Early February 2009
Stories and Vignettes from Round 2 of Regular Dose of Antibodies.
Monday, February 2nd was tough. Mondays are always tough in a week of antibodies. The song, “Tell Me Why I Don’t Like Mondays,” plays on a continuous loop in my head as I try to reason, explain, cajole, plead and finally grab Liam to restrain him for a finger stick. It really is no fun. He curls his fingers into the palm of his hand with such strength that it takes two adults to uncurl one finger. He cries, screams, begs me not to do it, protests, yells “no…no…no…no…no” over and over again and kicks with the strength of a donkey. I feel awful restraining him. I feel like I’m betraying his trust and hope and pray he’ll forgive me. And then it’s over and he bounces back to being Liam. Unfortunately I don’t bounce back as quickly but try to shake off the experience since he apparently already has.
The insertion of the peripheral line in a vein in his arm was equally unpleasant. He was nervous about it, understandably so, and kept asking seemingly random questions that were not at all random about the process for about 24 hours prior to the actual deed. “How big is the needle?” “Is it going to hurt?” “How does the little tubie stay in?” “How does the needle come out?” And when we finally had a bed, in one of the shared room, the real assault began. First the shot. OK, done. Then, the peripheral line. It’s not that either Liam (or I) would prefer to still have a medical port and the stress associated with a temperature over 100.4, but to a 4 ½ year old the concept of a needle piercing a vein is tough. We had a different nurse than we normally do which added to his discomfort. We were in a different room than normal which also got him off kilter. (“Mommy – Why are we in this room?” “Mommy – When are we going to go to our room?”) This time it took three adults to restrain him in order to get the task completed. I have never seen Liam like this. He literally was hysterical with fear. And then unfortunately our poor nurse hit a valve when inserting the needle and had to abandon her attempt to access that vein. Out came the needle. We had to do it all over again with a fresh arm. As we were trying to keep him still, he was trying to do anything he could to stop the process. I heard the nurse calmly but firmly saying, “Liam – You can’t bite. You can scream and yell, but you can’t bite.” He hadn’t bitten her…yet…but he was a cornered animal looking for any escape. OK. Did I mention how much I hate Mondays? After it was finally over, he almost immediately fell asleep in my arms. And the final part of the day’s assault…the administering of antibodies. Now, just to make sure I am clear, I am not complaining about antibodies….not in the least. I am grateful for the opportunity to receive them. I can justify the pain knowing what it can and hopefully is doing. But I’d be lying if I said a piece of my heart isn’t ost every time I go through the experience of hearing my sweet, sweet guy cry out in agonizing pain. But would he have pain this round, the tell tale sign that the treatment is working. This is the part of the twisted story where you nervously and hopefully wait for the pain. Come on pain…show your face. Wait. No. What am I saying? I’m wishing pain on my child? But as crazy as it sounds, that’s exactly what I’m doing. And then it started. And everything was good. Sort of.
When he was in recovery mode, he called out to Cat, his gal pal nurse who has spent more time with us during antibodies including the very first time we went through the experience. Cat is the nurse he has shared a cab with which makes her extra special in Liam’s mind. Cat is the one whose name I urgently called out over and over when Liam became unresponsive back in the fall which makes her extra for me too . With slurred speech and droopy eyes, Liam gingerly called out for her. “Caaaaaaaaaaaaaat. I want you to ride in the cab with us.” And Cat promised Liam she would. After Liam had recovered enough to be able to moved to lay down in his stroller, he insisted on giving out the special Disney character pens to his doctors and nurses and others who play pivotal roles in his life that came back from our recent pilgrimage to the Magic Kingdom. We tried to convince him to do it another day, but he insisted on doing it right then and there. Cat pushed the stroller. I carried the bags that come along with Liam when he’s at the hospital. Liam clutched a plastic bag filled with a collection of Mickey, Minnie, Tinkerbell, Donald, Chip and Dale, Goofy and Pluto pens. Liam would reach into the bag and through blurry eyes determine which character should be matched with which person who he thinks of as friends but whom are part of a highly-skilled medical team working very hard on his behalf. I’m not sure if it was a coincidence or planned that Goofy was deemed a good match for Dr. Kushner and Linda received Chip and Dale which, if said fast, sounds like the famous and talented male dancers.
When we finally left the hospital, Liam was snuggled in his stroller wrapped in blankets and dozing in a narcotic haze. He didn’t appreciate the blast of cold air that greeted us. And removing him from his stroller cocoon was not easy. When the cab pulled up to the train station to drop off Cat, she quietly exited to let him continue sleeping. He, though, was conscious enough to know she was leaving. “Caaaat….wait…” His voice sounded so small and weak. Cat came back. “You forgot to give me a kiss and a hug.” She gave him a kiss. “Caaat. A hug too.” And after her very long Monday, she leaned down to give Liam a very tender hug amidst all his owies. We said our good byes again and she was on the curb when he urgently called out to her again. “Caaat. Caaat. Wait. I have to ask you something.” Once again, she came back and leaned next to him. “Caaat. Um…Um…Um….Caat. What kind of soap do you use in the shower?” “What kind of soap do I use? Ah…Let me think…cucumber melon. It’s green.” And with that information, Liam finally allowed Cat to depart.
The next day when we arrived, Cat presented Liam with a bottle of cucumber melon soap. I’m taking that bottle of soap and packing it in Liam’s bag to use in the shower at the Y after his weekly swimming lessons.
Conversation between Liam and Ella overheard on Thursday morning, February 5th around 10:30 a.m. on day four of round 2 of regular dose antibodies.
Liam: “Ella, when I come home from the hospital I’m going to have owies and I need you to not make any noise. So you can’t drop the blocks when you’re building a horse barn with Daddy like you did last night. I don’t like that noise. It’s not that I don’t love you, I just have owies. But I only have one more day of owies after today.”
Ella: “OK Liam. I know Liam.”
NASCAR – Staying in the Race
At some point during the week, I had an epiphany that the life of a pediatric cancer patient is similar to a NASCAR car. Let me preface this by saying that I don’t know too much about NASCAR, but I do recognize a few drivers and have always been impressed by the sense of community in the NASCAR world. My impression of NASCAR cars is that during a race, pit crews do whatever they can to get a race car back onto the race track, even if the solutions are slightly unorthodox. It’s all about staying in the race, even if driving under challenging conditions. When you look around at kids in various states of treatment, some with hair but most without, some able to walk and some not, some looking present and accounted for with others looking far off and distant, some zipping around like there are no issues with others being a bit more tentative, I was struck with the feeling of being in the middle of a NASCAR race. You hear parents talking about treatment options and plans like they’re no big deal. “Yeah, we’re going to do another round of high-dose chemo,” or “We’ll do 20 more hits of radiation to the tumor bed,” or “We’ll be getting an injection of radioactive isotopes that will attach directly to cancer cells and I can’t touch or be near my child for a week until he isn’t radioactive.” In our world, a treatment option is better than no option, but oh how unbelievably abnormal it all is. Fix ‘em up and get ‘em back in. It’s just crazy.
A short Liamism
(Liam to Grandpa Rich in Michigan following surgery to repair a shoulder injury.)
“Grandpa, why are you getting old?”
Liam and Barack
Liam is making a movie. We actually have several takes of it and if I could figure out how to get the movie downloaded from my phone, I’d be happy to show it. He heard that Barack Obama smokes and is quite disturbed by it. His concern is not that Barack will get cancer, Liam doesn’t know the word cancer or what it means, but that Barack’s brain will get hurt from smoking which is what he saw in a commercial. He decided, on his own, to make a movie for Barack to tell him to stop smoking and decided the best place to shoot the movie would be at “his” hospital. Of course the irony of a 4 ½ year old cancer patient who doesn’t know he’s a cancer patient or, for that matter, even a patient making a movie about why smoking is bad from a hospital that only treats cancer is a little overwhelming, but that’s another story. In the movie, Liam emphatically tells Barack that smoking is bad, really bad, and if he doesn’t stop he’ll have to go to a hospital. And then, because he’s 4 ½ and more interested in playing, closes his movie by asking Barack to come over to his house to play. Oh, and then snorts like a pig to close the movie.
A new love: Wall-e
The new favorite movie in our house is Wall-e. He has watched the move so many times we can’t count and asked so many questions about recycling and space travel that we also can’t count. He loves Wall-e and turns toys in his collection that make noises that sound like Wall-e into Wall-e. One of his favorite parts about the movie is the theme song by Peter Gabriel. He loves the song, so much so that we downloaded it for him to listen to over and over. He wanted to know the words, so we looked them up so that he could learn them. When we’re in the car, he sings along to the song in his sweet, squeaky voice. If you have a chance, listen to the song and hear Liam’s little voice singing along emphatically singing, “We’re coming down to the ground!”
One of the activities we took part in during our storming of Walt Disney World was breakfast with the princesses. We arrived at Cinderella’s Castle and waited in line with lots of little princes and princesses, but mainly princesses, waiting their turn to greet Cinderella. We’re not big on the princess circuit yet. I couldn’t even identify Belle or Princess Jasmine so the whole concept of meeting the princesses was interesting but certainly didn’t have my kiddies in the frenzy of excitement that it did with other children decked out in their princess outfits. When our turn came, the red velvet rope let us into the special area with Cinderella. Ella was completely shy but Liam stepped right up to say hello. He was quite taken with Cinderella’s beautiful blue dress and perfectly coiffed hair complete with princess headband. He cocked his head to the side, put a hand on his hip and innocently said to Cinderella, “Ah, we’re going upstairs for breakfast…would you like to join us?” Cinderella clearly was taken aback. She laughed and explained in her princess voice that she was very busy greeting other knights and princesses but would be upstairs later and be happy to stop by to see him. And then, being Liam, he paused, furrowed his brow, put his hand on his hip, cocked his head and said, “We have a really pretty hotel room. Would you like to come over and play?” Cinderella was quite gracious as she tried to explain that she had previous engagements. I was quite surprised, impressed and proud. And then, snap, the picture was taken of all of us surrounding Cinderella. During the rest of our trip to Disney Liam would declare whenever he saw Cinderella, “there’s my friend!” He also hijacked all of the Cinderella dolls in the collections of princesses Ella collected during our trip. Since we’ve returned from Disney, there is a Cinderella positioned on the dresser next to his bed in the city home (what I think of as the “hospital home”) and on the top of the headboard in the country home (the home I think of as home). Cinderella, you might have made the biggest mistake in your life. I think you should have taken Liam up on his offer to come over and play.
There are times I get stuck in a freeze frame state. My body is functioning and it looks like it’s moving, but my heart is frozen. Someone will get tough news, and I freeze as I take on that family’s weight. A child will lose their battle and I freeze with a noose wrapped around my heart. I go to this place where I feel vacant and empty and the only time I really feel like I can snap out of it is when I’m with Liam and Ella. The thing I didn’t think was possible just recently happened. I now know so many children who have lost their cancer battles that names are being repeated. There are two Jessies. Two. Two Jessies who should still be here; One who was on the cusp of spreading her wings and starting her senior year of high school, and another who was in kindergarten getting ready to embark on her school career. One Jessie was Liam’s first and much older girlfriend and the other a roommate with us during one of our hospital stays. There are so, so many who share names who are in treatment, something I didn’t think possible. And the faces of those children who have been lost are permanently etched in my memory bank. I have snapshots of children burned into my memory bank. A smile seen in the playroom while tackling a Scooby Doo video game. A grimace during a painful post-operative walking session to get a body moving again. A chorus of happy birthday for a 5th birthday. (I can’t sing happy birthday without welling up with tears.) Those names and faces give me inspiration. They’re also incredibly painful. There are two Jacks who are back in the thick of the battle, both for a second time. Those Jacks and their families are with me all the time. There were two Zachary’s but one lost his battle this past fall. The names go on and on and sometimes it just gets so overwhelming. No one said life was fair and I’m not feeling sorry for myself, but come on powers that be…can we give kids a break? Seriously…let’s let kids be kids and save the crappy stuff for adults.