Friday, January 30, 2009

About Jonah - a story remembered - and a plea to parents to immunize their kids

When my son Jonah was not quite two months old, he had a terrible case of pertussis - the kind of pertussis, in fact, that kids are immunized against when they get the DTP shot, given first at two months of age.

Unfortunately, Jonah got the illness at seven weeks of age, just a week before he was scheduled to get his first round of shots.

At first, I noticed that he wasn't breathing well through his nose.  That was a problem when he tried to nurse.  He couldn't breathe, so repeatedly stopped sucking to breathe, and finally started to cry in frustration. I took him to an ear, nose and throat doctor who was a friend of mine.  By then, his breathing was worse, and it was painful for me to watch him trying to get enough air. But my friend told me he just had a virus and would be better in a few days.

By then, the nights were terrible.  Jonah couldn't breathe at all while lying down.  I put him in his carseat or swing, but couldn't sleep myself for fear he would suffocate.  Finally, I would end up holding him for hours, so exhausted I could hardly stay awake.

I tried everything I knew - vaporizers, nasal drops and spray, even a mild decongestant, but nothing worked.

It was a dark time for our family in general.  JD had been out of work, and after several months of not working myself, I had just started a new job the week before.  I was desperate to make the money our family needed to pay bills, determined not to miss any work.  So I stayed up with Jonah at night, and worked in the day.  

Finally, when Jonah had been sick for about a week and I was beyond exhaustion, it came to the point that I knew we couldn't go on.  Jonah had started to cough by now, and there were long spells during which he simply couldn't catch his breath at all.  Quickly, I packed him into his carseat and headed for the hospital.  On the way, I called the pediatrician I was working for and told her I was on the way.

At the little Portland hospital, they couldn't start an IV and didn't have the right equipment to get his oxygen level up.  My mother-in-law, who is an RN, came to be with Jonah and me.  

Ever since that day, I have had a hard time forgiving myself for what happened after that.  I worked in one of the offices in the hospital, and I was the only provider there that day.  In fact, the receptionist (who doubled as a medical assistant) had not shown up.  I opened the office at 9:00 and started checking patients in myself.  I knew my baby was sick, but I felt such a sense of responsibility to be at my job. 

I had only taken care of a few patients when my mother-in-law called to say that Jonah was worse.  "He needs to be in Vanderbilt," she said.

I called the doctor again and told her I wanted Jonah at Vanderbilt.  They called an ambulance, and I held Jonah while we waited.  I felt terrible - frightened, more tired than I'd ever been, weak, and lightheaded.  It was then that I realized that, in addition to not sleeping, I hadn't eaten much in the past two days.  

It was such a relief to finally be in the ambulance, headed for Vanderbilt.  The paramedic was exceptionally nice.  He got some oxygen on Jonah and kept him on the oxygen monitor all the time, so I could see that his levels were OK.  His confidence was contagious, and I started to feel better.

It was an even bigger relief when we got to the hospital, and they had a room ready for Jonah, with staff already assigned to him.  In fact, his nurse met us at the door and walked with us to the room, getting a history as we walked.

I will never forget how efficient and skilled those people were.  They deep-suctioned his lungs almost right away, allowing him to breathe more freely.  They made his bed into an oxygen tent, so we didn't have to try to keep a mask on him.  When he was able to breathe better, he started to drink, first from a bottle, and by that evening was able to nurse again.

I stayed with Jonah constantly.  JD was there, but his main job was to care for Ellie and Owen so I could be with Jonah.  

As I watched my tiny baby, still breathing with difficulty but at least breathing, so many thoughts raced through my mind.  I wondered who he would be as he got older - what he would look like, what kind of personality he would have.  I desperately wanted him to survive so I could find out.  Life is so fragile, I thought.  Just a few breaths separate life and death - just a few breaths missed, and there are no more chances.  

I slept in Jonah's room that night, and again didn't sleep much, but felt relief that help was right outside in the hallway, if he should get into trouble.  

Amazingly, Jonah was so improved that they let him go the next day.  The cough was still there, but after that, his breathing was almost normal.  It was like the illness finally gave up, released Jonah from its grip, and slunk away.  It was no match for the skill of the healers who cared for him at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital.

Now, Jonah is a healthy, lively, very normal five-year-old, and this is the first time I've written about his illness.  It was such a painful spot in my memory, that it was hard to even pull it back up again.  But now that I have, I realize I learned some things from the experience.  Here they are:

1) Since then, I have learned to set better limits.  It was a difficult process for someone addicted to doing it all, caring for everyone, and never disappointing anyone.  It actually took some time with Kay Arnold, an excellent therapist who helped me work through the reasons I could not set limits.  

Now, I can say with confidence that if this happened again, I would never leave my sick child in order to take care of patients.  I dont' think the patients would even want me to do that!  I have also learned to take better care of myself, since the health and welfare of my family depends on me being healthy.

2) I haved learned, firsthand, the incredible power that those in the healing arts possess, to relieve suffering and give people the gift of life and health.  Since then, I have approached people who are in physical or emotional pain with a new, deeper empathy, and a renewed passion to be the very best, most knowledgeable, skillful, and compassionate healer that I possibly can be. 

I will never forget the people who helped Jonah, from the paramedic in the ambulance, to all the staff that cared for him at the hospital.  Though I don't remember their names and may never see them again, I bless and thank them whenever I think of them.

3) I have learned that even though I am a medical provider myself, it is hard for me to be objective when caring for my own kids.  In retrospect, I should have taken Jonah to Vanderbilt much sooner.  I probably would have told other parents to do this, but somehow I couldn't see it myself.  Also, I had not eaten or slept much, which clouded my judgement.

4) Having experienced the fragility of life, I really treasure every minute I have with Jonah, Ellie, and Owen.  And when I go into their rooms at night to check on them, sometimes I stop and just listen to their easy breathing, and feel grateful!

5) I REALLY believe in immunizations!  I mean, I have always thought it was a good idea, but now I'm almost fanatical about it.  If a parent tells me they don't believe in shots, I tell them Jonah's story.  I would NEVER want anyone to go through what we went through with Jonah, especially when it can be prevented with a series of simple little shots. 

The sad thing, that I only found out through researching the topic after Jonah recovered, is that a fairly high percentage of babies who get pertussis do not survive.  Many who do, end up having to go on the heart-lung bypass system, which sounds pretty traumatic.  

Jonah is learning to read now, and every day makes new discoveries.  He is independent, creative, cuddly, and full of mischief.  He also has a wonderful sense of humor, and often has the whole family laughing.  He is very affectionate and always climbs up on my lap during church, while watching a movie, or reading a book.  His freckles, brown eyes, and big grin are completely disarming, but then I admit to being biased!

Thank God for excellent health care professionals, equipment, technology, compassion, and a big helping of grace, which allowed Jonah to come through such a serious illness, back to full health and well-being. 

I can't wait to see all the great things Jonah will do as he grows - and am glad he has been given the chance!

Sunday, January 25, 2009


I took a goofy little quiz on Facebook yesterday which said that my color is white. According to this quiz, the color white describes me best because I am pure, peaceful, and kind.

Now, I don't know about the validity of the quiz. Or the description of my attributes, with which my family would doubtless take issue.

But it did start me thinking - about something I had not thought much about since teenagerhood. My name, Jennifer, actually means "white."

Growing up, I was always disappointed by this. It was so, you know, boring. Other names meant cool things, like "given by God" or "Beloved". Mine was just a color, and not even a colorful color.

Upon further study, I learned that the name Jennifer is actually Welsh, derived from "Guinevere," who was the bride of King Arthur and lover of Sir Lancelot, knight of the round table. According to legend, Guinevere's affair with Lancelot eventually caused the demise of the kingdom and death of her husband, Arthur, along with a great many of his knights, and she spent the rest of her days in a convent.

That's exciting alright, but doesn't make for much of a role model. Now, a name like Mary, Hannah, Elizabeth, Esther, or Eleanor - those are names with honor behind them, names that bring to mind great people worthy of being emulated.

But Guinevere, portrayed as anything from weak and easily influenced, to manipulative and conniving, doesn't get much credit in any of the stories. Except that she is beautiful, that is one thing they all agree on.

Despite its derivation, I have always liked my name - not Jennifer, but Jenny. It sounds kind of youthful and energetic to me, and those are things I want to be.

Another reason I like my name is that my grandmother, who passed away several years ago, loved it. In fact, she would have been pleased as punch if my parents had gone all the way and named me something really Welsh, like Gwyneth, Guinevere, or Gwendolyn.

Born in Wales around 1910, my grandmother was Welsh through and through. Although she and her family moved to Canada when she was seven, and later to the United States, she always spoke with a Welsh accent. When I was small, she used to travel back to the United Kingdom once every year or two, to visit her sister and other relatives who still lived there.

Later, I attended college in England for three years, and took the opportunity to go to Wales and visit my grandmother's hometown of Hereford. It is a journey I will never forget. In the height of summer, Hereford, on the banks of the River Wye, was picturesque and perfect. The modern homes in the city center gave way to older-fashioned cottages and farmhouses in the outer parts of town, and everyone seemed to have flowers growing in their gardens. Around the village, the hilly landscape was being mowed for hay, and the sweet scent of the drying grass permeated the air.

In another nearby village, I visited my great-great-grandmother's grave, and met several families who were distantly related to me. They took me in like long-lost family, insisting that I stay for several days, showing me all around the town, and introducing me like I was someone very important.

JD and I loved Wales, and during college, spent our most memorable hitchiking trips there. I will never forget, as we hiked along a cliff overlooking the ocean, rounding a turn and seeing Harlech Castle, built right on the cliff's edge, spread out in the distance - or reaching the summit of Mount Snowdon in such a thick fog that we couldn't see more than two feet in front of us.

In fact, I am pretty sure that it was in Wales that I first started to fall in love with JD. We shared the same sense of adventure, the same thrill in new discoveries, the same curiosity to see what lay beyond the next turn in the road - and in Wales, it was always something fascinating.

But I diverge. I was talking about my name, which means "white," and reflecting on the fact that it is derived from Guinevere, who wasn't much of a role model.

Which reminds me of something else. Our new president, Barack Hussein Obama, has just been instated in the most powerful office in the world, in spite of his name!

In this country, post 9/11, in the middle of two wars being fought in Muslim countries, the middle name "Hussein" should be kind of like a lead weight tied around a person's ankle. Like a sure way to get voted out. Like a death sentence for a campaign.

But he did it anyway! In less than two years, this young and relatively unknown man won the confidence of our country and, arguably, of the entire world. He was able to do it, in my opinion, by believing and hoping and visioning the kind of world that could be, and letting us in on the view.

So, as I think about my name, and it's meaning, I realize that it's up to me to make it or break it. There are some things I like about my name and its history, and other things that I don't. I will never act as deceitfully as did Guinevere. But I will always be proud of my Welsh heritage, and proud of my grandmother. I hope that, not only in my name but in who I am, part of her beautiful spirit will show.

I think, after all, that I kind of like the color white. Purity, peacefulness, and kindness are good things to strive for - not only for me as an individual, but for us as a country, and for us as a world.

And, I am just naive (or optimistic) enough to think that we could actually do just that. All around me, I feel the world changing. And maybe, just maybe, all of us, no matter what our history, name, ethnicity, or beliefs, can come together to make the world a purer, more peaceful, kinder place.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Reflections on Zechariah

I really struggle with guilt.  Left to my own devices, I tend to feel guilty about everything - even things I haven't done but could imagine myself doing, or things that aren't my fault.  In fact, as time has gone on, I have realized that this is the devil's most potent tool in bringing my spiritual growth to a standstill.

Probably the thing I'm feeling most guilty about lately is the fact that I haven't been spending enough time with God.  A close second would be my wealth - all the things I have - especially when compared with the poverty of so many I rub shoulders with each day.

One of the problems with guilt is that it tends to drive me further away from God, and stop any dialogue between us.  It is paralyzing.  Ironically, it worsens the rift between myself and God even further, which gives me more to feel guilty about.

Recently, this vicious cycle resulted in about a month-long period of distance from God.  During the Christmas season, all the things I had to do crowded out my time for prayer and study, and the resulting guilt made me feel infinitely far from God.  And, though I felt badly about it, I couldn't get back into the habit of regular communication with him.

Then last Wednesday night, I couldn't sleep.  The dogs woke me, then Jonah, then Ellie.  I dozed a little, but kept waking up again.  

Finally, at 3:00 AM, I got up and sat at the kitchen table with my Bible. I felt exhausted, full of remorse for my distance from God, angry that I couldn't be more self-disciplined.  But I also felt a strong sense of God's presence, and I knew I had been kept from sleep for a reason.  

Opening the Bible, I turned, for no particular reason, to Zechariah.  I can't remember the last time I read this book, but this time it got my attention right away with its bizarre, surreal visions and images.

When I came to Zechariah 3, the words almost jumped off the page:  
1 Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD , and Satan standing at his right side to accuse him. 2 The LORD said to Satan, "The LORD rebuke you, Satan! The LORD , who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?" 
3 Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. 4 The angel said to those who were standing before him, "Take off his filthy clothes." 
Then he said to Joshua, "See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you." 
5 Then I said, "Put a clean turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the LORD stood by. 

 As I read the verses, I heard God's voice, rebuking Satan on my behalf.  I felt the relief of being valuable enough to pull from the fire, to clean up, and dress in new, spotless, perfect clothes, the symbol of forgiveness. 

I knew that while Joshua is a symbol of Jesus, he also represented me - someone who, despite her faults, was precious and loved.  And as I read through the chapter, I recognized the promises of the Messiah, of Jesus, who did indeed complete his mission, making redemption and forgiveness ours.

As I went back to bed, and through the rest of the week, I was filled with awe and gratitude that God values me enough to get me out of my routine and deal directly with the spiritual struggle I was facing right then.  Since then, the crippling guilt has not returned.  

I do think that guilt serves a purpose: to point out sin and help us appreciate forgivenss.  But I hope that this encounter will help me remember not to stay engulfed in it, like yesterday's outfit, but instead to step into the much more comfortable, newly-washed, and beautiful clothing of grace.