Please Ask Me About My Bikini

This summer, I will be wearing a bikini.  Not because I lost a lot of weight.

I haven’t.

Not because I have a burning desire to wear a bikini again.

I don’t.

The reason is because I have two daughters, and I want to show them that bikinis are ok, no matter who wears them.  Short, tall, skinny, fat, no matter the skin tone or the cellulite.

Let me tell you how hard this is for me.  I haven’t worn a bikini since I was in high school.  I’m not a small woman.  I don’t especially like to be looked at, especially when I’m in a bathing suit.   I couldn’t find a single picture of myself in a bathing suit, even though I lived across the street from the ocean for all of my childhood and went to the beach almost every single day.

Like most women,  I am very conscious of my weight, and am a product of a lifetime assault by the media about what my body should be.  I was on my first diet when I was in the third grade.  I read all those teen magazines trying to determine my shape and size.  I’m a pear, by the way.  I went through the low fat phase, I’ve joined Weight Watchers and LA Weight Loss.  Until this last house purchase, I didn’t own a full length mirror because I never especially liked what I saw, so I chose not to look.  Like our President who gives women a number, I graded myself with letters.  I was an A-B-C:  A intellect, B face, C body.

My parents have also always been on a perpetual diet, trying to lose weight for the next event:  reunions or cruises or the next beach season. My mother went through the slim fast phase, the cabbage soup diet, the grapefruit diet, the magical drops diet.  You name it.  They also were especially helpful monitoring my diet as a kid, limiting my portions, especially of sweets.

Since I’ve had daughters, I have tried mightily to not transfer my weight issues to my girls.  Our goal as a family is to eat healthy foods, make good choices, and stay active.  I’ve been in road races and triathlons.  I swim at least once a week.  The girls are active in team sports and individual competitions.  We don’t have women’s magazine in the house.  We don’t even have a scale in the house because I didn’t want the girls to see me worry about my weight.

So it came as a surprise to me when my daughter, Wendy, didn’t want to wear a bikini.  She’s thirteen, very active, and pretty self assured.  She also swims competitively.  The thing is, that a bikini would be so much easier for her because she has two medical devices on her body because of her diabetes:  an insulin pump called an OmniPod and a continuous glucose monitor.  A one piece bathingsuit is harder to get on and off and has a much better chance of knocking off the devices, causing lots of trouble (our insurance only covers so many applications per month).

Because she’s thirteen, I thought maybe it was a body image thing, as in, she’s got all these new curves now, so maybe she’s not exactly sure what to do about them.  So I talked to her about it, saying I really wanted her to try a bikini, that I’m sure we could find one she was comfortable in.

She replied no, over and over again.  It turns out that she doesn’t want people to see her scars.

Wendy has a constellation of scars on her abdomen.   The right hand side is from some intestinal surgeries.  The left hand side is from her kidney transplant, and the star shaped scar on the top is from a peritoneal dialysis catheter.  The truth is, you don’t really notice them, at least I don’t.  They’re not ugly or red or jagged.  When she’s examined by surgical residents at the hospital, they look at them in wonder, like they’re kids looking at the window of a candy store.  Those scars, to me, show me that she is a warrior, and they’re something to be proud of.

But she was afraid that people would see them and ask her about them, and she would be forced to give her whole medical history at the pool or the beach.  I get it:  that’s a lot for a thirteen year old.

So we made a deal.  If she was willing to try on some bikinis, and found one she liked, that I would wear a bikini too.  I told her, “Don’t worry kid, If I’m wearing a bikini next to you, nobody is going to be looking at your scars.”

Well guess what? She didn’t just find one bikini she liked, she found two.

So…I’m not going to lie…..I panicked a little.

I am ashamed to admit that my first instinct was to go on some radical diet, but what exactly would that showcase to my daughters?  That only perfect bodies wear bikinis?  Wrong.

I told some of my best friends, who had a myriad of reactions. Some sent me suggestions that were over the top, ridiculous.  Star Wars themed, gold mesh, or string bikinis that  were smaller than a tissue. I wouldn’t be able to blow my nose on a triangle that small.  Some friends asked me if I could take it back, go back on my word, or wear a tankini.  That  would reduce Wendy’s trust in me, so I couldn’t do that.  Some friends shared their own insecurities or their negative body image.  Some friends applauded me.

Buying a bikini wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, but I found a lovely size 12 black bikini with white polka dots.  I bought a lovely cover up to go with it.  I’ve got a hat.

One thing is certain:  I’m going to need a lot more sunblock.

I’m not going to say that I’m going to love every minute  of wearing this bikini in public.  But I am going to “fake it until I make it” with confidence.  That is the very least I can do for my daughters.

I want them to know that their bodies are beautiful and powerful and theirs alone to love.

So this summer, if you see me, and I’m in my bikini, please ask me about it.

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Giving Yourself Time

Caring for the Caregiver, Part One.

No one ever says “I want to be the parent of a chronically ill kid.”  No one.  Ever.  Yet, here we are, extra worry, extra stress, sometimes extra pounds due to poor eating choices.  We move forward because we have to, there is no one else who is going to carry this burden for us, though we cherish our friends all the more deeply because they do lighten our loads in more ways than we thought possible.

So you take care of your sick kid, and you take care of your family, and you talk to doctors and pharmacists and insurance companies.  You take care of your house, animals, house plants if you have them.  But do you take care of yourself?  Have you taken steps to make sure that you are as healthy as you can be?

I know the answer:  probably not.

Because we always put ourselves last.

But that’s not the right thing to do, for a number of reasons.  First of all, you are showing your kids that it’s ok to not take care of your body.  In this world, that is not what we want to be showing our children, we want to show them that their bodies are super important and will carry them through the rest of their lives.  When my daughters get their new teeth in, I say to them, “Take care of that tooth, it has to last ninety-five more years,” and they laugh at me, but I’m being serious.  This is the only body they get.  Yours is the only body you get.  You have to show them that it’s sacred.

Next reason:  you can’t be the best person you can be unless you take care of yourself.  You will eventually collapse.  It’s true, and you know it.  We all want to think that it won’t happen to us, but we all know, secretly, that it will.  But we can’t create more hours in the day, so what exactly do we do?

When I was a stressed out college student, I went to the counseling center, and the counselor there gave me a week’s calendar.  It was broken up by hour.  Twenty-four blocks for each day.  Imagine.  Then he had me block off eight hours for sleep a night and three hours for eating.  That was eleven hours, and it still gave me thirteen.  After then blocking out the time for each class, and time for studying for each class, I was amazed to see how much time I had left.  I am a visual learner, so this helped me actually see my days.

This is a great excercise, I highly recommend doing it.  (Make sure you give yourself the 8 hours of sleep and three hours to eat!)

https://www.template.net/business/schedule-templates/24-hour-schedule/

Ok, now you can see your day.  What are you going to do for you?  Small steps yield big results. I would first recommend daily meditation.

You read that right:  daily meditation.

Here’s what you need to do.  Find a spot, the same spot every day.  Sit down.  Clear your mind, breathe, and just be.  I know, I know, you think that this is impossible, that you have too many things running in your brain to shut down, and I can tell you, it takes practice, it takes discipline.

I sit at the side of my bed, on the floor cross legged.  I concentrate on my breath, four counts in, four counts out.  I ground myself with a mantra.  Everyone’s mantra is different.  It’s the thing that you can say that tells you that this is your moment.  My mantra is two sentences.  I say them, and then I let my thoughts go.  And I sit in breathing stillness, for about ten minutes.

I didn’t start with ten minutes.  I started with two.  I would set a timer.  And then I worked out to three, then four, up to ten.  My girls know that this is an important time for me, because I’ve told them so. Actually I told them unless they’re bleeding or on fire not to interrupt me during my ten minutes.

Here’s what happens.  My breathing slows.  My mind sometimes thinks of things, but I let them go.  My body tells me what is hurting, so I often do a few stretches after the meditation.  (I actually call this my stretching and meditation time.) Sometimes my intuition tells me to check in on certain people during the day (It’s amazing what your subconscious picks up and you don’t realize it.  Which kid is feeling left out, who is acting stressed, etc.)  Then I end with thanking God (or the Universe if that’s what you prefer) for all of my blessings, sometimes naming them, sometimes not.  Then I take a deep breath in, breathe out, stand up, and start my day.

So basically, I take deep breaths, I listen to my body and my intuition, and I express gratitude.

Not so hard, right?

I try to do this every day, but in reality I might miss once or twice a week. In those days I notice that I’m more scattered with my thoughts, I might get flustered or angry easier.  But the good news is that the more you do it, the better you feel.  And though I do it first thing in the morning, you can do it anytime.  I have been known to meditate another time in a day if I know my evening will be stressful, it’s not often, but I know I can go back to that space and give myself a few moments to collect myself.

This may seem too New Age for you, and I get that.  But taking a few moments every day to check in with yourself can only help you.  If you start, let me know a few months down the road how you’re doing.

Time management and giving yourself time.  Imagine how much better you will feel.  Good luck.

Impatient, Empowered

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Support For the Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Fourth of July we saw the fireworks.

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

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

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

For New Years, we saw the fireworks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

What If I Don’t Know the Answer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A team relies on trust.

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

“What if I don’t know the answer?”

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

They are afraid that they will look like a fraud.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

“A Difficult Decision Was Made”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to follow.

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

Pattern of Acceptance

Once you get a diagnosis, how do you get to the point where you’ve accepted what’s happening to you, your child, your family, your life?

You may have heard of the Kubler-Ross model of grief.  At first it was applied to death and dying, but it has been spread out to many different kinds of grief.  You probably read about it in your psychology college textbook, because it’s not new.  I ran across it when Wendy was in the hospital and I realized that I was mourning our old life, the life before Wendy got sick, so I did some searching and rediscovered the Kubler-Ross model.  I am by no means a psychologist, but this helped me to get some perspective on our situation with a new diagnosis and a child that was never going to be the same again.  It’s a scary time, and your feelings and emotions run the whole gamut.  Sometimes I still check in to see where I am on the continuum.

But now, I like to think of it more as a pattern of acceptance than stages of grief.

Denial:  The first reaction is denial. In this stage individuals believe the diagnosis is somehow mistaken, and cling to a false, preferable reality.  I remember thinking not that the doctors were wrong in everything they were telling me in the “Room of Doom” in the PICU, but I remember thinking that they must be exaggerating.  They weren’t.  I hoped that once we got home Wendy would improve.  She didn’t.  I remember the night I realized that she wasn’t going to get better.  She just wasn’t.

Anger:   This is often accompanied by guilt.   “Why me? Why her?  What did we do to deserve this?”  I remember walking up and down the streets of Beacon Hill being jealous of families that were enjoying the summer.  There was a woman who was yelling at her child by the “Make Way for Ducklings” statues because he had gotten his hands dirty from his ice cream cone and it was all I could do to tell her to get over it, enjoy this moment, because your kid could be in the hospital right now.  Thankfully I kept my mouth shut.

Bargaining:  This is a hard one.  It involves the hope that we can somehow avoid this outcome.   I could understand why people go to the ends of the earth to find a miracle cure for their child.   People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise.  Sometimes it works.  My father said if Wendy survived that he would quit smoking.  You get the idea.  It’s trying to find what you can do to change the situation.

Depression:  This stage can last a long, long time, and some people argue that in part of this stage, Anger comes back.  Everything feels hopeless and you feel rudderless.  All of your expectations and plans have to either be put on hold or moderated. You wonder how it can all be so hard, and why it’s so unfair, especially for your child.  You might want to find a counselor to talk through your feelings.  It’s really hard for a long time, and then at some point you realize it’s not quite as hard, and you slowly move toward the next stage.

Acceptance:  “We’ve got this”.  This is the idea of doing the best you can with what you’ve got.  Gratitude sets in and you might find yourself being happy and being surprised at the happiness. You realize that life is moving on and you’re moving on with it.

I think, though, that for parents of chronically ill kids, that there can often be another stage:

Empowerment:  This is the stage where both you and your child take the hand you’ve been dealt and play it.  When you join advocacy groups, when you allow you child to re-join sports or after school activities or when you begin to travel again.  When you do the things you love even with the obstacle, even when it’s not exactly the same. You may be a mentor to other parents of chronically ill kids, or you may write or speak to groups.  Or you might not.  Just doing the best you can is enough, and it’s inspiring to others.

Other members of your family will find acceptance at different rates.  For us, one family member stayed longer in anger, one stayed longer in bargaining.  It’s totally an individual journey, and it’s important to realize that we don’t all come to the same understanding at the same time.  It takes a really long time to be ok with your life not being what you expected, and a new normal grows and takes hold, along with real, genuine happiness and gratitude.

The other thing that I want to say is that in this continuum, you might be knocked backward into other stages or have to start all over again with a new diagnosis.  We’ve been dealing with some new symptoms for Wendy and I’ve lately been keenly aware that we might be starting this cycle all over again, but that’s OK, we’ve done it before and we will do it again.  But that won’t mean it’s not difficult, or heart breaking, or painful or nerve-wracking, it just is.

Finally….when Kubler-Ross was interviewed years later, she said that she regretted putting the stages of grief into concrete categories, because while these are common stages, they aren’t definitive.  Where is room for confusion?  For frustration?  For complications?  For disillusionment?  These things that you feel, they are normal to feel.  Being aware about them, being in touch with your feelings and being able to both experience them and express them, will hopefully help you to heal.  Be gentle with others who are on this path with you.

Empathy goes a long way in the healing process.

Picture:  A winding road in Tuscany, leading to Montalcino.

 

Dear Doctor S—-

Dear Doctor S—-

I want to thank you.  Really.   Even though you gave us bad news, I want to thank you for your approach, courtesy, and helpfulness.

Truthfully, we don’t know you well.  Wendy goes to see you once a year, to get new glasses.  We were just there a few months ago.  But in the last month or so, she was having a hard time seeing again, and I thought maybe it was growth or puberty or whatever, and I took her back to you.  I had Penny in tow as it was school vacation week.

You remembered all of us and asked us each questions about work, school, sports, and our town.  You spoke about people we knew in common.  You were ok with Penny playing on the floor of the room while you conducted your exam.  You don’t know how much I appreciated that, most of the time doctors find the extra child to be tiresome at best and a nuisance at worst.  You totally went with the flow of our chaotic life.

You examined Wendy and realized that it wasn’t really her vision that was off, that her prescription didn’t need to change that much, so you looked for more problems.  It turned out that Wendy was seeing double.  You examined her and you asked her good questions.  She had a hard time explaining some things, and you encouraged her by telling her that you know these things are hard to explain, but she was doing a good job and she should keep going and he would ask questions for clarification.  Doctors don’t do this often enough, not only did you engage Wendy, but you encouraged her, and when she didn’t have the right words, you asked thoughtful, non-threatening questions to help her.  Then you let her and Penny go out to pick glasses.

And this is a small thing, but I need to mention it.  Your staff was totally fine with both girls trying on as many glasses as they wanted to, and Penny didn’t even need them.  They let them try on a hundred glasses, or what seemed like it.  They were patient when the girls wanted to try on the crazy cat eye glasses or the pointy square glasses.  Eventually they narrowed Wendy down to five pairs, then three, then two, but they let the girls explore and have fun in the process of finding just the right pair.  No one judged them, no one told them no, no one worried they were going to break something (except perhaps me.)

While the girls tried on their fashion accessories, you told me about your concerns.  Based upon Wendy’s medical history, her medications, and her symptoms,  that I should speak to her specialists immediately, and that I should contact her pediatrician and make an appointment. You answered all my questions.  You continued that I should ask about a neurology consult and that this likely will lead to more tests.  All of these things you did firmly but not in a way to try to scare me.  You just let me know that something was wrong, it was serious, and we needed to look into it.  Then, and this is important, you helped me by telling me EXACTLY how to look into it.

I’ve been doing this a long time now doctor, almost nine years.  I pretty much consider myself a professional hospital parent, and I have to tell you that you did everything right.  Your exam was thorough, you were ok with the extra kid, you validated Wendy and her explanations, you explained your concerns to me, and you helped show me the way to the next step.

I don’t know what the outcome will be, this is a new needle in the haystack of Wendy’s medical conditions, but I want to tell you how much I appreciated our encounter yesterday.

Yours truly,

Darcy Daniels