Unlearning the Body

chocoAfter six weeks on a fat-free diet and a week on a low-fat diet, my eight-year-old daughter Sammi was officially released from all her food restrictions by her cardiothoracic surgery team. Her chylothorax — a leak in the thoracic ducts that process fat — had completely healed.

The two of us had decided to spend the day together in downtown Chicago, starting with a visit to the Hershey Store. After all, it had been nearly two months since she’d had free rein to eat anything she wanted. I thought that surely she would gorge herself on candy while I watched gleefully.

Instead, she nibbled timidly and said, “I’m full for now.”

It was heartbreaking to realize that, as far as she’d come — years of false diagnosis with reflux, then eosinophilic esophagitis, then a revelation that her swallowing problems stemmed from a structural obstruction in her chest, culminating in major cardiac surgery — she still had more hurdles to jump. Of course we couldn’t undo eight years of her experience of eating in one day at the candy store. Why had I been so naive? Continue Reading…

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Two Years Later, Fury

twoyears

In a chair for the first time after her surgery

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.

I am angry. I am furious. Continue Reading…

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The Sound of Water

glassofwaterMy 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…

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Handouts for Doctors

Have you read my chart?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 a year old, the sound of milk rattling in her throat got us another appointment with the otolaryngologist, and even though the pediatrician didn’t think it was strange that our one-year-old would not eat solid food yet, the otolaryngologist took note. The fact that she would hold one-fourth of a blueberry in her cheek for hours rather than swallow it was a sign that her esophagus was so narrow that even that sliver of food was too irritating to pass through. It was a clue. Somehow, I’d known to tell someone, and it was part of the path to diagnosing her vascular ring.

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…

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Fragments and Money

fragmented winterBetween the December day when we received news of our daughter Sammi’s impending cardiac surgery and the surgery itself were nearly five fragmented, breath-holding months. During that time, life went on as usual: school, work, meals and concerts and the usual patterns of life with two children.

My days, already naturally broken into small chunks of varied activities, crumbled into bite-sized pieces of work and daily chores mixed with anxious Google searches and conversations over phone and email. In the autopilot that clicked on during repetitive activities like cooking or walking my children to school, I sometimes found myself unable to remember what had been happening in the previous ten minutes. How had I gotten to this corner? When did I add the onion to the pot?

Throughout, I was honest with friends and family about what was happening. Many had been with us for the Sammi’s entire medical journey. They had prayed and visualized a pink and smooth esophagus on each of her many endoscopy days. Some had arranged a spot in their pantry for a new, unused cutting board and disposable baking pans so that they could invite us for dinner during the hardest weeks of the six food elimination diet. These people were experiencing this with us, many of them nearly as deeply in love with Sammi as we were. They deserved to be in-the-know, and so I held very little back. We talked openly about the surgery and what it would entail; we shared whatever we knew and accepted their promises to hold us in their positive thoughts, whatever shape those took.

But some of them — more than a few of them — asked us the multimillion-dollar question: are you thinking about a lawsuit? Continue Reading…

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