Thursday, April 01, 2004

White Rabbits, White Rabbits, White Rabbits

The above (in case you're wondering) is what you're supposed to say the absolute first thing you wake up on the first day of every month. Should these words be the first to exit your lips, you're guaranteed 30 (or 28, or 29, or 31) days of uninterrupted bliss. But only if you don't forget, and shout at the dog, or your spouse, or your rotten kid, or like me, talk to yourself out loud in your on-going externalized internal dialogue on the State of Things. Unintelligible mutterings count, as do exclamations of disgust, fear (what time is it?!) and murmurings of pleasure (who cares what time it is...mmm...zzzz....snork, hack... gurgle...what time is it?!) Hey, nobody said superstitious nonsense was easy.
So, does it work you ask? (In your head, of course - just in case you haven't yet blurted out 'COFFEE!') Who knows. I have never in the 30 or so years I've been trying to remember to say 'white rabbits, white rabbits, white rabbits' at the onset of each month, remembered to do so. But I figure there has to be some sort of karma balance, as I've also never had a month free from trouble, strife or the odd broken toe. (Five if you're counting; both baby toes twice each.) Let me know next month if it works for you; chances are I'll be trying to pry the dog off my own lips - she loves to lick me unawares, and I am always surprized at how the word 'Ptoooey!' sounds exactly like it's written. And spitting out 'Ptoooey!' counts too.
Isn't life interesting?
But more interesting than me or the dog (really) is what I saw on television last night. I've been waiting months to see the promised segment on Sixty Minutes since I first heard the story was to be broadcast, sometime around Christmas last year. A woman I met at the hospital where I volunteer confided that her infant was going to be featured in a story on transplantation. Last night I saw the story on television that I had been watching in real life for nearly a year.
The ward I volunteer on is the cardiac ward - a busier place than you might be happy to know - which is usually the home for months (or more) at a time, of one family or another waiting for a heart to be become available for their child. It's really surprising; it sounds like such a dramatic thing - and it is - but no one can sustain weeks or months, or years, or even days of fever pitch anxiety; at some point it calms down to a day to day existence. And that's the small, individual family picture; the big picture is that innovative life-saving pediatric cardiac surgery and heart transplant has moved from the slightly unbelieveable science fiction magical realm, to... an everyday magical realm.
The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto (one of the top three programs in the world) performs about 600 hundred cardiac operations and over a thousand procedures each year, as well as providing thousands of outpatient diagnostic tests. About 7500 children were cared for by the cardiac program last year - a program that performs 80 per cent of all the children’s heart transplants in Canada.
So you can see, that exciting as all this is, it truly is business as usual. Not that anyone - and certainly never the families of the children - are anything other than thrilled to the very core of their beings when a successful transplant is performed.
And that's what happened to this mother and child; the reason for the Sixty Minutes story was that the infant was one of the (so far, few) children who received a 'mis-matched' heart - an innovation that even a very short while ago was considered impossible. It's still impossible for adults to receive such a transplanted organ; blood and tissue typing has to be agonizingly perfect in order for a successful transplant to take place. But it appears the immune systems of children less than 12 - 14 months old are such that rejection doesn't take place. (Perhaps even more amazing, it has been observed that several years on, not only are the hearts still functioning, but the child's overall system is different, able to assimilate blood product from both their own type, as well as the blood type of the transplanted heart. Interesting eh?)
It was a doctor at Sick Kids, Lori West, who first imagined the operation (based on her research on baby mice, who were also able to survive non-tissue matched transplants) then carried out the first successful infant missmatch transplant, then pioneered the procedure that is now being performed at few other North American hospitals. It's amazing. And it saves - and will save- hundreds of children who would otherwise have died while waiting for a perfectly matched heart.
But my friend and her baby - the focus of the segment - were just another little family, living in the day in, day out, normalized horror of that dangerous knife edge between close enough to death, yet healthy-enough-to-survive-gruelling-surgery place you have to be, in order to get to the top of the list. I understand it was an American heart for this Canadian baby that mis-matched though it was (and nearly too large to fit in the tiny cavity) was the miracle come true.
I knew him when he was sick - bluer than blue little fingernails and lips, a strange herky jerky chest motion as his damaged heart beat - and never (no exaggeration) have I ever met a sweeter baby. It wasn'tjust that he had a nearly perfectly round head, set off by a fluff of duck down-type hair and would look at one with gigantic, impossibly long-lashed eyes - it was that he suffered the horrible, painful, invasive procedures required to keep him alive with such stoic, trusting, ancient-baby grace, that it was overwhelming and wonderful just to be around him. So many children and infants get to know the look of the nurse - she of the needles and painful pinches and pokings - and scream and thrash in a heartbreaking effort to escape what they fear is coming. (It's simply awful to watch - worse to have to hold down a baby in such circumstances; but those amazing women do it every day. And they never get used to it - and it hurts them too.) But this little guy seemed to understand and even to help. If a few tears squeezed out, he'd still attempt a watery smile for the nurse who took his blood, or pushed in his medicine or shifted his poor little body to change his diaper. And his mother (so young - I could be her mother) was the same. She was always trying to jolly the nurses and volunteers - and could hold her little blue baby and laugh as she rocked him. She lived by his bed from March of last year, until the transplant in December - and she was great company each and every day.
She's home now, and so is he. He looks wonderful, and the prognosis is thrillingly positive.
Just another shortie before I go - some months ago (6? 9?) I was coming in for a shift in the playroom and entered to find a small artiste already in residence. At first I thought she was a sibling -she looked so hale and hearty - but her cords and tubes were descending from a pole hidden behind her easel. We got to talking right away... what she was painting, what she had for lunch, what game we might play when she was finished... it must have been five minutes or so before I said "Gosh - I forgot to tell you my name! I'm Jane - I'm the volunteer. Who are you?" She told me her name. "I'm A-----," she said. "I had a heart transplant last Thursday." Just like that.
I don't really need the white rabbits; my life is actually pretty fantastic.
But better than that is that those children don't either. Their good luck is already here.
Interesting, eh?

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