A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
As three adults restrained him in the chair, he got the freezing needle in the gum line and the roof of his mouth near the offending tooth. After a few minutes of calming down while it took effect, the dentist showed him the dental dam and told him he wanted to put it over the ouchy tooth and give it a bath with a special solution. This was an outright lie. Imprisoned again, Hugh got drilled and filled, the entire core of his tiny molar removed and replaced.
I held Hugh's tiny hands in my own and babbled reassurances as he screamed and screamed. At first, he screamed "No! Stop! Wait!", but once the actual digging out of the innards of his tiny tooth began in earnest, he screamed the inarticulate wail of pure pain and fear.
Torment for me as a parent, of course, but endurable if only because I knew there basically weren't any other options. What broke my heart completely, though, and had me shaky and emotional for the rest of the day, came after maybe fifteen minutes of this. Suddenly, he stilled. He stopped kicking and screaming and appeared to be thinking hard. And then he started screaming "Help! Help!" An eternity later it was finally over, and the instant the dental dam was out of his mouth I swept him into my arms and held him.
Intellectually, I knew I wasn't a bad parent. The dentist did careful work to ease Hugh's pain. Still, I had the best seat in the house for my child's trauma, and a couple of choice words I wanted to share with two of the assistants. There are a few simple guidelines I've found can make medical moments easier for young folk, and I feel stupid for not talking about them before we started, and simultaneously annoyed that in an office which specializes in pediatric dentistry they don't already operate that way.
First of all, never let a medical professional tell your child not to cry, or belittle them by telling them "It's not that bad." Your kid knows better than anyone how scared they are and how much it hurts. Crying helps to reduce the buildup of neuro- chemicals associated with stress, and which are harmful to the body. Research shows that young patients who cry tend to recover from medical procedures more rapidly, because stifling the body's instinctual stress response transforms recovery into a two-fronted battle. When someone tells my son not to cry I tell them to shut up, and I told Hugh that if it hurts and it's scary he can scream as much as he needs to. Frankly, any society that can tell a barely four-year-old to be quiet about a root canal needs a serious dose of compassion.
Secondly, give your child as much freedom as is possible. One assistant twice wanted to restrain Hugh's flailing legs, immobilizing him completely. "Nobody's standing where he can kick them," I told her, "and he'll just panic more if you grapple him completely. Let him vent a little." Similarly, when we get to the hospital, I'll fight tooth and nail when someone suggests I leave his side before he's unconscious. If you're reasonable with kids, and they have reassurance from familiar people, they are in turn more reasonable.
You also have to view everything as a learning experience. I don't mean that in some barbaric 'pain builds character' sense, but with an understanding that knowledge about how the body works can be valuable to any of us. Health care is an intensely personal curriculum of biology, chemistry, psychology, philosophy, statistics, and economics rolled into one. When my body does something discomforting, I like to know why, and that can help keep my mind occupied. I find the same true of my sons. Thanks to Scholastic's The Magic School Bus, Hugh already explains how his white blood cells are fighting the bacteria when he gets sick, or about tired muscles producing lactic acid. This has become a theme for get well cards, as we draw dinosaurs chasing away bacteria, or volcanoes erupting them away, or diggers burying them, depending on the interest of the day; Hugh's version of sympathetic magic. In any case, when Keefe was hospitalized with pneumonia a couple of years ago, I constantly had my notebook out, and I learned a few more things than I expected.
In some ways, it made hospital staff more forthcoming with information. At first, we heard a few vague words about doing their best, but no one was telling us much about what was going on. The doctor and nurses would examine Keefe and go out into the hallway for a hushed conversation. I'll admit it pissed me off, so I started writing everything down. "What's your name? What is that that you're giving him? What is it supposed to do? How does it work?" Fairly quickly, we had an impromptu lesson into the mechanics of pneumonia.
Now I've talked about this with more than one doctor, and they've all told me the same thing: they hate it. The second you begin writing down their name, they assume you're going to be trouble, and they half expect threats of a law suit. A nurse trying to check on and medicate two dozen patients in her ward hasn't got an hour to justify every thing she does to you, nor should she. Perusing a home medical CD rom or someone's opinions on the Internet doesn't make you sufficiently expert to second guess folk who spend full time hours treating patients and reading medical journals. I have to concur with most of those arguments. The overwhelming majority of health care professionals are dedicated hard working souls who chose healing as a real vocation, and making them uncomfortable or even resentful is a self-defeating proposition. I know they will genuinely do their best. I just can't stop myself.
When I get out the notebook now, I preface myself by explaining that understanding the process makes me more comfortable, and consequently
more tractable. I talk about it being a home schooling lesson. Rarely
said, but implied, is the point that I also hate it when anyone lies to
my sons, even when it's intended to spare them distress. Hugh knows
full well that what the dentist told him he was about to do isn't what
he did, and he'll remember that the next time someone asks him to say
'aaah.' If the gods are kind, the fact that he remembers this
experience when it's brushing teeth time before bed, resulting in
slightly fewer struggles, will be enough.
Michael Nabert is a Canadian writer who loves to talk and sing, and writes mainly about parenting, the art of wooing and paleontology. Widely traveled, with an opinion about everything, his friends often describe him as having "a deplorable excess of character." He is currently stay-at-home dad to Hugh and Keefe. Send feedback for Michael to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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