When my medically complicated daughter was only a few years old, a close family member said something that I’ve never been able to forget. I’ve thought about it often, especially as I’ve been writing about my daughter so publicly.
This family member was a new parent with a fussy, unhappy baby. He was complaining that nothing he and his wife were doing to soothe their baby was helping, and I asked if they’d asked any of the parents in their new baby group for ideas.
“No,” he said, “we’re just more private.”
“But maybe someone knows of something — a product or a position or something — that might help,” I countered.
“Look, that’s not how we are,” he answered. “That’s more you. You’d tell any random stranger in your kid’s kindermusic class all about her medical problems no matter what they’d think about you.”
At the time, I felt slapped. I felt hurt, and I felt judged. The tone with which this was delivered was so derisive, as though I was indiscriminately blurting out the story of Sammi’s first cardiac surgery to anyone who didn’t run away when I opened my mouth. It made me feel like an embarrassment. Continue Reading…
Between my daughter Sammi’s birth and her ninth birthday, she spent nearly all of her life on some kind of medically-restrictive diet. Whether it was being forbidden to eat grains as a baby, following an acid-free diet as a refluxing toddler, using the six-food-elimination diet to uncover the cause of her (incorrectly-diagnosed) eosinophilic esophagitis as a little girl, or choking down the unpleasant fat-free food that kept her safe from chylothorax after her cardiac surgery, we often had to define what our whole family ate by the things that Sammi had to avoid.
During all those years, I heard a number of unhelpful comments about what I fed my child, ranging from the well-meaning but insensitive to the downright offensive. If someone in your world is eating a diet that their doctor has prescribed, the following comments should never, ever come out of your mouth. Continue Reading…
We said no — had to say no — to almost everything she liked. It was heartbreaking. Still, there was one very wonderful, very life-affirming refuge for her: her third grade teacher, Andrea Macksood. Continue Reading…
Some days, I selfishly look back at all the time we waited for an answer to my daughter Sammi’s health challenges and see only how it wrecked my image of what motherhood should be.
I was newly a mother of two when a doctor – a kind doctor, a thoughtful doctor – told me that my new daughter would almost certainly end up in the hospital with every respiratory infection she got. Not a great idea, he said about twice-a-week daycare. Probably not, he said about baby-and-parent music classes. No, I don’t think so, was his answer to my hopeful questions about baby swimming, a smaller daycare, a playgroup. After two hospitalizations in her first five months, I believed him.
Through that first winter watched through front windows into an empty courtyard or through car windows into big sister’s preschool, my new daughter and I eyed the world with suspicion: me because it contained too many germs and her because nothing in it made her feel quite right. There was no sleep, no break, no time apart for the two of us to learn the beauty of missing each other and being reunited. There was just us, with the world outside the window unavailable.
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.