I am blessed with two happy, healthy kids. My boys, Will and Tom, have never had major medical issues. My days, however, are filled with children facing tremendous challenges, so when my youngest son needed surgery for the first time, it was an opportunity for reflection.
Like me, Tom had huge tonsils and was often sick during the winter with the dreaded strep throat. Our friendly ear, nose and throat surgeon at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Stacey Ishman, recommended a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy. As a physician, I already knew the risks of surgery. I know that many things can go wrong during an operation. I have seen firsthand the unexpected complications of routine medical procedures. In reality, there’s no such thing as a “routine” surgery.
It was just Tom and I who went to the hospital together on the day of the surgery. Because of the visitation policy, my husband, Warren, and our oldest son, Will, dropped us off and returned home. We went to the pre-op area and began the dreaded wait. Tom had a great time playing games with the hospital’s child life specialist, but the more I waited, the more anxious I became.
Finally, it was time for the operation. I walked with Tom through a maze of sterile surgical suites. After he climbed onto the table, I gave him a kiss and watched him go under the effects of anesthesia.
All that I could think of was the risks. One risk was that he would never wake up. As a physician I knew it was incredibly rare, but as a mother that didn’t seem to matter. I cried as I walked out of the operating room (OR).
Sitting in the waiting area, I looked around at the other families. I could see concern on their faces and then, later, relief when a surgeon came to tell them good news.
As I waited, my own patients’ stories played back in my mind.
I thought of my patients with cerebral palsy who needed multiple surgeries over their lifetime in order to make movement a little easier. Orthopedic procedures, while not emergent, are still painful and carry risks. For the first time, I could really understand what those parents must feel while waiting for their children to come out of the OR.
I thought of my patients who needed emergency surgeries—surgeries that had to happen immediately or they would die. Children with blood around their brain who required immediate removal of part of their skull to relieve pressure. Children whose spines were crushed and needed surgery to prevent further damage. Children with broken bones, ruptured spleens and blood in their lungs after car crashes.
Even as a physician, I am not immune to how scary all of those situations sound. I thought about my fellow parents, sitting in the waiting room while wondering, praying and hoping that their children would be OK.
Fortunately, the surgeon finally came out to save me from my own thoughts. All had gone well, and I went to see Tom in the recovery room. He was fine, but uncomfortable. He hated having an IV and gave the nurses a hard time about it. I was just relieved and grateful everything had gone as planned.
We sat in recovery for what seemed like hours. New children came in from the OR, while others left for home or their inpatient rooms. I wondered if there were children who went straight into the pediatric intensive care unit, instead of into recovery. I thought of those children’s parents and their pain.
People say that you never truly know someone until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. Isn’t that so true? I have a greater appreciate now for the fears parents have when they place the care of their child into the hands of medical professionals. The parents of my patients trust me and my colleagues, just as I trusted Tom’s surgeon, but that doesn’t remove the worry. I am amazed on a daily basis by the grace and composure of the parents who walk through the doors of Kennedy Krieger with their kids. In a way that I never have before, I draw from their strength as I care for their children, and my own.
P.S. Tom ate LOTS of ice cream and made a full recovery.