“A Difficult Decision Was Made”

A room full of people, a room full of stories.  That’s what we encountered the other night.  It was the opening ceremony of the Transplant Games in Cleveland, Ohio.  Attended by over 6,000 people from 40 different teams around the country, there were recipients, living donors and donor families, a term given to those who lost loved ones and even in their time of acute grief, decided to donate their loved ones’ organs and tissue.  You can read the open letter I wrote to Wendy’s kidney donor’s mother here.

The emcee for the evening started the event by saying, “We are all here tonight because a difficult decision was made.”  It’s important to get it out there right away, because it was the elephant in the room.  Everyone was there because of a donor.  Now there are living donors, and that is no small feat, someone who willingly gives a piece of themselves, literally, to keep someone else alive.  They are not only honored at the games, but they are invited to compete as well.  More than that, however, are the donor families that need to be honored for their loss.  Lives were cut short, and lives were extended.  Just because it is a celebration of life, hell, the name of the event is the Donate Life American Transplant Games, doesn’t meant that there aren’t hundreds of people hurting because they have lost someone whom they loved. They wore their loved ones on pins, they posted their pictures on placards, they wore necklaces.  I spoke to a woman who told me all about her son who died when he was in his early twenties, and she said to me, “His friends are all getting married and having kids and I miss him every day. Every day it hurts.”  The emotions will always be raw for them, but it helps ( I hope) to have them see that their loved ones helped to extend the lives of so many more.  That’s what the games are all about.

This was the first time we went to the games and I had to really think about what we were going to say about donor families and what “giving life” really means.  Before the opening ceremonies we talked a little with the kids about Wendy’s donor and how he died and how his parents decided to donate his organs, and that it was likely that they were going to hear a lot of those stories tonight.  The stories would be emotional, but they are powerful and important to bear witness to them.  And, of course, we could talk about it after if they had any questions.

But this is hard stuff.  Life is messy.  This topic is something you don’t often talk about, and here we are sitting in a room full of people, an AUDITORIUM of people, talking about it.  When a story came up on the screen about a father who donated his son’s organs after he had an asthma attack, Penny leaned over and said, “This is one of the stories you warned us about, Mom,” as she held my hand.

Here is the thing that goes along with this knowledge, that people died and their organs were donated:  Palpable gratitude.  An auditorium full of grateful people:  recipients and those who love them.  Families and friends.  Whole teams of people who have gotten together to celebrate this extension of life.

And these people are competing and attempting sporting events they might not ever have done before, because they were given a second chance.  I have lots more stories, there will be more blog posts about these games because I’ve learned a lot in the past few days about  community through resilience, about the power of multiple generations coming together, about giving voice to the pain and the grief and the gratitude all at once.  About how your story is just a part of the thousands of other stories, creating a mosaic of meaning.

I’m going to say one more thing before I close.  Register to be an organ donor so that your loved ones don’t have to make the decision.  Over and over again, I heard how much easier it was for them to donate their loved ones’ organs because they knew it was what the person wanted.

Don’t make your loved ones make that decision.  Make it for them, so they can just follow your wishes.

More to follow.

Photo:  The Auditorium at the Donate Life Transplant Games, waiting for everyone to arrive.

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.

 

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

Link

Courteous Vs. Helpful

Wendy and I have spent a lot of time in various doctors’ offices lately, and I’ve been reminded that there is a right way and a wrong way to treat a young patient and her family.

Here’s an example of a doctor’s visit that didn’t go so well last week.  It started late in the afternoon, after school.  The doctor was new to us, arrived fifteen minutes after we were in the exam room, did not introduce herself, nor called me anything but Mom.  She did not address Wendy by her name once.  We were there because Wendy had hurt her knee, but the doctor asked a lot of questions about her medical history.  It bordered on nosy.  Granted, Wendy’s medical history is chock full, and I understand that there are a lot of questions, but not necessarily for a hurt knee, other than the fact that she can’t take NSAIDs like ibuprofen because it is bad for her kidney. The doctor also commented on her bifocals as unusual, again nothing to do with Wendy’s knee.  As we left (and thank God that Wendy was out of the room already) she said to me, “Don’t worry mom, she has to do SOMETHING the normal way.  Maybe her knee will be it.”

Unhelpful comment, doctor.  It is not your place to editorialize my daughter and her medical history.  It’s your job to tell us what to do about her knee. Meet us where we are in this moment.

Today we had a totally different experience.  We saw a doctor who has been following Wendy since the beginning of her illness, almost since the first day of it.  First, she saw us downstairs in line waiting for coffee and paid for our order. Then she met us upstairs, where we addressed concerns I had about medication and blood pressure.  She had the nurse come in both to say hello and to confirm medications and prescriptions.  She ordered labs, and though it was a new computer system, made sure that it was working, printing out the labs herself after the front desk couldn’t find them in the new system.  She looked at Wendy’s ultrasound, told us what it said, and we arranged for a meeting in a month.  She wished Wendy happy birthday, and we left.

Granted, this second doctor has known us for a long time, and we have a very special relationship with her, but that doesn’t mean that the first encounter with the first doctor was what we should be willing to accept as care for a child.  For the sake of argument, let’s say it is the difference between being courteous and being helpful, and it applies to everyone from the doctor to the receptionist at the front desk.

Being courteous is answering questions directly, but not necessarily providing any solutions for the patient or parent.  Being helpful is when you team with the parent, even momentarily, so that you can come up with a solution to the problem at hand, so that the parent doesn’t feel like they’ve been hung out to dry.  Being courteous is saying that your patient needs a test and it’s in Building Such and Such.  Being helpful is showing the parent how to get there, why it needs to be done, and what the results will mean.

Let’s face it, families are rarely in the doctors’ office because something good is happening. Therefore, the parent is often stressed.  The child is either sick or in pain, and additionally he or she can pick up on the parent’s distress.  Add to the mixture the traffic getting in, finding a parking spot, the possibility of getting bad news,  any new information that might be thrown at the parent, and there’s an overwhelming sense of doom in the waiting room.  No one is there because they want to be.

So it’s important to treat these families better, then say, someone who is ordering a double-tall-skinny-latte at the drive up window at Starbucks.  “I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that,” rings a little hollow when you have a sick kid in tow, knowing that tests will be ordered, waiting for bad news, in a room that (let’s face it) could be a little more child friendly.

The difference is compassion.  Compassion is the key to a successful trip to the doctor.

Compassion is the empathetic concern for the misfortunes of others, accompanied by the desire to help to alleviate that suffering.

Most people get into the health care business because they are compassionate people who want to make a difference in the world. They have bad days too, and hey, they’re human.  When you encounter a whole office that is merely courteous, however, then you know that something is wrong. Sometimes the system has beaten compassion out of them with deadlines to see so many patients per day, etc.  So for the sake of argument,  let’s go through some of the things that make a health care professional helpful.

Dear Health Care Provider:

Please read the chart before you walk in the door.

Please learn my name and don’t just call me “Mom.”  If it’s possible, learn if my child has a nickname.

Please tell me who you are and what you job is, and how you can help us.

Please listen to my concerns.

Please listen to my child and talk to her like she is a full partner in this process, because she is.

Please explain what the next steps are and what your concerns are; tell me why we are doing what we are doing.

Please follow up as promptly as you can with information on tests.

Additionally, the truth is that it’s the little moments, those little compassionate moments, that we remember in health care.  We remember when the doctor gets on the floor to play with our kid, we remember when they sing a song together.  We remember when the nurse looks for samples so you don’t have to immediately go to the pharmacy.

We remember when the doctor tells us bad news and holds our hand.

Ask any parent of a chronically ill kid about a compassionate moment that a health care provider showed, and they will be able to give you ten, because those are the moments that we WANT to remember.  It provides dignity and humanity to an already suffering population.

It is the compassion that binds us together, and it’s better for the bottom line. People who feel that they are valued come back.  The Schwartz Center for Compassionate Care in Boston has tried to measure compassion.  In this article, they show that hospitals that recruit candidates with compassion, train how to be more compassionate, and reward those members who show true compassion have better retention rates, and fewer return visits to the Emergency Department.

Compassionate Care makes a stressful situation better.

What if you’re not encountering helpfulness and compassion?  Some things I do as a parent include introducing myself to everyone in the room:  Doctors, nurses, medical students, you name it.  I introduce my daughter.  I give a brief history if the doctor hasn’t done so to everyone in the room.

If I am not getting the answers I want, I say so, sometimes not so nicely.  I have been known to say, “If I ask you a thousand questions you need to answer them, because I’m the mom” (Please note, this perhaps wasn’t my finest moment.)

If I’m nervous, I write down my concerns ahead of time to make sure we get to them.

I ask why questions.  “Why are we doing this test?  Why do  you think that?”

I thank the health care provider and try to name the thing they’ve done.  Every time. I make Wendy do it too. “Thank the Phlebotomist for the blood draw.”

I’ve also written complaints when something has gone seriously wrong with patient care.

My daughter is more than a diagnosis, she’s a person.  The health care system can’t just treat her, they have to treat the whole family.  It’s just the way it is.  We are a package deal.

If you are a health care provider, please consisder be more compassionate, more helpful, and not just courteous.  Just being courteous won’t get you anywhere.

Rather, it will encourage me to find a better experience for my daughter and my family.

 

Brave Fragile Warriors

Happy New Year!

This past Christmas, I was given an opportunity to wrap lots of presents for sick kids in the hospital.  We as a family have spent our fair share of days as residents of Massachusetts General Hospital.  In fact, we have spent every major holiday there at one point or another.  We are what might be called “frequent flyers.”

But that’s not why I was in the hospital on December 23rd.  I was there to wrap Christmas presents for other kids and their families.

Here’s the deal. Christmas in the hospital totally sucks and everyone knows it.  Doctors and nurses do everything they can to get kids home because no one wants to be in the hospital for Christmas.  But sometimes, kids can’t go home.  So there are wonderful, generous, kind-hearted people who do the best they can to make Christmas as nice as it can be for these sick kids (and their parents) who just don’t want to be there.    There are sports players and pop singers who come for visits. Santa comes by.  There are special events to make Christmas Cards or crafts.  There are special cookies on the food trays.  There might be someone who comes by to sing Christmas Carols.  All of this helps, but it’s not the same as being home and we all know it.

The Child Life Services at MGH along with their charity organization, “Angels Above” had managed to buy or procure dozens, perhaps hundreds of presents and spent about a week setting them up in a storage room so that parents could “shop” for their children. Each parent could choose five presents for their child.  Sometimes, if they had more than one child (only one of whom was sick), they would divide the presents up:  three for the sick child, two for the well child.  They would be given a shopping bag and the opportunity to find something special for their kids because time and money are tight when you’ve got a sick kid.

They were so grateful, they couldn’t say thank you enough.  Thank you for the presents. For the thoughtfulness. For the wrapping.  It was the kind of overwhelming and exhausting gratefulness of people who were simply worn so thin that all they could do was express their gratitude.  They had spent all of their emotion and energy showing up, talking to doctors, putting on a brave face, and trying to make sense of it all.  You could see the weariness in their eyes, in their smiles.

Bags of toys in hand, they would then come to me.  I was  in the family room, in the corner, with big windows that overlooked the State House with its golden dome. The weather outside was gray but it hadn’t snowed yet.  I had a special wrapping station with paper of any color and bows, and cards, and ribbons.  I would wrap their packages. They would sometimes help, but most of the time they would just sit.  And then, ever so slowly, they would talk.

What exactly do you say to a parent in this situation I wondered, and so I started with the question, “Tell me about your child.”  And they would.  Who they were, how old, where they lived.  Then, what they were in for, how long they had been there.  How much their child inspired them.  How grateful they were to the doctors.  How scared they were all the time.  All while I was wrapping presents.  All with other parents in the room.  The overwhelming theme was that their kids were their heroes.

There were people from all walks of life, from all ethnicities.  There was a Chinese woman who so wanted to be understood, that she spoke slowly  and in clipped phrases.  Her son was in pain.  He was scared. She was scared.  They had been there two weeks.  She had no family in America.  Tears spilled down her cheeks as she trembled trying to get the words out.

There was a grandparent couple there with their granddaughter who was their whole world, who travelled back and forth from New York State for treatments.  Another little boy with the same diagnosis and his parents from Maine, when the parents and the grandparents found out, they compared notes on symptoms and side effects, on doctors and treatments.

There was a South American Woman who was afraid she was going to lose her job because she was in the hospital so often with her child, who had weak lungs.  She lived locally, so she tried to do the work at night as best she could.

When the Child Life staff came by to ask if I needed anything, the only thing I could think of was tissues, because sometimes these parents got a little teary, a little emotional.  Can anyone blame them?

Now here is the thing.  I was only there for two hours. All of this happened in two short hours.  As one of the parents was leaving, she looked at me and thanked me, not just for the presents, and the wrapping, but she thanked me specifically for the conversation. She said, it was so nice to talk to someone new.

And I remembered feeling exactly the same way when Wendy was in the hospital.

That day was the genesis for this blog.  Sure, in the past I have thought about writing my experiences, in fact people have told me I should write a memoir.  For now, that’s not my focus.  I think it’s important to talk about our brave, but fragile, warriors.  And talk about how difficult it is to parent them at times, because we want them to be normal kids but they have extraordinary circumstances.

The truth is that a lot of the things we want to talk about make other parents uncomfortable, even our friends.  It’s like they don’t know where to look when I talk about Wendy’s next kidney transplant, or the horror of having no  health insurance, or the many hours and days I spend in the hospital. It’s not that they don’t love us, it’s just that it’s very difficult for them to relate without triggering their own deepest, darkest fears of having a sick child.

Our sick kids are not only the brave fragile warriors.  We as their parents are too and we deserve a place to talk about it, to comfort each other, to celebrate the victories and band together in the defeats.

And so, a blog is born.