Diabetic Misadventures In Italy

I love coming back from vacation and telling my friends and family about it.  Ok, I don’t really love coming back from vacation, but I do love sleeping in my own bed, petting my kitty cats and seeing friends that I’ve missed.  This year was a very special trip to Italy and its large southern island of Sicily.  While there, we visited with family and friends, we returned to the site of our marriage fifteen years ago, and we saw amazing places along the way.

Upon our return to the States, I tell our friends and family about swimming in the Tyrrhenian Sea, about eating at the same restaurant we did on our wedding night.  I talk about the flavors of Gelato, beautiful candy and earth colors of them lined up along the freezer, and of choosing new flavors like jasmine or pistachio-chocolate or green fig.  I tell them about the massive Greek temple ruins that the girls clambered along, about the graceful Baroque churches, or about the bell-towers or domes we climbed to get the best view.  I might tell them about the harrowing drives along the Amalfi Coast, with narrow roads hugging the cliffs or navigating traffic in Sicily where the street signs and traffic lights are more like suggestions than laws to native Italian drivers.  Maybe I share stories of encounters with the locals, like the sausage man who threw rings of salami in the air to the kids and persuaded us to buy a link as long as my seven-year-old’s arm.  These are the stories I tell them.  These are the stories that they want to hear.amalfi coast

But vacations are not all wonderful moments, and when you have a child with special health care needs, you not only have to plan more, but you have to be ready to roll with the punches when they come along, and that’s all a part of the journey, but not a part anyone wants to hear about.

My twelve year old has multiple health problems, but one of them is that she is a type one diabetic, which means that she cannot produce her own insulin to digest carbohydrates.  We have to give her insulin with every meal based upon what she eats so that she will stay healthy.  This has to be given subcutaneously, or under the skin, in order for it to work.

The first moment of terror for me this vacation was when I realized, suddenly, that we had foolishly forgotten the extra insulin for my daughter at home.  We had enough for a week, but we would be away a few days longer than that.  Calls were made to our insurance company, and we discussed overnight shipping, ice packs, and reliable addresses.  This didn’t sound like a good option.  So I learned how to say in Italian, “My daughter is a diabetic, and I would like to buy some more insulin,” Normally, my Italian is limited to restaurant menus and directions to the WC, so this was a stretch. We were in a tiny hill town called Castel Gandolfo, some twenty miles south of Rome, it holds the summer palace of the pope and contains the dairy cows used to make his special milk.  It sits on the edge of an old volcanic crater that now has a lake.  Our apartment looked out over the lake and we could walk the whole circumference of the hill town in under a half hour.  We went to the first farmacia, the Italian word for pharmacy, with a green fluorescent cross outside its door, located in the shadow of the summer palace. The pharmacist understood what I was trying to say, but told me in Italian that he didn’t have what I needed, but not to worry, other farmacias would, I just needed to keep looking.  Ok, onto the next stop.castello gandolfo

This was the town of Amalfi, when fifteen years earlier my husband and I got married in the presence of a handful of close friends and family.  We had planned to have dinner at the same restaurant as we did on our wedding night, so we arrived early to the town, walked around and waited for the restaurant to open.  I spotted a farmacia tucked away in a little square.  Amalfi is a seaside community, with steep cliffs and rocky beaches, and I was standing in line at the farmacia with beach goers who had gotten too much sun or mothers that needed more formula for their babies.  But luck was with me, the woman at the farmacia produced what I needed:  a vial of Humulog.  I finally was able to relax knowing that we could take care of our daughter for the whole vacation, and get insulin as we needed it.

noto dome

Which was good, because we needed it again, in a more dire way.  My daughter wears an insulin pump, and we were in the small Baroque town of Noto in south east Sicily.  We were admiring the large cathedral in town that was showing off its new dome, because the old dome had collapsed in the 1990s and it had just been reconstructed.  The church was beautiful, clean, cream colored, with gorgeous statues along the walls and spacious pews making the whole church feel light and airy.  When we heard the high pitched alarm, we knew immediately what it was, Wendy’s insulin pump had malfunctioned, and needed to be replaced.  I sat in a corner of the church looking at a statue, getting out the medical supplies, and making a new “pod” of insulin so we could put it back on Wendy.  That involves disconnecting the old pump, filling a new one with a large syringe and a vial of insulin, making sure it works, then re-attaching it, and turning it back on.  I wondered if anyone was going to stop me with the large medical bag and beeping equipment, but no one did.    I filled the new pod with the last of the insulin, and then I handed it to Wendy to apply it in a bathroom with an alcohol pad.  Normally I would help her, but Italian bathrooms are notoriously tiny, so she did it herself.

We walked around the lovely town thinking we had dodged a bullet, climbing the bell tower and looking at the magnificent view, but when we found a local trattoria and ordered our dinner, we noticed that Wendy’s blood glucose was too high and gave her a bolus of insulin before dinner.  It didn’t work and she went higher, so we gave her another bolus, but that didn’t work either.  Something was wrong.

It turns out that Wendy didn’t apply the new pod well to her skin and it wasn’t working.  I had used the last of the insulin on the new pod, and we had more in the refrigerator back where we were staying, an hour away.  We were with another couple, a childhood friend of my husband and his family, and we had all visited the town together, had dinner together, and we had promised the four children gelato if they did well in the restaurant.

single gelato

The problem was that Wendy’s glucose was too high to go untreated and give her gelato too.  It would have sent her sugar up to dangerous levels.  But all of the other kids were expecting gelato, in fact, the town of Noto is supposed to have the best gelato in Sicily.  We couldn’t tell them just wait while we drive an hour to get more insulin, reapply a new pod, hope it works, and drive back another hour.  It was late, it was dark, and the kids expected the best gelato in Sicily.

An option could have been to let the other kids have gelato but not Wendy, but honestly, that would be a scarring memory for her, and while we want her to know that she is extraordinary, we want her to know that she is normal too, that she can do normal things, just like the other kids, and that includes sampling the best gelato in Sicily.  Imagine watching your friends all eating gelato and you can’t at the age of twelve.

Now tell me what you would do as a parent.

Farmacia Italy-746316

So we went to a farmacia in Noto.  I spoke my sentence in Italian.  The first one didn’t have a vial.  We walked to a second one, and thank God, they did.  We opened the box, opened the vial, pulled out an insulin syringe that I also happen to have with me in the medical bag, calculated what she would need to give her to both reduce her glucose and give her insulin for a gelato too, and we filled the syringe, gave her a shot in the arm right there in the farmacia, admist little boys with tummy aches and people who needed band-aids, handed the used syringe to the pharmacist to dispose of safely, and we left the store.

Then we walked to the restaurant with best gelato in the world and ate it.

And it was delicious.

After it was all over, after the alarm, the new pod in the church, the dinner, the two farmacias, the injection and finally the gelato, it had taken the better part of the afternoon and evening, just for one little girl, just for one diabetic, just for one vial of insulin, just for one cup of gelato.

And what was the best part of the day for me?  My twelve year old, when it was all over and we were walking back to the cars after the gelato, ready for the drive back to where we were staying, took me aside by the arm, kissed me on the cheek, and thanked me for going through all of that.  She understood the effort it took, and she was grateful. That’s what I’ll remember, not how hard it was, but how much she appreciated being able to be just one of the the other kids joking and laughing and eating the best gelato in Sicily.

This is not a story I’m necessarily going to share with my family and friends when I get home.  Why not?  It’s not exactly what they want to hear.  They want to hear about the swimming and the churches and the beautiful art, the stories of the crazy drivers and the marketplace hawkers.  They don’t want to hear about the hard stuff, the worry, the difficulties.  Vacations are supposed to be fun, right?

But to me, this isn’t just a vacation, it’s showing my daughter that her medical difficulties can be overcome, that problems can be sorted out, even in another country, even when we don’t speak the language.  That if she really wants something, we will find a way.  That she shouldn’t be held back by the difficulties, but should look at them as challenges to be worked through.  Yes, it’s a beautiful location to learn this lesson, and yes, we are lucky that she’s healthy enough to do the travelling in the first place.  But to me, the travelling is showing her that solutions are possible.

The rewards can be sweet.

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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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Conduits of Care

The thing about being a parent of a chronically ill kid is that I am a storehouse of otherwise useless information.

How many milliliters are in a teaspoon?  Five.

Pizza needs two doses of insulin because of the grease, it outlasts the first dose.

Blood pressure is best checked first thing in the morning.

The only way you’ll know how much cereal your kid eats is by having a measuring cup in the cereal container. At. All.  Times.

Sanitizer is easier on the hands if it has added emollients.

One of the things I know a lot about is what we really appreciated when Wendy was sick by the people who loved us, what to do, what to  say, how to show that you care.  People often ask me for advice on this topic when they have friends who have kids in the hospital.  They wonder what they can do that is both helpful and meaningful to the family going through the crisis.  I LOVE that I can be helpful in this way, and I love that my friends think of me as the person to ask when they want to be kind and giving.  I am a conduit of care!  (So are you.)   I thought that I’d write a few things here for everyone, but I encourage you to still ask me if you have questions.  That’s what I’m here for.

Anything you do, big or small, will be appreciated.  The family going through crisis will appreciate any small effort you make to show you care.

Having said that, some actions are more helpful than others.  I break these down into two camps:  survival and comfort.  There are things you need no matter what, and then there are things that will make you feel better emotionally. Both things are important, but for some reason more people like to focus on the latter.  Let me explain:

Survival.  In terms of survival, the family in crisis has an extraordinary circumstance:  a sick kid, a hospital trip, a scary diagnosis, a prolonged illness, you get the picture.  Yet, they still have all of the added stresses of normal, everyday, average life.  When we were in the hospital for prolonged periods of time, often leaving in an emergency, we left our cats and our plants, food in the refrigerator, a house with a lawn, etc.  Then we drove four hours away and often stayed weeks at a time.  When your kid is in the hospital, you tend to forget these things, but they still exist.  We had wonderful neighbors who first would come and feed the cats and then took them home with them, along with the plants. They took turns cutting our lawn when it got too high.  The local vocational school where I worked had students come who raked and bagged our leaves in the fall. Neighbors shoveled our walkway to the front door when the snow fell throughout the winter.  They took care of our normal problems.  We even had friends who came in and cleaned the house, changed the sheets, and put the basics in the fridge when we returned.  Every time.

Then there are gift cards that are helpful, both for gas and for food.  Don’t underestimate how helpful a gas card is to a family that has to make multiple trips to the doctor.  Don’t underestimate the Starbucks card for a parent that has spent a lot of time awake around the clock.  Even a gift card to a CVS or a Rite Aid, or some other pharmacy is a help.  These are incredibly bolstering for a family in need, and keep them afloat both financially and emotionally.  My cousin came to visit us in the hospital and then walked around and bought gift cards to all of the local restaurants, including the Whole Foods and the bagel shop, knowing that eating was necessary.

Making meals for the people at home is a great idea, but keep it simple, keep it organized.  There are services you can organize through online like meal train that will help you and your neighbors coordinate who is bringing what.  To me, there is nothing more healing than sitting down with my family like it’s a normal day, even when the day has broken open and all Hell is loose.  Having a time to sit together and have a meal is incredible.  It gives you hope that someday, everyday will be normal.

Maybe that means that food gives hope.   It also gives comfort.  Which brings us to our next category:

Comfort.  This is a tough one and it’s hard for me to give good, concrete examples because everyone is different.  When the family is in the hospital, something like a blanket or a fun pillowcase for the sick child is really worthwhile.  We still have those no-sew-throws that some family members made for Wendy.  A robe and slippers if they don’t have one helps with the awkward walk to and from the bathroom.  Do not send stuffed animals, even though it’s so very tempting.  They just take up room and collect germs.

Another idea, if the child is going to be in the hospital or recuperating for a while, is new things to entertain them, not necessarily board games because they can be awkward in the hospital.  One friend brought us a balloon animal kit which was a huge hit, and another friend brought a game that involved a large die, plastic bugs with velcro, and felt “sleeves” we had to wear.  We also got the game “Pretty Pretty Princess” and if you’ve never seen it, it’s worth a look.  The idea is that you spin a spinner and receive a different piece of plastic jewelry, whoever gets all of the pieces first wins.  This is especially amusing when your husband plays, and wins.

I always appreciated a good book, but keep in mind who your audience is.  I was given the book “Eat, Pray, Love”, a book about a woman who was in a loveless marriage and had to find herself by going around the world, eating in Italy, praying in India, and falling in love.  This might have been a book for me at some other time of my life, but when I was sitting next to my daughter who was on a ventilator and more medical pumps than could fit on one stand, I had a hard time relating to this woman who seemed to have everything but was unhappy anyway, which is clearly not the point of the book.

As Michael took the night shift with Wendy in the hospital, he read multiple chapters of Harry Potter to Wendy as their evening ritual before she went to “bed.”  When Wendy isn’t feeling good even to this day, she loves to be read to.

Once the dust has cleared and the family in crisis is home, offering to watch the kids for an evening so the couple can go to a movie or get a massage, that is huge and again helps to make the mom and dad feel like things are going back to normal.

Don’t be afraid to jump in and help!  Lots of times the family doesn’t even know what they need, so don’t be shy about offering.  I love to bring a meal and sit and talk for a while, or more importantly, I like to sit and LISTEN.  Lots of time, people just want a new person to talk to, to unload on, to cry to.  Be prepared to listen.  I often think, overall, that just being there and listening is the best thing I can do for friends and family in crisis.

These are all exercises in grace, where you give without expectation of return, or even thanks.  Don’t worry, they really really are grateful for what you do, they may be too embarrassed to say it, or to say the depth of which they feel the gratitude.  Sometimes “thanks” is all they can get out when what they really mean is “Thank you for being there for me, for taking care of me, for letting me be myself for a few moments.  Thank you for not forgetting me, shunning me, leaving me to worry  through this whole mess by myself.  Thank you for taking care of the little things so they don’t multiply, all of the things I had to let go of to take care of my sick child and keep my sanity.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

That’s what they mean to say, I promise.  I’ve been there.

Photo:  Lasagna, my favorite.  🙂

 

 

Siblings of Sick Kids

This week, Wendy had four doctors appointments.  Four times we packed up and schlepped to a specialist or pediatrician.  Four times in the waiting room, four times for triage, four times in the exam room, five conversations with doctors, three with nurses, and one blood draw.

It was a tough week, a frustrating week, a week that even for us in this point in our lives is unusual.  Sure, we have more doctors’ appointments than the average family, but because it was school vacation week, we loaded up on the specialists so Wendy didn’t have to miss academic classes.  Add in a few problems and we got a few more appointments.  It was dismal.  It was awful for Wendy and was awful for me.

It could have been the worst, however, for my younger daughter, Penny.

Penny.  I got pregnant with Penny while we were waiting for a kidney transplant for Wendy.  We decided to name her Penelope after the wife of Odysseus.  In The Odyssey she is often called “Circumspect Penelope,” who is smart and shrewd, who has all of the skills of a politician, but who is known first and foremost for her patience.

We needed patience while waiting for the kidney.

There aren’t many worse times that I could have gotten pregnant.  I couldn’t handle some of Wendy’s medications because it was bad for the fetus.  I couldn’t go into the operating room when the kidney arrived because there were too many risks with anesthesia for a pregnant woman, and at the time I was in my second trimester.  We moved back to Vermont from Boston when I was in my 39th week; I gave birth three days later. Her arrival to our family was both joyful and grounding:  it served as a reminder that we couldn’t live in the past of Wendy’s medical history.   Suddenly there was another person who needed love and protection, patience and understanding.

Penny has never known a moment of her life without a sick sister.  To her it is the normal thing.  I remember when Penny was in kindergarten and she asked me when she was going to get her own kidney, when she was going to be a diabetic just like her sister whom she adores more than anyone in the world.  It was the same kind of questioning that I got when she asked when she could play soccer like her sister, run in triathlons like her sister or get her ears pierced like her sister.  The medical issues were just part of the deal.

When we go to the doctor now, Penny packs herself a bag of things that keep her occupied.  She’s reading chapter books now, so she brings one, along with an intricate coloring book and some markers.  Sometimes she will bring shopkins or stuffed animals to play with. She is exceptionally good at keeping busy.  She almost never complains she’s bored. But sometimes she wants to be on the exam table with her sister.  She often requests a snack after an appointment.  At our last appointment, she wrote me a note that said, “Mom, I love you.  And I’m Hungry.”

When I was a kid, we had dinner together as a family every night and 95% of the time my parents had cooked it.  I thought that’s what every family, everywhere did, and was shocked when I found out differently.  Sometimes I wonder if Penny will think that every family, everywhere knows exactly where to park at Massachusetts General Hospital, doesn’t need a map, knows the back door entries, walks to the science museum after a doctor’s appointment, goes to the park or picks the perfect place for lunch after an ultrasound.  That every family is comfortable in this environment, because we are.

I also wonder, and worry, whether Penny will look back on this time in all of the doctors’ offices and think it was all a colossal  waste of time.  For now, she’s too young to stay home alone, and we try to do fun things around the visits so they aren’t too onerous.  She is also too young for any support group for siblings of sick kids, and I wonder if she’ll want to go to them once she can.

The unavoidable truth is that a child’s illness doesn’t just affect the child who is sick, it affects the whole family, siblings included.

That’s one of the reasons that we moved back to the Boston metro area from Vermont.  When Penny was three years old and Wendy was post-transplant for three years, we weighed the pros and cons of moving to a town closer to Boston.  Yes, we were certainly moving to have Wendy closer to her medical home, but we were also moving so that there would be a community of support for Penny, so that we wouldn’t be four hours away from her when Wendy was in the hospital, or she wouldn’t be four hours away from her school, friends, and activities once she got older.  We were reassured that we had found the right community when numerous families offered to take Penny while Wendy went into the hospital a few months after we arrived in our new town.

Luckily, Penny is the kind of kid that just blends in with families, and even more luckily, we haven’t needed to rely on the good grace of our friends because Wendy’s been overall healthy.

One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was, “As a mother, you are only as happy as your least happy child.”  We have to pay attention to the needs of both kids, as much as we can, and help them to be good, strong, empathetic, resilient adults, whether they have special health care needs or not.

 

 

 

 

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

New Faces At Grand Rounds

One day while Wendy was in the hospital in late 2007, an endocrine fellow came in to ask us if we had any pictures of her that we would be willing to share.  The fellow was presenting Wendy’s medical case at Grand Rounds and she wanted to add a few pictures to  the slide show.

At the time, we didn’t know what Grand Rounds was.  Grand Rounds is an opportunity for doctors to present challenging or unusual medical conditions to their colleagues, along with what the course of treatment was, and allows a venue for the presenter to be challenged by his or her  peers.  It is a way to educate doctors both whom are going to the presentation and for the presenters themselves.  It was a novel approach to have pictures of Wendy in the slide show, because for the most part Wendy is just supposed to be a “case” to be discussed, not attached to a face.

I remember thinking that like other parents, someday I wanted Wendy to be famous, but I never thought it would be like that.

A few months later, I was approached to speak at Grand Rounds myself.  The Family Advisory Council at MGHfC spoke at one Grand Rounds a year surrounding the topic of family centered care, the idea that it is not just a child that the hospital is treating, but the family of the child as well. This Grand Rounds was designed to ask parents and patients if they had anything they felt was important to share with doctors of their children.  Michael helped me prepare as to what I was going to say, and I have to say I was nervous, but it was a really positive experience. The doctors asked good questions and it was all together well received.  The Family Advisory Council has sponsored Grand Rounds around conversations and communications between providers and parents, as well as asking doctors to speak as to how they have changed their medical practice as the result of having a sick child.  These are unique opportunities for doctors and parents to arrive at the same goal:  understanding each other in the quest to give the best possible care to children.  It has been an incredibly successful  endeavor.

Now, a new approach: having the pediatric patients speak directly to the doctors at Grand Rounds. This was the first time that an entire panel of speakers was all pediatric patients, at least at Massachusetts General Hospital, but I suspect that this is new territory for a lot of children’s hospitals across the country.

Wendy spoke yesterday with three other patients about their experiences.  All four patients were teenagers, (well, Wendy was twelve and the youngest), and they were all what we would call “frequent flyers” in the medical world:  they were patients who had been there a lot.  One teen had cancer of the jaw, one teen broke a vertebrae while playing football, and two teens had undergone kidney transplants.

The themes were rather universal and centered around anxiety and communication.  The teens asked to be listened to fully, have procedures explained to them, be addressed by their names and really be a full partner at the table.  Isn’t that what we all want in medical care?  What’s funny is that doctors know this, and I would be willing to wager that they think they are doing a good job at communication, especially those who work in pediatrics.  Yet the gap in communication remains.

Here’s why I think yesterday was most beneficial.  One:  people connect to stories, and these kids had stories to tell.  They are survivors in the medical world.  They have grit. And they are vulnerable enough, willing enough, courageous enough to tell their stories, to tell what could be improved upon, to their doctors.  Doctors don’t often get the opportunity outside of inpatient setting or the clinic to hear how they can improve.  Two:  a lot of these teens really made an impact on their doctors just by returning. They had been so sick and had such a positive outlook nonetheless, and they were succeeding in the world, not just as patients, but as people.  They were inspiring.  I don’t think that doctors often get to see their success stories years later, when patients leave they don’t come back, much like students and their teachers.  Both medicine and education have a long term return that you don’t often get to see:  the success of the child due to the efforts of the doctor/teacher.  After grand rounds, so many doctors came up to me to tell me how wonderful Wendy looked and how grateful they were to see her.

Pediatrics is a tough field, but one of the things that a doctor said yesterday is that it also garners hope, which is a powerful motivator. Those teens yesterday might not know how incredible they are, they just know that they have an extra burden of medical issues.  It’s the adults in the room who are affected by their tenacity in the face of adversity. Not just their tenacity, but their optimism and sense of self.  They are not patients, they are people.  They are success stories.  They have a voice.

This is the new face of medicine, partnerships in success through communication.  Yesterday was just one of the steps in the process.

A very welcome step.

 

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.

Snow Day in the Hospital

This unexpected snowy day got me to thinking about a day when Wendy was in the hospital, many years ago.  She had been there for months, literally, and one day in late December there was a heavy snowfall.

Looking from the window of the 17th floor of the Ellison Building at Massachusetts General Hospital, the whole city of Boston looked so clean and amazing.  We were on the river side, and the Longfellow bridge looked like it was topped in cool whip.  Being a child from Vermont, Wendy desperately wanted to go outside, but it just wasn’t a possibility.  She was in heart failure, and we were measuring every ounce of liquid that was going into her.  There was no way we could account for how much snow she would eat, and how much liquid that would be equivalent to.

Wendy was so disappointed, but there wasn’t much we could do as parents.

However, the staff came up with a plan.

The PCA (Patient Care Assistant) went down and got a bowl full of snow.  Wendy’s nurse measured it out, put it on a scale, and slowly let it melt.  They then poured it in a graduated cylinder.  After they figured out how much snow by weight equaled how much water, the PCA went down to the quad again and got Wendy some new, fresh snow.  Can you imagine, a child who has only seen the inside of a  hospital room for months, who only knew the sounds of the machines and the buzzers ,the television, the woosh of the forced air, who only knew the sterility of the meal trays, the plastic covered hospital bed, the stethoscope hanging over her head, getting a bowl of snow?

It is those moments of compassion and spontaneity that we are grateful for, now, looking back.  It’s easy to forget the monotony of the endless days that stretched together during her recovery. But that one moment of brightness, that is one moment that we will never forget. They sustained us then, and they sustain us now.

I was recently reminded of the story when I heard of a similar one on NPR.  The Show is Called “On Being” and it airs on Sunday morning.  One morning in January, I was listening to a man who had tragically lost three limbs through an electrocution accident, and the one thing that brought him comfort in the burn unit was when one of his nurses brought him in a snowball, connecting him back to the real world in profound ways.  I highly recommend taking the time to watch his TED talk which I’ve posted here.   Somewhere in the middle, he tells the story of the snowball.   He now works a as the executive director of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, where the idea is that life still happens even when death looms and it is a combination of compassion and dignity that makes a medical caregiver a healer.

Whether it is called compassion, palliative care, or hospice, the world needs more healing moments.

Photo:  Wendy, the year after the long hospitalization, finally making a big snowman.