For Addy’s first few years of life, she lived by a cycle of monthly laser surgeries: she was at Children’s Hospital for a new surgery every month; three weeks later, she’d go to the clinic for a pre-op checkup, then go back to the hospital for another surgery the following week. Three weeks later, another pre-op, then another surgery; then another pre-op, and another surgery… you get the cycle.
The surgeries are minor, thank goodness, but many. She’s had 43 laser treatments (so far) under anesthesia beginning at 5 weeks of age, each one variously bringing IVs, yucky-tasting drugs, and masks covering her face, and each one preceded by a pre-op appointment with a clinic doctor the week before.
Every medical encounter, with all its variables, carried the risk that Something might happen to turn her off from medical appointments. Shots, exams, drugs, questions, strange surroundings, weird lights, being transported in a moving bed – all of these things can be painful or disorienting, and the likelihood that Addy might end up hating all things medical was always high.
Yet you’ve probably noticed (here, here, and here) that for Adelaide and her Port Wine Stain, medical settings are happy places.
So how did she arrive at her love of all things medical? Why is she so comfortable as a patient? I hope that for any parent reading this who has a child requiring a minor (if frequent) medical procedure, our insights here might help smooth the experience.
It comes down, broadly, to two things:
1) medical providers who understand children, and
2) some very intentional parenting at every single appointment.
First, those providers:
Seek out children’s medicine if at all possible. All of Addy’s surgeries have taken place at a Children’s Hospital, where every single worker is oriented to children, not just as smaller versions of adults (which they’re not), but as their own species. Their bodies are different. Their brains are different. One can’t always explain things to a kid, one usually can’t reason with a kid, and one forgets what frightens a kid’s brain, but at Children’s, all these things are on the radar of every nurse, receptionist, doctor, assistant, and specialist. That’s not to say that they’re all perfect all the time, but it’s a great place to start.
Outside of Children’s Hospital, our other providers ‘get’ kids, too. Her primary care doctor is a pediatrician. Her dermatologist, while not a pediatrician, is a laser expert who specifically treats children with port wine stains. Her ophthalmologist is a pediatric ophthalmologist (glaucoma is one of the possible complications from a port wine stain), and I can’t imagine trying to do that long, strange appointment with anyone other than a children’s eye doctor.
At these appointments, we’re just as likely to be asked about favorite cartoons as we are about recent colds. The pediatrician doesn’t just look in her ears at a checkup, he ‘looks for’ Disney princesses or Marvel characters. The ophthalmologist speaks more to Addy during her eye check than to me, and that’s perfectly fine.
With so many opportunities for bad experiences, taking your child to a provider that understands children is a great place to start.
The second major factor: the parenting.
If you want (or need) your child to be comfortable in medical settings, then you need to intentionally parent through every medical encounter, even the small ones. You’ve seen some of my specific tips before, but this provides some wider context.
Always, always, remember this: You are the parent. You run the show. Therefore, when you take your child into any medical setting, here are 5 things I want you to keep in mind:
- Choose your attitude wisely, for your child will absorb it and then reflect it. Be positive.
When you visit a Children’s hospital a lot, you pick up on certain patterns, like this one: no matter the personality of the child, they’ll always end up reflecting their parents in the waiting room.
Pre-procedure parents are either Relaxed & Happy, or they’re Nervous About What’s Coming (complete with pursed lips and bulging neck veins). They’re either smiling with their child, or tensing up like a guitar string about to snap.
Can you guess what happens to the child in those few minutes in the waiting area?
Within moments, they absorb the signals emanating from their parent, and then they unconsciously match them. Happy parents? Happy kid keeps playing. Tense parents? Kid does a double-take at the awesome toys in front of him, decides that maybe there’s something sinister about them, gets really quiet, goes over to Mom & Dad, and sits quietly, whining occasionally.
When it comes to your child in medical settings, remember that YOU set the tone. You are the sky, and your child is the lake. If you’re sunny and bright, then the water shines brightly, too; if you’re cloud-covered and gloomy, then the water is grey and cloudy, too.
You carry immense responsibility. Your child will reflect you. If you want them to come out of a clinic appointment happy, then you can’t walk in like you’re about to get that awful shot you got back in 1998. If you want this surgery to not be a negative experience, then you can’t walk into the hospital looking like you’re on your way to a funeral. If you want your child to comfortable in medical settings, then you must first be comfortable here.
And if you have to fake it ‘til you make it, then fake it, because your little copycat is taking their cue to be either happy or terrified from you. Don’t lie about anything (more on that below); just make sure that their starting point isn’t “terror”.
- Remember your child’s natural ignorance.
Look around the hospital or examination room at all the strange objects from a kid’s perspective: you may be familiar with the blood pressure cuff, but your child is not. For all he knows, it’s a torture device. Preempt his fears by telling him what everything is. Explain, explain, explain, and always with a positive attitude. Good nurses and assistants are great at this; when one of them takes Addy’s blood pressure, they first hold the cuff up and say, “Do you know what this does?” with big smile and an air of intrigue, piquing the child’s curiosity. “It’s going to give your arm a tight hug.”
There. Done. The strange object has been acknowledged and explained, just enough to reassure the child that it won’t be used for anything sinister. Can you imagine trying to get a blood pressure reading without doing that first? The poor kid has this thing strapped on his arm, there’s a buzzing sound, and then all of a sudden it cinches tighter and tighter and tighter and he’s wondering, “Where are we going with this? Give me back my arm!”
Now, this ignorance comes with a bonus: Kids aren’t born knowing that medical stuff is bad. That’s the burden we adults carry because we’ve visited hospitals when loved ones are at death’s door, when accidents change our lives forever, when babies are born dangerously early. We understand life and death, and we know that the treatment can hurt more than the disease; if we had to check ourselves in today, we’d probably freak out. So we expect the same trepidation from our children.
But to your child, all of this is new. And a child is accustomed to encountering new things every day; that’s part of being a young human. They’re constantly facing unfamiliar people and experiences and objects, whether at the grocery store or the hospital. There’s no need for any of it to be negative at the start, so don’t heap that upon them. They’re starting fresh.
Marvel at the blood pressure cuff with them – isn’t that cool how it works? Handle the mask together and laugh about how it looks on your face. Explain what these things do. Mysterious unknown objects can be scary; familiar everyday objects aren’t. Get a ‘play doctor’ kit with a stethoscope and blood-pressure cuff. Ask the hospital if you can take home a mask so you can play ‘surgery’ at home and have a blast. Let them be curious, help them explore, and keep everything positive.
- No surprises. Ever.
Some people want to distract a child so they don’t see a shot coming, and then they sneak it in, thinking that it makes the overall experience shorter and easier. Trust me, that only works once. The child cannot logically process, “Well, gee, that was SO much more efficient.” All they know is, “OWW!! What?!?!”, and they will never, ever, ever again trust that stranger in the white coat, or even you in that environment. Which means that the next time you carry them into a clinic or hospital, they’ll be inconsolable.
When I was a child, I was a patient in a hospital that wasn’t a children’s hospital. No one there knew how to handle kids, and they administered shots by the ‘distract & surprise’ method. It didn’t take long for me to distrust every white-coated person I encountered thereafter; I even freaked out if I saw a white winter jacket outside the hospital.
Do not let anyone (nurse, tech, or doctor) surprise your child with something unpleasant. Take an extra moment ahead of time to warn your child what’s coming. Note the word, ‘moment’ – no need to linger on the idea, just a few extra seconds to clearly, openly, and (most important) matter-of-factly tell your child what’s coming. (Remember, if you freak out, they’ll freak out.)
Keith was the master of this disclosure. Knowing we had a long medical road ahead of us, he left nothing to chance, even seasonal flu shots and routine blood draws. Whenever a procedure came, here’s how it would go down:
The tech would prepare the shot.
Keith would turn to little Addy and say:
- “Sweetie, you’re going to get a shot now.” [tell ‘em what’s coming]
- “It might hurt, and that’s okay.” [matter-of-fact warning, NEVER negative]
- “We’ll count to three,” [a consistent system she can rely on each time]
- “…she’ll poke you once, and then we’ll be all done.” [finite ending – the light at the end of the tunnel]
He’d nod to the tech; they’d gently anchor her and count to three together, and the tech would poke Addy on “three.” Addy might cry for a moment, but Keith would immediately scoop her up and affirm her: “There, see? All done! All done, just like we told you.” [Remind her that it went down exactly as you said; she can trust you.]
“Now, tell the nice lady ‘thank you’.”
That’s right, he made her politely thank every tech and nurse who took care of her, even those who administered shots. An attitude of thanks may sound crazy, but for a little toddler, the effort of articulating polite words of gratitude provided enough of a distraction (after all, that’s a lot of work when you’re two) to get her mind off any lingering pain from the quick shot. And it fended off any possible “poor me” wallowing that could creep in among her many medical visits, to acknowledge the role of all caregivers around her, even those stuck doing thankless tasks.
Sniff, sniff, “Tay too [thank you].”
And with that, the event is done. Your child knows that you’re trustworthy, consistent, and dependable. We haven’t been allowed to wallow. The pain is disappearing. What were we crying about again? Now, go get a sticker, and the day is made. (If we’ve gone under anesthesia, then go get a popsicle, and the whole WEEK is made.)
No surprises. Medical procedures don’t have to be pleasant, but they definitely should not be a surprise. Ever.
- Be your child’s activist when it comes to details of treatment.
Even in these great settings, we occasionally encountered providers who weren’t perfect. One clinic nurse was so nervous around kids that she clumsily administered a “surprise” shot to the leg really hard, without giving Keith a chance to count Addy to three. Bad idea. Addy felt shocked & betrayed, it took Keith over an hour to calm her down, and the poor kid limped for a week. Not a good thing when we were bringing her in for a medical appointment or procedure every 1-3 weeks.
Needless to say, we were more demanding of procedure thereafter. We had a lot grace for the nice nurse’s nervousness (after all, no sweet soul actually wants to administer shots to children), but we did discreetly discuss the event with the clinic, and they were awesome. They understood that we couldn’t afford to have Addy not trust us, and they helped ensure that all shots thereafter followed a trustworthy procedure.
Remember, again, you’re in control. Your child takes their cue from you, and the providers take their cue from you; if you’re not comfortable with some aspect of treatment, they’ll probably work with you until there’s some resolution. But they can’t read your mind, so speak up. Be kind and courteous, and they’ll work with you.
- Empower your child to do things themselves
I was surprised one morning when a nurse at Children’s Hospital offered to let Addy take out her own IV after a surgery. Taking out the IV has always been a nasty moment, mostly because of the adhesive sticking to the skin. (The needle is nothing compared to that sticky hand-hair-grabbing tape!) Addy was always apprehensive about getting the IV out.
But then the nurse showed Addy how to pull it out herself, and it turned that moment from one of apprehension to one of empowerment. Addy learned exactly how the IV worked, where the line was, and how fast to pull off the tape. Altogether, it made her feel awesome. No more tears.
Expect great things of a kid, and they’ll rise to the occasion. I’m grateful for that nurse’s wisdom; she knew Addy could handle the task herself, even if I didn’t.
Keep your eyes open for opportunities to let your child do things for themselves in medical settings; ask the provider if a task can be done or assisted by the patient herself. The IV task has been rather empowering for Addy, and there might be others. The providers can help you find ways to empower your child to do things themselves, especially if they’re used to working with children.
Yes, perhaps you’d rather be at a tropical beach than at yet another procedure, but honestly, it could be worse, and in the grand scheme, it’s really not so bad. So enjoy the little stuff; get excited about stickers and pumped about popsicles, because then your kid will, too. Savor the time with your child (and a good book during those precious quiet minutes when they’re under anesthesia). Life is beautiful, this laser treatment stuff isn’t so bad, there’s a whole team of people taking care of your offspring. And with luck, your offspring will realize that it’s all quite lovely, too.
**Post script: I will never forget the evening we went out to dinner to celebrate Addy’s 5th birthday. By chance, we ended up seated in a booth just behind Dr. Steelman, the pediatrician who has seen her through all of her medical ‘stuff’ since she was a newborn – and therefore a provider she could either love or loathe. When Addy caught a glimpse of him out of the usual medical context, her face lit up like a Christmas tree and she stammered excitedly, “Uncle Steelman!”