Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of the surgery that changed Sammi’s life.
This morning, in an effort to remember a particular detail of that time, I logged into the hospital’s patient information system. I clicked aimlessly, seeing everything with the eyes of experience and after-the-fact understanding. All these test results — why didn’t I read them in detail back then when they could have done something more than remind me of how late I put my research skills to work?
The real answer is that I didn’t know how to access charts, back then. They weren’t online. They weren’t sent to us by mail. All we got was the occasional placating phone call. Oh, and a stack of bills.
Now here, in the charts, are all the comments and clues that make sense in retrospect. Like re-reading a mystery after I already know who the killer was, I am seeing the telltale signs in notes on test results and procedures: muscle visible in her esophagus, tonsils visible on a chest x-ray, no mention of her abnormal aortic arch on that first diagnostic endoscopy. The information was there for anyone to find: here is why she is always sick, here is why she cannot eat, here is why no doctor can explain her idiopathic results.
My eight-year-old daughter took a long drink of water through a straw, and I waited on the edge of a pin (on the edge of her hospital bed) to ask her a question.
As the first few drops of liquid hit her tongue, she did what she’d always done when drinking: she puffed out her cheeks like a chipmunk and held the water there. Slowly, I watched her throat as she began to swallow. Her eyes widened, and she swallowed everything in her mouth at once.
Finally, I asked. “How does swallowing feel, Sunshine?”
She set down the cup on her tray and looked at me, her hands fluttering up to her chest, trailing IVs and tubes behind her. The late afternoon light through the far window didn’t reach her bed, and so, lit by fluorescent lights above and dazed by morphine, she rested back on her pillow and answered:
“It feels so different!”
“How so?” I asked.
“When I swallow, it goes down like ssshhhhhwwwwwwww!”
“And what was it like before?”
“It was like ccchhhhk, ccchhhhk, ccchhhhk…”
With her skin still clammy and pale, only hours out of surgery, she reached again for the cup, drank another gulp, and said, “It’s so cold when it gets to my tummy.” Continue Reading…
Giving a child bad news hurts on every level. Integrity tells us to be honest, realistic, straightforward. Nurturing tells us to soften the blow. Getting the combination right means compromising both.
When we had to tell our daughter Sammi just before her fourth birthday that she had been diagnosed with an inflammatory disorder called eosinophilic esophagitis, we did it in an age-appropriate way that, thankfully, also forced us to simplify the problem for ourselves. The new diagnosis meant a host of food restrictions that would change over time, but we focused on the first six weeks that would exclude dairy, eggs, soy, nuts, and wheat. I wrote about that conversation in a previous post:
We explained that we had good news; we now knew why Sammi’s food kept coming back into her mouth. Her esophagus was sick! We drew a body on paper, showed them where the esophagus was, drew a frown on it. We talked about allergies, about our friend’s daughter with celiac disease, about feeling crummy and then feeling better. We brought out the list of allowed foods and cheered along as favorites were listed.
At that young age, she was hardly able to comprehend it. Sammi ate what we gave her, followed the rules, and over the course of the next three-and-a-half years, endured more than a dozen endoscopies. She did everything we asked. She even participated in a barium swallow study and a strange and very uncomfortable CT scan without ever asking us why.
I am writing to you from the window of a coffeeshop. I sip from my hot mocha, listen to my headphones, and look out at the cars going by. Where I live, there has just been snowfall, and the pedestrians are like me on my walk here: bundled, hunched against the cold, hurrying. Inside, people surround me, but I’m trying not to engage with them.
I’m thinking about you. Who are you? Why have you come?
For years, I spent countless intent hours searching for information that would help me solve the mystery of my daughter’s health issues. Even when we thought we had a solid diagnosis — laryngomalacia when she was an infant, repaired double aortic arch when she was a baby, reflux when she was a toddler, eosinophilic esophagitis when she was a little girl — I wanted to know how to handle it. I wanted to know how other parents made their children’s lives easier despite the diagnoses. I wanted to know how other parents made their own lives easier despite the diagnosis.
I was hungry for connection and knowledge. I was desperate for validation, advice, and other parents to either assuage my fears or tell me how they made their peace with the same ones. Continue Reading…
Over and over in my head, I dissect what went wrong with my advocacy for my daughter.
When she was just six weeks old, we pushed to have her raspy, gurgling breathing evaluated by an otolaryngologist even though her pediatrician said it was nothing. It wasn’t nothing; we were justified in our followup.
When she was four, we’d dutifully tried to wean her from her reflux medications, then taken her to a gastroenterologist when she responded poorly. We’d said yes to the endoscopies, accepted the diagnosis of eosinophilic esophagitis, and diligently followed the six food elimination protocol. We read labels, scoured our kitchen, protected her from potential allergens like fierce animal parents. We did everything they asked, and advocated for her emotional well-being in school and with friends.
We did everything we could have done except tell her doctors to read her chart. If we had thought to ask them, hey, do you think this esophagus problem could have anything at all to do with her aortic arch?, that might have been all we needed.Continue Reading…