Tiny Troopers

ImageToday we took my daughter, Ella, into Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for a series of procedures that doctors hope will help us better understand why she gets sick so frequently. As an adult, you can understand and appreciate what tests like these will reveal; as a child, it pretty much seems like a great excuse to be poked and prodded and made wildly uncomfortable. As it is, Ella has been a great patient; in fact, the nurse that brought her up from the recovery room said, “She’s so sweet, I almost didn’t want to give her back!”

But to be perfectly honest, the day has sucked for her. She hasn’t been able to really eat (and the child is in the midst of a voracious eating phase) for the past 24 hours, and she’ll only get dinner tonight and one snack before she’s deprived of food again. Turns out, two of the three tests she’s having require no food or drink; the third test, sandwiched in between the other two, require her to do nothing but eat and drink. It’s a bizarre world.

And that third test, the one that requires her to eat and drink? It also requires her to have a tiny tube shoved up through her nose and down her throat. It measures stomach acid. And it apparently feels like something is perpetually crawling in her throat. The poor kid wants nothing more than to rip it out violently, but every time her little fingers begin to explore, Rachel and I are there to quash the idea.

So she’s biding her time, I suppose.

Spending time in a children’s hospital is a great way to both become extremely grateful and incredibly sad. Grateful, because you are surrounded by men and women who care for nothing like the health and welfare of children, and go to incredible lengths to make each and every aspect of a child’s visit memorable. To wit: when Ella got into her intake room, there was a purple and yellow superhero cape laying on the chair. The cape also had a massive rhinestone star, smack dab in the middle of the back. Ella’s eyes lit up when she saw it, and she excitedly took it off of me and proudly donned it for herself.

Yeah. You read that right. But what was I supposed to do? You don’t get a free superhero cape everyday.

The staff is also incredibly great at explaining things to kids, and know when a child can handle the particulars of a procedure and when they can’t. The nurse who came in to explain everything to me and Rachel kept watching Ella out of the corner of her eye, noticing that every time the adults went into detail about the procedure, Ella suddenly got very interested. Finally, the nurse turned to Ella and said, “I can see you’re a very smart little girl. So let me just tell you what’s going to happen today, okay?”

Ella smiled and looked at Rachel and I as if to say, See? This lady knows smart when she sees it.

Score one for the nurse.

But phenomenal care and unbelievable service can only mask the reality of the place for so long. I took a walk this afternoon to make a phone call, and I passed by room after room of very sick children. Usually the kids were accompanied by very young and very harried looking parents; moms and dads in desperate need of a shower, a break, and  financial windfall. Seeing some of these families gathered around a bed, watching movies or drinking a milkshake, you almost forget that the child is very ill. You almost feel hopeful, because the family is able to stay together.

And then you pass the room where the three month old boy swings, all alone, in a little automatic swing. Not a parent in sight, not a shred of parental evidence in the room. He swings, back and forth, and cries at the top of his lungs until a nurse comes in to soothe him, shushing him as she gently slows the swing down. She picks him up and gently puts his head in the curve of her neck, and he quiets right down, clamping his little mouth against her skin and gnawing away feverishly.

It takes maybe seven seconds to see all of that, but in that moment your stomach falls and your heart breaks and you realize: for all the good that goes on in this place on a daily basis, there’s just as much heartbreak and pain.

Down in the main lobby, two parents try and calm down their teenage son, a large boy in a wheelchair with obvious physical and mental challenges. He thrashes about, upset, screaming, and mother and father do their best to calm him, to help him settle down. Meanwhile, another father walks helplessly up and down the marbled floor as his daughter, her tiny hands bound in pink mittens, screams for some unknown reason. Family after family passes by, each one bearing the burden of sickness, each one feeling as if the weight of the world falls on their shoulders alone.

Not everyone feels overwhelmed when in the presence of that kind of beauty and pain, but I am. I had to step outside and redirect my attention to the passing cars just to keep from crying my eyes out. I so desperately wanted to be able to cure all the pain I saw; to be able to go room to room and give miraculous healing and restoration to each family.

Knowing that I can’t makes it all the worse.

In the end, being here puts Ella’s difficulties in perspective. Like everything else in life, there are always people who have it harder than you; walking past fellow fathers whose children will never be able to know their own name, much less say “I love you, dad” makes me incredibly grateful for my daughter who can hug me and tell me I’m funny. And yet pain has this way of being deeply personal; it may not be worse than someone else’s but it’s yours and it cuts. The only cure for this weird tension, it seems, is to live in it as best you can.

For me and my family, that tension will last for another 20 hours or so. Then, we get to go home and Ella can once again jump on the trampoline and practice riding her bike without training wheels. For other families that share these halls, that tension will go on until a coffin comes to rest at the bottom of a grave, most likely long before the parents think it should.

Tiny troopers, each of them, carrying big people’s burdens with aplomb. May God give them grace to continue on. And may He give the parents grace, as well.

The Ancient Wisdom of Dr. Denmark

She turned 78 years old the year I was born, so by the time I was actually able to form memories of her, she was well into her eighties. Small, rail thin, and smarter than a busload of MIT grads, Dr. Leila Denmark became a fixture of my childhood.

In what is becoming an all-too-common occurance, another piece of my childhood died this weekend: Dr. Denmark passed away on Sunday.

And at 114 years old, she was the fourth oldest person in the world.

You can find other stories online today that will chronicle her life and career, and I highly encourage you to go read them. Dr. Denmark was well ahead of her time as both a woman and a physician, and some of the things she accomplished in her field are astounding.

But I’m not here to write about all that. I’m here to write about how she literally saved my life.

I’ve grown up hearing how sick I was as a child – in fact, as the father of an asthmatic who typically ends up in some doctor’s office at least once a month, I’ve come to hear about it quite frequently. The one constant in almost all of the stories about my medically fragile childhood? Dr. Denmark.

But it wasn’t always so. In fact, the only reason my parents came to hear of Dr. Denmark was that I had gotten sick and was slowing wasting away. I don’t remember all of the details, but I was so sick I apparently confounded several of Atlanta’s best pediatricians. I’m not sure how long I was ill, but I know it was a period of several weeks, during which I lost weight and my parents lost hope. In fact, one of the last doctors my parents saw before Dr. Denmark didn’t give me much chance to live at all.

“You’re going to lose him,” they were told.

At the end of their wits and hope, my dad’s mother offered her advice: “Take him to see Dr. Denmark.”

Desperate, my parents did.

I’m not sure where her office was back in ’77 – I think it was Sandy Springs or – but my parents figured out how to get there and made the long drive from our home in Centerville. They got there before the office was opened, and Dr. Denmark invited them inside. My dad put me on the examining table and Dr. Denmark, in her patented patient manner, set about examining me.

She was thorough. Question after question regarding my symptoms, my history, my parents worries and fears. She checked me over as well as any doctor could before she wrapped her stethascope around her neck and announced, “This child has the measles.”

There had been no blood drawn. No tests performed. An ancient lady with ancient wisdom simply looked over a sick child, asked a few questions, and made her decision: measles.

Big Red German Measles, as to be precise.

Dr. Denmark believed that I was suffering from a reaction to one of my immunizations and had developed a case of measles that simply wasn’t presenting on my skin. She walked out of the exam room, disappeared for a bit, and came back in with a needle. She calmly walked over to me, inserted the needle into my thigh, and pushed the plunger down.

“That should do it. Take him home, give him some broth, and keep an eye on him.”

And with that, she was done.

My parents took me home, not knowing what to think. But when huge red welps appeared all over my body not four hours later, they believed that the tiny little woman was a genius. And when I completely recovered, they believed she was a saint.

That’s how I ended up at Dr. Denmark’s office any time I was sick. They trusted her; trusted her judgment, her wisdom, her uncommon – and completely ahead of its time – dietary advice. They trusted her because she had given them my life, and they knew she would continue to care for it as long as she could.

I know Dr. Denmark has not practiced medicine in a long time, but that doesn’t change the fact that I, as a father, have often longed to be able to take my daughter and son to see her. While I am grateful for my children’s team of doctors, there is something about Dr. Denmark that makes me think of her in almost mystical terms. She will forever be the shaman of pediatric medicine in my mind.

Now, she is gone.

And the world is poorer for the loss.