Seeing parents lose a child has changed what it means to be a mother

RE-posted from Helen Dickinson article in

I knew when I chose paediatrics as my career path that there would be difficult times and sometimes I don’t know how I cope

mother and daughter
‘My job is different since having children of my own. Those of a similar age to my daughter affect me more.’ Photograph: Tom Merton/Getty Images

Nothing prepares you for the first time you see a parent lose a child. The anguish and complete despair, the realisation that the most awful thing imaginable has happened and life will never be the same again. I knew when I chose pediatrics as my career path that there would be difficult times and that I would be emotionally affected, but you can’t know how you’ll cope with that situation until it happens.

I work in the emergency department of a children’s hospital, so sick children are a part of everyday life – from the coughs and colds, to the child being carried in by a running, shouting paramedic. Most fall into the first category, a minor illness or injury that is patched up, and then the patient is sent home that day or the next. If an acutely unwell child does come in, I have a job to do. I may have a moment, lasting seconds, when the reality hits me, then adrenaline and my training kick in and I do what needs to be done. It’s with the parents that I often struggle to keep my emotions in check. It’s them that have to hope, worry and deal with whatever happens.

Despite all the defense mechanisms, there will always be patients that break through, that will never be forgotten. Working in intensive care, I looked after a young girl with cancer, recently diagnosed but with a good outlook. She suddenly became very unwell and needed admission to intensive care. I spent a 12-hour shift with her and her family, arranging investigations, regularly updating her parents, but as the day went on, it became clear that she would never breathe again by herself. I was with the family as the consultant broke this news to them. As I left at the end of the day I watched her parents climb into bed with her and hold her in their arms in a very similar way to how I hold my own daughter at night. I managed to drive home, then sat in the bathroom and sobbed uncontrollably.

It is different since having children of my own. Those of a similar age to my daughter affect me more. I can’t help but visualize my own family in those circumstances. My attitude as a parent has also been influenced by my work. I refused to share a bed with our daughter and was very strict about safe sleeping methods as I have seen too many cot deaths to take any chances. I also worry about her mortality more than I presume other parents do. It affects my social life; I can’t join in conversations about a tough day at the office, especially with non-medical friends. I start to tell them about my day, then remember that talking about sick children or the death of a child is not what most people want to hear. We have debriefs at work, where we discuss certain cases and they can be very helpful to ally the automatic fear, “Could I have done anything differently?”

To me this is normal; I go to work, do my job and go home again to my family. I just get reminded more often than most that some are not so lucky.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s