Doctors and Other Humans

Shawn went home on Wednesday. He was still a little wobbly on Wednesday following his discharge so we gave him the option of whether or not to go to school on Thursday based on how he felt. He chose to go to school. I remain amazed that for the second time, Shawn had brain surgery and was back to his regular life two days later. Sure, it was relatively “minor” brain surgery as brain surgery goes, but there was a human being physically manipulating Shawn’s brain on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday they sent him home. On Thursday morning he was sitting in his classroom. Think about that for a moment.

Let’s back up to that “human being” part. In my post from the hospital earlier this week I wrote about the neurosurgeon saying “this kid is trying to die on me and I need to work on her right away” when telling me about the delay for Shawn’s procedure. I have thought about that sentence a few hundred times since then. This blog is intended to be about my experiences as the parent of a kid with an as-of-yet undiagnosed disorder trying to navigate my way through the hospital experiences. Part of that process for me has been figuring out who is who. Doctors are people. Believe it or not, that’s actually true. In my attempts to help Shawn deal with this whole thing and his sometimes violent reactions to doctors and nurses, I’ve tried everything under the sun to keep his behavior at the hospital under control so that they can examine him or at least so he doesn’t hurt anyone. The one time that I felt like I found some level of success was when I told him simply, “the doctors and nurses are just people who have their own kids and parents and friends and things they like to do for fun when they aren’t here.” For the rest of that particular day, the violence stopped. The name calling continued, but there were no more physical outbursts.

“This kid is trying to die on me.” Like it’s a personal affront.

My outsider assessment of the personalities of the different types of specialists is that the neurosurgeons are at the top of the doctor food chain. They always get what they want. They also make the most money, or close to it. They are the break/fix people (which in my IT field is usually toward the bottom of the food chain, an interesting contrast.) They work insane hours and have a high divorce rate. I imagine there is a certain level of detachment that is required to do a job like that. Something is wrong. Fix it. Move on to the next one.

“This kid is trying to die on me.”

It was detached and emotional at the same time. I could see in her face that she cared deeply about that child. So could Shawn, who was also in the room for this discussion. Looking back, I wonder if that had anything to do with Shawn being uncharacteristically calm and cooperative over the next few hours while we waited for our turn.

The first few months of this process, I viewed the hospital as an entity. The doctors and nurses were just a part of that, not all that much different than the cafeteria or the parking garage. I had to figure out the schedules. When would they be likely to come talk to me? Who would talk to me when? Neurosurgery residents were likely to stealthily come in before 6AM. Even I managed to sleep through most of their visits and I rarely sleep through anything at CHOP. Neurology and general pediatric residents would show up around 7AM to do nothing in particular (from my perspective) but it was nice to see them and chat for a couple minutes. After they came by, I could then go to the cafeteria (which opens at 6:30) and get coffee with no fear of missing rounds, which is usually around 10:00 or 11:00, when I could talk with the attending physicians and find out what the plan was for the day. 7:00PM is usually the latest to talk to an attending. And so on and so on. The doctors and nurses were part of the hospital.

At some point, though, I started seeing the same people over and over again. The housekeeping staff would recognize me and say hi. We would chat about the weather and sometimes about our kids and schools and car trouble and whatever. I would intentionally choose the line in the cafeteria with the really friendly woman who was always so cheerful, even if it meant waiting an extra couple minutes (where was I going anyway?) So it was a natural progression to trying to find out if the doctors were real people, too. The crazy part about that question is that I have friends who are doctors and nurses and other health care professionals. I run with them. I’m friends with them on Facebook. They’re parents of my kids’ friends. I’m fully aware that being a doctor is a career that some humans choose to do. Yes, you have to be pretty smart and CHOP doctors probably have to be smarter than most, but it’s a job. Most adults have a job. That’s one option. But allowing the doctors at CHOP to become real people to me was a deliberate effort. I began to google them. I found blogs that they wrote. I found public Facebook posts. Pictures of kids and families. I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be doing this. Like I didn’t belong there. Like those spaces were their private lives (publicly accessible though they might be) and I am a part of their professional lives. Even when they introduce themselves to me or Shawn by their first name, I refer to them as Dr. Lastname. It’s formal. It keeps a distance. We’re not friends, we’re not even allowed to be friends.

I wrote to a friend about my sleuthing and attempts to force myself to see the doctors as real people. His response:

Especially in your case, I think seeing and knowing the doctors as real people is probably a good thing. To try to explain – in normal cases, you want the doctor to be the genius who knows exactly what to do and takes care of things correctly right away.  In your case (Shawn’s case more specifically), knowing that it is so confounding … seeing that the doctor is a real, caring person might help to reassure that yes, they really are trying their best to solve an impossible puzzle.

Yes. I’m quoting again because I cannot say it any better than that. And I’ve quoted this friend here more than once. He’s pretty good.

Then the inevitable happened. I got a message from a friend who told me that he met a new guy in an organization that he’s in and it turns out that the guy was one of Shawn’s doctors in the fall when he was on the PICU for a while. I recently stumbled on another parent’s blog post that describes what life is like on the PICU from a parent’s perspective quite well. Reading it gave me flashbacks. I hate the PICU. So here is my friend, talking about talking to this PICU doctor, calling him by his first name like he is a real person. Just another guy in the group. I’ve met hundreds of doctors. I only remember the names of maybe 15 of them. This guy is one of those that I remember quite well. He apparently remembers Shawn, too. He did one of Shawn’s lumbar punctures. He’s the one who told me about the NIH Undiagnosed Disease Program and called Shawn “the most popular kid at CHOP” because all the doctors knew about him. He sat with me in the hallway for what seemed like a long time back in October, explaining everything to me and answering all my questions.

There are days when I talk to the doctors here more than I talk to my own family and my other child. And on those days the doctors probably spend more time with us and the other families here than they do with their own kids.

Yesterday morning I set out to run 17 miles but cut it short at 12. I’d been feeling something off in my left achilles tendon for a few miles. Nothing big. The kind of thing that most runners, myself included (especially myself included) would have run 5 more miles and then thrown a bag of frozen peas on it after a long hot shower. And I started to do that. We were a quarter mile from the parking lot and had just turned around to do another 4-5 miles when I decided that I needed to be ultra conservative. I was fairly certain that this is not a brewing injury but I decided that I would rather cut the long run short than risk not being able to run at all. Because I need to be able to run at all right now more than I need to go after a marathon PR. Running is often the glue that holds everything together and I cannot lose my glue. This morning I tried again and finished all 17 miles without incident. While I was drinking coffee with friends after the run, Shawn’s primary neurologist called me, from home I think (not a hospital phone number) where he was probably with his own family but also calling me, and an hour later we were heading back to the hospital.

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