Last week I was in the middle of a consultation when I had the dreaded phone call from daycare. Fortunately not much was wrong, but one of the kids did need to be picked up and taken home. My patient then said something interesting to me:
“I thought doctor’s kids aren’t supposed to get sick!”
Just one of those things that people say, of course, not thinking much of it at all. I smiled and answered “Yes they do. Actually, my kids have chronic illnesses”. Not serious ones, not ones that cause them many symptoms, but chronic illnesses nonetheless. And we have the usual colds and gastro cases, sometimes a seemingly endless series of them, as many parents whose young children attend daycare centres experience. As it turned out, we had a cracker of a week with one child sent home with a rash, another unable to attend because of food poisoning, and a routine checkup at the Kids Hospital. Having a sick kid at home isn’t easy, but these illnesses always remind me of the many reasons why I think my kids fall ill occasionally. I think there are reasons, and that these are “learning opportunities” for me (I’m not always this Pollyanna-like about it I can tell you – there are some weeks when I get frustrated about taking so much time off!) but here are the reasons why I think it happens.
My kids get sick because:
I need to know what it’s like to keep vigil by a child’s bed overnight, listening to every cough, breath and whimper, feeling brows and checking diapers.
I need to know the agony of watching a child in pain and in distress. And then the joy of seeing a child bounce back from illness as though they never missed a beat.
I need to experience the relief of hearing the steady breathing and feeling the cool brow of a recovering child.
I need to know what it’s like to make an emergency trip to the hospital, to wait in crowded outpatient departments, to hand the care of my precious charge over to an anaesthetist and surgeon and walk out fighting back tears.
I need to be reminded that schedules can be cleared, meetings rescheduled, deadlines extended, and that life goes on while I am doing my most important job.
I need to know that in times of pain and illness, there is only ever one thing that soothes my children – me. That there is never a time that I am more of a mother than when they are ill. I can outsource and delegate so many other parts of my role – but not this one. To me, it has become an integral part of how I see my role as a mother.
I need to be reminded that when I am in survival mode, with everything stripped down to the absolute necessities – food, water, love, sleep – I learn, once again, what is truly important.
I need to be compassionate, not smug – to know that kids can get sick despite the best efforts of their parents, so I can connect with the tired parents who fill my rooms during winter and give them a reassuring smile.
I need to realise how much I love my kids – a fierce, deep, visceral love, a love that can stay up all night for days on end and perform other feats of superhuman strength.
Being a mother has made me a better doctor in infinite ways – and probably a better person too. Sickness and other challenges on our journey can be moments to reflect on where we are heading, and re-align with priorities. Responding to vulnerability with tenderness and compassion is one of the privileges of having children – and embracing this helps the frustration of falling behind with work and life melt away.