A few weeks before our son was born, my husband and I made a wager. I asked him how many times he thought we’d bring our little bundle to the doctor’s office in his first year of life (not counting check-ups or wellness visits). After a series of complex algorithms involving our own mutually-reinforcing anxiety disorders, our childhood histories of real and imagined ailments, and the vet bill we’d accumulated over the course of our married life – Dr. Tyler knows our terrier by name – we set the over-under at ten.
“Ten,” we sometimes say now, a year later, and smile, the same way we might smile at an expecting couple who says something like, “I guess we’ll have less ‘us’ time once the baby arrives.”
When we made this wager, we didn’t realize that I’d be delivering what our pediatrician called one of the sickest healthy babies she’d ever seen. Right from the beginning his physical condition was a mixed bag that kept us constantly wavering between gratefulness that he was “basically healthy” and despair at all the problems that fell outside of this label.
The worrying began when, at some point during his thirty-two hour sojourn down the birth canal, he grew a bit impatient and let his dry-land digestive track kick in too early. “There’s definitely meconium here,” the midwife said as he was crowning. A few minutes later, after they’d suctioned the goop out of his lungs, we could still hear it, a faint, wheezy rattling in his breath, just enough to make them want to watch him awhile in the nursery while my blood pressure went into high gear.
Over the next couple days, his meconium problems resolved themselves, and we entered what I would later come to think of as the baby’s medical honeymoon, a three-month period when, except for acid reflux and the resulting fussiness, everything seemed to be going smoothly.
Then came Christmas week, along with his three-month birthday and his first and most formidable respiratory bug. This was the week we were supposed to spend on a family vacation in Mexico, slathering Roscoe’s little white body in 80 spf sunscreen and dipping his feet in the surf. Instead, we hunkered down in arctic Chicago for a twelve-day extravaganza of hacking and coughing and snot, of bulb suctioning our little guy’s nasal passages and administering Albuterol breathing treatments with a nebulizer and giving him a medicinal cocktail of antibiotics, oral steroids, and Tylenol, rushing him back and forth to the doctor’s office, where they listened to his wheezing lungs, monitored his infected ears, and on two separate occasions, sent us to the hospital emergency room for further observation.
Roscoe, it turned out, was developing what’s known as Reactive Airway Disease, a general term used to describe a history of wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath of unknown cause. It’s common in young children and often resolves itself as the lungs mature. The folks in the ER seemed thoroughly unimpressed by it.
“He’s definitely wheezing,” they would tell us, “but he looks like a linebacker.”
“His pediatrician sent us here,” we’d tell them.
“Yeah,” they’d shrug, “it’s a frustrating condition for parents.”
They weren’t kidding. For the next seven months, Roscoe caught cold after cold, each one bringing an entourage of secondary symptoms: wheezing, coughing, a raging double ear-infection that called for antibiotics, which gave him horrific diarrhea. At times, I felt like I was not taking care of a baby but rather a living, breathing ball of mucus. There were always more medications to administer than we could fathom, and our little linebacker did not take them easily.
I didn’t want him subjected to unnecessary tests. During one particularly bad cold where his wheezing required nebulizing treatments every four hours around the clock, my husband and I resorted to singing and twirling around in circles and doing bizarre dance numbers with pots and pans on our heads, anything to distract him from the plastic mask we had to hold over his face, which he reacted to with the same fury you’d expect to get from the wheel or the rack. Along with questions like, “Does Roscoe need his dinner?” or “Does the baby need a diaper?” we began asking, “Has the baby had his torture today?” or “Whose turn is it to do the torture?”
Up until this point, I’d been hesitant to drag Roscoe to a slew of specialists. His doctor was steering us toward a pediatric ENT, a pulmonary expert, and an allergist. At first, I refused. In addition to the “minor torture” of his medications, I didn’t want him subjected to unnecessary tests, didn’t want him to be probed and poked unless absolutely necessary. He already went to his primary doctor so often; the last thing I wanted was to add in others. I wanted to let nature take its course. “He’s basically healthy,” I told myself. “Thank God, he’s basically healthy.”
And like most parents of “basically healthy” kids, I had been operating under the assumption that when it came to medical treatments and interventions, assuming the illness was not putting the baby at any grave or long-term risk, less was more, that waiting and seeing was better than swooping in with a quick pharmaceutical fix. That was what I thought for seven long months during which he endured half-a-dozen ear infections and at least as many colds, acid reflux and RSV, and two separate cases of the Rotavirus. But at some point along the way, I simply realized that “wait and see” wasn’t working. I decided that modern medicine, with all of its potential side effects and scary unknowns, was going to be my son’s new best friend.
We took him to an allergist, a warm, lovely woman who hugged him and kissed him at every visit and put him on a daily, preventative regimen of Flovent. We took him to an ear, nose, and throat doctor who convinced us that myringotomy, or ear tubes, a surgical procedure though it might be, was the way to go. It seemed like an awful lot of invasive treatment for a baby that everyone agreed was “basically healthy,” but it turned out to be one of the best parenting decisions we’ve made.
Days went by when we didn’t wonder if we should be taking Roscoe to the doctor, and the days stretched into weeks, and the weeks, months. Seeing the difference between a sick-healthy baby and a healthy-healthy baby, I wondered why in the hell I had waited so long. After all, I’d never been a big fan of the wait-and-see approach when my own health or comfort was involved.
Antibiotics, I decided, are the best invention in the history of the world. I’m the kind of person who buys ibuprofen in bottles as big as pickle jars. I think therapy and meditation and journaling and exercise are great for anxiety and depression, but I also love my Zoloft. Antibiotics, I long ago decided, after recovering from a nasty urinary tract infection, are the best invention in the history of the world. And yet, where my son was concerned, I was paralyzed. The thought of anyone, even a doctor I trusted, doing anything that could cause pain or discomfort to this perfect, helpless creature in my arms, no matter how temporary or necessary, was clouding my judgment in a way I never would have expected before Roscoe was born.
But then, what parental transformations are expected? Who can anticipate the myriad ways that being responsible for another person’s life turns us into homeopaths, or train wrecks, or superheroes, or all three at once?