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Monday, March 06, 2006

Ear Tubes and the Human Condition

Saw an article on-line tonight about Czech doctors who have developed a vaccine for ear infections. Initial studies showed it reduced the instance of ear infections in children by 30%. I had some ear infections myself as a kid. Painful things. Pain you can’t get to. Paid you can’t get away from. A couple of times the fluid and pressure behind my ear were so heavy it ruptured the ear drum. My dad’s dad had significant hearing loss because he had a lot of untreated ear infections and as a teenager took to pressing behind his ear somehow to force his eardrum to rupture to allow the fluid to drain out and get some relief. Graphic, I know. This was maybe the 1920's? Modern medical science really is fairly modern, even in this country.

Anyway... I’m not sure you comprehend the trouble with ear infections till you’re a parent of an infant who keeps getting them. Our first child is now five and still hasn’t had one which makes her an extremely rare specimen. Her younger brother - now 13 months - has had around 8 in his short life. Sometimes in one ear, sometimes in both. They came so frequently, you couldn’t always tell if one had gone partially away then recurred or if he’d contracted a new one within a couple of weeks of the last one. You can’t really comfort a baby with an ear infection. They don’t sleep well, and neither do you.

After a year of sleep deprivation and battling constant illness, he had ear tubes put in. You hear of other parents discuss such things and unless your kid is prone to ear infections, you don’t think much about it. A little curious, but not so much. It took a couple of months to get an appointment with an ENT surgeon. By the time we did the consultation and he was working on infection number 6 or 7 and his stomach was yet again trashed from oral antibiotics and he had chronic diarrhea we would have agreed to most anything to get him (and us) some relief. At one point I figured he’d spent roughly a 4th of his young life on antibiotics. The sticky, nasty stuff you get in droppers and try to squirt in their mouths, hoping they swallow at least half while the rest is getting all over you, them, their clothes, your clothes...

Then there you are early one Monday morning in a waiting room of a children’s hospital trying to entertain your toddler and not think too hard about what’s going to happen in a half hour. When your kid is born, you somehow never picture yourself in the waiting room of a children’s hospital. It’s both a cheerful and somber place all at the same time. The room was packed with kids waiting to have all manner of procedures done. I’m sure there were a lot of parents in that room who would have traded places in a moment with us. They would have much rather been there with a kid waiting for a routine 20 minute procedure instead of major surgery or chemo or cat scans or any number of things that haunt the dreams of parents.

It all went fine, and seems to have made a significant impact on our son’s well-being and disposition. It wasn’t the instant cure-all some parents seemed to promise, but it’s helped. Still, as assured as we were that this was a simple thing, as confident as we were in the doctor and the facility, and as desperate as we were for something to break the repeating cycle of ear infections/antibiotics/stomach upset... Still, there was a time we had to hand our young son who we’ve barely had a chance to get to know, over to someone else who would take him away, put him briefly to sleep and perform surgery (however minor) on him. There may be a one in a million chance that something will go wrong, but you know that will be no comfort if that something does go wrong. What if he doesn’t wake up the same? What if he never wakes up?
You sit there and make small talk and try not to think about how dramatically different your life could be in a few minutes time. You pray. You hope. And you know you’d do just about anything if there was actually anything you could do to ensure no harm will befall your child.

I felt pretty wimpy, but that’s where I was. I know people whose children have chronic health issues. I know people who’ve lost late term pregnancies. I know people whose children have developmental disabilities, or whose children have been paralyzed or seriously burned in accidents. I’ve met people who’ve lost children. And I’m stressed out about ear tubes. But that’s the threat I had to worry about. And it was more than enough to put a shadow on my heart that morning.

I have to wonder. What would the world be like if the concern I felt for my son that day I felt for everybody else’s children? How would I live differently? Could I even survive with that kind of weight? Probably not.

Last night I woke from a strange dream. I was going on some sort of road trip with my daughter. Don't know if we were driving or walking. I only remember a few brief moments from the dream. We were outside some kind of roadside market, taking a break and enjoying the weather. Our two dogs were with us. My daughter and the two dogs were lying in the grass, maybe 30 feet from the highway and spread out a few feet from each other. I watched them from the parking lot. Suddenly a couple of four wheel drive pickups come roaring out of some woods down the hill and cutting over the grass toward the highway. I watch helpless as the first truck drives right past where my daughter and the dogs are lounging. They don't move an inch. The second truck comes careening through the same path, this one looking like it's going to hit a dog with one of its rear wheels. The track of the wheel keeps drifting and I watch powerless as it rolls right up the length of my daughter's body then across her face and skull. I run to her terrified and drop to my knees in shock. After a horrible span of 3 or 4 seconds, she sort of scrunches up and wiggles her nose like you might if you'd just pulled a tight sweater on over your head, blinks a time or two and sits up. She says "Hi Daddy" in an oblivious manner.

The next thing I remember from the dream, I am again standing outside the door of the roadside market watching my daughter in the parking lot this time. There's a noise and commotion and I see her start running, without looking, directly toward the road and its traffic. Yelling, I charge after her trying to catch her, but she’s not stopping. Then, right behind me, a tractor trailer plows off the road, smashing through the cars in the parking lot and utterly destroying the market and it's front entrance where I was standing seconds before. My daughter is again totally untouched. Her apparent foolishness and oblivion have protected her, and this time, saved me from eminent peril. I woke up then, heart pounding and breathless. I didn’t know what to make of the dream and still don’t.

When my daughter was first born, I remember (and I’m sure I’ll never forget) going to an early check-up with my wife when our girl got her first vaccinations. My wife didn’t want to watch, so I signed and initialed the waiver form saying I realize there are statistically acceptable possibilities that awful things could happen, then I helped hold my baby daughter on the examination table as the nurse put one, then two, then three needles that seemed to be almost as long as her thighs were thick, into my baby girl’s legs. There’s a look of shock on her tiny face after the first one. Seconds later, she’s screaming and staring into my eyes while her still blue eyes fill with tears and fear. After an interminable minute, it’s finally done and my wife takes her to nurse and comfort her and gets to play the good cop. In a few moments it’s all over for my daughter, but I know it’s just starting for me. I think I had been operating under some delusion that I could save my kid from all harm. I was smart enough, or fast enough or diligent enough that I could prevent anything. Then you realize you can’t. And even if you could, you shouldn’t. I knew I’d fail her. Worse, I knew I would have to make decisions that would cause her pain. It’s unavoidable.

I think the worst injury she’s ever had I was sitting three feet away from her. We were at my mom’s house at the kitchen table. (What’s safer than Nanna’s kitchen?) She was kneeling in a chair. Our usual rule was "knees or bottom" so that was even operating in the allowable territory. She leans over or turns around or something and in an instant she’s lost her balance and falling sideways, driving the bridge of her nose into the hard wooden edge of the chair next to her. Her legs are tangled in the rungs of the chair she was sitting on and she’s suspended between the two, crying in pain. I sweep her up and see instantly a huge dark welt and knot the size of an egg swelling up in the space between her eyes. We take her to the emergency room and are freaked out as she keeps trying to drift off to sleep. We get checked in and ask the attendant if the drowsiness is a sign of a serious problem and he says "No. It’s okay if she falls asleep as long as you can wake her up."



Take a deep breath. Count to ten.

She was fine. She is fine. More than fine. Wonderful. She still had black eyes and a bad bruise in the first pictures after her little brother was born a couple of weeks later. There’s a small scar left there on the bridge of her nose that is more visible when she cries and she snores terribly. But she might have just inherited that from her mom. The point is, there was nothing I could do. I have in my care the most precious things I can imagine and there’s not much I can really do to protect them. That's my cross to bear. I can’t save them. But after last night, I’m wondering if the point of the dream and all this is that I’m not meant to save them. They’re the ones who are going to save me.


Blogger liberallyconservative said...

Wonderfully deep, hauntingly beautiful. Makes me realize I am both blessed and cursed to not have children. Thank you for allowing me to see yours, both through my own eyes and through yours.

5:17 PM, March 11, 2006  
Blogger wordsonwater said...

I stumbled across your blog quite by accident, which may sound careless of me, but I feel fortunate to have found your words. I would have read and kept my thoughts to myself, but having arrived at the wise old hag age, I have learned it’s best to say good things when you have the opportunity. I loved the piece, but I have to advise you that once they start dating and driving, you really will look back on these years as the easy ones. Sleepy heads safely on pillows down the hall, even if you are sitting by them with that awful pink medicine, are so much easier on your soul than when they have scattered far across the city or the globe. Your piece painted a vivid picture that any loving parent will find familiar.

5:04 AM, March 12, 2006  
Blogger Variations On A Theme said...

I so dearly love you. Can I leave that as a comment?

8:23 PM, March 25, 2006  
Blogger valis said...

Thanks to each of you who actually read all this. I meant for it to be a short essay and got carried away. Brevity is not my strong suit.

To Words on Water, I'm humbled and thankful you stumbled upon this space. I'm sure there are far more challenging days to come in this crazy parenting business.

7:57 PM, March 26, 2006  

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