How to Help – practical tips for helping a family in need

** I will get to a list of practical things after a brief narrative, so bear with me! **

After Little Bear’s first surgery on April 13th, we thought maybe things would be okay. His incision started swelling within two days after surgery, I took him in to get checked out a week post surgery, then 5 days later, we ended up in the ER at Children’s because his incision had suddenly started leaking. I already knew what the protocol was because we had discussed it at length when he was still in the hospital after that first surgery. We rushed him in to Children’s, sat in the ER for an hour, then was moved up to the surgical center where Little Bear was taken back to have a drain placed. Surgery number 2 in less than two weeks. The protocol was monitor him for three days to make sure he didn’t have an infection and then decide whether to do a shunt or repeat the ETV (Endoscopic Third Ventriculostomy) and do a CPC (Choroid Plexus Cauterization) at the same time. He had an MRI before the second surgery to make sure the ETV was still open and working. When the drain was placed, his surgeon checked the ETV and found that yes, it was still wide open. Which meant that while the ETV was technically working to drain excess fluid from Little Bear’s brain, it wasn’t working enough.

Friday the 28th was the third surgery. And we decided to go for the CPC. His surgeon wasn’t ready to give up on the ETV yet and after asking quite a few of his colleagues, he said he felt comfortable doing the CPC. Que waiting, once again, in the waiting area of the surgical clinic, passing the time and watching the clock. Two hours later, his surgeon came out and said he felt really happy with how the surgery went. Another half hour and the anesthesiologists came out and said Little Bear was on his way to recovery and they felt things went well too. They came out to get me to take me back to Little Bear, and as soon as he was placed in my arms, I knew something was wrong. The very first thing I noticed was his eyes looked really unfocused even though they were wide open and flashing around. I asked if he could see all the while taking in that his limbs were stiff and he was making an awful grunting/gasping sound.

About 20 minutes went by of the nurses asking me interrogating questions about Little Bear’s behavior, them calling down the anesthesiologist, then calling back his surgeon when they realized he wasn’t reacting to the morphine and his heart rate was extremely high. At one point, his oxygen levels plummeted and the nurses starting preparing the oxygen masks just in case he was going to code. As soon as his surgeon got to Little Bear’s recovery room, he said it looked like my baby was having a seizure to which everyone jumped into high gear. They gave him adavan and keppra to help stop the seizure then rushed him down to get a CT scan to make sure there weren’t any clots or hemorrhaging. The scan showed a pocket of air that isn’t uncommon after a brain endoscopic procedure. Uncommon or not, it was still one of the scariest things I have ever experienced. Even a week and a half out I am still feeling blindsided by the echos of the terror and panic I felt watching my child and the helplessness knowing there was nothing I could do.

All of that to say, there were multiples things that friends and family have done for us over the past three months that have been very helpful, and even some things that weren’t so much. So here’s what I’ve been able to come up with as far as practical tips about helping families in our position.

  1. Offer Specific Help
    I came across this article a few weeks ago and while it deals with sudden grief and trauma, I found it helpful. Being in the midst of a crisis (having to rush Little Bear to the ER, terrifying recovery after surgery…) means the ability to respond to “let me know if there is anything I can do for you” disappears. Someone came and got Little Monkey (since he was with us when we rushed to the ER) and took him to play with their kids all day while we sat at the hospital. Someone brought Phil and I lunch while we waited for Little Bear to get out of surgery #2. Someone came and stayed overnight with me at the hospital after surgery #3 so I could get sleep and somewhat relax knowing someone had eyes on Little Bear at all times in case he had another seizure. In the few weeks following Little Bear’s sudden arrival, we had multiple people just drop off meals on the front porch. We are grateful for everyone who has offered to watch Little Monkey, bring us groceries, drop by a meal, or to simply come sit with me so I’m not by myself at doctor’s appointments or at home.The more specific the offer of help, the more helpful it is. I am so grateful for those who have just dropped by a meal, stopped by the hospital, called or texted, or even just sent us a gift card to Starbucks or a meal delivery service. These are the things that have helped the most.
  2. Check In 
    This may seem like a “duh” thing, but I have had multiple people say they didn’t want to bother us or intrude so instead kept their distance. The thing that’s meant the most in everything we’ve been through is the people who have left a message, sent a text, or email, just letting us know they’re thinking about us. Even if we can’t respond to every message, knowing we’re not totally alone in all of this has helped a lot. I think in an effort to “not intrude” most people draw back too much and end up unintentionally isolating the family going through the difficulty. We will let people know if it’s too much, but don’t hesitate to check in.
  3. Don’t Take Anything Personally
    I don’t think this has happened, but the emotions of having to deal with what we are facing are messy. It’s a big effing mess and some days I honestly just want to lash out and hit something because things are too much. The hardest part is as parents trying to wrestle with the overwhelming emotions that we’re facing. Unless you have been in the same position with your child, it’s hard to explain just how overwhelming it is. So if we don’t respond, or shut people out, it’s because things have become too much, but don’t let that stop you from checking in or offering help. Oftentimes it’s in those moments we need the most help or someone checking in means the most.
  4. Don’t Tell Us About Your Friend’s Brother’s Son Who Has ______
    This is something that’s been happening since we first got Little Bear’s diagnosis. While I assume someone telling us that their friend’s brother’s son has spina bifida is an effort to relate to us or maybe even try to encourage us, it is the least helpful thing anyone can do for us. This applies to any sort of condition someone may be diagnosed with. Even though I don’t always care for this response, it’s better to simply say “I’m sorry you’re dealing with this…” than to tell us about your friend. Every person it unique, every diagnosis is unique. It’s very easy to get false hope by reading someone else’s amazing story who has the same diagnosis. It’s also very easy to become extremely discouraged and scared by someone else’s story too. So for the parents’/individual’s sake, do not share anecdotes about someone with the same diagnosis.-
    and last but not least…
  5. Care Packages Help…A Lot
    The random cards and packages we’ve had show up have helped make our days just a little easier. So if sending care packages is your thing, then send things that help the parents or individual take care of themselves. Whether it’s gift cards, something you know they enjoy (candy, makeup, bath bombs, candles, scarf, figurine, movie…), or a bunch of random quotes that mean something special, do it. The little things mean so much more when the rest of life is in major chaos.

I don’t mean for this post to feel like I’m pointing fingers or anything like that. I just know friends have been struggling with trying to figure out how to help us. These are the practical things I’ve been able to come up with both from watching others and from our personal situation.

Thanks for reading, and I do hope this post has been helpful.

 

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All Things Little Bear

I have tried to start this post three times. I just haven’t been able to find the words to express what the past three weeks have held. So I’m going to just write out a chronological order of events instead of trying to unpack all of the emotions and hurricane of thoughts I’ve been in the middle of.

As we learned more about myelomeningocele (spina bifida) and Little Bear’s case while I was still pregnant, the more I wondered about the possibility of him having a shunt after he was born. “What are his ventricles measuring at?” was always my first question during ultrasounds at Children’s. When he was in the NICU, every morning when I got there, I asked three questions; how did he do overnight, anything new, and how’s his head? I expected him to have a shunt within his first week of life. But as the days and weeks started passing I wondered if maybe, just maybe he would surprise us and stay in the 15% of kids with SB who don’t need help with their hydrocephalus.

Three weeks ago, this narrative started shifting. He had his second post NICU head ultrasound and after talking with his neurosurgeon, it sounded like we were heading towards needing some sort of intervention. Little Bear’s ventricles were no longer holding steady and were slowly starting to get bigger. His head measurements weren’t leveling out and the surgeon wanted him to have a MRI. Two weeks after his head ultrasound, Little Bear and I were headed in to Children’s for a MRI. Because I was going to be with him, I had to strip too and put on a hospital gown. I tried to not let the whole experience dredge up too many memories of the last time I had been in that room. Little Bear was on the outside now and he was safely tucked in my arms, falling asleep sucking his pacifier. After the MRI, we had an almost hour long appointment with the neurosurgeon. We talked about the MRI findings and decided it was time to move forward and schedule surgery. The biggest question was which surgery.

After realizing how high the numbers were for kids needing shunts, I started doing research. Carefully mind you, the internet is a mine field for any parent with a kid who has any condition outside of an average child. I stumbled across a procedure called ETV or Endoscopic Third Ventriculostomy. I noticed it was commonly referenced with a secondary procedure called CPC or Choroid Plexus Cauterization. I didn’t fully understand what those two things meant, but the more I read about other moms experiences with shunts versus an ETV/CPC, I wondered if the ETV would be a possible option for Little Bear.

As an ETV is still a relatively newer procedure, when I asked back in November about the possibility of Little Bear getting that instead of a shunt, I was told it probably wouldn’t happen. The biggest concern that specific neurosurgeon had was that the risks for excess bleeding were too high for a newborn. So when Little Bear’s NS (neurosurgeon) said it’s time to consider the next steps, I took a deep breathe preparing for the news that a shunt was his only option. But! The NS surprised me and offered an ETV as an additional option. We talked through what doing an ETV would mean and the NS told me that it would most likely depend on the results of the MRI and what Little Bear’s anatomy actually looked like. After we saw the MRI results the NS actually gave us the option of driving/flying to Utah so that Little Bear could get both an ETV and CPC. The kicker was that our Children’s wouldn’t be starting to add in the CPC procedure until July. Yes, this coming July.

Long story short, we decided to go with the ETV even though the odds were a little stacked against us.

Little Bear had surgery this past Thursday (five days ago) and this mama was a bit of a wreck leading up to the moment we entered the hospital. I watched them wheel him away in the crib bed and knew my job was done for now. He had finally fallen asleep, and was still sleeping as they wheeled him away. It was all up to the surgeon and Little Bear. I knew the next time I would see him, Little Bear wouldn’t be feeling very well. His neurosurgeon came out barely an hour and a half later to tell me how the surgery went. He showed me pictures of a very interesting discovery he had made in Little Bear’s brain. Somehow Little Bear’s brain has created an opening in a membrane that isn’t usually there. The NS explained this was actually a really good thing. That opening meant that doing a CPC would be really easy and actually work well with Little Bear’s anatomy. So basically we went from a 25-35% chance of the ETV working and if that fails then we go to a shunt, to having the option of IF this ETV fails, the NS is willing to go back in, repeat the ETV and then add the CPC because Little Bear is perfectly set up for that. This is such good news for Little Bear. That’s one more option between us and that shunt.

They took me back to see him an hour later. My little bubby was paler than I’ve ever seen him and making awful little rasping cries. He was hoarse from having a breathing tube down his throat and he had lost the ability to suck. He couldn’t actually suck on anything for about 3 hours after that.

I am learning with my Little Bear that the best way to be his mama is to take my hands off and let him drive. So far, five days out from surgery, he’s doing well. His head has gone down a half centimeter, his soft spot is still soft, and he is acting a lot more calm and comfortable post surgery. He’s also doubled his sleeping times at night too. I don’t think I really had understood how much his head had bothered him prior to surgery.

I know this won’t be his last surgery, but I am glad this one is done. There was a certain amount of scary stress about the unknown leading up to finally hearing those words “it’s time to think about next steps” with his hydro. Now he’s had the ETV done, we’re managing his hydro, and now it’s monitoring and hoping for the best from here until the next thing comes up.

I don’t deny it’s hard to just not know what I don’t know when it comes to Little Bear. Some days are harder than others, some days are actually good days. But, don’t get me wrong, this is hard. It is hard watching your child cry because his tummy hurts and his head hurts and you can’t do anything but hold him or touch his face and hope that that’s enough for now. It is hard to see the horseshoe shaped incision on his head. I am glad I was able to hand him off to the capable nurses and I didn’t go with him back to the OR. I don’t think I would have been able to handle that.

I don’t know what’s next. I don’t know what the next month is going to hold, or what things will look like at the end of summer. But for now? I’m holding on to my squishy little bear; holding him close and reveling in his newfound skill of smiling at mama and making his sing-songy sounds.