a decision.

I wish you luck, whatever you decide.  It’s not easy.

It’s harder, I think, when it’s your kid, because you want to do the best by them, even when you’re not exactly sure what the best thing is.  Hopefully,  you can decide together.

 

Taking a Transplant to School!

Dear School Nurse:

My child has a transplanted organ.  Here is what I would like you to know.

My child can get sick faster and harder than most other kids.  As you know, schools can be a giant petri dish of germs, and the best way to discourage their spread is by careful hand washing.  Please make time to discuss with the class where my daughter is about what careful hand washing looks like.  Please have the teacher commit to taking time before lunch to have each child clean their hands, either with soap and water, or with a quick spurt of hand sanitizer as they walk out the door.  Discouraging the sharing of food would be good too.

Then, please write a letter home to parents, asking them to err on the side of caution when sending their sick kids to school.  Most parents, when they know that sending their borderline contagious kid might send my child to the hospital, will be  more likely to think twice about doing so.  If you mention that you’d be happy to talk to them on the phone to help them decide, they may or may not take you up on it.  I know it’s some extra work for you, but it will probably keep the school healthier as a whole.

Offer to go into the class to talk about organ transplantation.  Ask my child how much she wants her classmates to know.  Some kids want to share everything, some kids are afraid.  But it’s been my experience that the sooner you talk about it, the faster it becomes normalized.  My child might not be able to do some sports, like contact sports that involve getting hit in the abdomen, and it’s good to have these discussions in the beginning, so my child can say, “It’s because of my kidney,” if other kids ask.

Because my child is likely to get sick and hospitalized, please help me to set up a 504 as quickly as possible, so that if she is out for more than 5 days in a row, she can get tutoring services, and if she misses a lot of school, I don’t want her to be left back a grade.

This is a lot to ask in the beginning of the school year, and I know that you have a lot to do.  But if you help to do these things early, it will make the school year go much smoother.  I like to think of us as a team to keep my  daughter as healthy as possible.  We sort of have “joint custody” over her body–I have her on nights and weekends, and you have her days.  Please take care of her.  I worry about her all the time, and I want to be able to trust you.

And please, please, please, call me if you have any questions or problems.  I want to hear from you.  I want to work this out together.

Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to me.

Sincerely,

Darcy Daniels