Happy World Kidney Day From Frank

Happy World Kidney Day from Frank!

Who is Frank, you may ask?

Frank is the name Wendy has given to her Kidney.

I don’t know why.  She’s always known that her kidney came from a boy, she’s often called it her “boy kidney”.  But for some reason, this year (after having the kidney for eight years), she decided to name it.

Frank.  (He’s pictured above in his stuffed animal plush form.)

Wendy will be celebrating World Kidney Day this year by living her normal, average day.  She’ll have school, come home, probably walk to the library, set the table, have dinner, and maybe go to the gym.  I remember when she was so super sick and hoping that someday we would have a normal life.  Well, here it is.

Some would argue that it’s not really normal.

In the past week, Wendy has had four appointments at the hospital.  Two were with doctors, one with her endocrine nurse, and one kidney ultrasound.  She handled them all like a pro, like someone who has been doing this for many, many years.  Because, she has.  In fact, both doctors commented on the fact that it has almost been TEN YEARS since Wendy originally got sick with e-coli.  They just couldn’t believe it.  A decade of Wendy.

This weekend she will be swimming in her swim meet championships.  Next weekend she will be running a 4.4 mile run for her diabetes camp.  In between she will play indoor soccer.  She’s raising money to go to the World Transplant Games in Spain in June.  This kid just keeps moving and we do all that we can to support her, along with her doctors and our family and friends.

Sometimes I feel like the luckiest person in the world.  March 9th is one of those days thanks to Wendy’s donor and all the people who love and support her, and us, by extension.

Happy World Kidney Day!  From Frank!  From Wendy!  And from the rest of us!

PS:  March 9th is a GREAT DAY to sign up to be an organ donor if you haven’t already.  Go to Donate Life America and register today!

 

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Compassion is Sometimes Foreign

A while ago, I was at a dinner sponsored by The Schwartz Center for Compassionate Care.  It was a dinner for all of the Patient and Family Advisory Councils of Massachusetts General Hospital.  We have eight of them, and so the room was quite filled with not only patients and families, but with administrators at all levels.

Unknowingly, I was sat next to the moderator who stood at the beginning of dinner, and asked us all to think of a  moment of compassionate care.  Then a runner went around the room with a microphone where people could share their stories.  And all of the stories were good ones, small acts of kindness that at the time made the pain of the moment more bearable.  We all have had those moments.  The truth is, I have a hundred stories of compassionate care, but I had chosen one of my favorite stories, one that truly went above and beyond.  It was the first one I had thought of.

I had no intention of sharing it with the larger group.

But the  moderator, at some point in this discussion, asked the microphone runner to come up to her, and then she looked at me and said, “Darcy, I bet you have one that you can share with the group.”

Busted.

So I stood up, and here is the story I told:

“My daughter, Wendy, was born healthy, but had an infection that shut down the small blood vessels of her body.  She spent over 180 days in the hospital.  At the time we were living in a small Vermont town, but we had to move down to the Boston area to be closer to the hospital, especially once we knew that Wendy needed a kidney transplant.  So once we moved, Wendy’s nephrologist, after Wendy’s [outpatient] appointment was over, looked at me and asked me how Wendy was doing with all of this, how we as a family were doing with all of this.

“I answered that our apartment was fine, transportation to and from the apartment was good, but I was worried because Wendy had no friends.  She couldn’t go to preschool because she was so medically compromised, and she had been in and out of the hospital for so long that she really didn’t have any interaction with any kids at all.

“The doctor looked at me, was silent for a second, and said, ‘I have a daughter.  She’s only a few years older than Wendy.  Let’s have them meet.’

“And so, maybe once a week for a number of weeks, we would meet at the Playground by the Frog Pond in Boston Common, and Wendy would play with Ashley.”

You could hear gasps in the banquet room.  Maybe because this was so unusual, maybe because it was so special. It wasn’t medical, it was emotional.  I wanted Wendy to have a friend in this new place where we lived.  Wendy’s doctor, as a mother, understood exactly what I needed, what Wendy needed.  She needed to feel like a normal kid.

Would it surprise you to know that I was asked to retell that story many times over the next few months?

I’ve been thinking about this doctor a lot lately.  This doctor, who when she goes on vacation, often will come back with a present for Wendy. This doctor who brought a snow globe for Wendy to hold while she got wheeled into the operating room when she was getting her kidney transplant.  This doctor, who when Wendy got air lifted  to the hospital while in heart failure and I couldn’t go on the helicopter with her, this doctor called me on my cell phone and told me not to worry, she would be there to meet the helicopter while Michael and I drove down from Vermont.  This doctor, whom recently when Wendy had an MRI and they told us it would be a week until they let us know (if Wendy had a brain tumor or lesions) went down herself and badgered a radiologist to read it with her, and then called me to tell me it was clear.

This doctor.  This doctor is an immigrant.

She is an Indian woman, Dr. Sharma.  Her accent is incredibly thick and she talks a mile a minute.  Her grammar and syntax are sometimes laughable.  She uses idioms wrong, like instead of saying, “You are between a rock and a hard place,” She would say, “You are between two hard places” and your brain has to figure out what she meant while she plows on with her rapid speech.  This doctor, whom the first time I met on the other side of Wendy’s bed in the PICU spoke so quickly and with such a thick accent I despaired that we were doomed because I hadn’t understood a word she said.

And yet, today, I can’t imagine our lives without her.

Shock waves went out among the medical community this past week with the new travel ban and executive order to build a wall along our southern border.  The truth is, the United States Medical system relies on immigrants.  Hospitals have had to scramble to figure out exactly what they are going to do, because the new President has made it very clear that his “America First” makes all immigrants suspect.  And yet, more than 25% of all physicians in the United States are foreign born.

So is America First just a slogan?  Does it mean America First with fewer immigrants, or does it mean America First with the best medical system in the world?

It seems to me, in a country that was founded on immigration, you need the best minds working on the hardest problems in medicine, in science, in public health.

No matter their country of birth.

 

 

To the Mother of Wendy’s Kidney Donor

Dear Mother of Wendy’s Kidney Donor.

Here we are.  Year eight.  Your son Dalton would be 22 if he still walked in this world.  There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him, or of you.  Not a day that goes by that I don’t include you in my prayers of gratitude and the hope that your heart is healing, though I know it will never be healed completely.  How could it be?

Last year, when I started this blog, I told you about how I remember the day of the transplant, how we honor your son, how we honor you.  This year, I thought maybe I’d tell you about all of the things that Wendy has been able to do because of Dalton’s kidney.  So, if you ever read this, I hope you’ll know that your child continues to live on in my child and together they are doing amazing things.

Dalton’s kidney has been to eight foreign countries:  The United Kingdom, France, Italy, Aruba, Canada, Mexico, The Cayman Islands, and The Bahamas.  It has been to twenty states.  His kidney has been snorkeling in Key West and skiing in Aspen.  It has been at the top of the Eiffel Tower.  It has been in the Coliseum.  It has been to Big Ben and Parliament.

Your son’s kidney has allowed Wendy to do amazing things physically.  She runs track, swims, plays soccer, and skis.  She runs triathlons and wins them.  She recently went to the American Transplant games where she competed in track and field and swimming events, and won nine medals. And she is going to the World Transplant Games this summer in Malaga Spain, where she will be competing for Team USA against other transplant patients from around the world.

Because of your child’s kidney, Wendy has used her experience to help other kids with a guide to the Emergency Department for Massachusetts General Hospital.  She won a national award for it, through the Patients’ View Institute, and when she got up to thank the organization for her award, she thanked you for your generosity in a moment of darkness.

Because of your child’s kidney, Wendy has been able to meet her sister. Together they have grown to love and torment each other as only sisters can do.

She has had eight more birthdays, eight more Christmases, eight more Easters.  She has had sleepovers, and lost teeth, scraped knees, and even gotten lice in those eight years.  She lives a very robust life.

This was all because you made a decision to donate your son’s organs, and I can’t thank you enough.

I do not know what you look like.  I do not know your job, or  your religion.  I do not know the color of your skin.   I don’t know if you are a Democrat or Republican, or maybe neither.  If you and I bumped into each other in a a crowd, I wouldn’t know it.  And yet, you have made such an impact on my daughter’s life, on my life, on the life of my family.  You have made an impact with all of those kids who come into the hospital and see that video.  You have made an impact with countless people, not just because of Wendy, but because of the other people you donated organs to.  I wish I could tell you in person how much I appreciate your decision, your sacrifice.

Someday, I imagine we will meet and I will be able to tell you.  Until then, I will continue to think of you, every day.

Yours truly,

Darcy Daniels

Understanding, But Not Sharing, Despair

I want to get this blog post just right, and yet I’m afraid that I will fail miserably.

But I’m going to try.

I read today about the Short family, a family from Pennsylvania who died of an apparent murder-suicide.  They had a chronically ill kid, a child who had received a heart transplant.  They had been featured in their local newspaper when their daughter Willow received the heart. The story was hopeful, it was upbeat.  There was a future thanks to a generous donor.  People like to think of it as a happy ending, but in reality organ donation is only a beginning.

A year later, the same family was featured in a New York Times article, detailing how hard it is to get the anti-rejection drugs compounded and filled, where it shows a picture of the mom dosing up the medicines, which by the way are the exact same medicines my daughter takes.  We have shared the same terror of worrying that you are going to run out of the medication that is keeping your daughter alive because of some stupid rule made by either the pharmacy or your insurance company.

In fact, up to this point, I know exactly how they feel.  Scared, hopeful, struggling.  There’s not a lot of place in this world for a sick kid.  I’ve said that for so many years now I feel like a broken record.  Not a lot of place, so parents of these kids keep fighting.  Fighting for prescriptions, fighting for 504s or IEPs in school.  Fighting for doctors’ appointments, fighting to be heard by doctors and nurses, by other hospital staff, by pharmacies and insurance companies.  Giving the thumbnail version of your child’s illness to every new person on the phone, every health care worker you meet, every time.

It’s exhausting.

And yet, none of us know what we sign up for as parents, and we have to move forward.  We are not just caregivers, but nurses, social workers, dieticians, pharmacists, and medical managers.  No one is going to do it for us, and no user manuals are included.

There are other kids in the family, kids who might not get as much attention as they deserve because the parents have to deal with the sick kid, the emergency, the crisis.  They are unwitting victims of the tragedy.  That adds pressure, too, the fact that you know you’re not able to be the kind of parent you want to be to all of your kids because there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

There are stresses with work, normal stresses, but nothing more stressful than the idea of losing your job, because you need those health insurance benefits more than anything else.  So you make fewer waves even if something might be wrong because you can’t afford to be unemployed.  There are sacrifices you make, as little as sleep or as large as a professional life, in service to the illness and the medical needs of the chronically ill child.

All of these problems contribute to difficulty in a marriage.  You promise to love, honor and cherish when things are at their brightest and the future has all sunshine and rainbows, but stress, bills, worry, and problems are unrelenting.  You are constantly afraid that the delicate balance you’ve constructed will get tipped again with an emergency. You are waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Damn, it’s really hard.

The mom in this tragedy blogged about her struggles with PTSD, from dealing with her daughter’s medical issues.  She talked about her survivor’s guilt, knowing that another child died while her child lived.  I can personally attest to that guilt, and have blogged about it before in my piece, Dear Mom of My Daughter’s Kidney Donor.  It is a unique and exquisite combination of gratitude and guilt that parents of kids who have received organs from deceased donors share.

Now there are five dead bodies, six if you include the dog, in a murder-suicide. A family that seemed very public about their struggles, struggles that I share as the parent of a chronically ill kid.  And I feel so many emotions connected to it.  Anger at the futility of it, and anger for the donor family too.  Sadness, a bottomless sadness for the family.  Horrible unrelenting understanding at the dark side of the situation.   Gratitude for the love and support from my family and friends, because through all of the many years now I have never, ever felt alone.

Because the truth is, that while there’s not a lot place in this world for sick kids, there’s not much place in this world for their parents either.  It’s only through the personal connections you have and make that carry you through the hard times.  It’s knowing you’re never alone, that there’s always someone there to listen, laugh with, or help you problem solve.  It’s combating the feeling of isolation with the knowledge that there’s always someone there for you, and you are there in return for them.

Hug the ones you love today and thank them.

My deepest sympathies and condolences to those who knew and loved the Short family.

The National Suicide Prevention 24 Hour Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

 

Ripple Effect

Have you ever heard a story that just stays with you?  Something that hits at your core, that makes you think about it, and re-think about it, and connect to it, and share it.  Maybe you have stayed in the car a little longer in a driveway because you are listening to “Story Corps” on NPR.  Maybe it’s something you’ve read on facebook.  Sometimes, you don’t realize how much a person’s story means to you, in your own journey to understanding and recovery from a diagnosis or the diagnosis of your child.

This recently was brought to my attention when a woman asked to be my facebook friend.  I was pretty sure I didn’t know her, had never met her, but there were a lot of people I had met at the American Transplant Games, and many of the mutual friends she and I had in facebook were those same people I had only recently met in Cleveland.  So I decided to accept her friend request and see who she really was.

What I didn’t know is that I had been reading her blog posts for over seven years.

Her daughter, Lacey, had gone through two organ transplants, both a heart and a kidney.  The heart transplant happened when Lacey was a baby, and after many years of immuno suppression (which isn’t great on the kidneys) her kidneys gave out too.  Lacey’s brother donated his kidney to her.  I had read all about it on their CarePage.

CarePages are a medical blog where you can update your loved ones about your condition. There are other ones like it, the most popular being CaringBridge.   We had been blogging about Wendy’s illness from the first week that we were at Massachusetts General Hospital.  It was helpful because it kept everyone updated without having to tell the same story over and over again.  It also was therapeutic for me to take stock of the day in the evening and determine what had gone well and what hadn’t.  In a hospital where certain events happens quickly between long periods of waiting, it was helpful to think through every day to process it all and write about it for our loved ones.   It was also bolstering because our loved ones could write messages of support for us and for Wendy at the bottom of every post, carrying us through to the next day.  There was an option to keep it private, to have people ask to join the group, and initially that’s what we did, kept it closed for only family and friends.

At the point where we were told that Wendy was going to need a kidney transplant, we had never met anyone who had gone through organ transplantation before, so I searched in Carepages and found Lacey Wood’s site.  It’s called LuckyLacey, and it told not only all about her journey as a heart transplant patient, but also as a kidney transplant patient.  It told all about her competitions in the American Transplant Games and the World Transplant Games.  It talked about her college that has a special section for kids with transplants who are going through various stages of transplantation so that they can get the best care they need while still going to college.  I learned so much from this site, that there was a warm, caring transplant community that connected each other to the best care and resources, that there was a celebration of life and living.

At a time when I was very scared, this blog especially gave me hope.

It also showed me what was possible for Wendy.  We never would have known about the American Transplant Games, or the Transplant Winter Camp, or the Chronic Illness Initiative at DePaul University.  We learned though Lacey’s journey and through the generosity of her words in her Carepages blog.

Her blog made me re-think our blog, WildWonderfulWendy.  What if our blog about HUS and kidney transplantation helped someone else the way that LuckyLacey helped us?  Michael and I talked about it and decided to make Wendy’s blog public.  

And now, years later, I’ve started this blog.  I outlined why I decided to write it in the first place in my first post, Brave Fragile Warriors.  I realized that being the parent of a chronically ill kid can be incredibly isolating.  You have so many feelings and not a lot of people who can relate to you.

We never know what impact we have on another’s life.  We don’t know what our ripple effect is.

When Lacey’s  mother contacted me to be my friend on facebook and I realized who she was, I sat down and wrote to her to let her know how much Lacey’s blog helped me through the fear and isolation of being the mom of a kidney transplant kid.  Otherwise she never would have known her own ripple effect.

It’s so important to share these moments, so other parents know they are not alone.  It’s equally important to share with others how much their stories touch our hearts, so that they may continue to write.  We are many stories, but the Same feelings of helplessness, fear and love.

Thanks for reading my stories. Please share your own, in the comments below or with your own blog and then let me know so I can read them.

Forward together is better than forward alone.

“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.

 

 

 

Find Your Tribe

It’s important to find groups and organizations who support you in your journey as a caregiver, both in the short term, and in the long run.
Wendy had a strange illness. It wasn’t a genetic defect, or cancer, or cystic fibrosis. She was born completely healthy. Her illness was a result of a bacterial infection that turned into a syndrome. As a result, there weren’t a lot of support or advocacy groups out there.
Advocacy groups are great. They are a clearing house for information , because usually the thing you worry about for your child is a normal worry associated with that illness. There are so many advocacy groups out there for cystic fibrosis, heart disease, low birth weight, cancer of all kinds, food allergies Crohn’s disease, kidney disease, you name it. Many times you can find a local chapter of your needed advocacy group nearby and it helps to talk to people who are going through exactly what you are going through.
We found that though the syndrome didn’t have an advocacy group, that there were other avenues we could travel down for the same kind of support. One was STOP foodborne illness, which is an advocacy group that supports people who have been struck by illness associated with food, like e-coli or salmonella. They do work in the legal sphere trying to cut down the use of antibiotics in factory farming, but they also support people who have been struck down by the illnesses they are trying to prevent.
We also turned to the diabetes advocacy groups. As a result of her illness, Wendy’s pancreas works at 15%, which means that she needs insulin on a daily basis to digest her carbs and sugars. She’s neither a type 1 or a type 2 diabetic, but she has the same concerns as a diabetic kid. She feels isolated and left out as a result of her illness, because she’s the only one who has to check her sugar, count her carbs and give herself insulin. She LOVES being in a room where everyone else is doing those things too. She loves to go to diabetes camp as a result. She loves to belong to a bigger group.
We also are a part of the transplant community. This one is a little more ambiguous. It’s multi-age, and multi-organ because there aren’t many people in the world who have organ transplants. I like this group because it’s amazing to sit in a room full of people who wouldn’t otherwise be there except for the generosity of a donor or a donor’s family. And as a result, the people who are the recipients just radiate gratitude. They know they’ve been given a second chance in life. They know what’s important.
Part of being in groups like these isn’t just receiving their collected wisdom, it’s also about participating and giving your energy as well. It’s just as important to give back, once you are in a place to do so. Obviously you can’t give back when you are in a time of crisis, nor does anyone expect you to. But once you’ve calmed down, it’s important to give back to an organization that you have used as a support and an anchor. I’m not just talking about money, but manpower as well. Wendy does a run every year to raise money for her diabetes camp, The Barton Center. It’s a summer camp dedicated to diabetic girls, with nurses in every cabin. It emphasizes self reliance and not putting barriers on yourself. It brings in speakers who are both diabetic and amazing, like triathletes or ultra marathoners. It shows the girls that anything is possible, and diabetes is just a part of their identity, not their whole identity.
Wendy also is going to participate in the American Transplant Games this year, in Cleveland Ohio. She is going with Team New England and she is going to participate in both the swimming and the track and field events, and she’s going to kick butt if I do say so myself. But more importantly, Wendy’s participation and the participation of all of the transplant recipients showcases the worth of organ donation. When you see all of the people who have been touched by organ donation, in one convention center, it is a very powerful thing.  I’m sure that I will be blogging from there in June.
It’s not just about joining a group, and I can’t stress this enough. As a parent of a chronically ill kid, your time is stretched too thin already. It’s about finding meaning and purpose in a group, and it might be a group that isn’t centered around your child’s illness, exactly, but will still do a world of good.
The best thing that I do is sit on the Family Advisory Council at Massachusetts General Hospital. It’s a body that is half parent and half provider-staff. We meet once a month and help to make the hospital better for all children. Often we are a resource to proofread new source material for the public, give feedback on architectural designs for new departments, or run workshops on staff helpfulness. We speak to new residents about what it’s like to be the parents of kids who are in the hospital a lot. We sit on hospital wide committees for quality and safety, ethics, or inpatient satisfaction. We even sponsor a Grand Rounds once a year that focuses on family centered care. It not only improves care for every child through fostering communication between provider, parent and patient, but it makes the hospital better for MY daughter, every time. I know more of the doctors, more of the nurses. At the very least the residents and fellows have all seen my face, and I know a lot of the attending physicians by name. It keeps a connection so that the next time we go in to the hospital (because there will always be a next time) that we’re not met with brand new faces in a large city hospital. I honestly think it’s some of the best, most measurable, work I do on a macro scale.
Another benefit of being on the FAC at Mass General is that I also come in contact with parents just like me who are not only concerned, but passionate about making the hospital better, who come to the work not out of anger because of the hand they have been dealt, but constructively taking their experiences and working with doctors, nurses, and staff to collectively make the hospital stay better. Honestly, sometimes I look around that room and marvel, the men and women sitting at the table could be considered “professional hospital parents” because their child (or children) have been inpatients so often, some of whom have passed away as a result of their illnesses, and yet they choose extra time to be there, in the evening, to work out the snags and make the hospital better. I take strength from their strength.
Being the parent of a chronically ill kid is isolating, but there are places of refuge. Advocacy groups, hospital committees, or even online groups. But don’t just be a bystander, don’t just be a taker. Give back. Your contribution not only makes the organization stronger, but makes you stronger as well.

Find your Tribe.

Everyone benefits, and as a result, there are flashes of brightness in the dark. Together you can find a way to make your child’s illness better, and hopefully the experiences of other families better too.

The Magnitude of Small Choices

We’ve tried really hard to let Wendy help to steer her medical road, but it hasn’t always been easy.

She got sick when she was three, so in the beginning, we did most of the steering.  But even still, we tried to give her as many choices as we could.  We would let her choose which finger she wanted to get her blood stick for her diabetes.  We would let her choose her 15 carb snack if she was low.  After a doctor’s appointment, we would let her choose where she wanted to go for lunch. You get the idea, little choices, but ones that gave her a stake in her own care, which we felt was important.

As she got older, she started to take more control.  She liked to negotiate with the phelbotomist or the IV nurse where she thought the best place for her IV site should be.  She liked to help flush the lines with the nurse.  She would ask for warm packs for her IV site or warm blankets if she was in the Emergency Room.

When she neared the age to go up to the next floor at the hospital, somewhere around 6 or 7, she would state very clearly to the Emergency Room nurse that she preferred to be on Ellison 17 (which is the younger floor) because she knew and liked all the nurses there.

When she is an inpatient, we choose to have bedside rounding, so the doctors all come into the room to discuss the problem and what the plan for the day will be.  She watches us ask questions of the doctors and we always ask her if she has questions, or has anything to add to the conversation.  Most of the time, she doesn’t have any questions, but it’s important to us for her to see the exchange as this is going to be a regular part of her life and she is a part of her care team.

When she is released and we have our normal clinic visits, on the drive in I ask her if she has any concerns or if she plans on asking the doctor any questions about her care.  We also talk about the right way to address doctors and nurses and I remind her that no screens are to be on when a doctor or nurse is in the room.

When she was ten years old, she wanted to start packing her own lunch, but she didn’t have much of an idea of carbs versus protein, so I set up an appointment with a nutritionist who went through it with her.  (She didn’t want to listen to me, I was her mom.) We set up a list of things that needed to be in each lunch:  a protein, a carb, a fruit, a vegetable and a dessert.  We made a list like a Chinese food menu, pick from columns ABCD & E.  We went to the supermarket so she could pick out her favorite fruit and vegetable for the week.  And we put down each item on the chart along with the carb count.  She would choose from ABCD & E, find the carbs for each, and create her own itemized list of the food on a post-it note to give to the school nurse, just like I did every day for her.

When she was eleven, we got her a cell phone so she could more easily go over to friends’ houses without a parent present because these were no longer little kid “play dates”.  She checks her own sugar, and texts me the information about how much she is going to eat, sometimes taking a picture of the plate so that we can figure out the carbs.  When she started sleeping over at friends’ houses, she sets herself an alarm at 2 am to check her own sugar, and then texts her father the number, to make sure that she is in the normal range.

She knows she gets sicker faster than other kids because she is immune suppressed and she knows to wash her hands before each meal.  Sometimes she snacks when she’s  not supposed to, but just like the rest of us, it’s hard to pass an open bag of chips and not take a handful.  She knows that she can’t have “open food” at a buffet, and she knows to get her food first when we are at a party before other kids “double dip” or lick their fingers.

When she says she doesn’t feel good, I ask her if she thinks it’s serious enough to go to the hospital and I trust her answer.  We talk about her symptoms, call the doctor, and make the best decision based upon the information we have.

I always tell her that we are a team and we will get through her illness together.

These are all conscious, concerted efforts.   It’s not easy to plan all of these ways to empower Wendy, but both Michael and I think it’s important. She’s twelve, and she has a lot of issues to deal with, but it’s important to know that she can take care of herself, both for her self esteem and for our peace of mind.  We want to nurture in her a strong sense of self, complete with all of her aspects.  We want to show here that we are a team:  her doctors, her parents and herself.  She needs to know that she can interact well and intelligently with the medical world, because she will need them for the rest of her life.  It would be so much easier to do these things for her, but it’s important to show her how to do them herself.  Like the old adage of teaching a man to fish, we are showing Wendy  how to navigate the medical world, trust her instincts,  and be a strong self-advocate.

Probably the road will get bumpy again as we encounter the teenage years, but that’s all a part of it.  It’s just important to lay the foundation that she can do this, we can do this, we are a team, and she will have us when she needs us.  It’s all any parent wants for their child, but it is both especially challenging and especially important for the parent of a chronically ill child.  It takes planning, preparation, determination and the willingness to watch your kids safely fail.

These small choices add up to a great result:  a strong confident woman ready to commit to self care and interact with her health care providers.

At least, that is the hope.

 

 

Dear Mom of My Daughter’s Kidney Donor

Dear Mom of My Daughter’s Kidney Donor,

In just a few days we will celebrate the seventh anniversary of my daughter’s life saving operation, the successful graft of your son’s kidney.  Every year I prepare for this day, that is filled with such conflicting emotions.

You see, my daughter was so very sick and had been for almost two years at that point.  She was on five different blood pressure medicines.  Her heart had been weakened.  She was only allowed 750 mililliters of fluid a day, that we handed out to her a tablespoon at a time.  She was on fourteen different medications, that we gave to her every two hours around the clock.  We checked her blood pressure twice a day.  We checked her blood sugar eight times a day.  She was on a low potassium, low sodium, low magnesium diet.  She had two doctors’ appointments per week, one blood draw per week, and we spoke to her doctors twice a day on the phone.

Our lives revolved around keeping her alive.  There was no respite.

It was difficult to acknowledge  that I couldn’t be the donor, nor could my husband, nor could any immediate family members.  We had to jump through the hoops of getting on the list for a deceased organ donor, and we had to fight the insurance company to let us have the operation at the hospital that we considered to be our medical home, rather than the hospital on the other side of the city that the insurance company did the most business with.

Weeks went by and she continued to fail.  The doctors kept saying “Keep her healthy, the kidney is going to be coming soon.”  Her blood pressures were increasingly more difficult  to control.  I remember planning for her fifth birthday on January 9th, a swimming party at our local pool and while getting all of the decorations ready, breaking down and weeping because I wasn’t sure that she was going to have another birthday and then pulling myself together because it was going to be happy, dammit, it was going to be her best birthday.

We had a false alarm.  A kidney was ready.  We raced to the PICU, we brought her to surgery.  We went upstairs and waited.  The surgeon looked at the kidney and turned it down.  We were devastated.  I  can’t tell you how horrible that night was.  Wendy had finally reached the point where she had to go on dialysis, and so a few days later she went back into surgery to have the catheter placed.  I had to go for training to learn how to run the dialysis from home.  Supplies were ordered and sent to our apartment near the hospital.

To add to the worry, I was six months pregnant and wondered how long I was going to be able to keep everything together. These memories always are accompanied by the heaviness of pregnancy.  I wondered when the baby arrived, if I was going to be able to do everything that needed to be done.

On the night of January 31st, Wendy was in the hospital recovering from her catheter placement.  The nurse came in excited.  There was a kidney on its way.  We were to prep for surgery.  Now.  Wendy’s nephrologist came over from her home and brought Wendy a snow globe to keep her busy while we got her ready.  It was a weekend, at night, so the operating floor wasn’t busy.  In fact, it was really, really quiet.  I wasn’t allowed to go into the surgery with Wendy because of my pregnancy, so I waited in the hall, looking in to the surgery theater when the door opened.

I remember when the fellow walked down the hall with the kidney.  In my memory, the hallway feels very long, but I don’t know if it actually is in reality.  The kidney was in a wax covered cardboard box. The fellow carried it carefully, but had to put her mask on before entering the surgery room, and so she held onto the box with one hand and put the mask on with the other, and I worried that she would drop it!  Seriously, don’t they have a cart or something?

Finally, Wendy got settled, they got started, and we had to wait.  Again.  We got the call that everything went well and we were to meet them in the PICU around 2 am, February 1st.  We saw her come up in her bed.  The kidney had already produced urine.  After almost two years, it felt like a miracle.

From that day forward, she has continued to thrive.  Medicines were shaved down and removed altogether.  She progressively got stronger and stronger, exceeding what her doctors even expected.  Today, she runs a mile in under seven minutes, she competes in triathlons and wins them.  She plays soccer, skis, swims competitively.  She is an amazing and compassionate kid, a good big sister, thoughtful beyond understanding.  She is the kid that gets up for the old lady on the train.  She is the kid who gives her balloon up when the toddler loses his to the air above.

She still has hurdles, still has health issues.  She is still a diabetic, she still takes medication daily, worries about infections, has some dietary restrictions.  But in comparison these are manageable things.

We call the anniversary of her transplant her “Kidneyversary” and celebrate it like a birthday, with friends coming over, chili for dinner (kidney beans!) and a cake.

But, Mother of my Daughter’s Kidney Donor, I have felt guilty about celebrating the life of my child when your child has died.  That the best day of my life, the fulcrum of it, the time stamp where everything else is measured against it as “before the transplant” or “after the transplant” seems horribly unfair knowing that it is also the fulcrum for your life as well but for the opposite reason, the nightmare of every parent.

My only solution to this has been to make the official date of the transplant in my mind be February 1st, when the surgery was finished, not when it began the night before.  On the 31st of January, I give you the day to mourn, and I mourn with you, for the life of your child,  your fourteen year old boy, who would have been twenty one this year.  It is the next day that I celebrate in gratitude for your amazing gift to my family.

Wendy knows about your son, that her kidney is  a “boy kidney” as she calls it.  We give thanks to you and your family at our holiday toasts, I give thanks for your every day in my morning meditations.

I guess ultimately, what I want you to know is how often I think of you, and your son, and your sacrifice.  Your gift is truly a gift of grace, one that you gave and expect nothing in return.  In fact, your gift can not be measured, and there is nothing I can do to repay  you.  I can only be grateful.

This letter is written to you to let you know that I truly am.  Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Sincerely,

Darcy Daniels