Ventilator

Just wait until your father gets home.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

Getting back to why I’m here.

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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!

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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.

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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.)

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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.

 

Boom!

Postlet.

I’ll talk to you soon.

 

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Feel the breeze.

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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.

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Liam’s Tea Roses

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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.

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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.

Trach – A film by Sean Devin and Jose Cota

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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.

Damn cat.

 

Liam’s bedtime friends.

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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

The Circuit

Feeding tube

Power cord for feeding pump

Power cord for suction rig

Suction tubing

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.

Very carefully.

Me? I pretty much consider it a success anytime we don’t trip on something.

 

Crib Notes

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I get to go to bed earlier than 4:15am now! No longer tossing and turning on the couch grumbling about the pain in my neck it creates while counting the ventilator breaths I can hear on the baby monitor. Karin can lie back down in bed from 4am to 8am instead of sitting up by Liam’s crib while he has his daily awake time from 5am to 6:30am.

It’s a comfortable bed. A nice wide full size bed. Probably the nicest bed that I’ve ever even purchased. The only thing that would make it nicer would be if it were mine.

This one is a big boy’s bed.

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Last week on a day that also included Liam’s first ever trip to see a movie in the theater, (Despicable Me 2, and yes the whole family enjoyed the movie and the experience) I worked past the emotions of how on earth Liam could possibly be too old for a crib and got to work turning this

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into this.

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I’m betting that the parenting books tell you it’s a bad idea to sleep in the same bed as your 4 year old but we don’t go in for parenting manuals around here. Instead we just do what works for us. What works for him.

The phrase 24 hour a day care is not hyperbole and for the past 4 years Karin and I have split the night in two. Couch time and bed time. Neither of us in either space together and unfortunately that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. But our level of rest will. The light from the ipad or kindle is hardly brighter than the displays on his feeding pump, vent or oximeter. I can read and I can sleep and I can get a little more rest all the while being less than an arm’s length away from the boy. From the circuit. From the suction rig.

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A big boy bed. Just as exciting as the day that Liam left the confines of his NICU isolette and into an open air crib but I’m not sure which of us has been more excited about it. Liam, who now has the room he needs to stretch out as much as he wants, (and even has the audacity to learn how to roll over by himself, the little scamp.) or me and Karin who will get bits of sleep that we so desperately need while still being close enough to care for the big boy stretching next us.

Pretty sure it’s us, but even if it’s not today, it will be once Liam gets to hear me snore.