This is a bit of a catch up post and it may be long. I write today from Patrick’s bedroom. He is lying in bed watching Cars 3 running a Powerade drip into his g-tube on day 5 post tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy.
How did we get here? Well let’s rewind to the day before Christmas break when I noticed that I had a fever and a horrible neck ache. It likely started with me, though it was Christmas break and I never did get diagnosed with anything more than a virus causing crazy swollen lymph nodes.
Mid-January, Patrick got sick. We thought at first it was a cold. He had an ear ache and I took him in to urgent care to be checked with me for an ear infection where we were told it was just one of many viruses, no ear infection. But he got sicker and sicker and on the 3rd day when he refused to eat and I looked and saw the size of his tonsils all covered with white spots, I took him to the pediatrician. She ran a strep test, which came back negative. And we were told again to just go home and wait out the virus.
Sometimes I’m good with that answer. Especially with a kid who’s immune suppressed. But sometimes the mommy spidey sense goes a little crazy. (Ok, ok. It’s actually the extra guidance mothers sometimes get through the Holy Ghost when their children need help.. but we call it mother’s intuition.) Anyway, this time I didn’t feel settled with that answer. So I texted Patrick’s GI and told him what was going on and asked if he had any concerns from a transplant perspective. He called me back almost immediately and told me that he wanted to know what was making Patrick sick so we could stay ahead if it was one of the big viruses that are dangerous for transplant patients.
So the next morning at 7 a.m. Patrick and I headed up to the hospital’s outpatient clinics where Patrick’s doctor met us and arranged for labwork, an exam, and a viral panel. It was a long morning with a couple of hours of tests. And then we headed home. By evening, all of the preliminary viral tests had come back negative. Despite the brutal flu season, Patrick didn’t have Influenza, RSV, or any of the other circulating respiratory viruses. The doctor said good news. I felt even more at a loss.
Meanwhile, Patrick just kept getting sicker and sicker. We camped out in the basement and I had to start using his g-tube to keep him fed and hydrated. He was miserable. I was exhausted. And I just kept checking for lab results because as the day went on, I became more and more convinced that with everything else ruled out, that Patrick must have the Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), commonly known as Mono.
Sure enough around 4 p.m. the results for that test came back positive. I texted the doctor and said “what’s next?”
I’m going to take a break in the story here to make a confession. Part of the transplant workup is a very long afternoon where you sit in the room with a transplant nurse and they explain to you in detail all of the risks associated with transplant. You’re aware of a few of them. Of course the risks of surgery. And rejection. Susceptibility to illness. But there is so, so, so much more that comes with immune suppression and transplant. Activity restrictions. Diet restrictions. And perhaps the worst is something called Post-Transplant Lymphoproliferative Disorder (PTLD).
PTLD is caused when a patient who didn’t have EBV before transplant. When they catch this virus the first time while immune suppressed, it can cause the lymphatic system to go a bit crazy. It involves into a form of cancer called lymphoma. So, yeah, transplant can lead to cancer.
And the day that sat us down and talked to us about all of these restrictions and risks, especially this one, we were so overwhelmed by the understanding that the treatment called transplant was much more of a trading in of problems than the cure all the happy ending stories on TV had showed us.. we were so overwhelmed that we couldn’t even stand to talk to anyone that day.
3 years later in another evaluation, we knew this information was coming. But it was still hard to hear and even harder to talk about. So, well, we didn’t. We just warned you that transplant wasn’t a cure.
Returning to the current story.. I talked to Dr. Jackson in the early evening and he reminded to me that more than my immediate concerns about having a kid with mono, we needed to be thinking about PTLD. I thought we’d set up testing within the next couple of days. But when he called back just after we put an exhausted, sick Patrick to bed to stay he wanted us to come in to be admitted the hospital right away, we were a little caught off guard.
And so we advocated for the value of rest and protection from other illnesses and Dr. Jackson consented to try to set something up outpatient.
But at 5 a.m. he texted and said that admission was the best way to make sure Patrick got in for a CT scan right away. They needed a CT scan of his entire body to check to see if there were signs of PTLD. And he said to prepare to stay for an emergency tonsillectomy.
So that’s what we did. Headed in prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.
Patrick did amazing in CT. We thought he might need to be sedated to hold still. But then decided that he is most cooperative when he’s helped to understand what is going on an given a chance to cooperate. When he feels in control. We got lucky in that we were able to get Patrick’s favorite child life specialist there right on time to go down for the scan with us. And though he was nervous, he was very brave and still.
In the end, the CT scan came back negative for PTLD. (Though it did describe in pretty amazing detail the way that Patrick’s vascular anatomy has changed as a result of his lost central venous access.) So they treated him with an IV antibiotic for a raging ear infection they discovered when he came in. And we got to go home.
Patrick actually did get better pretty amazingly from the EBV. His immune suppression is pretty low right now because he’s had no issues with rejection. And so the virus mostly ran its course in a couple of weeks. The blood tests went from virus counts in the tens of thousands to “unquantifable” low levels. Patrick’s appetite and energy came back. And the doctors agreed that Patrick had had just an acute case of EBV and had fought it off.
However, his tonsils stayed big. Not just a little enlarged. So big that they were touching each other big. So large I couldn’t understand how he could swallow big.
And, well, EBV is a tricky little virus. I’ve learned a lot about it over the past month. And one of the things I’ve learned that there’s a family of viruses that stays forever in our DNA. Chicken Pox, herpes, and EBV. That’s why you only catch them once. That’s why they are sometimes reactivated when we are stressed. (Shingles, cold sores, “mono makes you tired for months!).
And because EBV lives mostly in the tonsils, their not getting smaller was a problem both clinically and because it meant a long-term greater risk of PTLD.
Meeting with ENT
So we scheduled an appointment with an Ear, Nose & Throat doctor who took one look and said there was no doubt. Patrick’s tonsils were huge and even without transplant concerns, they needed to come out.
We didn’t spend the visit discussing the need for tonsillectomy. We spent it talking about the problem of pain control when ibuprofen wasn’t allowed. Because that’s one of those lifetime commitments you make with transplant.
Tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy
So Patrick had his surgery on Thursday. We were told 30-45 minutes for the procedure. That’s what I expected, too. I’ve sat in lots of surgery waiting rooms watching ENT doctors go in and out every 30 minutes as they reported about placing ear tubes and taking out tonsils. I often wished I could be one of those parents whose concerns were as brief and uncomplicated as those parents. I felt a bit arrogant at times that I was the one who knew the waiting room attendant by name. Who came to stay there.
So it was strange to be in that “simple procedure” role. Except that, of course, we weren’t.
The doctor came out after a little more than an hour to finally tell us that the procedure was done. That the tonsils really were huge enough to need to come out and that the adenoids were even bigger. That Patrick was doing well, but there had been some “oozing” that had made the procedure a little more complicated. And that he’d be awake soon.
And then an hour later, when they still didn’t call me back to the PACU, despite our insistence that Patrick needed us there when he woke up of he’d be combative and inconsolable, the phone finally rang for us. It was an OR nurse who explained that Patrick had continued with “oozy” bleeding and they’d spent all that time trying to get it stopped.
So we waited some more and the doctor finally came back out to say that things were finally settled. And he thankfully hadn’t needed a transfusion. In all, the procedure took 2 and a half hours. We were at Patrick’s side to help wake him, and then moved to post-op.
Patrick was what they call a status A-11. Meaning he wasn’t admitted but he wasn’t discharged. He had 23 hours that he could stay for observation without having to involve the insurance companies for authorization. So we spent the night in Post-Op Recovery.
Patrick was really inconsolable as he first woke up. He just cried and whimpered and wouldn’t talk. Would barely open his eyes. Finally, I left the room to go to the bathroom and as I listened, I realized he wasn’t as much in pain as he was just angry. So I tried a crazy approach where I came in and told him to stop pouting. Then tried to distract him. I made him start taking sips of water despite protest then pointed out that it helped more than it hurt.
It amazingly worked. His anesthesia wore off. His pain meds kicked in. And he woke up sore but pretty happy. We ordered dinner and he wanted some. And soon he’d eaten 3 yogurt cups and drunk some Kids Boost. But the anesthesia made him nauseous and he couldn’t keep much down.
The night was rough. We turned on the movie channel and let it play all night and would doze off and wake again. Eventually as the anesthesia wore off his pain overwhelmed his hunger and he stopped eating. He’d fall asleep but the swelling in his airway made it so his oxygen levels would fall and the monitors would alarm and wake him again. Or he’d start coughing. And his temperature started to creep up very slowly.
But we made it through the night. Post-Op was so very quiet. Our nurse was great. And by morning, I thought we were in pretty good shape. I even though we might beat the odds and go home at 23 hours after all.
And more observation
When ENT came to check in, they decided they’d like to take a little more time to observe. So they moved us to a big comfy room in the surgical unit. And we watched. And what we saw wasn’t exactly comforting.
Not having ibuprofen was proving to be problematic. See, ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory and inflammation is a big issue with tonsillectomy. It can cause fevers. It can cause airway narrowing. And of course, there’s the problem of finding a balance with pain control when you have to use an opiod.
It took the whole day and night to get a handle on using the g-tube to keep him hydrated and his gut moving, to figure out how to help his cough and keep his saturation up. And to make sure the fever wasn’t getting worse.
They did a chest x-ray to rule out pneumonia. But did advise us that with that long of a procedure, Patrick’s lungs would need help to refill the air sacs.
But after a second night, we finally reached a stable baseline and headed home. The first day home Patrick was just exhausted. He fell asleep anytime he held still. Wherever he was. They warned us day 3 is the most painful and, well, it was.
Yesterday, he started to perk up a little after a good night sleep. I finally was able to convince him to start sipping some water. And he even ate a little bit of macaroni and cheese. Which wore him out.
But he started to play and tease a little bit. It was good to see his smile back. And our bird, Max, followed him everywhere he went.
He fell asleep by 5 p.m. But that’s good as his cough has gotten worse again overnight. But his pain is a little less, he’s more awake. And before I finished this post, he happily though tentatively ate some KFC mac and cheese for lunch.
This recovery is a slow process. And unfortunately, Patrick’s having to do it the hard way. As caregiver, I am very tired. Sleep, food, and personal care have been hard to come by.
But we’re getting there. And it’s only supposed to last 7-10 days.
And on the other side, my son is acting completely loving and smitten with us, instead of his usual independence seeking self. I’m going to soak up every minute of a cuddly loving boy who just wants to be with me. Because soon he’s going to really be too big to hold on my lap for half an hour.
I hope to post more updates. But remember, as always with this blog. Usually the times I’m quietest are the times that are calm. If I’m not writing, it probably means that we’re busy and happy.