Things No Child Should Get Used To

A few weeks ago, we went to the children’s hospital for an appointment. We walked through the large, automatic doors and up to reception where my son said hello to Mary (they’re on a first-name basis), who commented that she liked his red hair. Without needing to ask, she pulled our family up from memory on the computer and printed our visitor badges.

Check-in completed, my son led us up the main staircase to the second floor. At the top of the stairs, he turned left and headed down the long hallway towards neurology. He knows his way around the hospital and which building to go to for neurology, or speech, or another test. As I followed him down the hall, it made me sad to realize how well my son knows his way around that place. A child should know his way around a toy store, not a hospital.

As we turned the corner, we passed phlebotomy. There were nervous parents and children in the waiting room, and seeing them sitting there made me think of the times we were in those chairs. The first few times, we were nervous, too, but after too many visits, we got used to it. Now, my son likes to talk to the phlebotomist as she prepares the needles. He politely says “No, thanks” after she invites him to look away, and he watches as the needle pierces his skin. “I never cry”, he says, which is almost true in the hundreds of times he has been pricked and pierced. “You should come here more often to show our other patients how to do it,” we’ve heard more than once. “Ok, ” my son replied, “I’m really good at it.” As I remembered him saying that, I felt sad. That’s not something a child should be good at.

He knows the routine of the physical exam, not because he has had years of exams under his belt, but because he has had so many in the short time he’s had epilepsy. These doctor visits, the trips to one of his therapists, the emergency room visits, they’re part of his routine, those things he’s done so many times now that he just does them because, well, that’s what he does. All these things are now just part of our lives, are part of his life, like eating, and breathing, and going to the park. He wakes up and takes a handful of pills, and another handful at night, without question, because that is what he has to do. He doesn’t get to eat the food that his friends do, and he can’t just have a snack, it has to be weighed and measured because that’s how it is and he’s used to it. He doesn’t look at a restaurant menu because he knows he can’t order from it, and he’s used to that, too.

He’s getting used to having seizures. He’s crying less after he has one in the middle of the night and more regularly just putting himself back to sleep. If he forgets to put on a pull-up and needs to change, I’ll often catch him on the floor halfway through the process by the time I get to his room. He’s getting more aware of his seizures, too. He had one on the basketball court the other day. When I asked him if he was okay and if he knew what happened, he replied, “I had a seizure, but I’m ok.” It rolled off his tongue so casually it was as if he was describing a shot that he missed or if he had tripped on a rock and fell.

On one hand, I’m grateful that he has accepted these restrictions and these changes in his life so easily. I am not sure that I have the strength to constantly explain to him why he has to do these things when I am still struggling with my own questions. Why is this happening to him? Was it something that came from me? Is this our lives forever?

On the other hand, if I think about the things that he has gotten used to, it breaks my heart. This condition has taken away too many things from the one person who I desperately wanted to open the world for, and I’m having a hard time resolving that discrepancy.

I try to think about the positives in this situation, but most of the time I just see a little boy who has gotten used to too many things that he shouldn’t have had to.

 

Riding The Roller Coaster

I have always loved roller coasters. My first roller coaster was the Cyclone at Riverside Park in Massachusetts. I used to go there every year as part of my elementary school’s summer field trip, and the Cyclone was usually the first and last ride of the day, no matter how long the line was. The Cyclone was an old, wooden coaster that was extremely loud and vibrated like a rocket as the wheels traveled along the metal track. It vibrated so much that it left my feet numb by the end of the ride.  I didn’t care. For a few seconds in the middle of the ride, as the cars sped over a small incline, I was weightless, floating above my seat like an astronaut in space. It was wonderful.

Ever since the Cyclone, I’ve sought out roller coasters at every park I’ve been to. My wife (reluctantly) indulges me in my pursuit and joins me even when her internal voice tells her to feign a sudden case of “whatever will keep me from that ride.” My son has the bug, too, and, after years of falling short (literally) at the measuring stick at the entrance, he was finally able to ride his first “big boy” roller coaster this spring.

epilepsy dad waiting for roller coaster epilepsy

Full disclosure, that first ride was less than ideal. After an unexpected boost of speed right out of the gate, my son’s face smashed into the safety harness. When he stepped off the ride, blood was streaming down his face. I took him to the bathroom where he proceeded to pull out one of his front teeth. He lost the second one later that day. The Tooth Fairy came that night, but I’m still waiting on my “Parent Of The Year” plaque.

epilepsy dad roller coaster lost tooth

Being the tough kid that he is, a little blood and a new bite pattern didn’t stop him from tackling another roller coaster later that day. It didn’t surprise me, though. My son is pretty fearless, and he’s been on his own roller coaster these past few years.

Roller coasters are fun because they eventually end. The safety harnesses provide the illusion of danger and the thrill of the speed, bottomless drops, and corkscrew turns only lasts for so long before the cars pull back onto the loading platform and the riders are allowed to exit to the left. My son’s roller coaster is way less fun. The safety harnesses are rusty, we can’t see the track in front of us, and it doesn’t stop at the terminal to let us off.

The first four years of his life were like the beginning of the roller coaster when the cars slowly leave the boarding area and are slowly pulled towards the sky. The passengers laugh with nervous excitement as the cars tick-tick-tick their way to the apex. The ride is just starting and the anticipation continues to build, fueled by endless possibilities and carefree exploration of a limitless world.

Finally, the clacking stops and there is a brief silence as the cars are released. The potential that is stored in the cars at that height is about to be realized. Everything that has been built up comes into view as the cars tip forward and what comes next rises into view.

The big plunge. The first drop. It’s usually the scariest and the fastest. It’s the event that builds the momentum for the rest of the ride. If you’re ready for it, it can be an exhilarating, white-knuckles-holding-on-to-the-bar-for-dear-life-and-laughing-hysterically experience. If you’re not ready for it, it’s terrifying and you feel out of control. The seizure, the ambulance, and the realization that our lives had changed happened at a million miles an hour. There was no preparing for a drop from that height. It turned my stomach inside out. I was afraid and overwhelmed by a sense of panic. I wanted to get my family off the ride but there was no way to stop it.

What has followed has been a series of hills where everything seems to slow down and where we start to catch our breath before another drop where the air is ripped from our lungs as we plunge faster and further down the track. Every medicine that seems to start working gives us hope before, more likely than not, the seizures come back and we are again in a freefall. The ketogenic diet that has worked miracles for some children only slowed our ride but it wasn’t enough to stop it. And so we continue rising and falling along the track, racing through every peak and valley, we are slowly giving up on the idea that we’re ever going to get off the ride and simply, desperately trying to figure out how to keep the cars on the track and weather this turbulent, unfair, and unforgiving ride together.

epilepsy dad family together

 

The Impossible Choice And The VNS

There are still days when I think that this is all temporary and that my son will someday outgrow his condition. The medicine, and the side effects, and the diet are all short-term measures that we are only doing until his brain sorts itself out, and then we can stop them altogether. These inconvenient years can become a distant memory.

Holding on to that fantasy is partly what made me reluctant to agree to VNS surgery for my son. Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) is a technique used to treat epilepsy that involves implanting a pacemaker-like device that generates pulses of electricity to stimulate the vagus nerve. In theory, this stimulation can be tuned to disrupt my son’s brain’s bad habit of firing all its neurons at the same time in uncontrolled bursts, which is what causes a seizure.

There is a sliding scale of expectations with the VNS. Best case, it helps manage his seizures and we can revisit his medications and the ketogenic diet. Next best case, it helps regulate the break-through seizures he is still having. Worst case is the same worst case as every new treatment we try…nothing happens. Except, of course, for a list of new risks and side effects, both from the surgery and from the stimulation. Tingling, numbing, an altered voice, headaches, difficulty swallowing or breathing, just to name a few.

epilepsy dad vns sketch

But it wasn’t just the risks that made the decision difficult. The surgery feels more permanent. They’re going to cut in to my son and insert a box with tiny wires wrapping around a nerve that leads to his brain. Once they cut him, he cannot be uncut. Even if we remove the box and wires because the seizures do go away some day or because it doesn’t work, he will have a scar to remind him of the hardships that he had to endure at such a young age. There will be no room for denial or pretending that none of this happened.

Because it is happening.

Whether we have the surgery or not, whether it works or not, this is our reality. As I struggled with my decision, another epilepsy dad told me that we should do whatever we can to help our children. Whether it works or not, if there is a chance that it can make their lives better, it’s worth it.

epilepsy dad VNS decision

In the end, that has to be enough. To keep hoping for a better life and to keep trying things, even following failure after failure. Accepting the idea and agreeing to the surgery is another in a long list of impossible choices.

We scheduled the surgery, but I wake up every day wanting to call it off. To keep my son whole. Time and his condition, however, are quickly taking aware that option.