If you’re tired of reading my essays, take a listen to this interview I did with Jana Panarites on her podcast, Agewyz, where she gives voice to the struggles of caregivers. After all, we all are, have been or will be caregivers at some point in our lives. I hope you’ll take the time to listen and share with others. Maybe you would like to share your story with Jana too? Click HERE to listen.
Click here to read my latest essay on washingtonpost.com
There are many things parents teach their children—toilet-training, personal hygiene, shopping, food preparation, shoe-tying, bike-riding, and swimming to name a few. I have had the pleasure of teaching one of my children to feed himself through his gastrostomy tube.
This 17-year-old son, the second of my four children, was born with a Jewish genetic disorder called Familial Dysautonomia (http://www.familialdysautonomia.org/facts.htm). He walks, talks, and is cognitively with it, but he is medically and physically fragile. He eats some food by mouth, but gets much of his nutrition through a gastrostomy tube in his stomach.
He was diagnosed with this disease when he was 1-year-old, but he had feeding trouble from birth. A g-tube was placed at 6 months, once the doctors figured out that the formula from a bottle often went into his lungs instead of his stomach. Speech therapists encouraged us to feed him by mouth in the hopes that the tube would be temporary. As desperate young parents, we spent hours and hours feeding our son by mouth although he was often uninterested and somewhat averse. We had one other child at the time who was only 16 months older. We were discouraged but accepted the tube feedings as part of our life, at least for the short term.
While it was hard to accept this fate, it was much quicker and efficient to tube-feed him. Sure, we still had to feed him several times a day, but it only took a few minutes each time. We grew accustomed to the stares and questions from curious people. We just wanted to feed our kid and hoped that he would continue to grow and be “normal.”
Like many parenting tasks, the feedings soon turned to drudgery and felt like a chain around our necks. Every couple of hours we had to drop what we were doing and spend a few minutes feeding our son. Yes, we had to feed his siblings as well, but with them we could put the food in front of them and walk away. The feeding tube felt more like a tether as we had to stand there and pour the liquid into the syringe, connected to the tube that went into his stomach.
As he got older he could at least hold the syringe so we could dash around feeding the other kids and return frequently to pour more formula into the syringe. But that too became cumbersome. What to do? How could I make my son more independent with this task?
Perhaps divine intervention led me to find a funnel underneath a sink in a newly renovated bathroom in my home. Hmmm, what the heck was this? Some piece left over by the plumber? A light bulb went on over my head, as I could envision this funnel sitting in my son’s feeding syringe, giving him a wider opening into which he could pour the formula, given his less than optimal gross and fine motor skills. It’s not called the “mother” of invention for nothing.
He resisted the idea at first but quickly got the hang of it. Freedom, at last! And the funnel? Turns out it was meant to fill the soap dispenser that is built into the counter-top. You can imagine the reaction I got when I called Kohler to order 12 of them!
So maybe we were remiss in teaching our son some of the other self-care skills. He can’t ride a bike, but not for lack of trying. He’s safe and comfortable in the pool, but he can’t actually swim strokes—again, not for lack of lessons. Those things weren’t in the cards that God dealt him.
But he did recently reach a momentous milestone. He learned to tie his shoes. We have tried to teach him over the years without success. His frustration, and ours, was too great with the return benefit just not seeming worth it. Sure, I knew he was too old for his mom to still be tying his shoes, but somehow it just didn’t make it to the top of the “things to worry about” list. His health is always number one.
Recently I took my son along with my 11-year-old daughter who wanted to get a new pair of Converse All Star sneakers. While at the store, he decided that he would like a pair as well. Given that he rarely shows any interest in fashion I happily agreed to buy them for him. He was very pleased with his new shoes, which inspired me to raise the dreaded issue of shoe-tying. We tried the bunny ears technique first which was too cumbersome. Somehow, when I showed him exactly how I tied my shoes, it clicked and his fingers were able to do what his brain told them to!
He is super proud of his new skill as he walks around in his new Chuck Taylor’s. And as his mom, I couldn’t be happier. Better late than never.
The topic of inclusion for people with special needs has been on my mind lately. In particular, I’m focused on my seventeen-year-old son who recently auditioned and was selected to be in a two-year conservatory program for students with cognitive and/or developmental disabilities. It was a group audition with a one minute solo opportunity of the actor’s choice. Our son told a brief story about his beach vacation, complete with his amazingly good animal imitations. I wasn’t there, but I can only imagine that he brought down the house.
To be included, or not to be included? That is the question.
It is especially pertinent to the parent of a child with special needs. My son has a genetic disease, Familial Dysautonomia. He walks and talks, but his balance and gait are not great. He has a feeding tube, through which he can feed himself and he also eats by mouth. He has no behavior problems and is sweet with an innocent personality. We encourage him to be as independent as possible.
I recall a holiday dinner with friends a few years ago when my then eight-year-old daughter and her friend came to complain to the adults that the big kids weren’t playing with them.
“They’re discluding us,” they announced to our amusement. We did what adults do – told the big kids to be nice and tried to persuade the little ones to give them some space.
But really, must everyone be together all the time? Sometimes I like to hang out with people like me, sometimes I don’t.
When my disabled son was younger, I was very focused on inclusion and mainstreaming. I was so hopeful that he would fit in, make friends, and lead a typical life. Why shouldn’t my child be included? I was his advocate and tried so hard to focus on the parts of him that were like everyone else, rather than the things that made him different. He goes to a large public high school where he is mainstreamed and manages amazingly well with a lot of loving support.
As he’s gotten older, however, my acceptance of his differences has evolved. I can embrace the wacky, fun, quirky things about him. When he aged out of day camp and their wonderful inclusion program, the next option within the camp was with a self-contained group of disabled kids. At first I bristled at the idea of him being with a group of disabled kids – what about typical peers and role models? But, I had no other options, the camp had been great for my son since he was three-years-old, and it was better than him spending the summer playing video games in my basement. We decided to give it a try.
I learned that my son didn’t mind being in the group at all – in fact he liked it. Even if I perceived that he was higher functioning than many of the other kids, he enjoyed making his friends laugh, helping out and hanging out with the counselors. It was the beginning of my being able to watch him move into and out of inclusion with fluidity and grace.
The campers went on a field trip to an improv place. The counselors told me my son loved it, which gave me the idea to pursue a theater class. While the theater program offers both inclusion and self-contained classes, we opted for the self-contained ones since he had no previous “training.” He took two classes last year. We went to the end of the semester observation. My husband felt that our son seemed so different than the other kids. I, on the other hand, saw him as belonging in the group and was so happy to see him shine. Apparently, inclusion is in the eye of the beholder.
I am thrilled that my son has this opportunity to learn some new skills, have fun, make friends, and be part of another nurturing community. As Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” These kids hit their marks, sing mostly on cue, and exit stage right and stage left, albeit slowly. They may have different abilities, but their performances are no less sweet.
My husband is a very competent, caring person. While I was away on a recent trip to Israel, he managed to successfully get all four of our children off to camp. Although this is an impressive feat, let’s be real – yours truly made the fifty trips to Target and did the actual packing prior to my trip.
I called him on my last day in Israel as he was driving our son with special needs, the remaining child at home, to sleep-away camp.
“Ben had a bad day yesterday,” he reported.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s not your fault,” he replied.
I appreciated his kindness. I felt sad that my son had a bad day and that my husband had to deal with the unpleasantness for several hours. Usually I am the one at home who has to deal with these episodes. I am thankful he’s a hands-on dad. And that he didn’t try to make me feel bad for being away from home.
I hung up the phone and told my friends what had happened.
“I don’t feel guilty,” I explained, “I just feel badly for them.”
“What a novel concept,” one of them said, as if a light bulb had gone off over her head.
Feeling guilt, like so many other things in life, is a choice, and it is one that I don’t often choose to make. I come by a guilt-free disposition naturally. My family doesn’t do the stereotypical “Jewish” guilt. In fact I hate when people act like guilt is part of our heritage. Am I perfect? No. Do I make mistakes? Yes. I try to learn from them and do better the next time. Done. Let’s move on people, there is nothing to see here.
Women often feel self-centered or selfish when they do something for themselves or not with their families. I say nay-nay. In the blink of an eye my kids will be gone. I want to keep growing and enjoying life in ways that are sometimes independent of my family. I don’t want to get mired in feeling badly for what I have or have not done.
When I got home, my husband was quite proud of how he managed all of the household duties and challenges on top of his job. It reminded me of the time he came home from a business trip and my chest heaved with pride having fixed a broken toilet, as if it was a major engineering feat. We both praised each other even though I’m pretty sure each of us was secretly thinking, “Do you want a freakin’ medal?”
I returned from my trip energized. A whole week of being Susan, not someone’s wife or mother, was refreshing.
Selfish? I don’t think so. Self-preservation is more like it.
We recently went on a family trip. It’s easier now that our children are older. All they need is their screens and some sugar and they are good. We bring our 15-year-old’s wheelchair, that he uses occasionally, to make it easier getting through the airport. Adding to the stress of travel is the anticipatory stress of going through security because of my son’s feeding-tube supplies and medications.
On the first leg of our trip, I made the security people aware that I had medical liquids in my backpack. They took my son’s wheelchair and simply let the bag go through the machine – it was so easy. What a relief! I was not so fortunate on my return flight. I was alone with my two eldest sons on the way home.
Again, they took the wheelchair through. But when I told them I had medical liquids, they pulled me aside and looked at the contents: three cans of formula and a small bottle of liquid medication. I was given a choice. They could open the cans of formula to test them; but then I would not have formula to feed my son. Or they could search through my bags and thoroughly pat me down. Really? I’m just a middle-aged lady trying to get from Point A to Point B.
I had no choice and felt like a cornered animal. They searched through everything in my backpack and purse. Then I had to submit to the pat-down. They called a woman TSA officer over to do the honors. I wanted to cry. I stood there as she explained what she was going to do. She patted down my body and checked the waistline of my pants. Normally one to find the humor in things, I could find nothing funny about this. I had to take off my shoes again to be checked. I quietly cooperated when what I really wanted to do was scream. Other passengers tried to avert their eyes but gave me pitying looks, glancing between me and my child in the wheelchair.
It was such an indignity and a dehumanizing experience.
“What’s dehumanizing?” my disabled son asked as he listened to me complain to my other son when it was over and we were walking to our gate.
“It’s when someone makes you feel like you are not a human being, but like an animal or an object,” I told him.
I realize we have an enormous country with thousands of airports. And ever since September 11th, authorities have tried to do many things to make air travel safer. Some things simply give us the illusion of safety. The TSA workers are just doing their job but they do not make me feel any safer.
Some people may say I should just avoid flying. I tolerate the basic stupidities everyone must go through to get where I want to go. I leave my liquid deodorant and hair gel in my checked luggage, even though I think it’s pointless. I can’t do that with my son’s medical supplies. It’s the senselessness of a one-size-fits-all screening process that sends me over the edge. Are the skies really safer with random, inconsistent screening?
There must be a better way.
I am going to be part of a panel speaking to a Jewish college group in Washington, D.C. next week about screening for genetic diseases, as the parent of a child with a Jewish genetic disease. Please indulge me while I gather my thoughts.
I want to tell a story so compelling that these innocent college students will remember it when they contemplate having children. I know it feels very far off for most of them. I want it to be a “scared straight” moment that they won’t forget. Here’s what I’m thinking about telling them.
I am you. You might see someone who reminds you of your mother in front of you today. But I was once a young, carefree college student with the world at my feet. I figured I would have a fulfilling career, marry a wonderful man, have perfect little babies, and live happily ever after. End of story.
Not so much.
I did have a fulfilling social work career and married a great guy. I was screened to see if I was a Tay-Sachs carrier – the only disease my OB/GYN suggested at the time. I was not. I had one perfect baby. Check – everything going according to plan. I was approaching 35 when I became pregnant with my second child, so I opted for an amniocentesis. All tests were fine. I gave birth to my second son on September 4, 1998. Things were not fine at all. Right from birth, we knew something was wrong with this child. It took us an agonizing year to find out exactly what. He looked fine and was hitting his milestones, but he did not eat or take a bottle well. Forget about breastfeeding this baby. They figured out he had a problem with his swallowing, so that his formula was going into his lungs instead of his stomach (aspiration). They placed a temporary nasal gastric tube. Imagine walking through the grocery store with your new baby, with a tube in his nose. When it wasn’t resolving, they put a more permanent tube in his stomach instead. At seven months, it occurred to me that he didn’t have tears when he cried (which he did a lot.) My husband said,
“I knew someone who didn’t have tears when I was growing up; they had an awful Jewish disease.”
Then the terror set in. Hope for a normal child was waning. After seeing neurologists, gastroenterologists, pulmonologists, and finally a geneticist, we figured out what was wrong with our baby. Familial Dysautonomia. A Jewish genetic disease where both parents have to be carriers. With each pregnancy there is a one in four chance that the child will have the disease – twenty five percent. We had gotten lucky with our first baby. Not so much with this guy. Poor Ben. Poor us. Let the grieving begin. We went to see the specialist in New York City, who provided the guidance and game plan for us.
At the time Ben was born, there was no carrier screening for this disease as they had not identified the gene yet. So there was nothing we could have done to prevent this from happening with this child. But we could check subsequent children, should we decide to have them, with genetic markers since we already had a child with this disease. Which we did. And we were lucky that the odds were with us and we had two more healthy children. It was not without anxiety and hard decisions about what we would do should we become pregnant with another child who had FD.
Life with Ben has been full of joy and agony. When he is well, he is a sweet, happy fifteen year old who walks, talks, and eats some food. He will have the feeding tube for the duration of his life, but he is able to give himself his formula independently. He sometimes uses a wheelchair. He had a bar mitzvah and was able to chant Torah. He goes to a regular school. He loves video games, the family dog, his brothers and sister.
He is my child who will say, “Oooh Mom, you look beautiful” when I dress up to go out.
When he is not well, it is torture. He has autonomic “crises” which means that he feels nauseous, has a very high heart rate and uncontrollable retching. These can last for hours and can come in clusters over several days. We have no way of predicting when they will occur. Sometimes they result in hospitalization. Always they are traumatic for Ben, and our whole family. We are experts at “Plan B” as I like to call it. We are grateful to our friends and family who help us at a moment’s notice.
We are as normal a family as we can be. Having Ben humbles all of us and makes us grateful for our typical bodies and health issues. I joke that my children don’t have “pedestrian” pediatric illnesses. Minor things don’t shake us up. We have met people who we never would have come in contact with had we not had Ben.
In terms of life expectancy, they say that half of the people born with FD live until at least thirty years old. Their health is fragile and unpredictable. I have come to accept that we don’t know what’s going to happen with any of our children, or ourselves for that matter, so I don’t spend a lot of energy worrying about how long Ben will live. We just raise him the best we can and plan for a hopeful future.
We live in a time when people have more information and choices when planning their families. But you can not make an informed decision unless you get the necessary information. I urge people to get the full panel of genetic tests, which can be done simply by taking a blood test. Many of these genetic diseases are devastating, for the child, the parents and the whole family.
Ben and I are living proof that it can happen to you too. There are so many awful things in life we have no control over. This doesn’t have to be one of them.