It always happens so damn fast. After an amazing Saturday afternoon which included a visit from New Jersey by Liam’s grandparents, dinner out at one of Liam’s favorite restaurants (of the two he’s visited), and a visit to one of our favorite places in all the world, the Roger Williams Park Zoo. It was Sunday that started with Liam having a weird shivering motion we’d never seen before and a rising temperature. Some Tylenol and Motrin, and a quick call to his pulmonologist’s nurse practitioner just to give her a head’s up, things seemed to resolve using Liam’s sick plan (The sick plan is a series of ventilator changes and nebulizer treatments given at our preditermined increase when Liam isn’t feeling well, Waiting until an illness arrives is the wrong time to come up with a plan for how to treat it with a kid on a ventilator.). Reaching a high of only 101.3 in the afternoon, by the time we got Liam to bed at 9:30pm he was sitting at 98.8 and we thought we were out of the woods.
It was 11:18pm when we went in to check on Liam. Now, with his temperature rising, the shivering motion that resolved so quickly in the morning was present and stronger. His rate of breathing was about three times what it should be. By a quarter to 12am we were calling 911.
By my count 5 of the 6 EMT’s and firemen who responded have been here before Sunday. The holdout looking barely old enough to drive. The blood rushing from his face as he walked in and took in the tubes and chords across a little boy’s bedroom. He watched as we changed Liam’s trach and looked for a chest rise and listened through our own stethescope, listening to see how well he was moving air just in case the respiratory problems were from an occluded trach. I would have laughed at him if I wasn’t busy rushing out of the room to get the Liam’s suction rig ready for an ambulance ride and making sure the med list saved in my phone was current, while Liam Karin got Liam, his ventilator, and his oxygen tank ready for his transfer to the stretcher.
It’s been a few years since we’ve had a sick visit to the children’s hospital. We’re out of practice. But back into our roles we all fell pretty easily. Put onto the Servo Ventilator ( a huge hospital-only piece of equipment) in the ER and for it only taking three tries in three different veins on three different parts of his body to get an IV access (it usually takes many more), Liam almost immediately looked to be breathing better. Against the doctor’s wishes (“that’s not the priority right now!” she yelled at the nurse) the impressive ER trauma room nurse caring for Liam, was able to get the blood needed for labs before taping the line onto Liam’s bicep. That line would miraculously stay flowing and give them a place to administer IV antibiotics, until we left yesterday afternoon, and while she tried to get it while getting yelled at by a Dr. I cheered her on the whole time as if she knew that Liam being such a hard stick, if she didn’t get the blood from a vein then, it would probably take an OR procedure later to do so and not blow the line for access.
By Monday afternoon Liam actually looked pretty comfortable. Sleepy for sure but his fever controlled again by tylenol and motrin, the new Nurse Practioner of the PICU who we had not yet met, seemed more than a little surprised and a bit put out that even though he was back on his home vent and his numbers seemed to be ok, I refused to let her ask Liam’s pulmonolgist and the PICU Attending Dr. to let us go home that afternoon.
“Parents don’t usually ask to stay here another day sir, his numbers have been very good.” It was clear her plan was to get us out of there as soon as possible. Karin and I gave her the reasons why we flat out refused to go.
“Even though he looks fine now, we haven’t gotten any answers as to what happened to cause him to get here. We made subtle changes to his vent settings only a few hours ago! We don’t know yet if he’s going to tolerate them while he’s awake and breathing normally?! Lab cultures haven’t even come back yet, we don’t even know what his high white blood cell count in the ER was fighting off. No. We have gone home and then had to turn around and be re-admitted before, we aren’t doing that again. No. we are staying one more night to see if he really is doing better.” I said.
I’d be lying if I didn’t get just a bit of satisfaction when she had to come back only a few hours later and explain that his blood cultures grew out strep pneumo probably causing the fever and the pneumonio symptoms in his difficulty breathing the night before, and that while we wait to see what antibiotics this bug is most sensitive to, if we had gone home when she offered, she would have then had to call us back to be re-admitted through the ER for IV antibiotics. We were right. It was a good thing we hadn’t left.
The wait was kind of brutal. Liam really was doing much better. But that was because of the Cephtriaxone. If there were an oral ( or a non-IV administered version) of that antibiotic we would have been home on Tuesday. Instead, we were forced to wait until the lab got true drug sensitivities of this particular strain. Apparently different strep bugs all over the country are more or less sensitive to different antibiotics.
“Why haven’t we just tried good ol’ penicillin? We used to always treat strep with Penicillin.” the attending Doc relayed at morning rounds on Tuesday. Having known Liam most of his life though (and spending one entire night a few years ago never leaving his room as she ruled out whether or not he had had a heart attack due to the sceptic shock just ravashing his blood pressure. Don’t worry. He didn’t) she added, “well I guess there’s no need to get cavalier about it though, this is Liam. Better wait on the Lab. One more day.”
By Wednesday morning’s bedside rounds, the lab sensitivities were in… We knew if we had an oral version of the antibiotics allowing us to bring Liam home.
It was penicillin.
Good Ol’ Penicillin.
It was time to go home.
We are all at home now, but It’s been a long week. A week of sleeplessness and worry. But also a week of bragging about the boy. Bragging and visiting with people who have spent time with Liam at his worst. People who have been there to help save Liam’s life multiple times, but don’t get to see him use his ipad. People that care for him for weeks post surgery but not for the weeks post Santa visit.
Like the proverbial pebble thrown into a lake, Liam has touched so many lives. Part of being Liam’s parent is knowing that every now and then Liam will decide it is time to teach a med school class to a rotation of new residents. To open the eyes of a brand new EMT. To reach out to a nurse he may have taught something to in the past (one of his nurses this stay learned how to change a trach on him a few years ago, the last time he was admitted, and under our supervision and permission.), or to teach a Nurse Practioner that maybe listening to the patient (or his parents) is just as important if not more important than what the numbers say.
We’re all at home now, and it has been a long week. A week of sleeplessness and worry. But I did so much bragging about Liam, and he visited with, so many people who have known him for as long as he has been alive, people who have helped him through his very worst times.On top of that, Liam met new friends. Friends who will go out into the world feeling the positive energy of meeting a charming boy like Liam and bringing that into their careers as nurses, and doctors and respiratory therapists.
We’re all at home now, and it’s been a long week. A week of sleeplessness and worry.
But on some weird level, and this is only because aside from the few hours in the ER Liam was basically comfortable the whole time, I can’t say it hasn’t been a little bit worthwhile.
Understanding that families do come in all shapes and sizes, who among us don’t remember hearing some version of it?
“You go to your room and you just wait until your father gets home and hears about this!”
Being told when Liam was only three weeks old that he’d never reach the developmental level of even a toddler, I never thought we’d have to use that phrase in this house. I knew then that he’d prove them wrong and boy has he, but discipline is one of those “universal” parenting skills that held little importance for us.
“There are no spoiled kids in intensive care units” people in the NICU and then the PICU say, and for us, once we brought Liam home, it became “there are no spoiled kids on ventilators.” And it worked, for a time. As long as he was breathing, Liam would not hear the word “No” or “now” or the phrase “because I said so” until he was almost four years old.
So it’s our own fault really. Don’t let that cute smile fool you. Liam can be just as much the brat that any other five-year old can be.
Truth be told, I couldn’t have been prouder to hear that Liam had been pulled from his classroom and into the hallway by his teacher to discuss why he was misbehaving in class. The kid who would never be able to communicate. He almost got a Yellow Card (and we all know you don’t want something like THAT on your pre-kindergarten permanent record). But of course it wasn’t in the fact that he was ignoring his teacher and not participating in his schoolwork but in the how he did just that.
Among Liam’s many super powers is his ability to avoid obligations (dr.’s appointments, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, family functions) by sleeping or pretending to be asleep. He hasn’t realized yet that his heart rate monitor betrays his brilliant performances every time. He does it because it works. This time though, Liam decided to push boundaries by actively, alertly, and fully aware of his surroundings and behaviors, refused to make eye contact with his teacher and moving his head around in an effort to NOT look at the activity she was presenting to him. Non-compliant and proud of it, in every way that a non-verbal, low-muscle-toned five-year old brat can be.
Let me be clear, Liam loves his teacher. He perks up when she is around and the work that she has been able to do with him has been absolutely staggering. It’s in that love and respect that I think lead Liam to push those boundaries as far as he could. It’s because of her love and respect for him that I think she pulled him out of class to discipline him. Ventilator or no. seizure disorder or no. Global developmental delay or no. Liam is held to the same standards of effort and participation as all of her students and if she were to let him slide because he was cute. Or because he has special needs she is doing him no favors.
The concept of obligation is a tough one to teach. But it’s a lesson every one of us needs to learn, so when I got the full report from Liam’s mom on my return from work at the end of the day, Liam and I had a nice long talk. A talk about respecting the teachers and the adults in his life. About work, about effort and participation. We talked about what he did wrong, and what he needed to start doing from now on. I didn’t have to work to hard to figure out what to say either. Most of my own “wait until your father comes home” moments came on report card day, where I would get a lecture about work, about effort, and about participation.
The next day I was home from work and was able to go with Karin to pick him up from school. His teacher came directly over to us as he and his classmates exited the building. ” Well thank you for whatever you said to him last night. He had an EXCELLENT day today! He worked so hard with me when I asked him to.” she told us.
I guess he learned his lesson. Must have been that whole afternoon spent with the guilt and the anticipation of a punishment of some kind.
Just waiting for his dad to come home.
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.
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.
Pictured from bottom to top
Pulse oximeter probe
Plastic tubing from Nebulizer
Power cord for oximeter
Power cord for ventilator
Power cord for in-line humidifier
Power cord for nebulizer
Power cord for feeding pump
Power cord for suction rig
Dirty rug. No really, go ahead and tell me how dirty it is. It’s bad enough that Karin is going to kill me for posting this. Try me.
People often ask us how we do what we do.
Me? I pretty much consider it a success anytime we don’t trip on something.