It’s difficult to quietly exit the house and leave your kids while they’re sleeping. Without saying “good morning,” “goodbye” or without receiving those giant running bear hugs. I sat in the dark car and looked down at the heart drawn on my wrist with a Sharpie. We do this when I go to work on the weekends. “Mama, don’t forget our hearts!” my boys will say. The sun still slept, but I had drawn hearts on their wrists while they dreamed. I was scared. Nervous. Reluctant. I was going to a different hospital this time. Not the one that I worked at. A hospital for me. To have a surgery that I had been avoiding. And as a result, I had been enduring the daily obstacles of Crohn’s disease. My female surgeon, also a mother, warned me that it would be a rough surgery with a difficult and longer recovery. As a human being. As a woman. As a wife and mother to three young boys.
I have worked directly with kids of various ages, differing family systems and backgrounds for over ten years in the pediatric hospital setting as a Certified Child Life Specialist. I have helped prepare kids for difficult procedures, surgeries and hospitalizations. I quickly assess a child’s developmental level, his temperament, his caregiver’s anxiety level and involvement, and his personality, along with numerous other factors in hopes of individualizing my interventions to most effectively help empower kids, reduce fear, and promote positive coping. Over the years, I have developed an acquired child life instinct of sorts when it comes to reading a child’s expressions, body language, questions, fears, and misconceptions when dealing with the hospital environment.
I knew in my heart that my older boys, nearly five years old, needed to know that I would be gone for several “sleeps,” but that I would be safe and taken care of by doctors and nurses. More importantly, I knew that they needed to hear my calm, reassuring voice tell them that they would be taken care of while I was gone. I learned this is easier to do when a child is not your own, but still just as important when they are.
I wanted to prepare my twin boys and their 2-year-old brother for my absence and hospitalization. I knew there were a lot of unknowns, like how much medical equipment would be attached to me in the hospital: IV, catheter, drains, etc. or how many days I would sleep at the hospital. How many days I would not be able to mother my children in the ways that they’ve grown accustomed. My stubborn body has always recovered quickly, relatively speaking. But it’s hard when you know that you will not physically be able to do what you need or want to do to mother your children. It taps, then slowly bangs heavily on the door to your emotional wellbeing. Sickness and surgery, with three boys under five, taught me more than all of my previous hospitalizations and surgeries combined.
There were helpful tips that I thought I would share for a caregiver that has to have surgery, or go to the hospital, knowing that all of us have different children, support systems, etc. As a general rule, older (school aged and above) children need a little more time to prepare, process and ask questions than children under five.
The week before surgery:
- We drove by the hospital where I would be staying to show my boys where I would sleep for a few days, talked to them about how they would be able to come visit me and who would take care of them while I was there.
- I talked to my boys’ preschool teachers about having surgery so they could be aware that my boys may share this with their class (bonus: their class made me cards).
- I wrote each boy a special note to leave for them on the morning of my surgery and a new super hero hoodie, thanks to Costco.
- I prepared bags of new art kits and toys that the boys could play with when they came to visit me.
- My older boys went to preschool and did a lot of routine and fun activities with Dad, grandparents, aunts, etc.
- On the car ride to visit me at the hospital, Daddy would talk to our boys about how my belly would be sore so they couldn’t jump on me. He recently told me, “getting to come visit you was like going to Disney World.” I almost cried. He said it’s all what you make it out to be. Perception.
- To smooth the mama hospital visit-to-home transitions, my boys would come during the day, not too close to bedtime or else they would get sad and cry and want me to come home. And I would get so painfully sad, too. And want to leave AMA – I didn’t!
- During their visits, I would explain the stuff in my hospital room and on my body, for example: my IV (a little straw that goes into my vein to give me medicine or water).
- They would meet, talk with and get treats from my nurses and care assistants. They liked to hide in the closet and sit next to me on the bed – and of course, choose the channel on the TV. Oh, and accidentally press the nurse call button (repeatedly).
During the weeks of recovery at home:
- We accepted help from family and friends who brought dinner.
- We accepted help from others who took my kids on play dates (despite it breaking my heart, at times).
- We watched a lot of movies. Lucky and happy me with three boys sitting as close as they possibly could next to me. They were the best medicine and my greatest motivation for healing as fast as I possibly could.
- I realized, yet again, to be grateful for good health. Recovery is a long, molasses-covered road: a slow and steady, day-by-day (sometimes minute by minute) pace worked best for me physically. Emotionally, I had to keep reminding myself – and have others remind me, too – that I would be running and playing with my kids again soon.
And thankfully, I did.