It’s only natural to second-guess ourselves. Hindsight is 20/20. We’d all like a do-over from time to time. Shoulda, coulda, woulda…
Do any of these sayings ring a bell? I think anyone put in charge of their kids’ well-being looks back at some of the parenting decisions that they’ve made, shakes their head and says:
WHAT WAS I THINKING?
For me, one particular parenting decision still haunts me to this day.
It was mid-December, 2009. Daniel was in pre-school and Abby was just a few months into first grade. By now, I had been a stay-at-home dad for over five years and I thought I knew what was what. I had this primary caregiver gig down pat, and nobody could tell me otherwise.
It all started innocently enough… with a simple yet very common complaint from my six-year-old daughter.
“Daddy, my tummy hurts!”
Any parent will tell you this is the number one “ailment” of young kids, and I had heard this a one thousand times before. Here’s how it usually went down.
“OK Abby, just lay down on the couch for a while and let’s see how you feel in a bit.”
Then, I would usually bring her a drink with a snack as she lay on her side, watching cartoons. Sometimes, she would see her brother horsing around in the back yard or hear him playing in the basement. Then, she’d spring up off the couch just to see what she was missing.
“I just want to see what Daniel is doing and I’ll be right back.”
And that was that… she was off and running and somehow her serious ailment had been cured! This was a very familiar pattern, so when I heard the complaint of tummy trouble in December 2009, I followed my usual protocol. At first, Abby seemed to be following the script, as she spent very little time on the couch and was seen cavorting with her brother in no time. However, after a full day of seemingly on-and-off pain she went to bed that night with the same grievance.
“Daddy, my tummy STILL hurts!”
I thought that was a little weird, but I figured there could be a million reasons a little kid would have an sore stomach, ranging from acid indigestion to a mild virus, or perhaps a punch in the gut from her rambunctious sibling. Lianne and I talked about it, and because Abby informed us it wasn’t all that bad, we went to sleep feeling pretty good about ourselves.
The next morning Abby seemed to be in good spirits, but her tummy was still bothering her. I kept asking if the pain was sharp or too much to handle, but she kept saying it wasn’t that bad. By now, I was starting to wonder if this was more than a simple tummy ache. I told myself a trip to our family doctor was in order if the pain became more severe.
And, that was the problem with our little… problem. Abby never really complained about the pain. Sure, when asked if it was still bothering her, she would always say:
“Yeah, a little. I think I’m maybe feeling better?”
Then, she’d go back to watching TV. Again, I figured:
“This can’t be that serious? Can it?”
Later in the day, I noticed something that finally put me on HIGH ALERT. I noticed Abby get up, make her way to the bathroom and walk back to her spot on the couch. She was STOOPED, hunched over like a little old lady walking with a cane. I thought to myself, this CAN’T be normal, and when Lianne came home from work a couple of hours later, I told her we should really get Abby checked out that evening.
It was cold out, so I was helping Abby get on her winter boots and big, fluffy coat when Abby started hopping up and down and said something that stopped us in our tracks.
“Daddy, my tummy doesn’t hurt any more!”
There she was, smiling and standing tall, straight as an arrow. Abby seemed very pleased to be rid of her nagging stomach pain, and she immediately took off to play with Daniel. HIGH ALERT was cancelled. Lianne and I figured we dodged a bullet and we went to sleep feeling pretty good about ourselves.
The next morning, Abby was feeling lethargic and didn’t want to get up off the couch.
Then, we noticed it… beads of sweat dripping down the sides of her cheeks. Abby was BURNING UP! OK, her tummy ache was back, and now she had a high fever. HIGH ALERT was back on, and this time there was no last-minute reprieve to stop us from going to see our family doctor.
When Abby and I finally got in, I replayed the previous two days, describing the stomach pain, the stooped-over walking, the surprising relief from pain, and finally… the high fever.
When the doctor heard our story, she didn’t say a single word. Instead, she stood up and immediately bolted out of the examination room.
I was a little dumbfounded, and wondered what the hell was going on. Why would she up and leave without even giving me her diagnosis? What is happening here? After what seemed like an eternity, but was likely only a few minutes, the doctor came back in with very specific instructions.
“I’ve just called the Children’s Hospital and you need to go there RIGHT NOW. They are expecting you. Do not wait in line. Just go straight to the reception and tell them who you are and they will get Abby in to see a doctor as soon as possible.”
For a moment, I didn’t say anything. I just sat there with bewildered, wide eyes. Finally I blurted out:
The doctor seemed a bit perturbed by my inaction and made the situation very clear:
“Abby’s appendix has burst and that’s why she has a high fever. She could be in sepsis and needs immediate surgery to remove her appendix and clean out the abdominal cavity.”
I’m pretty sure I just kept looking at her in silence, with a slacked jaw. I was still in shock, trying to process her instructions as she continued to explain the situation. She informed me that sometimes, the pressure and pain of appendicitis is relieved when the appendix bursts or is perforated. That’s why Abby (temporarily) felt so much better yesterday.
Oh boy did I feel stupid.
Remember when I said hindsight is 20/20? I’d say this was the perfect time to second guess myself, to have that do-over… or to say I shoulda, coulda, woulda taken Abby to see the doctor BEFORE her appendix burst if I wasn’t such a CLASS “A” IDIOT!
When we arrived at the hospital, they were indeed waiting for us. Abby was immediately examined and whisked away into pre-op. We had to nervously wait around for a bit because she was second in line for surgery. Fortunately, Abby’s appendectomy went very smoothly and she only had to spend two nights in the hospital. Lianne and I took turns spending the night in a rather cramped “parent bed” situated right in Abby’s hospital room.
I do not think either of us went to sleep feeling very good about ourselves.
Abby, on the other hand, took it all in stride. By the time she was allowed to come home, Abby actually didn’t want to leave, as they were bringing in puppies later in the day and she didn’t want to miss it.
So in the end, what can be said about a “routine” tummy ache that turned into a potentially life-threatening situation? No harm, no foul? I’m not so sure.
I’ve never been the kind of parent who gasps and rushes to pick up his kids the second they fall down and hurt themselves. I’d always sit back and watch, and see if they could dust themselves off and “self-soothe”. My kids rarely miss school due to illness. If they wake up and say they don’t feel well and want to stay home from school, I will always say the same thing:
“Let’s go to school, and if you still feel crappy, just call me and I will pick you up right away.”
Nineteen times out of twenty that call never comes. I’ve often thought I was helping to make my kids tougher, but it’s obvious my methods didn’t work out very well in December 2009 and they don’t always work these days either. Just last week, Abby was complaining of a sore throat. I told her it was no biggie and that it should go away on its own. My solution? I instructed her to gargle with Listerine. Well, five days later we finally went to the doctor: she has tonsillitis.
I felt less stupid this time, but stupid nonetheless.
Should I take my kids’ health concerns more seriously from the very get-go? Should I have taken Abby to see a doctor the day she first complained of a tummy ache… her most common “affliction”?
Yes? No? I think so? You know what, I really don’t know.
It’s almost nine years later, and I’m still asking myself:
“Was I a bad Dad? Maybe…”