At the end of June the Women & Infants Hospital Community Partners Workshop will be holding a conference called Dads and their Families: The Struggles, Triumphs & Supports of NICU Dads. I know this because I have been asked to be the event’s keynote speaker. It’s my first paid speaking engagement so if you were hoping to grab me to speak to your group or organization you missed your chance at getting all this for free. Now it’s going to cost you.
Later in the program I have also been asked to sit on a panel alongside area experts and staff from the state DCYF, and non-profit agencies. The panel is focusing on resources for dad’s. Oddly enough the event’s organizers don’t want me there to speak as Liam’s dad. They’ve made it clear, for the panel they want Eric Olson, writer for PressureSupport.com. I’ve officially done it. I’ve fooled you all into thinking that I actually know what I’m doing. Ha Ha!
When faced with the decision to have Liam trached, Karin and I were understandably terrified, but we knew the science. We knew all the medical reasons, and the surgical reasons. Pulmonogists and respiratory therapists alike had already commented on our understanding of the issues that Liam faced to get home. We knew it was the right thing to do. In a hospital. In an intensive care unit. What we didn’t know was how that actually worked on the outside. How do you put that into practice? What does living at home with medical equipment look like? Should we get rid of our cats? What if the wiring in my house couldn’t handle the power needed for a vent and humidifier, and feeding pump and suction rig? How do we keep the house clean enough for this? Would we have to get one of those tents like they did in the movie E.T.?
The universe, in its abundance, sent us a sign. They sent us a family with an eight year old boy who had been trached and vented all of his life. Across the PICU pod and in the hospital for a routine bronchoscopy (all kids with trachs do it 2x a year, Liam just had his most recent bronch last tuesday). In the way that nurses do in a hospital, without breaking any privacy policies, introductions were made and we were able to chat with parents who had been there. Parents who didn’t have a bubble built around their house. Parents who were wearing jeans and t-shirts – not lab-coats or nursing scrubs. Parents who looked tired but not haggard. Stressed maybe but not strung-out. An ordinary family living an ordinary life.
That first conversation wasn’t even very long. Only a few questions and it wasn’t the actual responses that struck me but the almost calm nonchalance of it all. The impression given that there really wasn’t even anything worth talking about. “I don’t know what to tell you man.” I remember the dad telling me “There’s really not much to it other than changing the plastic parts, and when it alarms you do what it says, by the time you get home, you’ll know what to do. If he needs suction, you suction and you hardly even remember that it’s there. It’s what we needed to do to get him home and out of here.” I’m pretty sure after that answer we just started talking about the Red Sox. A few hours after that conversation, after days and days of discussion, we let the attending doctor know that we were ready to proceed. Liam’s tracheostomy would come a few days later.
A month and a half after that, this blog would be born.
Not every family gets another family across the pod in the PICU. Not every family gets someone to talk to. It is my hope that this blog can be that family for someone else, and thanks to all of the emails and comments from many of you I know that it has been, but I’ve gotten away from that mission for this space. Lost in the twice monthly 1500 word essays are all of the boring, everyday moments that make life with Liam, just that. This life, with Liam. It can be exciting, it can be sad, it can be as happy and as frustrating as any other life. When trying to imagine this life I needed to know that this was possible, hopefully, in sharing all it here I can show someone else who needs to know that it can be done.
So get ready. I’m going to work on showing you more of the boring stuff. The nitty-gritty.
Karin has been telling me that what I’m missing are the little pieces inbetween the 2000 word meaningful essay and the 140 character tweet lie the sweet spot of really getting to the little things. Postlets she calls them, and I think she’s right. So it’s time to start stealing that idea. (why not, I steal most of her photos for the blog anyway. like the one below.)
Postlet the first: Yes, if you read my twitter feed you would have seen that Liam was in the hospital this week. Liam is fine. He had his routine bronchoscopy. The ENT surgeon likes what she saw, things went well and all the overnight blood tests during his vent assesment were perfect. Today marks a full month since Liam has had even a whiff of supplemental oxygen. The longest span without bottled oxygen in his life. Confirming that with blood gases while he was int eh hospital was wonderful.
I’ll talk to you soon.
Like I do every weekend morning I found Karin and Liam asleep in Liam’s bed last Saturday morning when I woke up. Unfortunately it had only been a short while after they had finally drifted off.
“We didn’t have a very good night.” Karin said when she woke up. Liam had been pretty restless for me the night before too. He spent the night looking like he was just about to sleep but something was keeping him from getting there. I thought he had finally gone out at 4am when Karin and I traded posts. I guess I was wrong.
“I had to spray him.” She said. It wasn’t the way I wanted our weekend to start.
The Spray. The versed (or Midazolam) sprayed into the nose to break the really strong seizures. It’s our antitode to the storms that Liam can’t break on his own. We also have Diastat if the versed doesn’t work. It’s rare to see Liam cry because of or during a seizure. He has however cried every time the nasal versed nozzle is placed up his nose and the first mist given. Whether the long-term side effects of his daily seizure prevention meds, or the short-term emergency meds we use to stop them when they can’t be controlled, it isn’t the seizure that he seems to feel the pain of, it’s the cure.
We’re in a good place with his seizures now. The reason that hearing he had gotten sprayed on Saturday hurt so much was because he hadn’t needed it in weeks. Before that it had been months. There have been times in Liam’s life where we have had to do that three and four times a day. When the seizure minutes in a day outnumbered the seizure-free. The hard part is knowing that those times may (and probably will) return.
Even when you find a regimen that works, weight gain makes renders it fleeting, or the side effects of long-term use set in, or tolerance builds and effectiveness wanes. New meds are tried, new risks are weighed. Seizures change. They evolve. They break through. New meds are tried, new risks are weighed.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we’ve got this thing all figured out. That we’re the grizzled old veterans of this special needs game. The wibbly wobbly timey wimey aspect to months and months spent in the hospital making them seem like dog years of parenting, every month feeling like seven. We’re only rookies to the sport though. Liam hasn’t even started kindergarten. Which is why I truly value the friendships we have made both in real life, and online from all over the country, with families who have children in their early teens all the way to early twenties with special needs, to show us the way through the big leagues, to be Crash Davis’s to our Nuke Laloosh.
I’ve mentioned her here before so I expect that every single one of you listened to me and have been reading my friend Elizabeth’s blog here. Reading her blog in all its honesty makes any reader feel like you’re already her close personal friend, and of all the many friends around the world that this blog has given me, Elizabeth is the only one who I have ever spoken to on the phone. I don’t email or comment on her blog nearly enough but she’s always there with a kind word or a witty joke on mine, (along with just the right amount of profanity when the comment needs it). She’s good people.
Elizabeth’s daughter Sophie has recently had a stretch of two weeks without a seizure. It was the first time that has happened in 19 years. After a lifetime of many different (at least 17 if I recall reading) powerful drugs with serious side effects, Elizabeth and Sophie have found something that has helped bring her two seizure free weeks for the first time in 19 years. I know I said it already. It bears repeating.
I don’t know what 19 years of this feels like. I know what 5 years of this feels like. I know what two weeks feels like. I know what ten minutes feels like. The ten minutes between looking at the clock when it starts and deciding to push down on the nozzle for The Spray. I can’t even imagine what 19 years of this feels like. I don’t want to.
But maybe I won’t have to know what 19 years of this feels like. Maybe, thanks to people and families like Elizabeth’s sharing their own stories on blogs, radio and TV interviews, and newspaper articles like this one featuring Sophie, our nineteen years will have greater access to a better way to keep seizures away. A simpler way. A safer way than the harmful drugs I continue to give to Liam every day. It’s not science that is holding back the research, testing, and access necessary to give Liam more relief from his seizures in this lifetime. It’s politics. It’s not because it doesn’t work that we haven’t heard real statistics and started spreading it to every child or adult that it could help, it’s because insurance and pharmaceutical companies haven’t yet figured out how to monetize it.
Luckily Liam, Karin and I happen to live in a state where medical marijuana is legal. Luckily, we have a relationship with Liam’s amazing neurologist in which I won’t feel uncomfortable bringing up our interest in this (seriously, we have assembled a pretty kick-ass team of specialists around Liam but his neurologist is like the all-star, and we’re not at a point yet where we would jump into this without his blessing and help). Luckily we have friends like Elizabeth who show us the uncertain road ahead by taking the time and effort to turn back for us and let us know how they got there.
I fear running out of options. I understand that Liam will always live with seizures. When the devastating side effects get to be too big a risk, or his tolerance grows too strong for all the drugs that used to work. What then?
Well you see, luckily,there’s this plant… Listen, I’m not saying we’re going to run out tomorrow to try to score Liam a big bag of grass and see what happens, what I am saying is that it’s another option and knowing what I know now, Liam won’t have to wait 19 years to try it.
About 12 hours from this writing will mark 8 days since Liam has used bottled oxygen. That’s the longest he’s ever gone without O2 in his lifetime.
Last Thursday was Liam’s 4th IEP. Talk of kindergarten and adapted physical education. Goals, therapies, benchmarks and progress reports.
Spring is happening and the hops are poking out of the ground.
In just the last week there been so much going on that I should be blogging.
But I’m tired.
Though no one’s fault at all, circumstances left us without a nurse for the past week as well. I’m not going to explain all the little things that changes for us and our routine because, again, I’m tired. Karin and I are more than capable of taking care of Liam without nursing, (Although, while I am positive that Karin would be just fine doing this without me around, the opposite is so far from true. I’d be lost) round the clock care without any breaks will wear you down.
So while I’d love to blog about oxygen, IEP’s, and the need for us to learn to trust more nurses (in case our favorites can’t work), I’m tired. Liam seems to be asleep, and Netflix now has some Green Lantern cartoons that I can watch until 4am when Karin will get up and I get to go to bed. Watching cartoons is easier than blogging and like I keep saying.
If you follow me on twitter or Instagram then you’ve already seen this picture but I just wanted to put this one here for safe keeping.
Liam likes to close his eyes if he feels a breeze. He was wide awake for this one waiting to get inside before school started.
They didn’t start that way. They started as Karin’s tea roses. Barely wider than the smiley face vase they arrived in, the small plant with four bright yellow flowers was a “just because your my sister” gift from her older sister who lives in South Carolina. They immediately found a home in the front window. A window that sits just a few feet from Liam’s spot in the living room, and by default, a few feet from his ventilator.
It takes humidity. The breaths of a ventilator are dry, dry enough in fact to dry out and damage lung tissue without humidity. A small humidifier sits below his ventilator and warms water into the tubing or “vent circuit” about three feet before Liam’s trach. The closer to Liam’s internal temperature you can make the water the better, but like any treatment it’s all about balance. Warm air inside the tube with colder air around it means condensation because science. Instead of moist air we get plain old water. You know, liquid, the stuff you drown on if it makes it’s way down a tube directly connected to your lungs. So you see the problem. The solution? The condensation cup. (Someday I’ll even explain the HME or “external nose” Liam wears when on his portable vent without a humidifier)
Listen, I’m pretty lazy. When the little cup needs to be emptied out every few hours (even more in the dry winter months) I could walk it all the way into the kitchen or bathroom, or I could pour it into almost anything else I can find that could fit three oz. of water like say this conveniently placed vase of flowers on the window sill. You do the math. It was over a week old when asked Karin if she was doing the same thing and it was then that we realized that this plant was not only surviving but thriving only on Liam’s breath.
As a blogging parent it’s my job to over emphasize and find meaning in these little things. I mean technically most of the water is the sterile water we pour into the humidifier and even that is into his inhalation side of the circuit and not the exhalation tube but every single drop of the water given to these little tea roses spent time in Liam’s external “airway”.
There are over a dozen buds getting ready to open now. At least a dozen have formed, grown, dried and fallen off. The cats took two weeks before they stopped eating the leaves when we weren’t looking. The below average temperatures we’ve had in the past month meant the radiator below attempted to kill it with heat and dryness to no avail. I’ve never seen a plant sent through the mail last this long.
This plant has the strength and determination of Liam within it.
We’ve only known a couple of months of life without a ventilator. In his first days enormous machines whirred and alarmed next to his isolette. They saved his life. Machines. Robots. Again at 7 months old after a few months on a nasal cannula the same huge machines saved Liam’s life again. Robots. Wiring, circuitry and plastic, can be beautiful. Liam wouldn’t be here without any of it.
We have small machines at home. Liam’s machines. Wiring, circuitry and plastic.
And every breath they help breath into him he breathes life into them.
It can be beautiful. As beautiful as a dozen little yellow tea roses.
Hard to believe that we filmed this almost exactly two years ago, and yet it also feels like it could have been ten. Two years ago we opened our home to a film crew for a documentary being filmed highlighting the day to day life of three families with trached children. Not long after separate sections of the film were being shown to respiratory therapists and nurses and other pediatric health care professionals in training rounds about families bringing home medical technologies with their children. I already blogged about that cut of the film of only Liam’s footage here.
Even if you’ve watched that version, please, please, please take the time (14 minutes) to watch the completed film: Trach by Sean Devin and Jose Cota. The footage stitched together with the stories of Liam, Corinna, and Alia. The filmmakers did a wonderful job putting it together, and I am so very proud to have been a part of it. We’d like to thank the Ventilator Integration Program of Hasbro Children’s Hospital for thinking of us as a family worth representing our special needs community. And also to thank Sean and Jose for capturing and communicating what life at home with a child and a trach can be like.
We didn’t even know it had been finished until a respiratory therapist at the hospital where I work, and a few facebook messages to Karin from some nurses at our favorite children’s hospital had all trickled in on the same day. They had seen a film with Liam in it! I’m still not even sure where it was first shared or used but it’s out there now and I am happy that it is.
My only notes on the film are One- that it irks me to hear myself refer to Liam as “the Patient” in one sequence but you have to understand it was a teaching moment and we were trying to speak universally, and Two – that Liam was pretty good in the movie but for our part the star of the show really ended up being our cat Calvin making his film debut at about 13:05 and really hamming it up for the cameras.
We didn’t even tell him. Got him dressed and packed into his wheelchair. We even left the house at the same time that he does every day for school, but Liam didn’t go to school yesterday. I had the day off of work, and the weather was right.
Yesterday, we all went to the zoo.
We’ve of course been to the zoo before but we were excited to go during school hours in the hopes that the zoo would be fairly quiet. It was, but not nearly as empty as we expected. Still, we were able to enjoy every exhibit at our own pace and didn’t have to battle through other groups to get Liam right up close, with only a minimal amount of the uncomfortable stares (sadly enough, they’re usually from the other parents more than the children).
There was one animal though, that I was more excited to show Liam up close and personal for the first time than any other, and I knew that no matter the feeding schedule or the weather, this animal would be available for Liam to meet.
If you grew up in Rhode Island, chances are there is a picture somewhere in your parent’s old photo albums of you proudly astride the dog in front of the gift shop at the Roger Williams Park Zoo. I know for a fact that there are pictures of me on this thing along with my siblings and cousins. When we decided on letting Liam play hookie to head to the zoo getting to take this photograph was the first thing on my mind.
Having the time to unhook Liam’s ventilator, feeding pump and oximeter, safely lift him onto the dog’s back and then have the picture taken? Well, that right there was more a more meaningful experience in Liam’s life than one more afternoon in a classroom could possibly bring, and I don’t care what his report card says about it.