Archive for the ‘Family’ Category

Grief takes no holidays

I originally wrote this column just before Thanksgiving one year, and then updated it in 2012 after the tragic massacre of the Newtown first-graders. Now COVID-19 — and all the losses and grief that 2020 has brought — makes it only too relevant once again. For families who have lost a child, each holiday brings fresh grief, hurdles to face, and mourning for celebrations that will never happen.

The glittering commercialism and noisy cheer of any American holiday can be stressful for most of us. But for the parent who’s lost a child during the past year, facing the first of many holidays with an empty place at the table can make already unbearable grief so much worse.

No one in modern America expects a child to die.  Children only die in nineteenth century novels and third-world countries, or so we’d like to think.

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How are two-career households with children — let alone single-parent households — going to manage with daycare centers and schools closed, perhaps for a long time to come? What damage will this do to career progress and earning potential if one parent must cut back on work? Will childcare demands inevitably delay or derail partnership or academic promotion?

When I was a young mother — my two youngest children are only 17 months apart — life revolved around childcare arrangements. As newly fledged attendings, my husband and I both wanted to practice full time, and with the confidence of youth we assumed we could make it work. For a time, we had a live-in nanny. As the babies turned into children old enough for school, we still needed a full-time nanny for drop-off, pick-up, and the days when the kids were sick and needed to stay home. We accepted the fact that a third or more of our joint income would be spent on childcare and other support services so that we could both keep working as physicians and stay sane.

But what if there had been no school?

Today, it’s hard to fathom the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on families trying to find solutions to their childcare needs with the closure of private and public schools alike. Who’s going to watch, let alone educate, the kids? A nanny, no matter how conscientious and loving, may not be a good educator. When one parent has to work less in order to supervise learning at home, often that job falls to the mother. What happens to her career?

The vicious downturn cycle

As of early July, the Census Bureau estimates that half of American adults live in households that lost job income this spring. Many anesthesiologists lost income too during the periods in March and April when elective surgery in many states went on hiatus to keep beds open for COVID-19 patients.

In California, the CSA surveyed members and found that 74% reported experiencing financial hardship this spring, with medium and small private practices faring worse than academic departments. There was no overall difference in perceived economic hardship between men and women in anesthesiology, though women reported being furloughed or given involuntary vacation more often than men: 41% vs. 26% of survey respondents.

When people lose their jobs or work remotely, demand for childcare services plummets. The National Association for the Education of Young Children reports that on average, enrollment in childcare centers is down by 67%. Many that were operating on a slim margin have already gone out of business. The centers that remain open to serve essential workers are facing huge additional expenses for staff, PPE, cleaning supplies, and duplicate equipment and toys to allow cleaning after each use. At least 40% of the remaining childcare centers are likely to go out of business unless significant government assistance arrives soon. People trying to return to work after lockdown — in anesthesiology or any other field — are having trouble finding high-quality early childcare.

“It’s much harder for me to find safe childcare to be able to work,” said one woman anesthesiologist in a private conversation. Another in academic practice commented, “It’s very stressful for the mom!” A third woman is worried because her current au pair leaves in August but the new one may not be able to enter the country due to the hold on visas.

Many of us assumed optimistically that the school closures of the spring would be short-lived, and that September would mark the end of “learning from home”. That doesn’t appear likely. California’s Governor Newsom announced on July 17 that most California public and private schools will not reopen when the academic year begins.

In some states, elite private schools have more latitude to reopen than public schools as they can afford to reduce class size and adapt to strict infection control regulations recommended by the CDC. But many private religious schools that serve less wealthy families were in financial trouble even before the full effect of the pandemic hit. The Roman Catholic Boston archdiocese, for example, has already shuttered 10% of its schools permanently. No one knows yet how many students actually will be able to return to school this fall.

Even if schools reopen where state government permits, it isn’t clear that teachers will agree to return to work. In a July 19 New York Times op-ed, a teacher wrote that she is willing to take a bullet for her students, but exposing herself and her family to COVID-19 would be like asking her to take that bullet home. “It isn’t fair to ask me to be part of a massive, unnecessary science experiment,” she wrote. “I am not a human research subject. I will not do it.”

In anesthesia, you can’t “phone it in”

What are women in anesthesiology going to do if schools don’t reopen? If your job is purely administrative, or you can run a preop clinic using telemedicine, you might be able to work remotely. But you can’t “phone it in” if your job is delivering anesthesia to humans.

“I don’t see how this school year is going to work,” said one woman anesthesiologist. “It’s a hot mess.”

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If you’re a parent who is still on the fence, trying to decide whether or not to vaccinate your children, I’m going to try to be kind and helpful. Here is a link to a video by a physician and father, Dr. Zubin Damania, with facts that may address some of your fears.

If you’re firmly pro-disease and anti-vaccine, however, I am baffled at your irrationality and frankly enraged by it. I am speaking from the intensely personal point of view of a physician and mother who knows what it’s like to attend the funeral and watch the coffin of her own child being lowered into the ground.

My daughter Alexandra is dead. There is no vaccine that could have saved her. The only thing that could make that enduring grief any worse would be the knowledge that there was a vaccine, and she didn’t get it because of me.

The only bright side to the recent outbreak of measles in the northwestern U.S. is the fact that some parents are finally deciding to protect their children with vaccination, as the New York Times reported on February 16.

I’m old enough to remember the terror that my parents went through every summer as polio epidemics swept the country, and the miracle of standing in line to take the sugar cube with the first oral vaccine in 1961. I have two dear friends who are paraplegic as the result of childhood polio, and you don’t want to have the anti-vaccine conversation with them, I promise you.

Our duty — all of us, as human beings in a civilized society — is to make sure that we and our children are immune to measles, chickenpox, whooping cough, and other infectious diseases so we can protect those who can’t be vaccinated due to real medical problems. We are the herd that has to take responsibility for herd immunity.

Every single one of us has a duty to the cause of public health to be vaccinated ourselves, and a duty to our children to make sure that they are vaccinated on schedule. Yes, I understand that in rare cases the flu vaccine can result in Guillain-Barre syndrome, but I still get the shot every year. It’s my duty to protect my patients, my husband, my children, and my grandchildren from being exposed to the flu, which could happen in the early stage before I might even realize that I was getting sick.

It’s particularly mind-bending to see that some parents think diseases like measles and chickenpox are benign. For every 1000 children who catch measles, one to three will develop encephalitis. Of those, 10 to 15 percent will die, and many more will have permanent neurologic damage. Chickenpox too can lead to encephalitis, and the blisters can get infected and cause full-blown sepsis or pneumonia.

The death of Olivia Dahl

Have you read any of Roald Dahl’s books to your children, and watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach with them? Did you know that his seven-year-old daughter Olivia died of measles encephalitis in 1962, before the MMR vaccine was available? Here is what Mr. Dahl wrote:

As the illness took its usual course, I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of colored pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

Are you feeling all right?’ I asked her.

‘I feel all sleepy’, she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours, she was dead.”

For the rest of his life, Mr. Dahl pleaded with parents to vaccinate their children. Even today, there is little that can be done to save a child who develops measles encephalitis. What we can do is prevent it by vaccinating.

I would never wish for any parent, no matter how irresponsible and irrational the pro-disease advocates are, to suffer the relentless and indescribable grief of their child’s death. In centuries past, parents frequently lost more than one child, but the fact that children’s deaths were common didn’t lessen the pain. If you don’t believe me, read this:

There’s a narrow ridge in the graveyard
Would scarce stay a child in his race,
But to me and my thought it is wider
Than the s
tar-sown vague of Space.

Your logic, my friend, is perfect,
Your moral most drearily true;
But, since the earth clashed on her coffin,
I keep he
aring that, and not you.

Console if you will, I can bear it;
’T is a well-meant alms of breath;
But not all the preaching since Adam
Has made Death other than Death.

It is pagan; but wait till you feel it,—
That jar of our earth, that dull shock
When the ploughshare of deeper passion
Tears down to our primitive rock.

Communion in spirit! Forgive me,
But I, who am earthly and weak,
Would give all my incomes from dream-land
For a touch of her hand on my cheek.

That little shoe in the corner,
So worn and wrinkled and brown,
With its emptiness confutes you,
And argues your wisdom down.

That poem, “After the Burial“, was written by American poet James Russell Lowell, who suffered the loss of three of his four children in the mid-nineteenth century. He hit the mark. So did Ben Jonson, writing about the death of his first daughter in 1593.

I will never write as eloquently as they have. So here’s the bottom line. Get a grip. Vaccinate your kids.

Classic rock music lovers who think they don’t like poetry, and literary purists who think they don’t like popular music, may have been equally baffled to hear that Bob Dylan is a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. As an unrepentant English major, I’m delighted.

I can’t remember a time when Dylan’s music wasn’t a part of my growing up, from the rebelliousness of the anti-Vietnam era to the bittersweet maturity of “Tangled Up in Blue“, my all-time favorite.

When you think about it, any time you listen to a song — a current popular hit, a 1950’s oldie, or a centuries-old ballad like “Greensleeves” —  you’re listening to poetry, only with a tune. In ancient times, before most could read or write, people turned stories into poetry and sang them because rhyme and melody made the stories easier to remember and retell. Much of rap music is poetry (often crude, but still poetry) with complex use of rhyme and assonance, and the musical element reduced to a backdrop of pounding rhythm.

Poetry set to music can convey any and all human emotion. Love, of course. Jealousy — absolutely. Just pick a musical genre, and there’s a hit song about jealousy. In pop music, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” lets her revel in her psycho side. In country music, Carrie Underwood graphically explains in “Before He Cheats” what can happen when a woman wants revenge on her faithless lover, and takes it out on his car. And the still-creepy “Every Breath You Take“, the 1983 classic rock hit by The Police, blurs the fine line between devotion and obsession.

Then there’s the universal human experience of grief. There was a time when every parent expected to lose a child, or more than one, because children often died from pestilence and poor sanitation. When my daughter Alexandra died unexpectedly at the age of five months, I couldn’t decide which was worse — thinking that I wouldn’t survive, or being horribly afraid that I would.

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Nothing brings out the mama lioness in me more than seeing one of my cubs not being treated as well as I think it should be.

Recently I had the unusual experience of accompanying my oldest daughter into an unfamiliar hospital for a minor surgical procedure. Now this daughter isn’t exactly a cub — she’s a full-fledged adult, with a master’s degree in health care administration, a husband, and two small boys of her own.

But as I watched the OR team prepare her for surgery, I started to feel like an odd combination of a mama lioness and a secret shopper. To the staff members who came in and out of the hospital’s preoperative area, it was clear that I was simply the family member in the corner, and they probably figured I had little clue about what was transpiring. Meanwhile, I was taking in every detail. Some tasks were performed excellently — others, not so much.

The hospital where her surgery took place is a small community hospital on Long Island. It enjoys a location where Jerry Seinfeld, Christie Brinkley, and other wealthy New Yorkers maintain lavish homes for weekend and summer holidays.

My daughter was instructed to arrive at 6:30 a.m. Her procedure involved an initial stop in radiology, to be followed by the actual surgery. As a veteran of hospital life, I questioned whether radiology even opened that early, but we had no way of checking. So we left her house at 5:25, driving carefully on dark, icy roads with fresh snow, and lining up for a 5:40 a.m. ferry ride from her home town so that we could arrive at the hospital by 6:30.

The good news — a valet met us at the hospital door and whisked away the car, so we had only a moment to savor the 20-degree weather and the harsh wind that made it feel colder. My daughter was promptly escorted to a private room to change clothes.

Hurry up and wait

A nurse gave her an insulated paper gown with two openings to connect it to a wall-mounted forced air warming unit. This, I thought, was a wonderful thing. Where I’ve worked, we had forced air warming blankets in the ORs but the hospital wouldn’t spend the money to put them in the preoperative areas. I thought of Tina Fey, playing an immigrant from Albania in a Saturday Night Live spoof of the HBO series “Girls”, and imagined her saying, “In my country, we do not have such things.” Within minutes, my daughter’s gown was hooked up to the warmer and she was feeling much cozier.

Then we waited.

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