Monday, November 29, 2010

The Magical Healing Power of Pets (and Certain People)

Our daughters with Casey and our cat, Sammy 
For any of us who's ever felt our heart break with loss, there's nothing like the quiet support and acceptance of a good dog. I have put my arms around the stalwart neck of my Casey and placed my head atop hers, absorbing her strength, feeling her patience, relishing her lack of judgment. I sobbed like a baby when the one I was losing - was her. It hurts now to even write about it. What is it about pets that we connect to in times we need comfort and understanding? What do they teach us about ourselves?

Somehow when I think of healing, and acceptance, and working to "feed the good wolf" (see post "It's the One you Feed"), I think about my friend, Molly Smith. I first met her almost 22 years ago, just days after she was born. She would have fit neatly inside my two hands then - if I had been allowed to lift her out of her Plexiglas bassinet.

Molly was born too soon. It was weeks before her Mom and Dad could hold her, months before she could come home. The diagnosis of cerebral palsy came a year or so later. But it wasn't long after that that Molly began her career as a teacher - not of school, but of life. As one of her Mom's best friends, I have been privileged to have Molly in my life.

Molly greets each day and each person with a relentless optimism, and the certainty that though things can be challenging, very little of value is impossible. She excelled at her neighborhood high school (where she placed # 1 in her computer class, thank you very much); has skied down mountainsides and navigated boyfriend problems; hires and manages the young aides who assist her, attends a local college (never misses a class), and coordinates a busy social life via her omnipresent cell phone. (Good luck finding her home two nights in a week.) Ask her anytime "How ya doing, Molly?" and she will reply "I'm fabulous, thanks!" When the superintendent of her school system retired after more than 40 years as a teacher and administrator, he gave a farewell speech before a packed auditorium, in which he called Molly "the most inspiring person I've ever met". Molly's parents were in tears. Molly was mortified. (hey - what teenager wants the attention?)

Molly, with brother Brenden and Dad,
on the day Floyd joined the family.
Molly went through most of elementary school with her constant companion, "Floyd", a gorgeous black lab and retired show dog, who'd been donated to an agency that trains service dogs. Molly spoke eloquently before her state legislators to effect a change in the law, allowing Floyd to accompany her to school each day. Molly's Dad loved his daily walk time with Floyd, and her Mom would cook up ground sirloin and rice for him any time his digestion was a tad off. Floyd wiggled his way into the heart of the family and grew roots, in the way dogs do.

Floyd may have tended more toward the "companionship" than the "service" in his later years (don't we all), but he truly seemed to "get" know, the way some dogs just look you right in the eye and understand? His heart was gentle, kind and accepting. He and Molly were two "old souls" from the time they were born. Two old souls lucky enough to find each other.

When Floyd died, several years ago now, there was a hole in the family, and no desire to fill it. How could there be another Floyd? But gradually, as time passed, the tug of a good pet's companionship seemed tempting again. Molly's neighbor raised Labradoodles; might Molly want a puppy?

Well, at this writing, Molly's puppy is due to join the family right after Christmas. The only quandary: what to name him. Mary, the breeder, calls him Henry, and frankly can't imagine calling him anything else. Molly's heart is set on "Enzo", the hero of Garth Stein's book The Art of Racing in the Rain (Yes, you should read it). So...would it be Henry, or Enzo?

Molly's Mom, who's studying Italian,  burst through the front door after class one night last week, and raced over to Molly. "Guess what?" she says, barely able to contain her excitement. "Enzo is Italian for...Henry!" Big smiles all around. Sometimes, things just turn out the way they were supposed to.

Molly with her new Puppy, Enzo

And Molly has found another old soul to teach.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Finding the "Happy" in the Holidays

Some years ago, at the TV station where I worked, I showed up to work to find the newsroom unusually hushed. I learned that my co-anchor had received some devastating news. His youngest daughter, while driving home the night before from her employer's holiday party, had taken a bend in the road too quickly, crashed, and died on the spot. My friend, whose family of 8 children had always brought him his greatest joy,  had already lost another daughter to cancer.

I remember the line of people at the funeral home wound so tightly upon itself it was hard to know where it began and ended. Family, friends of family, friends, friends of friends...and countless viewers who'd never met anyone in the family, but felt they "knew" this man who'd come into their living room electronically for decades - all came to offer condolences as heartfelt as they were inadequate. We shuffled slowly inside from the frigid parking lot, past collages and poster boards replete with a lifetime's worth of photos of their baby girl - a girl who would never see 30. My eye caught the photo of a laughing 10-year-old girl in a red bathing suit, wet hair plastered to her head, surrounded by her bigger siblings as they hammed it up for the camera. I thought of my own youngest daughter, safe at home. She could have been that girl.

I remember going to work the next day...the poinsettia on my friend's desk looked absurd in light of what had happened. I moved it to the far side of the newsroom. I collapsed the holiday cards that studded his desk, and set them in a pile off to one side, certain he would not want to see them when he finally came back to work. And in the days ahead, as I looked around the newsroom, embellished here and there for the holidays,  I wondered...when you've lost someone you love during the holidays, can you ever find joy in a holiday again?

Monday, November 15, 2010

It's The One you Feed

How does one person suffer immense loss and emerge whole...while others continue to wallow in bitterness and pain? Kerry O'Connell is a patient safety advocate who writes:
"...After talking to many of our wounded friends I was certain that the difference between the bitter wounded and the inspired wounded was faith in God. But it wasn't that simple. Some with no particular faith chose very inspiring lives while some with faith became truly bitter, for they had to to forgive their Doctor and God himself."

Kerry has clearly been on a long and thought-provoking journey. I find a lot of advocates (survivors) aren't sure anymore what to make of the concept of God. Where was He when the medical tsunami boiled up out of a calm sea and claimed their mother, father, or child, while leaving the others around them smiling, dry and whole? How do you calmly rebuild your life with such essential parts missing? 

I can only say I've seen people do it. I don't know how...and I'm not sure they do either. Seems to me they don't re-build the life they had before; they build another...on different ground, the foundation shored up here and there. And I believe the admission ticket to this re-building is, in Kerry's words - "forgiveness". 

Forgiving the doctor and God....sure that's tough. But even before that (or on top of that), how about forgiving yourself? Seems crazy, when (as our friends reassure us) we think we did all we could. But in quiet moments, when we are least expecting it, the niggling, thorny thought intrudes..."could I have done more?"

I didn't know much about C-diff when my Dad first contracted this infection five years ago...but then again, I didn't ask. I didn't start scouring the internet until his abrupt death left me with more questions than answers.  And that prompts the perennial question - "If I knew then what I know now, could I have made a difference?" Like so many, I will never know. 

But on balance, I can say have found a way to forgive the doctors, the hospital, and - to the extent my lapsed Catholicism has yielded to spirituality - God. And yes, I have come to forgive myself. 

Now, I find wisdom in all kinds of places, and in many faiths. This parable in particular resonates with me (if you've read before, it's worth reading again): 

An Old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. "A fight is going on inside me," he said to the boy. "It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil - he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego." He continued, "The other is good - he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you - and inside every other person, too." 

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, "Which wolf will win?" The old Cherokee simply replied, "The one you feed."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"I See You"

LaTia tells us about her stillborn baby girl. Holly takes notes with a specially adapted laptop, having lost her eyesight nearly ten years ago. John says his son, who died eight years ago, would have just had his 27th birthday.

Was it car accidents? Genetic disease? No and no. The thirty or so people attending this conference are survivors of an adverse medical event:  LaTia was given someone else's medication while pregnant; Holly woke up blind after a slip of the surgeon's scalpel, and John's son died in a Texas hospital after misdiagnosis and miscommunication by his doctors. Each could recite the date of the Event as easily as their own name; each is finding a way to go forward after a sudden and preventable event left them forever damaged.

Damaged, but not broken.

We are all invited here by Consumer's Union. It is a non-profit organization, a branch of Consumer Reports, working to change laws and forge tactics that will keep patients safer from medical harm. We are a diverse bunch; a NASA scientist; a couple of RNs, a college law professor, a landscape contractor. We network, we comfort, we share our triumphs and discuss our hurdles. We know that 99,000 people a year die of hospital-acquired infections that are largely preventable; and that some 98,000 people die each year of medical error, but when we tell our stories to others (even when they ask), we can see the thought running through their heads: Oh, that's terrible; but I'm sure it's unusual. The doctor must have been a bad one. Hospitals are pretty safe overall. We want to shake them, make them ask questions, help them avoid the heartache of a loss that can't be undone. And so at this conference we decide that two of our goals are increasing public awareness and drafting a Patient's Bill of Rights (at last! It's been John's mission for the last several years).

I leave the conference energized, and certain of two things: one, that there is more strength and inspiration in this group of survivors than they can possibly give themselves credit for. Witness Holly, who after losing her eyesight, went back to school and got her Master's degree and does rehabilitation counseling. Or Alicia (dear, warm Alicia) who spent the last four years dealing with a gaping wound in her abdomen following a bout of necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating disease) after routine surgery. She nearly died - but spent her darkest days comforting her family and her nurses, and maintains a joy and humor as humbling as it is inspiring. Or Patty, whose only child had needless brain surgery that left him quadriplegic and needing 24-hour care...for three heartbreaking years. After his death, Patty founded an advocacy group that brought doctors and hospitals to the table, all working toward a common goal of improving the situation for others.  Remarkable work, and it continues...but the warmth and compassion that make her such a successful broker of consensus is missing its rightful mark. She has no child to love. She shows me a heart-wrenching film of her son's story, a painstaking recounting of the mistakes that were made. Through my tears I commend her for helping create this powerful educational tool, that will be used by hospitals and care teams around the country, and for turning her son's death into something so meaningful.  Normally, she responds in the affirmative. She has accepted awards for her patient advocacy and has said all the right things. However, tonight, she is a mother bereft, and the public face dissolves. "All I want is my son. I want grandchildren. And I will never have them." It is almost too painful to bear.

(There are so many remarkable people I learned from, and I hope to write more about them in the days ahead. I have not yet asked if I can use their full names, stories, or link their websites, but you know who you are - so let me know how you feel about this.)

Which brings me to the second thing I am certain of: there is so much collateral damage from these deaths and injuries, so many families that would do anything if they could just get a "re-do". Which of course they can't. The pain living inside some of these people is still raw and rampant; in others it's like scar tissue, thich and toughened. There is much healing that needs to be done, so that these lives can continue as fully and richly as their lost loved ones would want for them.

So, I left the conference determined to start a blog. Maybe because Patty said she felt I understood her pain (even though as a mother of three, I can barely touch the edges of imagining her loss). Maybe because I saw how sharing time together in this community - even for a few days - helped us all feel, known, seen, and listened to. Maybe that's all some of us really want - to be sincerely told "Yes, it's terrible. Yes, it was wrong. And I am so sorry."

I decided this blog would be about healing...about striving for the positive, the affirmative, the optimistic thoughts that comfort you and help or helped you heal following your adverse event. So I ask you - what keeps you going? Or gets you out of bed? Or helps you stay sane? Did you have a day-to-day strategy? Did someone in particular help you, or just be there for you?  Did you have a caregiver who went out of their way to help and comfort you? A doctor or nurse that called late at night to make sure you were OK? A friend who knew just what to say or do at just the right moment?

Hoping you'll share. And hoping we can help each other make things a little better.