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.
When we brought our daughter Sammi home from her week-long stay in the hospital following cardiac surgery, we had an extra challenge to face. When we planned the surgery, we’d known that once we got her home (if we got her home), she’d need to rest. We’d expected that she’d be tired, that she’d be loopy from the medication. What we hadn’t expected was that she’d be one of the percentage of patients who undergo similar surgeries and end up with a complication called chylothorax.
Chylothorax is a long, ugly word for a leak in a thoracic duct. The thoracic ducts are part of the body’s lymphatic system, located mostly in the chest, and are responsible for — among other things — the processing of about 60% of the body’s dietary fat, which flows through them. Because the thoracic duct is located alongside the aorta, Sammi’s surgeon warned us that they might nick it with an instrument during surgery. “If that happens,” he said, “it usually heals on its own, but she might have to follow a special diet for a while.”
I barely listened. Special diet? I’d done special diets over and over again since Sammi was a baby. A diet would be no big deal. Also: it might not even happen! I did no research on chylothorax before Sammi’s surgery.
And then she had it. In clearing layers of scar tissue from the side of her esophagus, the surgeon had met with a thoracic duct, and the damage was done.
The diet, we learned, was fat-free. It didn’t mean fat-free the way that the weight-loss diets of the 80s meant “fat-free” — many of those foods, we learned, had a gram or two of fat. In a normal person with a functioning thoracic system, that’s close enough to fat-free. In someone with chylothorax, a gram of fat here and there would eventually leak out of her thoracic ducts and fill her chest with a thick, milky substance that had nowhere to go. Eventually, without more surgery, she’d drown from the inside.
If you are ever the person I was, packing a car to drive to the hospital for your daughter’s seventeenth time under general anesthesia (this time, to move her aorta away from her esophagus), you will need to bring many things with you. Take notes. I know exactly what you will need, if you are ever the person I was.
First of all, you need clothes for you. You need soft pants and a roomy shirt to sleep in on an uncomfortable set of cushions by the window, cushions whose ill-suitedness for restful sleep you will not notice as you sink, delirious with exhaustion, in and out of a black slumber twenty times a night. You need thick socks and slip-on shoes so that you can perch on the edge of the bed and then jump off quickly to skitter across the room and grab the emesis basin, the phone, the nurse’s call button. You need more hooded sweatshirts than you would have predicted. You will be far colder than one would expect.
You do not need clothes for your daughter. Though you may have thought ahead to the incisions and the need for button-down as opposed to pull-over pajamas, you have somehow forgotten the snaking tubes and lines and leads and wires that would need to be disconnected in order to manage something as complicated as sleeves. She will only need hospital gowns. The pajama bottoms, while a nice touch, are only an impediment to quick bathroom trips, of which there will be many.
I brought Sammi to the hospital that morning in 2006, and she was wearing fleece pajamas covered in frogs. She was 13 months old and had a light layer of soft duck-fluff hair that stuck to my face when I cried, but she had perhaps a word or two in her vocabulary, neither appropriate for anything approaching real communication. She was beautiful and soft, and she smelled wonderful, and I could trace the shape her body made on my torso as she laid there, but had I lost her that day, far more of what I would lose of her was in the future and amorphous. Our experiences together until then were primal still — nursing and holding, touch and smell, fear and love.
It was all uncertain then: who would she be? what was she like when she was not sick? how would her voice sound when she learned to sing?
She was a mystery, yet, and grieving a mystery is still grieving, but it’s fuzzy and intangible. I would never know quite what to miss. 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.