There’s a saying in medicine: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” In other words, the most common answer is usually the correct one. This is good advice when googling your symptoms as well.
But what do you do when it is a zebra?
The last day of February each year is National Rare Disease Day. (Thus encompassing leap day — a rare date for a rare day.) It’s a day to bring together people with rare diseases.
A disease is considered rare when it affects fewer than 1 in 2,000 people. That can be pretty isolating. It means that you may be the only person anyone’s ever heard of with a condition. It may mean there’s not a doctor in your state or in your town familiar with your disease. It may mean treatments that work for others won’t work for you. (But that doesn’t mean you won’t regularly be offered miracle cures by strangers who know nothing about your disease.)
There are 300 million people worldwide with rare diseases. Alone we are rare. Together we are many.
Patrick is rare. Gastroschisis affects 1 in just under 2,000 babies each year. However, Patrick experienced a complication so rare that I can’t find statistics about it. His bowel died, leaving him with Short Gut Syndrome. Short Gut itself only affects 30 of every million people. Only just about 100 intestine transplants are performed each year. Fewer than that are multivisceral. By the numbers, he’s rare.
I’ve been feeling his uniqueness in other ways this month. Especially at school.
Patrick attends a very unique school, one designed for children with special needs, particularly those with autism. Although Patrick checks all the boxes for an autism and ADHD diagnosis, his diagnosis is not as simple as that. Patrick’s intellectual, memory, and sensory issues come largely from a brain injury he sustained during a cardiac arrest caused by a central line infection when he was a baby. That means that, while many of the things that help autistics help him, there are differences in the help he needs. Also, although he has anxiety, his anxiety isn’t founded in ordinary fears, but in the complex medical trauma that he experienced as a young child.
There is a reason we don’t domesticate zebras. They are in many ways quite like horses. Zebras eat almost the same things as horses. (Almost, but not exactly.) They behave in many of the same ways. But zebras are not the same as horses. And the differences are more than just the stripes.
Zebras are smaller but are very strong. They are not strong in the same ways that horses are; their bodies are not made for riders or for carrying burdens. They don’t run as fast as horses. They have evolved to survive as prey. They are skittish and easily startled, quick and agile, known for a bite and a strong kick. Zebras can be sassy, stubborn, smart, and sensitive.
Zebra keepers know that they need to spend extra time building trust. These animals don’t trust easily. Handlers need to be consistent and gentle. They make sure to feed their zebra personally so that it sees where the food comes from and develops trust. Patient handlers are rewarded with an extremely faithful bond.
But you won’t get there if you treat your zebra like a horse – or even like its closer cousin the donkey.
And this is where my frustration lies this month. I’ve heard teachers say that January and February are when most of the teaching happens in a school year. I don’t know if that’s the reason, but every year in January and February, it seems, we end up talking to teachers about the same thing. Patrick falls behind in these months. And I find myself explaining that he can’t be asked to do the same things as the other students if he’s only offered the same supports they are. His issues with motor skills, memory, spatial reasoning, attention, vision, and math require more.
So we end up talking about IEP accommodations, whether there is sufficient staffing, whether he is too dependent, what is attention seeking or escape, whether staff understands his needs and accommodations, how to help them understand, whether he should have to ask for accommodation so receive them. And all of that leads to the question of whether or not he belongs in the classes he is in. Every few years, this one included, I get a bonus IEP team meeting out of it.
This year is better than some because I know that his teachers actually care and are genuinely trying to find ways to help. At least this year I’m not having to start by trying to convince them that his needs are real. But there is a reason people don’t ride zebras. And there is a reason we are always talking about where we can make compromises.
Next year, Patrick moves into 9th grade. For him, that means moving into high school. And that has opened a whole new set of issues. Demands will be higher. Classes will be harder. It’s getting more and more painful to keep Patrick in grade-level classes without grade-level skills. Because classes are for credit, there are limits to modifications. And he likely will never have the executive skills and memory to handle it alone. The question is if we can find a way to give him enough help to handle it at all. And if doing so is worth it for what he’d get out of it.
So now we are talking about whether or not he should pursue a diploma. Whether he would benefit from some time in a functional skills class. What he will do after high school and what, if any classes, they offer that can help prepare him. And although I’ve known for a long time that Patrick wouldn’t likely get a traditional diploma, or go to college, or have many job options, my heart is having a hard time catching up with my head.
Patrick is a normal teenager in so many ways. He loves his friends. He’s girl crazy. He listens to his music too loud and wastes hours on YouTube. He’s obsessed with cars and can’t wait to own his own. At school with his handful of friends is the one place where I think he truly feels like he belongs and is accepted as himself. His advisory teacher is a keeper in both senses of the word.
Except that, even with a sense of belonging, Patrick doesn’t understand what’s going on a lot of the time and sometimes sits lost and without help for an entire class period. And the question is whether that’s actual belonging. (For Patrick, maybe?)
So here’s to Rare Disease Day, a day dedicated to belonging, even when you are rare.
They say that zebra’s stripes make it harder for a predator to pick an individual out. When many zebras stand together, their uniqueness combined protects the group.
That’s not actually true. Recent research shows the stripes protect against tsetse flies, who are so confused by the pattern that they abandon their attack and fly away. That’s probably more representative of how things work with rare disease zebras. We confuse everyone so much that they flee.
But I like the image of the herd of zebras standing together. So I’m going to stick with it.
At the end of last February, my family was in Disneyland. If you haven’t noticed from this blog, we’re pretty addicted. And Patrick can only safely be in crowds when they aren’t really crowds. So, when our tax return came in, we seized the opportunity to skip school and visit one of our favorite places.
I remember so clearly, sitting in LAX waiting for our flight home, watching news reports about this new Coronavirus that was plaguing cruise ships and had just been detected in the first U.S. case of community spread in Washington state. Seeing people flying in masks. And beginning to realize that may, just maybe, this virus wasn’t contained.
For the past year, I’ve had the thought several times that I should maybe write a blog post describing what it’s like to be a transplant family in the midst of a pandemic. I’m finding myself with a bit of time on a Sunday afternoon, so I’m going to give it a shot.
I remember going out to breakfast last year with one of my friends and her telling me that I was her barometer.. the person she was watching to know when it was time to panic. “Coronavirus” wasn’t a new word to me. I’ve spent the past 6 years following virus trends on the Germwatch website from our local children’s hospital and I knew that, for most people, Coronavirus was a common cold. I also knew that children especially seemed to do OK with this new virus. Still, nothing is simple with a child as complex as ours. So I reached out to Patrick’s transplant team in Nebraska and his team here in Utah and asked them to tell me how I’d know if we reached a moment where I needed to pull Patrick from school.
After all, his IEP has a specific provision that says that during cases of viral outbreaks, he was to be transitioned to a virtual connection to school.
On March 13, I got an e-mail from the transplant nurse coordinator “recommending our patients do not attend school for the next couple of weeks.” It was a Friday afternoon. I e-mailed Patrick’s teacher to let her know we’d be checking him out and need to figure out how he could participate in class remotely. Less than an hour later, in a press conference, Utah’s governor announced a soft closure of schools for the next week. Cleaning out his locker and saying goodbye to his friends was hard.
Unlike most of our friends, this wasn’t our first experience with quarantine school. Setting Patrick up for school just required pulling out tools I already had. I cleaned off a desk in the basement, gathered school materials, and set up a picture schedule.
I thought we were ready. Until an earthquake hit the morning that our distance learning classes were supposed to start. My emergency instincts kicked in. I can pack an emergency go bag in 15 minutes flat. It’s a matter of survival, and I’ve packed a lot of emergency go bags. But trying to think through packing a bag for dual emergencies of pandemic (that was supposed to keep us inside) and earthquakes (which might force us outside) was an overwhelming idea. And I had to try to accomplish this while trying to stay calm for a child who was terrified by the frequent aftershocks. I was so grateful that morning for video classes where Patrick could connect with his friends and talk about what had happened.
At the beginning of the pandemic, half of the voices were reciting “this is no worse than a cold” while the other half urged us to “flatten the curve.” In other words, to do everything we could to limit the spread so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed and our unprepared medical system and supply stores depleted.
I’d seen overcrowded hospitals first-hand already. Waited hours in emergency rooms because they couldn’t find a bed on the floor and then ended up assigned to the surgical unit or some other unusual corner of the hospital because it was where they could find space, and just being grateful that we weren’t in a windowless storage closet turned hospital room like some patients. And that was in just an average flu season. The idea of 1% or more of the population needing hospital care at once, I knew, was a very real and serious danger.
I also was keeping tabs on the pandemic on the website used to track national drug shortages. We learned to follow this site to keep track of shortages in TPN ingredients. It was terrifying to see basics such as normal saline, antibiotics, and albuterol appear on the list as critically low. I saw families in the support group I run trying to figure out how to handle dressing changes when masks and sterile gloves were nowhere to be found. And heard first-hand of nurse friends using a single surgical mask for an entire shift. We’d been hospitalized on precautions before. That idea alone was frightening. The stories out of Italy and New York on the news were terrifying. But the inside picture showed that the impacts were reaching us, even if the virus outbreak was not. I started a hashtag within the medical advocacy community. #sharethehealth .. begging healthy people not to hoard supplies that our families relied on for day to day survival.
We felt shortages in other places, too. I stopped at a grocery store to pick up a prescription on that March afternoon as I brought Patrick home from school. People were panic shopping. Shelves were emptied. And the interruptions in supply chain that came from everyone leaving the workplace and coming home were felt for months.
It was terrifying at first for all of us. But there was also a tremendous sense of community. Out of shared uncertainty came shared sacrifice. We were unified and united during those first weeks, even months.
But as weeks dragged into months, life had to go on. At first, we’d stop in to less frequented stores to look for staples, odds and ends you couldn’t get other ways. But as stores shortened hours and crowds competed for supplies, we couldn’t afford the exposure of our full grocery shopping trips anymore. So we learned to buy groceries online. Early on, the demand was so high that you had to place your orders days in advance. And then you crossed your fingers and hoped that the store would have some of what you needed. Checking over our grocery order and seeing what was missing or substituted was one of the biggest heartbreaks of my week. We lived a lot out of our food storage that spring.
And then there was the challenge of figuring out how to get other things we needed without going into a store. Easter especially took creativity to pull off. Gradually, businesses started offering curbside service. But for some things, I’d simply have to call the store and beg for someone to take my order on the phone and bring it out to me at my car.
We left home so rarely that any excuse to get out was a treat. One week, we all went to pick up groceries at Walmart. This outing could take an hour or more, as the demand for curbside was so high. That hot afternoon, we sat in our car with the air conditioner on. And then, when the groceries were loaded, Brian tried to start the car. The battery was dead. We begged the person next to us for a jump start, but that didn’t work. There we were, in the parking lot of a store that sold batteries, trying to decide if it was worth the risk to go in. Eventually, we decided the safest option was if Brian walked to an auto parts store in the same parking lot. There, he bought a battery and tools, changed the battery, and we made it home.
One of the hardest parts of being the family of an immune compromised child in this past year has been learning to forgive other people’s thoughtlessness. Too many people repeat “only 1% will die” or “only those with weak immune systems.” Well, yup. That’s our son. “This is no worse than the flu.” Well, he spent 2 weeks in the hospital with intestinal bleeding from norovirus. His tonsils had to be removed because of the risk of developing lymphoma when he had mono. And after his last immunizations, he’d had to spend a week at home because his body didn’t have enough white cells to protect him should he develop a cold. Having a liver, intestine and pancreas transplanted requires a high level of immune suppression, even at the lowest dose. And on top of that, his spleen was removed as part of that surgery, leaving him with even fewer defenses.
Distance learning was intense. In the mornings, we’d have online groups with Patrick’s class. There was only one girl in Patrick’s reading and math groups and our families got really close working together. In the afternoon, we’d come upstairs and doing science and social skills groups. Patrick’s teacher was amazing in finding ways to connect with the students. And in between groups, we’d complete work offline. I learned several new tricks during this time. Discovered online manipulatives. Mastered Google Meet and Google Classroom. It was a lot of work for me as a mom. But it was SO much better than any quarantine school we’d ever experienced before, that I was mostly just grateful. Especially because it kept Patrick from feeling alone.
The stress of suddenly losing all my supports (respite care, school, therapy and everyone else who had been sharing my load with me) and suddenly switching to a full-time job as teacher by day and a full-time role as playmate at night took its toll. Stress combined with my own immune suppression led to a case of shingles. Thankfully, because I’d been vaccinated when I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and started on immune suppression, it was mild.. a few weeks of pain and a lingering numb spot next to my ribs.
By Memorial Day, people were tired of quarantine and risked family get-togethers. And cases started to rise. We knew that eventually, life would have to reopen. Being a republican state, Utah’s legislature rushed and pressured the state into reopening much more quickly than their own plans suggested was safe. People took this as a sign that things were safe, even though nothing had changed. Still despite the rising cases that resulted, we tried to be enthusiastic for our friends who were able to take advantage of the discovery that the virus didn’t spread much outside. But I’ll never forget Patrick sitting at the window, watching our neighbors host a party with several other families.
Our family eventually got used to the routine of all of us being at home together. Yeast shortages and an abundance of time led me to finally learn how to make sourdough. My grandma was famous for her sourdough and I’m grateful and proud that I was able to master this skill. Also, shortages of food prompted Brian to help me expand my garden and learning about canning. We’d already wanted to do this, and pulling it off in a pandemic without being able to go into stores and nurseries was a bit of a feat. To make things harder, everyone was gardening, too. Still, I’ve always found tending a garden to be healing for my soul. And fresh tomatoes and other vegetables in summer made it worth the effort.
We were lucky as far as friends go, though. Patrick’s best friends were also being careful. And they were eager and willing to stay connected. So we discovered how to do video playdates on Facebook messenger and Google Meet. I found a website where you could upload your own gameboard and recreated a few of Patrick’s favorite games so he could play with friends and family. And we started reading Flat Stanley and mailing our own Stanley around the country.
Early in the pandemic, while cases were low, our extended family rented a house together in Colorado near Mesa Verde. I’m so grateful that they were willing to take the precautions to help make that trip safe because it was so good to spend time with them after so much time apart. We didn’t know how long it would be before we could be in person again.
In July, we decided to skip the noise of fireworks on Pioneer Day and take advantage of relatively low transmission in Wyoming. So we took a road trip up to Mount Rushmore. Most of the trip we were easily able to stay away from other people. We ate in fast food parking lots with all the others because dining rooms were closed. We strategically planned gas and potty stops for less crowded stations. By then, wearing masks got fewer odd looks, at least, even if they mostly weren’t worn in rural areas. Mount Rushmore was so crowded we basically ran in, took a few pictures and ran out, but overall it was a happy distanced trip far from other people. Except the hotels.Being around others in the hotels was nervewracking. Some were obviously clean, others more doubtfully so. Staff wore masks under noses or not at all. I brought cleansers with us and we recleaned the rooms and slept on our own pillows. Thankfully, we only spent the nights there. And in the day, we got to see some beautiful parts of God’s creations that were so close to home, yet we’d never explored.
We are no strangers to masks. Patrick wore masks every time he went in public for the first 6 months after transplant. Gloves, too, that we’d take off and wash when he got home. I started sewing us masks before it was the cool thing to do, as I saw families trying to figure out how to extend the life of their masks for dressing changes.
I read dozens of articles and studies looking for the best patterns and materials and finally settled on 800 count sheets as an interior layer and quilting cotton as an exterior layer. This was based on a study done in England as a sort of pandemic planning that compared different materials. Interestingly, that study hypothesized that the two biggest struggles in widespread mask adoption during a pandemic would be 1) comfort and 2) understanding how to wear a mask properly. It was interesting to see that play out in real life. Especially as a certain viral video hoax convinced so many people that wearing a mask would increase their CO2 and cause them to infect themselves with their own bacteria.
It took a few versions for me to figure it out, but eventually I managed some contoured masks with t-shirt yarn strings that went around your head and were adjusted with a pony bead at the back. They are still our most comfortable and most often worn.
But really, we rarely have to wear masks because we are around other people so rarely. There is some comfort in knowing that there is no grey area for you. Fully quarantining in some ways is easier than the decisions others have to make about risk.
Like returning to school. There was no question there. Patrick would join cohort Z, the all online learning option at his school.
But at a school primarily for children with special needs, most of the students chose to attend in person. It’s the best way for most to get the services they need.
And so, Patrick logs in each morning to a live video stream of his regular classroom. His one friend from spring is also at home and they are still in all their groups together. Our families work together on making learning a success and I’m grateful for their friendship and help.
He has an awesome teacher who does so well making sure that the kids who are online know that she cares and that they are a part of the class. We have our awkward moments. At first, we spent a good part of the time looking at the ceiling of the classroom because they’d forget to adjust the camera after tilting it to talk to us.
But, overall, as far as education goes, this may be one of Patrick’s best years ever. 1) He can adapt his learning to his own pace. He’s with the class, but if we need to take some extra time to finish something or take a break, we can. 2) I am entirely in charge of his IEP goals. It didn’t start out this way. The teacher would send us work. But as he and I were working 1:1 on these goals, my teaching training kicked in and I asked to pick the curriculum. I sent the teacher a copy of the book I wanted to use for math and she gave her blessing. Eventually, I took over all the goals. We just report data back and ask for guidance if we’re stuck. 3) We have enough time in the morning. With meds to give and other things, getting to in-person school on time has been a monumental feat. But we are rarely ever late to class online. If we do happen to be running late, he can just eat at the desk. 4) Patrick always has all the accommodations he needs. I know exactly what he’s doing. And especially with math, that he has to learn in a very unique way, I can pull out whatever manipulatives help. Even make some of my own. No more reminding teachers over and over again that they aren’t following the IEP. 5) We don’t have to fight to figure out inclusion. This deserves an entire post of its own. But long story short, P.E. and recess have long been problems for Patrick. But now our P.E. is guided by an amazing adaptive P.E. teacher and done 1:1 or when he feels up to it. 6) He can eat! And eat. And eat. Getting Patrick to take care of himself physically at school has long been a battle. But at home, he snacks when he needs it. He goes to the bathroom when he needs it. He has gone up 3 shoe sizes in the past year! Gained 16 pounds. He is just 5 inches shorter than me now.
There are some things that I can’t wait to end in this pandemic. But the lessons we’ve learned about education are things I’ll never let go. I hope that no healthy but at-risk child ever has to put up with 2 hours a week of “home hospital” education like we had to do after transplant. We know better now.
Another thing I hope never goes back to the way it was is Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, I miss worshiping in person and desperately miss fellowship with my friends. BUT because our church has a lay ministry, meaning most worthy men are ordained to the priesthood, when churches needed to close, we were given permission to have the priesthood-holders in our home (in this case, my husband) perform the ordinance of the sacrament for us.
About a year before the pandemic, our church switched to a home-centered church-supported model for some of our Sunday School lessons. They provided curriculum, but parents were to teach it at home. Well, that has been a life saver. In fact, being able to customize gospel lessons to Patrick’s way of learning. His gospel knowledge, comfort in the scriptures, and faith have been visibly growing, even if it’s still fairly young and innocent compared to others his age.
And to have Sundays be simply a day of rest, worship, and time together is precious.
As cases began to spike, church leaders directed that sacrament meeting be made available via webcast. At first, we were sad to give up the entirely self-paced Sunday we’d gotten used to. But being able to hear news of our ward and listen to talk and see faces, even if we aren’t seen, has been wonderful. Again, this is one of those things I hope doesn’t soon disappear. As we went months without being able to attend church after transplant, I was often envious of those whose wards had decided to make their meeting available to them via broadcast. It’s a little strange to know that others are attending in person every 2 to 3 weeks. But I know we’re not ready to be there yet, and we’re grateful to connect in the way we can. Similarly, being able to join in Sunday classes via Zoom has been great. (I just wish we weren’t always hurried off by Zoom’s 40 minute timeline.)
Another favorite part of Sundays is family chats. My grandfather is 95 and lives alone. My parents also both have medical conditions that put them at high risk. So the weekly Sunday dinners we’ve known all my life weren’t an option. But I worried about Grandpa and others being alone without regular connections. We started chatting on Sundays and I’ve been able to spend more time talking with my siblings than I have in years.
Holidays have been different. Much more low key. We pretty much skipped Halloween. We focused on Patrick’s birthday instead. We rented a whole movie theater for the three of us just to see a movie. We had a video birthday party with his friends. They played Kahoot and chatted. We bought the candy we wanted for ourselves, put a sign on the door, and hid in the basement from trick-or-treaters. Honestly, it was so nice not to have the birthday rushed through so we could get to the trick-or-treating that, quite honestly, just stressed Patrick and me out.
On Thanksgiving, we hosted jackbox games with our families. And for Christmas, we did gift exchanges and cookie exchanges over video. We had a delightful 2 day road trip getaway to go view the Christmas Star (convergence of Mars and Jupiter) at Goblin Valley in some of the darkest sky country in the country.
Christmas Day has always been hurried for us. Too busy rushing between different families. Spending the day at home playing with toys with a few video chats with family was SUCH a treat.
Reinventing traditions has taken some creativity, but has had such great rewards.
That’s another odd thing about being the 1% during a pandemic. I watch so many people worrying about what they’re missing. They can’t imagine letting go of traditions. They fret about their teenagers missing dances and socials. Their kids missing extracurricular activities. When schools don’t offer them, they create them on their own, despite the risks.
And it makes me sad.. because what they don’t see is that in trying not to miss the old things, they are missing so much else, too.
People hate the phrase “the new normal.” I think because it was thrust on them when they weren’t seeking it. The first time I heard that phrase was at a women’s conference when I was struggling with infertility. I was trying to resolve the gap between my hopes and my reality. And I attended a talk by a couple where the husband had had some sudden, severe health challenges. The wife told her someone had told her to stop trying to make the old normal happen, and to learn to embrace and look for the joy in her new normal. That was a lightbulb moment for me.
When I was getting ready to bring Patrick home from the hospital for the first time, the NICU attending sat down with me for, basically, a pep talk. He warned me that things were not going to feel right. That I was going to think I was failing most of the time. And that I’d at least once be sure I’d killed my son, even though I hadn’t. He told me that finding a new normal takes time. At least a month. And that I needed to grant myself grace while that happened.
I found that timeline to be very true. With every hospitalization, every medical change, every setback or triumph, we’d have to figure out a new routine and a new normal. And depending on the extremity of the change, it could take anywhere from 2 weeks to months before normal came. But it took the longest when I resisted the change.
I’ve spent most of my adult life adjusting to new normals. The Lord loves to reset my life on a moment’s notice. So this isn’t all that unfamiliar for me.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t mourn for the old normal. Let’s be honest, my life ended on March 14. My hobbies, my friendships, my space, my time. Everything I’d built was erased and I got to rebuild it from foundations up with my faith, my family, and my home as the beginning stones. So I miss time with my friends. And I miss having the house to myself. And going out to lunch. And Disneyland. And wandering the produce section of the grocery store. And hearing about my son’s day when I pick him up after school.
One of the hardest parts of this pandemic has been learning to offer grace and forgiveness to those who are actively fighting against “the new normal.” I cringe at social media shares of risky choices and neighborhood parties. It’s hard when that holding on to old things or trying not to miss out sometimes directly affects me. Like when we have to avoid the park on a walk because of the soccer game there with maskless crowds undistanced. Or the time I waited an hour at a restaurant for my curbside order to be brought out because there was a crowd inside and the manager thought he had to keep the line moving and so he didn’t serve anyone not inside the store.
The anger in online communication has been among the worst. And it’s taken me time to learn not to get caught up in it. It’s difficult to bite your tongue when your life for 12 years has been based on trusting the medical profession, understanding epidemiology, following protocols to prevent infectious disease, and reading and interpreting studies. There is really nothing about this pandemic or any of the suggested precautions that is new or surprising to me. This is the same science we’ve known for Patrick’s whole life. Except the human element. I have been surprised by the propaganda, the politics, and the destructive power of the share button. And it sometimes takes conscious effort to keep the real person in mind instead of replying to an online persona. I want to correct misinformation. I want to rage at the lies. But mostly, these are people I love. And only love gets people to listen anyway.
It’s easy to feel unseen, unheard, and unremembered when you are the 1% that’s considered an acceptable loss. Especially when it means you are at home, literally unseen and unheard.
But there have been some miraculous moments of our being seen, too. Like the neighbor who showed up on my doorstep one night with raspberries because I told her I missed them and was having a hard time buying them. Or the amazing group of women who flashmobbed me for my birthday. It’s the texts checking in. The picking up odd items for me while at the store.
(Sidenote: Did you know there are things that stores won’t sell to you online? Toy diecast cars was one. Little Debbie holiday treats, for some reason. And just about every high demand item like hand soap, clorox wipes and toilet paper for a while. I’ve had to learn which stores allow which hard to find items. And we’ve had to give up some other things we used to never live without.)
Being seen is little things. It’s a months long running Marco Polo conversation with one of my best friends (who is also sheltering at home with her 1% son.) And it’s those who still invite and allow me to serve with my talents.
It’s been a privilege to continue to serve as compassionate service leader. Welcoming babies and comforting others through sickness and loss almost entirely through text and phone calls. Helping families who lost someone to this virus has been poignant and sacred. (There’s a red ribbon tied around the trees in my front yard in memory of a neighbor taken by the virus that I don’t know I’ll choose to take down myself.)
I’ve loved continuing to serve as PTO president. I was going to call it off the first year, until I realized that I was the one with the budget for teacher appreciation and the end of year celebrations. I was also the one with experience adapting traditions to crazy health restrictions. So I ended up hosting a week-long game show for our teachers. And I bought gifts and decorations for an end of year reverse parade.
Sometimes I feel like a puppet master running PTO meetings by Google Meet and then giving other commands by text message and sending other parents to do the work I can’t do myself. It’s taken creativity to reinvent school traditions this year. But it’s been a wonderful chance to enjoy and celebrate the now and I hope my efforts have others as we learn a different way to do things.
There have been other hard moments in this year. Not directly from the pandemic, but made harder by it. Rioting and civil unrest. And a windstorm that brought hurricane force winds rarely seen in Utah.
Between the trauma of being woken by an earthquake in March and then a night lying awake listening to that windstorm, Patrick has become pretty skittish about sleep, especially in the morning. He wakes in the morning and lies awake waiting for day to come. I finally taught him how to read a clock, and convinced him he should try to sleep if he wakes before 6.
But most days, since he doesn’t understand time, he lies there and waits for the clock to change. Sometimes for hours. And he’s in my room at 6:04 telling me it’s morning. To survive, we taught him how to serve himself cereal or yogurt or cottage cheese so we could sleep a little longer. Growth comes in unexpected ways.
Finally, an end is in sight for this pandemic. Almost. There are vaccines available. I was nervous at first about their quick development. Until, that is, an infectious disease doctor I trust explained out how the sheer volume of people affected by a pandemic had helped them complete trials faster than usual. No corners were cut, there just were enough people for trials. He also pointed out that the technology had been being developed for years and just needed an application.
Still, we have to wait our turn in line. And unfortunately, there are no pediatric studies complete. So the person in our house who needs the vaccine most, Patrick, may not be able to get it until fall.
There are variants that might be resistant. And no one knows if vaccinated people can spread the virus as can happen with other vaccines.
And with the degree of vaccine hesitancy or outright misinformation, I’m not sure that there will be enough herd immunity available to protect him without being vaccinated himself.
I remember last March reading about the Spanish Flu. I’d downloaded a book thinking “This was a major historical event, and I know nothing about it.” So when I finally was ready to face it, I read that book. And I read historical accounts. That pandemic lasted for 2 years. It looks likely that this one will, too.
So we’ll keep doing what we’re doing. Keeping safe, but not waiting. Being patient, but living the life we have.
There are things we have learned we can do without. I used think that we needed to keep Patrick in therapies as much as possible to help make up for the effects of his brain injury. But when those were cancelled, and I started to put in a full school day with him, it suddenly seemed cruel to make him leave school and still do hours of therapy. After years of attending therapy with him, there is a lot I can do for him naturally in his day anyway.
We learned, however, that we did need other support. The sudden change in activity made the effects of cerebral palsy in his legs so much more severe. Especially in the midst of a growth spurt. Thank goodness for a video consultation with his physical therapist and a dedicated adaptive P.E. teacher, we were able to help me find ways to stretch and strengthen so he could walk more easily again. It helped, but when the weather is warmer, we have a lot of strengthening to do for him and for me. We just don’t get to move enough.
My family is closer than we have ever been. Unlike other trials, we’ve spent this one together, not apart, and it’s brought us close. And despite the outright disasters (multiple) of this past year, we have discovered so many other wonderful things.
I hope we never lose the lessons of family and slowing down.I hope to carry lessons I’ve learned on with me. I hope we don’t resume old habits of ignoring sickness or ignoring those in need around us. That we remember what we’ve learned about staying connected.
One basic principle we computer nerds know.. Sometimes it’s best to just wipe out a computer or a device and rebuild it from scratch. Get rid of the unneeded processes that are bogging the system down. I think that’s kind of what we’re doing now.
If you’ve made it to the end of this long, rambling post.. well, either you’re probably related to me or this pandemic has left you with extra time that you’re trying to fill. Mostly, I’ve written this for myself. To remember what happened this year. And because, as a blogger detailing our transplant journey, it’s worth acknowledging the very unusual experience that it is to be a transplant family during a pandemic.
Whenever I get fatigued by his long, long trial I remind myself that we have been gifted many miracles in Patrick. It is a gift to have him with us at all. He died in my arms and was brought back. He was saved from sepsis more times than I can count. We received another gift in his being made nearly whole by transplant. And I don’t take for granted the gift of his donor who, in a way, lives on in him.
I can be patient and grateful in protecting those gifts. I can be inconvenienced by staying in my comfortable home. We’ve survived things this hard and harder and been sustained.
It is a privilege to be rare, to be the 1%, or even less than 1%. And hopefully what we know from our rare journey can help others. The world has been thrust into our unusual life.
We’ll see if I have more time moving forward to keep up on blogging what it is to be 1% in a pandemic. I have nothing but time, but with distance learning, I also have never had less time. But if you made it to the end here, thanks for listening.
I’d normally pack a post with pictures and maybe someday I’ll go back and do that. But for now, here’s a link to Patrick’s 12th birthday video. That’ll catch you up on pictures till Halloween at least.
On Monday, Patrick will be celebrating his 8th birthday. 8! 8 whole years! And 2 whole years since his transplant!
I’m working hard to pulling together his birthday video. We’ve had a big and busy fall so it’s going to be a little late this year. But it’s just astounding to see how he has grown in the past year. In every way.
The year after transplant, Patrick’s body was shocked and he didn’t grow. But this year we can barely keep up with his clothes. We upgraded him from the only bed he’s ever known, one of those crib-bed combos, because he had gotten too tall for it. His clothes are a medium now and he’s in that awkward size 13 shoe that’s right between little and big kid styles. He is just inches below my shoulder now. And honestly, sometimes I turn around and am surprised to see that he is still small because he feels so big.
He’s grown a lot in spirit, too. For the time being, we have hit upon the perfect mix of medications for his ADHD that keeps him calm and focused while still letting him be his boisterous self. (His psychiatrist warns me he will outgrow these doses soon, but for now they are working.) That has given him the opportunity to grow in a lot of other ways. To sit still and listen and understand. To have his own ideas of how to do things and then to stand up for them. He is becoming more helpful, more responsible, more patient.
He is still the amazingly compassionate child we have always known who is endlessly concerned for the happiness of others. He is the first to give a hug when someone cries. He remembers others’ needs he heard of throughout the day in his prayers. He can tell you all about each of his classmates favorites. And he sees the best in even those who sometimes seem the most different.
With glasses helping his vision, Patrick has grown into a voracious bookworm. He reads all the time. Bedtime reading time is non-negotiable and he’s often found on his bed looking at books. His reading fluency is growing by leaps and bounds. He reads everything to me. And is pretty darn good at spelling. His handwriting is really getting better which is very impressive in light of the fact that he is right-handed and his brain injury has left his right side fairly weak and uncoordinated. He doesn’t like math. But if he forgets to protest because he doesn’t like it, he’s even getting the hang of addition.
We bought a trampoline last spring and Patrick can often be found in the backyard jumping. He went from not jumping evenly with both feet to starting to do jumping tricks. One of our favorite summer passtimes was to go into the backyard and alternate between jumping until he was too tired and reading Dick and Jane. He’s discovering joys we didn’t think possible like bike-riding and swimming.
He earned his Tiger Cub Rank last month and most of the available beltloops. He’s excited to move on to Wolves and we hope he’ll be as happy and welcome in his new den as he was in the one we left. He had a wonderful experience at scout camp this summer. Patrick loves scouting and I love what it teaches about being a good boy and growing into a good man. He is really trying to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent… and HUNGRY.
We went to a Patrick’s annual follow-up appointment with his transplant team last week. They were so happy with what they saw in him. The first thing the surgeon said was “well he has changed since we last sawl him,” commenting on how tall and grown-up Patrick seems now. While Patrick sat on Dr. Mercer’s lap and took pictures on his cell phone, we reviewed his diet, growth and medications. With everything going so well, Dr. Mercer decided that Patrick may not still need steroids to prevent rejection. They gave us instructions on how to gradually wean him off of them and the acid controller that they have made necessary for him, too.
He gave him the all-clear for sports. (Adaptive baseball here we come, we hope?) And we decided it’s time to start planning to remove Patrick’s port. With things so stable, they think that he can soon only need labs 4 times a year. That makes the port not worth the risks. Still need to talk to the doctors here about how to go about that.
With so much growth, we faced a big choice for Patrick this year. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 8 is the age at which children are generally considered old enough (accountable) to be baptized. We believe that younger children are innocent and unable to sin and repent, therefore baptism is not required for them. Most 8 year olds are able to understand enough about the gospel, baptism, promises, and repentance (if not more) to be able to decide if they want to be baptized. Living in Utah, where the church is so prevalent, 8th birthdays are a really big rite of passage.
So we have been watching. And studying. And praying. And finally a few weeks ago we met with our Bishop to talk about baptism. By that interview, the answer was fairly simple. We decided that Patrick is still not at the same level as most 8-year-olds. Right now, he is still innocent. And so, for the time being, he will not be baptized.
For those of you wondering about the doctrinal implications of this, the Book of Mormon teaches:
Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them;
To be clear, Patrick has a very strong love for Heavenly Father and Jesus. Just this morning he refused to get out of the car because I’d forgotten to say a morning prayer and he wanted one. He wants to be baptized. And we believe that in a few years, he’ll be ready to understand and make that choice.
For those with logistical questions: Because we believe Patrick will someday be able to be baptized, we are not doing any replacement baptism celebrations. Those things can wait a couple of years so he can appreciate them. For the first time in his life, something can wait. He has years ahead of him so this is ok.
I’m going to throw in a separate bonus post about this decision, but in light of an 8th birthday, I thought at least this much should be answered for now.
Instead of 8th birthday traditions, we are going to do something that Patrick has rarely experienced in his life. We are going to have a plain old ordinary birthday. With terminal illness, then transplant, birthdays have always been a bit unusual. This year, Patrick’s school is celebrating Halloween today and not next week so he won’t have to share except for trick-or-treating. It’s a long weekend. We’ll have cake and present with family at Sunday dinners. We’ll go to an amusement park on Saturday so he can ride rollercoasters and drive cars. We’ll send treats to school We’ll decorate with a banner and balloons. I’ll make him his choice of dinners. And we’ll have cupcakes and sing to him and open presents. Just us. Just boring. It will be wonderful.
Because he is wonderful. And we have been blessed with a little bit of ordinary. And for Patrick, ordinary deserves to be celebrated.
8 years, buddy! I am so proud of the boy you are becoming.
On the first day of March, I sat in the 3rd grade classroom where I volunteer and I listened to the teacher, Mrs. H., explain to the children that March is either lion or lamb. I had been thinking it, too. We all have heard it. “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” We made crafts about it in school. Only Mrs. H. proposed a different idea. Whichever way comes March comes in, it goes out the opposite way. And that particular first day of March, despite a cold wind, was overall quite warm and sunny. She told the children to watch and see if March would go out like a lion.
I saw a lot of lions and lambs in the last few weeks of March this year. The spring equinox was early this year, and so also was Easter. For school schedules, that meant that spring break came earlier than usual this year, too. In some ways, it was just on time for our family.
March started out a little harder for Patrick. And very busy with work and other responsibilities for Brian. Our lemon of a Jeep misbehaved one too many times for our taste. Actually, its radiator literally blew up, revealing another potentially time-consuming and costly repair. And so we decided it was time to buy a new car. That’s great news. And a lot of fun.
Unless… you happen to have an uncontrollable obsession with cars. Shopping for, purchasing, and then adjusting to a new car proved exceptionally difficult for Patrick and led to him being unable to concentrate at home or even at school.
Brian’s work got especially busy right around that time, too. He crammed a business trip, some off-site planning meetings, and 3 middle of the night system upgrades into a period of about 2 weeks. All while fighting a monster of a cold.
And so when spring break rolled around, I think we all found ourselves more than grateful for the opportunity to escape. Brian saw the long school break on the schedule and decided to treat our family to a vacation. And, as we really only know how to really relax in one place, off to Disneyland we went.
It was a great trip, honestly. With the newfound attention-span Patrick’s medications have given him, he’s started to enjoy feature-length movies of late. And his favorite of all is Cars. He recognizes scenes in the movie from his trips to Disneyland (instead of the other way around, which is priceless.) And so was extremely excited to get to visit Radiator Springs, eat in Flo’s Diner, dance with Luigi’s cousins, and meet all of his friends in person.
We crammed as many rides into our trip as possible. We splurged on a character dining dinner the night we arrived. Patrick loved having mac & cheese pizza, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, an a bowl of M&M’s while being visited by his favorite characters. Pluto even let him feed him. As a bonus, we then skipped meeting characters this time around, allowing time for extra rides instead. We stayed in a hotel with a pool and went swimming as a family for the first time since Patrick had his line removed. We watched firework on our walk back to the hotel every night. We didn’t sleep enough at night, but enjoyed early mornings in the park. It was a fun trip.
We came home on Saturday afternoon to give ourselves time to get ready for Easter the next morning.
Oh, what a time for the message of Easter for me. While we were in Disneyland, two babies were born in my family. I have a new niece and nephew. Born just a day apart. So before Patrick returned to school, we went and met the new babies.
He doted on them. Patrick loves babies. He kept asking me if he could bring them home. He hugged them too tight. He kissed them. And he promised them he’d be their friend forever. Oh, how he made my heart ache to let there be a baby in our house.
And, oh how he reminded me that it is anything but possible right now. In all his loving attention, he has no idea how strong he is, how fragile they are. And he just can’t understand that they can’t get up and play or eat or talk the way other people can. So thank goodness for baby cousins right now. Because we need babies in our life, even when we can’t have them in our home.
So in the mornings, I kissed and cuddled babies. In stark contrast, in the evening, I said goodbye to a dear friend.
One of the wonderful things about my church is an organization called the Relief Society. Everwhere the church is, the women of the church are gathered together in this organization. And it doesn’t matter how different you may be in age, background, culture, or wealth.. you are sisters. The neighborhood I live in was built new just long ago that many of the people who built the homes originally are reaching the ends of their lives. And so you’d think I’d get used to having to say goodbye to these sisters from time to time.
But sometimes they work their way into your hearts a little more. This friend and I loved many of the same things, despite differences in age. She was a teacher and invited me to translate in her classroom. She was a musician and loved to invite me to sing, and then push my abilities with difficult songs. She was one of Patrick’s biggest fans. And although I’ve known for a couple of months that she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and that her death was quite merciful, still I think this is one goodbye that will stick with me for a while.
Especially because of timing. In the week after Easter, I greeted two new babies and attended a funeral. In fact, the day of the funeral, I spent the afternoon with Patrick at the 10th birthday party of a classmate. What an interesting sampling of milestones. To see the bookends of life so close together has made me think about the volumes inbetween them.
When I was in high school, we had to memorize a soliloquy from Macbeth. With his castle under attack and everything falling around him, Macbeth receives word that his wife has died. And his reply:
“She should have died hereafter; There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle.”
I’m not sure exactly why this pessimistic eulogy has been in my mind. Except the knowledge that it is so wrong. Because life is brief, but so much more than “signifying nothing” as Macbeth lamented. In fact, a funeral reminds us that it is, in fact, all the little nothings, all the everyday things. all the tomorrow and yesterdays and todays full of mostly mundane things that add up to what matters.
Because death isn’t the end. It’s not a period. It’s a comma.
Easter celebrates that fact. Because Christ came. Because of his sacrifice. Because he died, and then after 3 days was resurrected, we all will live again.
There is something wonderful to hope for.
However, I feel that being a full-time caregiver is so perfectly captured, though, in the words “tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps forth in this petty pace from day to day.”
I’ve been struggling a bit this month. I have been feeling lost. Invisible. Mundane. I don’t have the hang of this new life. I have more time, but not complete freedom. I’m not fighting for survival every day, but there is still a lot of resistance in our lives.
Every day certain things must be done. I clean the house and do laundry and do the dishes. I sweep the crumbs of Patrick’s snacks. I put the toys back in the toybox. I shop and plan and make dinners. I prepare medications by measuring, cutting, crushing, and mixing, and then make sure they are given on schedule. I help with homework. I encourage reading. I dress and undress my son. I remind Patrick how to wash his hair. I bring in the mail. I clean off the kitchen table. Over and over again. Only to need to do it again the next day. Or the next hour. I’ve been kept just a little too busy to dare make time for myself but had just enough free time to fret over it.
I’m struggling to get the courage to take time for myself. I’m so used to abandoning what I need to do to take care of Patrick that even though I have a little bit of time, I am timid about branching out. I don’t trust that I’ll be able to finish what I start. And that then I’ll be upset. The problem is that this is kind of a lonely way to approach life. I’m trying to reach out and reestablish relationships that got pushed aside when I didn’t have time to do anything more than survive each day. But that takes courage, too. And although I may sometimes choose to be outgoing, deep down I’m pretty shy.
But, like you, like most of us, I know the best I can do is get up and try again each morning.
We often compared the life we led with Patrick before transplant to a rollercoaster. Thrilling highs and followed by quick plummets. I’d learned to live with that kind of thrill ride. You just hang on tight.
But in Disneyland this last trip, Patrick discovered a new favorite roller coaster: Goofy’s sky school. Instead of fast ups and downs, this ride is a much more gradual descent. Instead, of hills, it’s full of sharp turns that knock the breath out of you. The track is obscured so you don’t always see it coming. Sometimes that’s what this new version of life feels like. It’s been a year since Patrick’s last hospital admission. That is ASTOUNDING to me! It’s been a year since we had to drop everything because he was suddenly fighting to survive.
Let me tell you a bit about what the ride is like these days. It’s gentler, for sure, but it’s no “It’s a Small World” cruise.
Patrick’s been struggling with behavior at home and at school. And every note home or call home has left me feeling helpless because, unlike problems with his health that had prescribed medical solutions, this isn’t straight forward. They turn to me for answers and I don’t have them.
He’s doing ok. We’ve been experimenting with changes in his medication and the changes are helping. He is doing better. But the transition has been tricky. And I don’t know if it’s been that, or illness, or hayfever, or growing, or something else but he has been tired and grumpy and not himself. Medicine is more practice than science and when it comes to brain injury, that’s especially frustrating.
We increased his dose of clonidine to see if we could help afternoons go better, and he started to need a nap every day. He hates naps. But he can’t function sometimes without one. I even had to check him out of school and bring him home to nap last week.
We’ve talked to his psychiatrist and adjusted that dosing and talked about trying some other things. It seems to be helping. But it still feels helpless.
We had a good scare right before spring break. Patrick was knocked off of the playground at school and landed flat on his stomach. It left a bruise where his g-tube hit and so I had to squeeze in an emergency visit with his GI to check to make sure that his graft wasn’t at risk. That’s a possibility with any injury to his abdomen.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that out of the blue, his oral aversions have gotten worse. He won’t take his vitamins anymore in the morning. I crush them and mix them in yogurt so they are easier to eat. He sticks his tongue out to block them going in. Or holds them in his mouth and doesn’t swallow. It’s miserable to watch. But they aren’t optional. They’re mandatory. And so we start many days with me pleading with him to do something that he thinks is torture.
He sprained his ankle at the birthday party. He tried climbing onto a bunkbed and fell off. Patrick’s never really had this kind of injury. With his cerebral palsy, he was especially unsteady limping. He also isn’t used to regular illnesses or injuries still, so he was extremely afraid. Asking him to do what little might help.. Elevation, ice, rest. That only scared him more. He needed extra help getting around, getting dressed, bathing, etc. Thank goodness it was conference weekend so it was ok for him to stay home. He’s spent a few days inside at recess at school. But thankfully he’s healing. He’s limping, but can jump and run and stomp while limping.
I’m grateful to have had a couple of weeks of bookends. A couple of weeks of being shown things to make me think about what I’m putting inbetween. And a reminder that there are often many volumes in our life. We’re put away the one called “Ultra Short Bowel Syndrome” and are nearly done with another called “Transplant Recovery” but this latest volume of “First grade” has certainly had some unexpected plot twists.
I’m sometimes tempted to pen, like Shakespeare, that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow just keep creeping at their petty pace. But that feeling is only a page in the story.
I heard a talk this weekend that’s helping my sentiments for tomorrow. It was shared in the semiannual general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints this weekend. The speaker was Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle and a gifted teacher. Here’s a brief summary.
First, he shared this image that kind of sums up how I sometimes feel when I’m headed to bed and thinking about what I need to do the next day.
Then, he gave this counsel about how to proceed.
“If in the days ahead you see not only limitations in those around you but also find elements in your own life that don’t yet measure up… please don’t be cast down in spirit and don’t give up….”
“Please remember tomorrow, and all the days after that, that the Lord blesses those who want to improve, who accept the need for commandments and try to keep them, who cherish Christlike virtues and strive to the best of their ability to acquire them. If you stumble in that pursuit, so does everyone; the Savior is there to help you keep going. . . ”
And then, in contrast to the pessimistic message of Macbeth, Elder Holland gave this beautiful description of the potential for tomorrow.
“If we give our heart to God, if we love the Lord Jesus Christ, if we do the best we can to live the gospel, then tomorrow—and every other day—is ultimately going to be magnificent, even if we don’t always recognize it as such. Why? Because our Heavenly Father wants it to be! He wants to bless us. A rewarding, abundant, and eternal life is the very object of His merciful plan for His children!”
Did you read that? Tomorrow=magnificent. Even if we don’t always recognize it as such.
I’ve got a long way to go. I have a lot to learn about patience. And a lot to learn about humility. I’m finding those lessons are taught in the long, flat, tedious prairies. Not on the peaks.
It snowed the last two days of March. I had to scrape ice off of my car on the last day of spring break. Mrs. H was right. March came in like a lamb and went out like a lion.
It wasn’t an easy month. And April has started out with it’s own measure of sound and fury. We have more milestones: another funeral and a wedding ahead this week. And will still start each and every day with a yucky vitamin.
But I’m trying remember Elder Holland’s words:
“So keep loving. Keep trying. Keep trusting. Keep believing. Keep growing. Heaven is cheering you on today, tomorrow, and forever.”
Valentine’s weekend represents a lot of milestones for our family. Two days ago, we celebrated the seven years since we took Patrick to the temple to be sealed to our family. Three years ago, we took Patrick to Nebraska to have him evaluated for a transplant there. It meant moving to a better program, but leaving a lot of comfort behind. A completely foreign city, a huge hospital, and no one we knew. And then one year ago, we arrived home with Patrick after he’d received his transplant, evidence of a miraculous recovery.
And then yesterday we added one more. Yesterday, Brian (also known as Howie, if you are ever confused by my mixing names in this blog post) was called to be a counselor in our bishopric.
A bit of explanation for those less familiar with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The “Mormon” church has a lay ministry. That means that we don’t have professional clergy. At all. Some full-time. But none are formally trained. And none are paid. Instead, we are all trained as a part of “bringing up” in the church and we all take turns. Every 5 or more years, a new bishop is called. His service is voluntarily and in addition to his regular job, but no less real in its demands. He is a pastor to his congregation. Leader, comforter, judge, and friend. And he is helped in his work by two counselors. Brian was just made a counselor. (And in order to serve in that assignment he was also ordained a high priest.)
But this blog isn’t about Brian or about bishoprics. It’s about our family and our journey together. And so I’m going to share some reflections I’ve had as we prepared for this new assignment. (See, even though the news was only announced yesterday, we’ve known for a few weeks and I’ve had some time to think.)
A phrase came to my mind a few days ago. “Whom the Lord calls, He qualifies.”
And so I’ve been thinking about the calling I’ve been pursuing for the past seven and a half years. My calling as Patrick’s mother.
Seven and a half years ago, I took that a phone call, my life changed. But I don’t think you could say that the Emily who answered that call about a boy who needed a family was qualified to be a special needs mom, a short gut mom, a TPN mom, a transplant mom, an autism and ADHD mom, a feeding therapy mom, a food allergy mom. I had tried to prepare to be a mother. I had often wondered if I hadn’t been given the chance yet because I wasn’t really prepared to even be a mother. (I wasn’t so very wise then, was I?)
Some people say that special children are only given to special parents. And I don’t think that is true. At all. I’ve watched hundreds of moms in the support group I run learn about their children’s diagnosis and realize that they don’t have even the beginning knowledge required to do what is required of them.
I certainly wasn’t equipped. I was impatient. I was just learning how to handle my anxiety. I had panic attacks when schedules changed. (Umm, drop everything and run to the ER? What?) I was absolutely phobic of doctors and hospitals and especially surgical procedures.
When I took Patrick for his transplant evaluation, I had learned a lot and was a seasoned medical mom. But I couldn’t have imagined what that experience would be like. The pain he’d be in. The effect his medications would have on his moods. The trauma we’d both have to learn to live with. And though I knew being far from home and without my husband would be hard, I couldn’t have prepared for it.
When we brought a “new” Patrick home, I wasn’t prepared for the growing and changing that would happen this year. The sheer weight of trying to learn a whole new way of life. A new gut in many ways opened doors to a new him and needed a new kind of mom.
I wasn’t qualified for any of these things when I started them. But I was willing. I was teachable. And I trusted that the call came from the Lord.
I have received a lot of on-the-job training. I have had solutions to problems come to my mind with such clarity and perfection that I know they can only have come from a knowing Heavenly Father through the Holy Ghost. I have shed lots of tears when I didn’t feel I was measuring up. And then I’ve gotten up and kept trying.
I have learned to rely heavily on friends and family and neighbors, on experts willing to take the time to teach me, on other parents who started out as strangers but became friends.
And I’ve learned that truly, whom the Lord calls, He qualifies.
He does it. Through His grace. If we let Him.
Special children aren’t given to special people. Ordinary people become parents to special children all the time. Ordinary people are faced with all kinds of devastating trials every day. Ordinary people step up and do impossible things every day.
There is a saying that floats around a lot. “The Lord won’t give you more than you can handle.” That isn’t quite right. Here’s what the scriptures really say:
There has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. 1 Corinthians 10: 13
In other words, “The Lord won’t give you more than you can handle without also giving you a way to handle it.” He uses trials to make us better. To make us more like him. He takes ordinary, willing people and makes them into special people. Or, in simpler words, “Whom the Lord calls, he qualifies.”
P.S. Don’t take this as bragging. I still consider myself far more ordinary than special. But I digress…
Here we are. Another Valentine’s weekend. Another big change. I don’t know quite yet how Patrick and I are going to fare with Brian even busier. I’m sure sacrament meetings are about to be really interesting. And bedtimes.
I am sure that my humble, determined-to-serve husband is feeling a bit overwhelmed by this new calling. I’m also certain that he will do a marvelous job and that the people of our church are going to be really blessed by having him on their side.
And I’m going to do my best to keep up. That’s what I’ve been doing the whole time I’ve known him.
Brian loves to go for walks. When we were newlyweds and lived downtown, he would decide to walk to the city center. That wasn’t a short walk. And with his longer stride, I had to take an awful lot of steps to keep up with his pace. He has taught me quite literally what it means to “lengthen your stride.”
That’s what it is like having him for a best friend and husband. He’s always challenged me to quicken my step, lengthen my stride, and do a little better.
This post is quite belated. November was a challenging month which deserves its own post. But I would be quite remiss to skip over a post about Patrick’s exciting October 31.
This year was a huge milestone. Patrick’s 7th birthday. And the one year anniversary of his transplant.
Last year, we spent Patrick’s birthday anticipating transplant. I had only just wrapped his presents and gone to bed when the phone rang telling us a donor had been found. Around midnight, we were our local children’s hospital being admitted and transferred for insurance purposes and bidding goodbye to Patrick’s faithful GI doctor. A little after 1, we boarded a life flight plane. We were awake (and tearful) all night, arriving at Nebraska Medicine around 6 a.m.
We caught a little bit of sleep and then tried to cram in as much birthday and Halloween celebration as possible. Around 1 p.m. they took Patrick down to have a central line placed and he was kept asleep for the rest of the day.
His long-awaited and sorely needed multi-organ transplant was an amazing birthday gift. The kind of gift from a stranger that still takes my breath away.
However, from a celebration standpoint, that wasn’t much of a birthday. And so, this year we decided that we had a LOT to celebrate.
So, several months ago, we asked Patrick’s transplant team if it was safe for him to celebrate in Disneyland. And they answered with a very emphatic “YES.” In fact, all but swore they’d do everything in their power to get him there. And so, we bought tickets and made plans.
Parent teacher conference fell just right to give a long Halloween weekend. We left for Anaheim Wednesday night and I couldn’t help see both parallel and contrast as we touched down in the dark and traveled to our room exhausted from a late night of travel.
Here’s some of the highlights from the rest of the trip.
We stayed for 3 days. In my mind, a day for each occasion: Halloween, Transplant & Birthday. When we checked into guest services to request a disability card that would allow Patrick to wait for rides without standing in lines. When they asked why and I explained that he was celebrating his transplant anniversary and is immune suppressed, they handed us all I’m Celebrating badges. Patrick insisted we wear them right away.
Disney Cast Members are trained to watch for badges and offer congratulations. However, I’ll admit that few expected our answer of celebrating a year since transplant. It started to feel a bit strange to keep explaining, so we snuck the badges off when we went back to our room and didn’t pull them back out till we were celebrating birthday.
We decided to head straight for the ride that Patrick loved best last trip. Radiator Springs Racers. What we didn’t think about was that Patrick always has had a good chance to warm up on calmer rides before this fast ride with big ups and downs. He was terrified. But insisted we go again and, well, after the second go broke down crying during the ride. He’s a thrill seeker, but this year Patrick also finally had a sense of fear and we had to be a little bit more careful what he rode on.
We abandoned that plan. And switched to kiddie rides in Bug’s Land. Patrick was much happier there. In fact, he had an awesome time there!
After an afternoon break and nap in our room, we got dressed in our Halloween costumes and headed back to Mickey’s Halloween Party. Patrick had asked to dress as mechanics, so I’d put together some family costumes of Mater’s Pit Crew. We headed to Cars Land to take a couple of pictures and the costumes attracted extra attention from cast members who offered pictures and even some fast passes and we ended up there longer than planned.
Unfortunately, as we arrived at the gates to Disneyland Park, we realized that we had forgotten to pack Patrick’s evening meds. Howie bravely headed back alone to get them while Patrick and I headed in to find something to ride. With crowds as they were, we were just getting onto the first ride when Brian caught up with us.
We rode a couple other rides in the dark. Then decided to give trick or treating a go. We’d planned to skip it, but when we discovered that there were lower sugar nut free treats available in each cart, and when Patrick was having a great time with it, we hit a few more trick or treat lines. We caught the electric parade and then watched the halloween fireworks before heading back to our room.
Friday was incredibly busy in the park. That meant fighting crowds in a lot of places and we didn’t ride as much as usual. We did the obligatory multiple rides in Autopia, met a couple of super heroes, and then decided to let Patrick try a couple of grown up rides as he was seeming braver. The was the first time we’ve tried Matterhorn. Unlike other rides, the Matterhorn bobsleds don’t allow for sitting side by side. The meant Patrick couldn’t bury himself into daddy’s side. I guess he found it fun, but scary. The ride stopped and I turned to see if he was ok (remembering tears the day before). Patrick was lying down in the bottom of the sled.. laughing. I guess it was scary until he got where he couldn’t see.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was open for the first time in the years we’ve taken Patrick. He was nervous on this one, but actually really enjoyed it. He asked to ride it again, but with crowds as they were, we ended up grabbing lunch and then heading back to our room to rest.
By the time we came back, it was night and the idea of a roller coaster in the dark was scary. Instead, we headed off to Dumbo and he was much happier.
That night, we decided to watch Fantasmic. We opted to request a seat in the handicapped section so that Patrick could stay in his stroller. That always end up a bit awkward. Patrick is so much younger than everyone else there. But he quickly made friends with a grandma who was sitting there alone while her family was seated somewhere else. Her birthday was on Halloween too, so they had an instant bond.
We tried to stay put after the show for fireworks. Alas, though, Patrick was doing an awesome job in underwear for this whole trip. (He had a couple of accidents on rides, but mostly was good about asking for and making it to the bathroom.) And halfway through fireworks realized he needed to find a restroom. Oh well.
Thank goodness Halloween meant some limitations on entrance and crowds went back down in the park. It was so strange to be there knowing it was Halloween for everyone. Lots and lots of people in costumes. But we’d had our Halloween and were purely doing birthday.
We did some back to back rides of the kiddie roller coaster in Toon Town because there crowds hadn’t found the back of the park yet. At Minnie’s house, the cast member made a big deal of Patrick being there on his actual birthday.
In fact, Patrick absolutely delighted in wearing his birthday badge and having EVERYONE wish him a happy birthday everywhere he went.
After getting our morning fill of rides, we hopped onto the monorail and rode to Downtown Disney. There’s a fairly authentic Italian style pizzeria restaurant there called Napoli. Patrick DEVOURED the pizza there.
Then we went to get his present. A car from Ride Makerz. (This is the car lover’s version of Build a Bear. You design your car. It sounds like it’s starting out fairly inexpensively. But once you add remote control and a rechargeable battery and custom wheels and all.. well… We knew going in. Thank goodness Patrick’s fancy was fairly restrained. The experience was worth it. He loved getting to assemble the car with power tools. And he loves his truck.
We had reservations for dinner. Disney is always so good with dining. But we learned that we have entered a new realm for them. See, they are AMAZING at following allergy precautions. They won’t take a risk with any thing you declare to them. And they have lots of alternatives.
However, we knew going in that Patrick was going to was to order the mac and cheese. In fact, he’d been rather picky all trip and we were fairly sure that the mac and cheese was the only food he’d order on the menu.
So we asked the chef to come visit us at the table to make sure that the pasta and other ingredients they would be using were exactly what I expected and would be safe. Some pasta is made with eggs and unsafe. However, for Patrick pasta manufactured near eggs, as long as it isn’t concentrated eggs, is ok.
Well, before we knew it, we were being visited by the restaurant manager who explained to us that they would not be able to serve him any pasta. Or the cake that we’d special ordered for his birthday.
Only after I’d made a very in depth explanation of the parameters we’ve worked out with Patrick’s allergist would they allow us to order these foods for him.
So lesson learned. Disney is great at avoiding allergens. But don’t tell them your grey areas out loud. I think that’s going to be an ongoing rule as long as Patrick needs to eat food’s that he is mildly allergic to.
Anyway… once food was ordered the dinner was very nice. Patrick beamed at his little miniature cake and really, really loved the sorbet they brought him , too.
After dinner, we headed over the World of Color show. Our dining package reserved us seating in a specific area. And then, on top of that, Patrick had his handicapped pass. However, that really only led to a lot of confusion. It took a lot of walking to find the area we’d be seated in. And once we got there, we weren’t so sure it was where we wanted to be.
The reserved handicapped section was full. Beyond full. Like they had to make people get up and move to make room for us. And they just kept cramming people in.
Really, the problem came down to large family groups that didn’t understand that a family of 12 was too big to all squeeze in with one family member there. Alas, that meant that as we were rule abiding, our family ended up divided. They seated us on a bench so that we could fold up Patrick’s stroller and make room for others. And then they needed more space and Brian got up to allow it. Meanwhile the gigantic family grumbled about how unfair it was to ask them to be separated.
I think maybe next time we’ll have to look more closely at whether or not we can do regular seating. Thankfully, Brian stayed close enough that we could still see each other and the other people he ended up standing with (who were also displaced) were very kind. The show was really nice and Patrick really enjoyed it.
And we went to leave, but Patrick kept talking us into one more ride, and then another and then another and we ended up lingering and riding and then doing a little more shopping so that he ended up getting to stay up till midnight on his birthday.
We came home Sunday and had a quiet day at home. And then Monday evening we invited grandparents to come join us for birthday cake. Mixed in with needing to run back and forth to help with Patrick’s school to help take him to the bathroom that made for quite the complicated day. Never decorated a cake in half hour increments with errands in between. But it came together and Patrick loved the little quiet family party at home.
And by the end of the weekend, I was quite satisfied and quite done with reminiscing about how far we’ve come. It is truly miraculous to see what this year has brought. And also, it is time to get back to normal.
That’s what we hope Patrick’s 7th year will be. Just a nice normal year where he can keep growing and we can settle into the normal that we’ve always dreamed for him.
So extended school year isn’t really a very full-time summer school option. It’s 2 weeks on and 2 weeks off. So for the past week, Patrick’s been having a mini summer vacation.
We started off it grand fashion. He has really done well in his new summer school classroom. The kids are much more on his level and I feel like he’s making good progress there. The education is focused on maintaining and, at least in the realms of social skills and keeping a routine, it’s going a long way.
The last day before the break, Patrick had his first turn in the school swimming pool. They invited me to come help, just because he has so little experience in the pool. I’m so glad they did! When I got there, he was already dressed for the pool and waiting for me. I’m used to a little boy who is very cautious in the water. I guess he was watching out for his line, because Patrick was NOT afraid. At all. He was extremely brave. I helped him float and worked on teaching him to hold his breath or blow out if his face got in the water. We got him a floating vest and at one point, I turned my back, and he decided to go on his own. I’ll never erase the memory of him laughing as he rolled over and over again in the water.. trying not to inhale.
I’ve been in a better summer mood this week. I finally made Patrick’s 6th birthday video, 6 months late, as a father’s day gift for Brian. You can view it here. I’ve put it off because it was too hard to look at the life we’d left behind when Patrick went for transplant while he was still recovering. I thought I was in a better place. I was. It was therapeutic. It was also still hard. It made me miss last year’s summer school adventures. It made me miss him having friends. And it made me miss the days before steroids where disappointments didn’t lead to big temper tantrums, leaving me fearful of doing some things. I actually had nightmares all the time I was working on the video.
But, with it done, I was ready to dive in and make this a good summer, too. I’m still not as organized and awesome as Mommy school. But we’ve done some good things. We had a picnic at Red Butte Garden. We took a cousin and visited the children’s museum. (Called and asked for suggestions of a less-crowded time to visit and enjoyed being there without fighting a crowd.) We’ve toured a few different libraries. We finally started collecting brag badges. We mixed up our lunch routine and went to Liberty Park where we started out just eating hot dogs, but stumbled across their wading fountains and ended up staying 3 hours just because.
It was triple-digit heat all last week so I decided that, with the success in the school pool, it would be a good time to get out the backyard swimming pool. This went better than I expected. First, the neighbor’s 10-year-old who often comes to play and help me with Patrick, helped me fill up the pool and taught Patrick how to play in it. I tried putting sunscreen on my own back with spray sunscreen. I haven’t been that burned in years.
The next day, we invited the boy across the street to come play. This was much more on Patrick’s level of play and they had a great time together. This little boy only just barely became a big brother, so there was lots of coaching for both of them about how to play together. But they had successful pool noodle sword-fighting, basketball, water fighting, and general splashing. In the end, I had to call it done because it was well past lunchtime, but neither boy wanted to be done.
Patrick actually spent the rest of that day in the pool, too. He is loving being uninhibited in the water. I love being able to share something I love so much with him.
Alas, though, nothing is perfect. I accidentally pulled Patrick’s g-tube out the day before his first time swimming and it bled a little. We have had off and on g-tube infections since and I’m sure that it’s from spending so much time in the water. Thank goodness it’s supposed to be a cooler, rainy week so I can get away with taking a few days off to let it heal.
The other big event of a summer break is that I decided it was time to work on potty training. I took Patrick to K-mart and let him pick out a pair of big boy underwear the last day of summer school. The next day, I woke up with a migraine, but he was excited to wear them. So we plunged ahead.
He made it through all 5 pairs of underwear in 2 hours, trying his best to “hold it” in between small accidents. I gave him lots of goldfish crackers and praise and did my best to keep things fun and happy. But he was still discouraged. The session ended puddles and a frustrated little boy. I’m pleased to report his mommy stayed calm and positive.
The next day, when I pulled out his underwear, he cried and threw a tantrum that he didn’t want them. But I reminded him it was only for the morning and that there were prizes waiting. After several tries, he finally went in the potty and earned the water gun I’ve been dangling as a carrot for months. The light went on and the next day, he made it several times, staying dry for half the day.
We took the weekend off, and then started again on Monday. I think he’s actually getting the hang of this. We still aren’t accident free and today is the first day I’m trying underwear all day. I don’t know how it will go to have them trying to potty train when he goes back to school next week. I still haven’t tried using a potty away from home. We might need the next long break to solidify what he’s learned. But so far, things are going better than I expected. Now if only I can convince him that this is the better option for him.
(Note: I know this is a long gap without pictures. But I am trying to not post pictures my son will find embarrassing someday when his girlfriend finds this old blog.)
We had a simple 4th of July. The evening was spent at a barbecue with my family. We’d decided to not push Patrick’s limits this year by participating in my family’s huge fireworks. Turns out, that was a convenient choice as it started to rain right after we ate. We left in a downpour but made it home with just a little sprinkling, so we decided to go ahead with our smaller fireworks. (We bought a small pack of fireworks, plus a couple of fountains specifically labeled “silent” so he wouldn’t be scared by the noise.) Who’d have expected, after years of miserable 4th’s and Patrick terrified of fireworks that, on this smaller scale, Patrick would be in love with fireworks. We had to stop and go inside for half an hour because of rain, but when it let up we went out and lit more. He was very upset when he found out we only bought enough for one night.
The rest of the day was simple. Brian hosted a barbecue for his team at work Monday so we spent most of the weekend deep cleaning the house and prettying up the yard. It feels really good to finally have cleaned up some of those messy corners and piles that have been haunting me for being undone since we got home in February. And I caught a clearance sale at the greenhouse down the street. So I got 3 healthy cucumber plants and two basil for free, some adorable patio pumpkins, eggplants, and yellow zucchini as well as a 3 pack of bell peppers for virtually nothing.
Then, we went back later for some miniature sunflowers to fill in the front bed where our irises grow in spring. Brian wanted to plant giant sunflowers from seed earlier this year. We planted a seed in a family home evening lesson about faith. They are as tall as me now. So tying in little sunflowers in the front yard seemed the perfect touch. I’m in love with my sunflowers this year.
One of the remarkable characteristics of young wild sunflowers, in addition to growing in soil that is not hospitable, is how the young flower bud follows the sun across the sky. In doing so, it receives life-sustaining energy before bursting forth in its glorious yellow color.
Like the young sunflower, when we follow the Savior of the world, the Son of God, we flourish and become glorious despite the many terrible circumstances that surround us. He truly is our light and life.
We’re plugging away. The stress of having Patrick will me full-time when paired with the Brian’s very busy summer planning handcart pioneer trek reenactment for the teenagers in our church has me running a little ragged. I’ll be honest, when paired with facing my feelings about what we’ve lost, I’ve had more trouble with anxiety and depression lately. So looking to sunflowers as a symbol and reminder of life-sustaining faith and hope, even in the midst of a week where popular voices are calling it old-fashioned, hypocritical, and even bigoted to believe in Christ.. that is helping to lift me up. My sunflower plants really do turn and follow the sun all day. I see them every time I come and go from my house. And each time I do, I remember that it is worth following light, even before flowers bloom. That little seed of faith we planted is as tall as I am and growing more, so long as it follows the light.
One more week of summer awesomeness ahead. This week, we’ll resume our mommy school studies, try to earn a brag badge a day, wear underwear all day, and try to get daddy ready for Trek.
Happy April! Don’t you just love April? It is teeming with new life. The trees are in blossom. The tulips opened this weekend. There are little green shoots poking up out of the soil in all of the gardens around my yard. There are birds nesting in the eaves of my house. (No, that’s not necessarily a good thing.)
April and spring also bring us Easter. A celebration of Christ’s victory over death. And spring surrounds us with reminders of the Lord’s power to bring forth life. To turn what appears dead and gone into glorious beauty. It as if all of nature is shouting the promise of renewed life.
April is also national Donate Life month. This year, with our family’s transplant journey fresh in my mind, I can’t help but see lessons about Easter and Christ’s atonement in it. I thought perhaps I would share some of those thoughts with you.
In the Book of Mormon, a prophet named Alma describes the resurrection in these terms.
The soul shall be restored to the body, and the body to the soul; yea, and every limb and joint shall be restored to its body; yea, even a hair of the head shall not be lost; but all things shall be restored to their proper and perfect frame. – Book of Mormon, Alma 40:23
I used to say that I looked forward to the resurrection because Patrick and I were going to have a week-long feast. With a perfect body, I want him to be able to taste every wonderful thing that he has missed experiencing in this life. I never imagined that to be even remotely possible in this life.
And yet, since transplant, Patrick is getting to do just that. He is finally able to begin to experience some of those things. It is incomplete. Allergies and diet restrictions and motor deficits from his brain injury still limit him. And we will still need to have our feast.
Transplant is not a perfect restoration. In fact, an x-ray or ultrasound of Patrick’s belly would reveal an anatomy that looks more like a jury-rigged mess. But it is the closest approximation that I know of in this life. Transplant takes what is broken or missing and puts things back to their “proper” frame.
And seeing what a transformation this human attempt at restoration can bring, I look forward with joyful anticipation to a day when not even a hair is missing, let alone major organs. When everything is made right. When little eyes can focus to read without effort. When words don’t get stuck in formation. When little legs can run without weakness. When everything is made whole and perfect again.
There is one part of transplant that I have a hard time understanding. When Patrick was 9 months old, his heart stopped. In essence, he died in my arms. For 2 weeks afterwards, we came back to our house every night not knowing if he would survive. I was destroyed. I had not understood until that time the literal physical ache of grief that accompanies the loss of a child.
Yet somehow, in the midst of that grief, another family found in the midst of that grief the compassion to give the gift of life to mine. Before transplant, Patrick was terminal. We didn’t talk about how very real that possibility was because we didn’t want it to get in the way of his living the life he had. But we knew. We had made plans and were preparing to one day have to let him go.
With transplant came something different. A hope of a full and long life. A gift that rose out of the grief of loss and death. And, in a very real way, Patrick’s donor also lives on in him.
Again, from the prophet Alma:
And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. – Book of Mormon, Alma 7:12
Our Savior voluntarily laid down his life. He suffered pain and sorrow so great he bled from every pore. He hung and he suffered and he died. For us. His mother and his friends wept as they watched him die. They laid him in a tomb and they went home mourning. They wondered how and if they would be able to go on. And all of it. For us.
And on the third day, the returned to find the tomb empty. Because Jesus had risen. For us. He overcame death. And because he rose, we will rise. And death is not forever. Loss and sorrow and separation need not last forever. Because of Him.
I see in transplant a whisper of this promise. It is possible to conquer death. And I know that Christ has conquered death and that my son, if he dies, will live again. And so will his donor.
If you are a medical nerd like me with an interest in transplant, I highly recommend that you sometime read the autobiography of Thomas Starzl, the inventor of transplant. It is called The Puzzle People and it is fascinating to read the journey, the determination, the trial and constant failure that led to this amazing medical breakthrough. It was an amazing confirmation to me that God inspires science and discovery and he leads human beings to be able to master the eternal laws that govern the world we live in.
I’ve learned that in science there are also important eternal lessons. And in transplant, there is an important lesson taught about weakness.
You see, in his early experiments, Dr. Starzl found that he had mastered the surgical technique of transplantation. And yet he struggled as recipients rejected the life-saving organs because they were foreign and seen by the immune system as a threat.
Transplantation did not move from the realm of science fiction into medical science until Dr. Starzl discovered how to use immunosuppression to weaken the body’s defenses enough to accept the transplanted organ. Transplant of larger, more complex organs wasn’t possible until the discovery of a drug called FK506, better known as Prograf, that could weaken the body’s natural immune response enough to protect the transplanted graft. The reason that intestinal transplant is so new and so rare is that the intestine is so large and so intertwined with the body’s immune system that it took such a high degree of immunosuppressive therapy.
In layman’s terms, in order for the body to accept a change as large as transplant, it first had to be made weak. Weak enough to be susceptible to infection and illness.
For the week following transplant, Patrick stayed in the ICU so that he could be given a drug that completely wiped out his immune system. It removed it so completely that they then prescribed him a year of antibiotics, antivirals, and isolation in order to try to protect him. All of his defenses were removed. Because that is the only way to prevent his body from immediately rejecting the gift he had been given.
The apostle Paul wrote about an unnamed affliction that plagued him for years. He frequently prayed and asked for this “thorn in his side” to be removed. And yet, it never was. After much time and certainly much struggle, he recorded the Lord’s response to his pleas.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:9-10
Sometimes, the Lord gives us strength through weakness. Sometimes he leaves us with a thorn in our side, with prayers that seem unanswered, with trials that seem neverending. He does it because sometimes the only way for us to be prepared to receive His gifts.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. – Isaiah 53:5-6
Christ atoned for the sins of the world, taking upon him every sin and sorrow and transgression. But what good is that gift if we, thinking our own defenses are strong enough, reject His grace. Sometimes, it takes weakness first for God to work the change in us that will make us strong. Not all healing is painless.
I am so grateful for Jesus Christ. For His resurrection. For His atonement. For His grace and for His love. I know He lives.
I see reminders of His gifts and His promise of life all around me. In the tulips and the tree blossoms. In tender shoots in garden beds. In the sparrows. And especially in my son.
We are doing well. Patrick’s responded well to the antibiotics he was started on last week. His liver numbers are normal again. We are still giving IV antibiotics. Therefore we are sleepy. But we are happy. And we are healthy. We had a great Easter full of bunnies and feasting and magnificent sermons. This life is not always easy, but it is good. We are blessed.
Hello from “The Hotel on the Hill.” If you are new to our blog, this is the nickname for Primary Children’s Hospital which is situated in the foothills of the Wasatch mountains on the edge of the Salt Lake Valley.
We have been here since yesterday afternoon. Here’s why.
A few weeks ago, Patrick’s nurse checked his temperature when he came to draw his morning labwork and it was a little high. Later that day, his labwork showed elevated liver enzymes and a slightly higher white count. These two signs together usually mean an illness and we thought that maybe Patrick had a bit of a stomach bug. The numbers stayed high for a couple of days, then went back down. We called Nebraska Medicine and they said they would check some viral studies to see if something was brewing. No one seemed too concerned.
For the past several weeks, this pattern has repeated itself. Once or twice a week, Patrick’s temperature has gone up. His liver enzymes go up. Sometimes his white count goes up. Sometimes it doesn’t. And Patrick never got sick. And no one ever seemed really worried.
Well, this Tuesday, when they checked Patrick’s labs, his liver enzymes were up by almost 100 points. His white count was normal this time. His temperature was 99.7. He was acting fine. But they also finally got around to those viral studies which showed no concern for the viruses they suspected might be to blame. Also, Patrick’s prograf level was a touch high and the transplant team decided to drop his dose by half.
I texted Patrick’s local doctor, Dr. Jackson, to let him know about the change and that night he called me. He suggested that the one other thing we hadn’t checked for was infection in Patrick’s central line.. maybe some small amount of bacteria seeded there. So the next morning Patrick’s home nurse came by and drew cultures and repeated liver enzymes and prograf levels. The liver tests came back pretty early. The enzymes that had been high were the same, but another marker was now up, too. And Saturday morning, as we were getting ready for the day, we got a call from the GI fellow on call who said that Patrick had tested positive for a line infection.
Well, Patrick was still feeling fine. So we asked if we could still take him to the Make-a-Wish easter egg hunt we had gotten him up early for. Then I called Dr. Jackson to figure out how exactly to proceed. We talked about starting treatment at home, but Patrick needed some vancomycin.. a drug we have a love/hate relationship with because it clears infections, but Patrick’s pretty allergic to. It gives him a rash, so he has to have benadryl. It also makes his belly quite sick and we didn’t know how a new gut would take it.
So, we made a plan to bring Patrick inpatient for the weekend while we start antibiotics and figure out what comes next.
Because he is still so soon after transplant, we are making our first stay in the cancer/transplant unit, or immune compromised unit. (ICS). At first, I was worried they might kick us out after we went through all the work to make an infection-risk-minimal admission. They don’t accept transplant patients after the initial immune suppression and they didn’t know us and thought maybe someone was sneaking us in. But once they heard “5 months since transplant” it was ok.
They are experts with central lines here, which is nice. They don’t do g-tubes or ethanol locks often, though. Apparently only short gut and related GI diagnoses get the full gammut like we do. So there’s still some teaching to do.
The nice thing is that they keep the rooms super duper clean and, really, the nursing staff here is in general a little more experienced. The techs are really on the ball making sure things are cleaned up, diapers charted, extra food collected, teeth brushes, baths given, etc. There are things in this unit that I would have killed for in Nebraska. Like washing machines down the hall. (Last night Patrick had a diaper leak and they just showed me to the washing machines so I could clean it up.) And bathtubs. Patrick was very excited to take a bath here this morning. And needleless hubs with scrub caps and a policy of scrubbing the hub for a full 15 seconds and then letting it dry.
The room is smaller, but these rooms feel like home. And the parent bed is comfy. And the view is spectacular. And the cafeteria is just downstairs and still serves most of our comfort foods, even though they’ve just remodeled.
So it’s different, but it’s home.
This has been a very long week. We are all very tired. Monday night, my cell phone rebooted and wouldn’t load its operating system afterwards. Brian plugged away at it every chance he got, but there was no fixing the problem. So I had a few panicked days where I could see abnormal labs but couldn’t text as I normally do to communicate with Patrick’s medical team. Thankfully, Google has amazing customer service and pulled off a warranty exchange before Friday.
Tuesday night, I started to get an ache at the back of my throat. I hoped it was allergies, but was pretty sure it was a cold. I woke up sure I was sick. So I masked and gloved up, stripped and washed all my bedding, did as much laundry as possible, clorox wiped everything in sight and just tried to muddle through with as little exposure to Patrick as possible. It took round the clock mask-wearing, lots of handwashing, lots of running outside or to another room to sneeze or cough of blow my nose, and lots of picnic lunches (so I could eat without breathing near him) to get through the week. Thank goodness family was in town visiting. Two nights in a row, Brian took Patrick to dinner with his family, leaving me home to rest, clean, eat, and breathe mask-free.
I was still sick and masked yesterday when we came up here. I was almost afraid they wouldnt’ let us into this unit with me sick… but I’m following the same precautions the rest of the staff here does so it turns out it was ok.
Thank goodness I am better today, though. My ears are so tender from wearing a mask all day and night that I can barely stand to wear my glasses and putting a mask on this morning to walk Patrick to the playroom almost made me cry.
It hasn’t been a better week for Brian, either. Coming home from work and taking Patrick away immediately is not easy for him. And he has some some busy weeks, preparing for some organizational changes heading his way.
So we were beyond grateful yesterday morning when Patrick’s doctor asked if we’d like to wait and come into the hospital at 1:00. We had promised and easter egg hunt and we had a great time. Make a Wish throws a great party and no one looks twice at you wearing masks and gloves and not eating any candy. Patrick was so very excited to meet the Easter Bunny. We got his face painted. We had a great time in line with the clown making balloon animals. (Have I mentioned Patrick loves clowns?) The egg hunt was only mildly interesting to him. He gets tired walking still and so running around hunting eggs wasn’t the most exciting idea.
The eggs were filled with candy and Patrick was a bit disappointed. But we knew we were headed to the hospital and were feeling generous and Brian had a coupon. So, we offered to let Patrick trade his candy for a prize and we headed to the Disney store.
We talked briefly about heading home and doing our chores but opted for some family fun time instead. We started at the Disney store where Patrick picked out a Mickey Mouse train set. Then we went to a built-to-order pizza restaurant and let Patrick design a cheeseless pizza. He loved it and scarfed it down and packed up his leftovers to go.
We left the mall and went for a walk around Temple Square. If you’ve never seen the gardens at Temple Square around the time of LDS conference you should, Especially in spring. They are amazing! Tulips and fountains and pansies and flowering trees raining white petals everywhere.
Patrick did what all little boys do… walked the borders of every fountain and ran away and climbed up into the bronze statues.
And then, it was time to come up to the hospital.
And it was strange being admitted to a new place that is different but familiar. We had an ok night. Patrick didn’t nap on schedule. Not a surprise. But after they gave him benadryl at 5, his eyelids got droopy.
And then, he woke up was very mellow the rest of the evening. We watched movies, played with syringes, cuddled on the bed. At 11, he seemed tired enough finally to sleep so I turned out the lights and he was out in 5 minutes. He slept all night except for diaper changes and woke up with the sun. (Much to my chagrin).
Rounds came early this morning. They said that he had immediately responded to antibiotics and his liver numbers were already trending down. No cultures have grown out, though, from the labs drawn right before antibiotics were started and we can’t quite explain it. The doctor suggested that another option for the off liver numbers being bacteria from Patrick’s gut gettiing into his liver through the gastric bypass created at transplant. I guess we’ll explore that more.
But the long story short is that Patrick seems to be responding well to treatment and shouldn’t be hospitalized long. And we’ll have more conversations about the cause of the problem and the fate of his line in the future.
It’s been a quiet Sunday. Patrick is so much calmer in the hospital now. I don’t know if that’s from practice being in the hospital and entertaining himself alone or because his sensory processing disorder is less of a problem since transplant or because his nurse last night started giving him all the used syringes and passed along in report to continue doing so and he has like 30 of them now, plus extensions to connect them to and that always keeps him happy. But he’s quiet and once we’d all had a nap we were all happier.
That was a lot of story to tell. I really should blog more often so you don’t have as much back story to read through. Oh well.
“Do you know deep in your heart that your Heavenly Father loves you and desires you and those you love to be with Him? Just as Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ are perfect, their hopes for us are perfect. Their plan for us is perfect, and Their promises are sure.” – Carole M Stephens, Relief Society General Presidency, LDS General Women’s Conference, October 2015
God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs. – Spencer W. Kimball
Brian flew home Monday. I was kind of worried how this would play out as the last time he left while Patrick was still inpatient, I found myself feeling in well over my head trying to juggle caring for Patrick and trying to piece together little things for myself like food and clothing and bathing.
However, instead, I’ve found the last couple of days almost relaxing. An important lesson I’m learning here is to let people help me with little things so I can be free for the bigger things. For example, Monday morning a hospital volunteer knocked on the door just as I finished dressing Patrick to ask if I needed a break. So, she came in and played with Patrick while I took a shower, did my makeup (a rare luxury), made the bed, and cleaned up the room.
This week has been full of volunteer angels. From church, I find women I barely know (have met a few times or not at all) providing meals or coming and sitting with Patrick so that I can go back to the Ronald McDonald House to eat or shower or do other things. There is an after-holiday lull in charitable donations and so fewer meals are offered at the beginning of January than throughout the rest of the year. So, one evening while a lady from the Relief Society (church women’s organization) was introducing Patrick to the joys of a fart machine, I hurried back and made up a week’s worth of taco meat so I’d be ready for days I either couldn’t get away or nights where dinner wouldn’t be waiting.
This has been a blessing I can’t put into words. I am not unhappy that in our first month here, we ate such carefully portioned meals, a-la Hormel no refrigeration required microwave dinners, that I lost several pounds. But sometimes it was hard to be patient with Patrick and happy with this 24/7 mom/caregiver role I’m living because I was hungry. But right now, I am anything but hungry. I have to think to not end up being fed dinner twice. I haven’t even touched the supply of meals I bought right before Brian left because there has always been another one there someone has made for me.
But beyond food, this has given me the chance to keep up on laundry (with a little bit of help from a friend willing to fold and slip into my room my clothes if I can just get them to the dryer) and to stay showered and in fresh clothes (which I find goes a VERY long way to my general sense of well-being), and sane. I get an hour or two here and there and in it I try to be as productive as possible. I probably look like a mad-woman flying through the Ronald McDonald House when I go there.
Patrick is happier with this help, too. Someone appears offering help and he shoos me away to “the House’ so he can play. Patrick needs people. He loves when someone comes and he has someone new to play with. He really loves the volunteers who come help Child Life with activities. We had an awesome time the other day flying airplanes with the ROTC. Right now, Patrick is one of just a handful of kids old enough to play with, so they are especially excited to see him, too.
It helps so much to have people. Tonight, I got a call from a woman from church who is quickly growing on me, saying that she had some time and could she come play with Patrick so I can get out. I almost felt like I was taking advantage because I’ve been so well taken care of, but I’ve sworn to myself to accept help when offered. So she came and I almost didn’t even leave because it’s -3 with a wind chill of some other horrid number and everything is closed here as a result. But I remembered that Patrick’s been running a touch low on diaper cream and I had one more jar of his preferred kind at the house, so I went to go.
But, when I got to my car, it just wouldn’t start. I’d turn the key and it sounded almost like it was sighing. I had a jump starter in the trunk, but even that didn’t help. It just showed me my battery’s power dropping from 60% to 40% to unreadable.
So I came back in and I bought diaper cream at the outpatient pharmacy instead. Then I called Brian and I called my dad to assess the symptoms. And then i came back to the room feeling a bit beyond alone and helpless. Only I wasn’t alone. There was this sweet angel from the ward making playdough P’s with Patrick on the floor. And she listened to me talk through my problem and she offered all the help she could think of. And then she just talked for a while which is something I am REALLY missing here… talking to grownups and especially friends of my own faith.
And things felt lighter going to bed. In fact, Patrick and I stayed awake and giggled and talked for a while. Sometimes, he and I get playing a little more like it’s a sleepover. And last night he told me that when he grows up he wants to be a firefighter and put water on things. And that when I grow up I want to be a doctor… not like the ones in the hospital, but like the toy one in his Duplo block set that he got yesterday.
Which reminds me of another super nice thing that strangers did for us. Right before Brian left town, he discovered a couple of Christmas presents hidden under the bed that we’d overlooked on Christmas morning. Well, they couldn’t have been more perfectly planned if we’d done it on purpose.
When we got married in December, I was really sad that the wedding and honeymoon took up most of the Christmas season for us. So we decided to extend our family’s Christmas holiday like they do in Europe. There, the 12 days of Christmas actually start on Christmas day and are counted forward until January 6th, also known as Epiphany. Or, in Italy where Brian was a missionary, it’s called Befana.
So, we have celebrated Befana. We leave out our shoes and a good witch fills them with little gifts. After Patrick went to sleep Monday night, I snuck down to the C store and picked up some treats for my shoes, then I put the newly found presents and some chips and a book into Patrick’s. And when he woke in the morning, we had our own little holiday. And he got a couple of fleece sweaters that have been perfect for these bitter cold days. And he got some duplo blocks that have proven to be great entertainment, too.
General Patrick update.. Tonight, they turned off his TPN again, hanging some IV fluids to keep him hydrated. He will reach full enteral (through the belly) feeds on Elecare Jr. tomorrow late afternoon. They will check some labwork in the morning and we’ll start talking about discharge again. (Which means that I will also be making some phone calls in the morning to see if my insurance’s emergency roadside service can help me fix the battery issue so we have a way to leave here.)
Patrick feels great. I’ve learned to change the dressing on his surgical incision and will need to still do that for a few weeks. He is not a big fan of the job, but has gotten so he doesn’t cry the whole time.
We spend our days mostly playing. Today, they got the playroom ready for patients to play in. It is still missing locks on the toy cabinets, so you have to have help and permission to play there and have to keep the door closed while there. But that just meant that Patrick had to have 3 hours straight playing there instead today. And the room all to himself.
While he played, I downloaded more of his homeschool materials and the hospital teacher helped me print some readers. A “cold day” made it so Patrick missed his post-holiday return to school this week.. again. He’s only had 4 actual “school days” since we got here. I just learned a couple of the ladies from church homeschool and I am getting ready to pounce and pick their brains to figure out how to make my mommy school efforts even better.
We’ve been working on just one more goal here. A few days ago, Patrick was complaining that his left leg and ankle hurt. This isn’t the first he’s complained of it, so I asked for a physical therapy consult. She came seeming ready to assure me my concerns were over something normal that would pass. She watched him walk and stand on tiptoes and squat. And as we worked, she shifted from telling me that his hip looked weak but would get better to a genuine concern about what she was seeing. This is somehow maybe related to his cerebral palsy and we don’t know if it’s really a new problem or just one made worse by recovery.
She gave me some exercises to try to get Patrick to do.. lifting his legs to the side and walking on his heels. Because of his dyspraxia (motor planning troubles), this seems really, really hard for him as he’s never tried to move that way before. At first, he just wouldn’t. But I’ve figured out that I can turn it into a game of silly walking mother-may-I or a “can you do this?” challenge and he’ll play along.
Nevertheless, my plan of doing occupational and feeding therapy only with my limited visits while he’s outpatient is kind of disintegrating. If this problem doesn’t go away before we leave here, we’ll need to do some follow-up therapy. And I really need to find the number and call and get that scheduled.
I think Patrick feels more in control of himself here at the hospital. Maybe because the rules and routine are more predictable. Maybe because he’s spent more time here. Maybe just because his medication levels have been steady while he is here. Maybe because it’s not Christmas anymore. Maybe it’s because he can order ham and chicken broth for every meal. Or because my attention is less divided and all of the ways he acts out are him trying to have my undivided attention. I don’t know for sure, but I’ve also been using the extra time I have with helpers here trying to pull together some picture schedule and behavior reminder resources so going back to the Ronald McDonald House can maybe feel less chaotic.
Regardless, I can see that our time here is special and important. And I am beyond grateful for the helpers who have let me use this time well instead of just trying to survive each day.