Mama Bear

One evening, about a month into J’s NICU stay, my cell phone rang, just as my husband and I were walking into our house. We had left the NICU about an hour earlier, and then we’d sat in rush-hour traffic. So, I was just hanging my purse on a chair when I heard my cell phone.

I saw that someone from the NICU was calling, and my stomach did a free fall. We rarely heard from the NICU; they called maybe four or five times over the 91 days J was hospitalized. I was generally able to repress the fear that when the phone rang it would be the NICU telling us something was wrong, but I still jumped every time I heard my phone ring. And now it really was the NICU on the phone.

When I answered, it was a nurse calling (oh heavens), and though blood was rushing to my head, I managed to hear her say that J was fine but that the cardiologist wanted to speak with us (oh heavens).

We had been told weeks earlier that J had a heart murmur but that it wasn’t the kind most preemies have and that heart surgery would be unlikely. That week a nurse had informed us that a pediatric cardiologist was scheduled to see J again, but the NICU rarely communicated any specifics about specialists—they probably weren’t always entirely sure when a specialist would make rounds.

So, on that evening, not only was I surprised to get a phone call from the NICU, I was completely unprepared for any news from a cardiologist. The cardiologist on the phone was not the kind, quiet man I had seen passing through the NICU. It was a woman I’d never met, and she had such a thick accent that I had a difficult time understanding her.

She told me that J had pulmonary stenosis, which meant that one of the arteries into his heart was too narrow. It was causing a pooling of blood in his heart, which accounted for his heart murmur.

And that is about all the information I got.

That’s it.

I had what felt like hundreds of questions hit me like sand in a dust storm. Would he need surgery? Would he live a normal life? Could he be active? Would this condition worsen?

I kept thinking that we’d weathered so many concerns for his health in the early days. He had proved to be so healthy for a baby born 14 weeks early. And now this.

When I began to ask some of my questions, the doctor cut me off. I was confused. Why would someone call and give me a diagnosis and then refuse to provide any information about it?

So, I asked if her written report would be available in J’s hospital records, so that I could read it for myself.

J’s medical records were a sore spot for my husband and me. Parents were not supposed to open the binder of medical records that sat openly on the table next to our baby’s bedside. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry from the hospital could pop by and open it up to see any number of private facts, but J’s own parents—and legal guardians—were supposed to ask permission and then wait for a doctor to watch us while we opened the binder, just in case we had questions. Some nurses were rude and vigilant in their enforcement, while others encouraged us to access the information in it at our whim, which completely confused us in our early NICU days. We were never formally told of the policy, only chastised when we failed to understand the Golden Rule: do not open the binder. When we realized the extent of the dysfunction over medical records, it became an undercurrent of irritation for my husband and me. I know that J’s medical records legally belong to me. I have access to them whenever and wherever I choose, but we walked a fine line. I felt that ruffling feathers at the NICU and having a knock-down drag-out over medical records was an unnecessary distraction from J’s medical care—unless it became a crucial fight. So, for the most part, my husband and I just waited until no one was watching, and then we opened the binder to check for the most mundane facts, like when J last pooped. “The Chart-checkers” is what we named ourselves.

Anyway, I knew the cardiologist would write a report, and since she was less than forthcoming, I thought I’d just go to the trouble of requesting permission from a NICU doctor to read the report.

But, what she said stopped me. Cold. Before I could say another word.

“I’ll write a report, but you won’t understand it,” the cardiologist said, with an unexpected harshness.

Not: you might not understand it. Not: it will be hard to understand. Nope, my incompetence, it seemed, was a sure thing

For a second, I thought maybe I had heard her wrong. My brain kept trying to process her response, and then when it finally did, my blood pressure shot off like a cannon. This time it wasn’t swirling blood in my head and a sinking stomach. I just felt fire. A raging fire inside my head.

First of all, I’m not stupid. I know I’m not perfect, but I’m darn sure about one thing: I am notstupid. I not only deserved information on my baby’s diagnosis, I needed information, because I would be the one taking him to follow-up cardiology appointments. It was my legal right to see the report, regardless of whether someone thought I’d understand it. And, um, I can read. At that point, I had almost earned my Ph.D., which would certainly qualify me to read. I was plenty capable of asking for clarification for something I didn’t understand, and, seeing as how I wasn’t supposed to read any medical records without supervision, I could ask the doctor or nurse standing over my shoulder for help.

I could feel myself coming unglued. All the emotions I had bottled. All of the frustration and sadness that I had shoved into the dark recesses of my brain. It was all escaping and wreaking havoc on what little shred of patience I had left for a pediatric cardiologist who had been practicing medicine just long enough to forget how powerful her words were.

I’ll admit that I’m pretty sure I screamed into the phone, “You don’t think I will understand it? I won’t understand! I can ask if I have a QUESTION!” And then I pulled the phone away from my face, as if I could look her in her emotionless eyes. I shoved the phone back against my ear and yelled, “I CANNOT talk to you. You’ll have to talk to my husband.”

She probably had no idea why I was so angry.

It was the best I could do. I had completely flipped my top, and I knew there was no going back. Maybe in person a look of kindness from her would have slowed my rage, but over the phone, I could see no sympathy, and all I could hear was her stunned silence. I knew that I was so offended and so hurt that if I kept speaking with her, I would just scream obscenities, which would do nothing to help J. So, I threw the phone at my husband, and I told him, through gritted teeth and plenty loud enough for the emotionally-removed pediatric cardiologist, “She won’t answer my questions, and she doesn’t think that I’ll understand.”

My husband, while furious on my behalf, was patient and deferential. He was able to extract a few more answers from her. Just a few.

The next day I opened the medical binder, in front of God and everybody, and I plunked myself down in the chair next to J’s bedside to read the report. I saw a nurse or two look askance at me, but this time I wasn’t sorry. I wasn’t going to wait a few hours for a doctor to find time to be present. One nurse passed by and kindly asked if she could help, which was, I’m sure, her pleasant way of reminding me that I was supposed to leave the binder closed. I explained that we wanted more information about my son’s diagnosis and that the doctor was less than forthcoming, so I was reading her written report. The nurse seemed to understand, and she left me alone without reprimanding me.

The report was simple. It listed J’s condition and explained that it had worsened over his short lifetime. It recommended a cardiologist see him again before he was discharged and that he be followed after he left the NICU. He was in no immediate danger, but it was cause for concern. I was relieved. Just seeing the explanation in black and white helped fill in the many gaps, and I had a better understanding of J’s condition and what questions I needed to ask his doctors and nurses.

And I understood the report perfectly. It seems that I do, in fact, know how to read.

We never spoke to that pediatric cardiologist again. From then on, we saw her partner, the kind, quiet man I had seen in the NICU. He didn’t say much, but he always smiled. And he always asked if I had any questions.

I think one of the hardest parts of having a sick child is being an advocate. It can be gut-wrenching, exhausting, and frustrating. But, looking back I’m not sorry for any of the times I was Mama Bear. Not one. I’m only sorry for the exact opposite, the times when I wasn’t Mama Bear enough. Which is another story for another day…

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