Kate

Kate Drury – One Year

Katherine Carol Irene Drury was 8 years old when she died. She was a beautiful green/blue eyed girl with soft blond hair, an impish grin that crinkled her nose, and a wonderful giggle. She liked princesses, Dora, Curious George, puzzles, play dough, singing, friends, school, chips, french fries, pasta, boating, pools, sledding, gymnastics and beaches. She loved to be outdoors. She hated ‘pokes’ for IVs or bloodwork. She was curious and made friends with everyone. She loved her van and doing any assortment of errands. She was deaf and had cochlear implants. She learned to speak and had sign language as well.

She was frequently sick and often at CHEO. She inspired doctors, nurses, researchers, the mitochondrial disease and SIFD community, her friends, family, neighbours, community, and people across the world.

She was a trailblazer when all she should have been was a child. Even in her death, people are still learning to be better because of her. 

 

Kate died November 30th, 2015 at 10 p.m.

I have no more words to describe what happened in those final days. I have shared what I can, sobbing as I wrote those 5 essays. So hard to write them.

I loved my daughter with all my heart. I still love her with all my soul. Brian and I are devastated at her loss. It feels surreal. Jack is speechless and extremely personal about his grief. ‘Ruined’ is how I describe myself. I often look at the calendar and think, one more day, week, month, year without her. I wonder about how long until I am with her again. I struggle every moment for composure. I work hard at putting one foot in front of the other.

Our lives are quiet, filled with too many hours. Kate took up so much space and energy. The void she has left cannot be filled, we have not been able to adjust. Her laughter, giggles, physical needs, medical needs, took up so much time and emotional space for all three of us.

I wake every morning and open her door and whisper the words, “Good morning dolly”. I close her door in the evening (at her bedtime) and sign “Good night Kate-O”. Her space is unchanged, her smell lingers, her room is a sanctuary for her spirit.

I talk to her. The conversations happen spontaneously and feel so real. She signs and speaks to me. “Miss you”, “Love you”, “Come”, “Jack”, “Papa”…”Sad”. They are her short sentences that have so much meaning.

I reply back to her; “Oh baby-girl, I miss you too”, “Yes dolly, I love you”, “I will come Kate-O, soon” (and she signs back “soon”), “Yes, Jack – Jack misses you too”, “Papa loves you”…”Yes, Kate-O, mama is sad. I miss you.” I feel she is confused about what happened and the veil of separation that exists between us. We are so close we can almost touch. She is happy and safe, but waiting for me.
And then, I feel some relief. I love when she comes to me. I love when I can feel her arms wrap around my neck, “Sq-eeez”, she says. Or when she visits with a beautiful sunrise of pink and purple. Or when she kisses my cheek and giggles. Or grabs my face in her hands and puts her face so close to mine. It feels real, there is a physical sensation, her presence is so strong and powerful.

She visits others, and those accounts of “Kate visits”, feel so real and are so beautiful. I am glad she is spreading her love.

Kate was a very unique child and spirit. Yes, I was her greatest champion and advocate, but I cannot take credit for what a force she was in this world. She was a gift that I was entrusted with.

Her death was a tragedy. It should not have happened and I will never forgive myself for the decision we took. I feared her disease taking her life unexpectedly. I wanted to help her live a full life and one that might have been less difficult. I became convinced this was the best choice to realize that. I could never have imagined this would be the end of Kate’s life, or been prepared for the circumstances leading up to her death. I had so much more to do with her, and she had so much more to share with all of us. She deserved so much more.

Thank you for your beautiful tributes today. Pictures, posts, messages…they are truly touching and I will read every one.

Julie 

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Goodbye Kate – Part 5

On Sunday, November 29th, 2015 I understood and accepted that my daughter was dying. I lay in bed with her, cuddling her and talking to her. I stroked her face, touched her hair, held her hand. I kissed her – her cheeks, her lips her ears, her chest, her hands..her feet.  I looked over her body, just as I had when she was a newborn. Amazed at how big she had gotten, how her body had changed, how her hands still had the softness of a very young child. She was beautiful and she was leaving me. How could this be happening? I was not ready for this.

Part 5

Sunday night was a long night of resting between the alarms I had set on my phone to administer various medications to Kate. Dr.Splinter had increased her pain medication and we were now using her subQ port on her little arm more regularly. The morphine infusion also ran at a steady rate through her PICC line. We had increased it in order to ensure her comfort. The nurse who was supporting us had drawn up several syringes of pain medication and arranged them on a tray in Kate’s room. I pushed aside the cute pictures and stuffies on her dresser to make way for the tray of carefully labelled syringes so that I could reach for them easily. I thought briefly about my fatigue and worried about mixing them up and making a medication mistake.

Even if my nursing role had not been necessary, or I had allowed someone else to do it for me, I still would not have slept. I had entered that state of sleep deprivation where sleep would not come easily, and I was scared that something would happen to Kate if I closed my eyes. I did not want her to die without my witnessing it. I laid my head as close as I could to her, my face pressing up against hers, and I listened to her throughout that night.

Monday, November 30th was a much quieter day. So many people wanted to help in any way they could. We thanked them, but asked them to stay away. When I got up in the morning, the house was quiet. I came down the stairs from Kate’s bedroom and saw our Christmas tree fully decorated and lit. My mom had spent the previous day, fluffing out our beautiful (artificial) tree. Someone had dragged up the heavy boxes of decorations from the basement, and she had carefully arranged each one on the tree. It was her contribution. To help keep our home running, to keep our space organized, to do something special for me.

I loved Christmas. I loved the time with family and friends, watching my children on Christmas morning, the wonder of Santa (I still believed), Christmas dinner, the snow, the smells, the coziness of it all. I looked at that tree and I couldn’t decide if I was happy to see it up or not. Kate would not live to see Christmas.

Dr. Splinter arrived early to check on Kate. He would be there several times over the next 14 hours. There wasn’t much to say or do. He checked Kate. We chatted. I think there was a conversation with Brian about football (were the Ottawa RedBlacks playing in the Grey Cup?). He was so natural with us. Tending to our dying child, entering our personal private space at a time of intense emotion, and looking after us and her. I tried to place how I felt, whatever it was, it was familiar and comfortable. I thought that was very important. We talked about Kate and then we talked about football, or his adult children, or renovations, and then he’d leave and head home, or to Rogers House, or CHEO with a promise to be back “soon” and to “call him if there was anything”.

Brian’s sister Nancy, her husband Lloyd and daughter Megan spent a lot of time at our house that morning. Megan had held vigil with Kate much of Sunday. Megan (and Nancy) had been in Montreal to support us during Kate’s bone marrow transplant. She was an amazing grown up cousin, and she was beautiful with her little cousin. I love her so much for that.

My dad and my mom also spent time with their grand daughter. My parents have so much love for their family. They did everything in their power to support us and had moved to Ottawa to be with us during Kate’s bone marrow transplant. My dad, who NEVER wanted to see Kate in hospital and feared seeing her in pain, had stepped up to travel back and forth to Montreal to take shifts with Brian and I to stay with Kate. Kate loved her ‘Grandy’ as we all called him. He played with her, teased her, cuddled her, and sang ballads of ‘Soft Kitty’ to her (yes, Big Bang Theory Sheldon ‘Soft Kitty’). My mom found the stamina of hospital living tough, so she made sure our home in Ottawa was ready for our return – totally sanitized and ready for a child who required strict infection control. She shopped for Kate. Birthdays were a big deal for Kate, and she couldn’t see why Kate should not have a “Happy Day” a few times that fall. She and my dad would show up in Montreal with gift bags of toys, clothes, and crafts to cheer Kate’s day. My parents were incredible, but I found I had to shut down my emotions and avoid connecting with them about what was happening. It was too painful. I couldn’t handle their grief. Even to this day, as I write this, we haven’t been able to have that moment together.

I can’t remember much about Brian over those days. We were two parents caring for our child. We did what we had to do, when we had to do it. It was a pattern we had fallen into over the past 8 years of our life with Kate. The pattern had turned into a deep groove over the years, and we intuitively knew when one of us needed a break and seamlessly took over. I was the point person, the care coordinator, the spokesperson, the organizer, and Brian supported us all. I carried the weight of Kate’s care in Montreal until I broke down from exhaustion in May 2015. Brian stepped in, and he was amazing. The role of hospital parent is not an easy one. He advocated for her, followed the strict regimen she required, and cared for Kate in that very difficult time. That routine and those roles followed us home, and over the last few days of Kate’s life, Brian and I just found a natural rhythm of caregiving and vigilance for our daughter, and our son. We kept our deep and painful grief separate. I don’t remember crying together or holding one another. I remember feeling like I might break. I watched the pain in his face and I almost felt numb. He loved Kate so much. He was an amazing dad. And she loved him so much, “Papa” she would say “Brian, come”. How could this happen to him? Would he survive it, I wondered. Would we survive it.

I try to remember now what we specifically said to Jack and how we might have tried to prepare him for what was happening. I don’t think we did.
He was always at the house, he may have left for a hockey practise. He wasn’t going to school, but we tried to keep to some sort of routine. I am sure Megan or my mom or dad took him somewhere for some errand during the day. It really is a blur.

I always relied on Jack to just adjust to every situation. He was my helper and he had grown up fast and with more responsibility than most children as he helped us support his sister. There was a constant unpredictability to our life because of Kate’s frequent illnesses, but her bone marrow transplant had taken that to a completely different level. We tried to bring him to Montreal as much as we could, and involve him always in what was happening, but his life was in Ottawa and he spent most of those months with my parents or friends. He had suffered during that time, but I am not sure even now how I could have done things any differently. He was very accustomed to our family being together and the separation was extremely difficult for him.
Jack kept up his nursing vigilance of Kate, checking her heart rate and oxygen saturation with her portable monitor. Sometimes he would check his own for comparison. I let him help me with her medications. He was not scared, and he was very serious. My heart hurt as I watched him create little rituals with his sister. He was in and out of her room constantly, holding her hand, talking to her, and sitting on her bed. I grieved the time they had been separated. I wondered how that could have been different.

As the day progressed, Dr. Splinter was clear with us that Kate was declining quickly. There was no coming back from this, and she would likely die that day.

Brian and I decided to arrange a few very intimate visits of people who had been close to Kate. Because of Kate’s isolation, she had not had many visits or time with friends in the past 9 months. For a child as social and loving as Kate to have that kind of separation had been very hard on the people who loved her and knew her so well.

I am so grateful that we asked these special friends to visit Kate and spend time with her. We greeted them, led them upstairs, helped ease them into the shock of Kate’s appearance, and then we left them to have their time with her – shutting the door quietly. I know Kate knew they were there. I know she carries their words and their love with her even now. How special those visits were.

In the evening of Monday, November 30th, 2015 the last of our invited guests arrived. Dr. Major and Dr. Chakraborty came to say goodbye. Dr. Splinter was there as well. They each held her hand, and spoke to her. There were so many of us gathered in her room, Sunita and Stephanie were also there. I talked to Kate, and to those present in the room at the same time. There was stream of thought running through my head and I just let the words come up. I’m not sure how much sense I made. Kate’s breathing changed. We made a decision to remove her oxygen. Her breathing changed again. Dr. Splinter leaned down close to my face and said, “She’s dying now”. I nodded and the tears spilled down my face. Brian groaned. I heard the sounds of others, maybe chocked back tears? I didn’t look away from Kate to find out.

And then her breathing settled. It was 9 p.m.

Dr. Splinter told us he would go and we should call him once she had passed. He had increased her morphine. I think she was maxed out.

Dr. Chakraborty also left. We hugged as friends. I’m not sure what we said to one another. There really wasn’t much to say.

Dr. Major sat in the living room with Sunita and Stephanie, but after some time she also left. She knew we were well supported and she also knew this was a most intimate time for us.

Brian, Jack and I surrounded Kate on her bed. Jack shut her door – he wanted our privacy. We talked to her, and sang to her. Jack found funny videos on his phone of Kate giggling and playing. We watched them together and said to her, “remember when Kate-O”. Her breathing changed to become less frequent, and more shallow. We played “Fight Song”.

I can’t share the last moments beyond this. They are intensely personal. They are full of intense love and pain. I watched my daughter die. I watched my son shatter and lose part of himself. I watched my husband cradle him in his arms. The shattered pieces of our lives floated around me in slow motion. The most beautiful child had left this world and it was not ok. The universe shook and something shifted inside me forever. It was 10 p.m. November 30th, 2015

We called Dr. Splinter. He came and saw Kate. I asked if I could stay with her until morning and he said yes. He hugged us and told us he was sorry, and then left.

Stephanie and Sunita came in. They had asked our nurse to leave. I wanted to change Kate and to get the goddamn PICC line and subQ access out of her arm. I wanted her free of all of that. I pulled away the tape holding things in place and took everything off of her and out of her. I wanted all of medicine away from her. I wanted her to be free of it all. I had not seen her body without tubes sticking out of it for months.

Stephanie and I cleaned her and changed her. I debated putting clean pyjamas on her as she was still naked. I thought it would bother her, so I didn’t. She hated being fussed with. She seemed fine in her diaper and socks.
Brian arranged Kate in my arms. I had not held her. I lay in her bed cradling her. She was so big. I could not let her go. I thought to myself what an incredible gift that Brian was letting me hold her, giving ME the time with her, this absolute precious time. I couldn’t say the words out loud, but I thanked him.

Jack came in. I was worried he’d be scared to see her. He sat with us and laid our hands in a perfect pyramid, one atop the other. “She’ll always be with us mom”, he said.

He asked if he could cut a lock of her hair. I hadn’t thought about that. Her new hair was so foreign to me. I told him yes. He also started gathering things from her room, something he would do over the next couple of days. Pictures, books, a bathing suit, her cochlear implants. It was if he needed pieces of her to be with him always.

Brian came back later to check on us. I told him I wanted to stay with her. He helped us get arranged in her bed. I took that time to talk to her, squeeze her, hug her, stroke her face, kiss her lips. I buried my head in her soft crease of her neck and I smelled her. Inhaling her scent deeply. I was scared I would forget what she felt like, and how she smelled.

I slept that night, face to face with Kate. In the morning there was the most incredible pink and purple sunrise.

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The Journey Home – Part 4

On Saturday, November 28th, 2015 we arrived home from Ste.Justine hospital with Kate. Kate’s pain was no longer under control and we did not have a good plan to manage it. That day was overwhelming while people caught up with the situation, and we were finally set up to support Kate the way she needed to be. It was adrenaline and pure love that kept us going after days, weeks, months of little to no sleep. We were emotionally and physically fried, fueled by desperation and an underlying sense of panic as we navigated something no one could imagine in their worst nightmare. 

 

Part 4

Saturday night was not a restful sleep. Kate did not wake. She seemed comfortable. I went to my own bed, as did Jack. Brian slept on the floor beside Kate. At midnight he came and got me. “Kate is making a funny sound”, he said.

I got up and went to her, and indeed she was making a strange sound. A sort of chesty gurgling, like she needed a big wet cough. I checked her oxygen saturation and heart rate, and all was well. We now had an oxygen compressor in the house and did not have to rely on tanks. I also checked her IV fluids that were continuing to run. I had not paid much attention to the rate, and now saw that they were at 80ml/hr. That was an unusually high rate for Kate, who was typically on ‘maintenance fluids’ throughout her life. A range of 20-40ml/hr was what I had been accustomed to. I made a mental note to ask Dr. Splinter when he came in the morning. I remembered that Dr. Duval had emphasized that rest, pain management and hydration was the way to treat an acute pancreatitis. I thought of turning down the fluid rate myself, as I was very familiar with programming the pump, but I chose to wait.

I thought of sending Brian to our room, but I knew he wouldn’t go. He looked exhausted. He was exhausted. He had been sleeping on the floor in Kate’s room, with his arm reaching up to her bed so he could hold her hand to let her know he was there. At some point in the night, Jack had joined him on the mattress next to Kate’s bed. I can’t imagine how he slept like that. He probably didn’t.

I climbed into Kate’s single bed in the space between her and the wall. I didn’t want to disturb her, but tried to gently move her over to create some space. We did a lot of co-sleeping with Jack, but never with Kate. She always wanted her own space. I decided this is where I would stay. I slept, which really was just resting my eyes and dozing off. I mostly listened. The gurgling became more pronounced, and at 5 a.m. I decided I needed to call Dr. Splinter. I described what was happening and he asked me to hold the phone to Kate. He said he would be right over.

I wasn’t ready for the incredible intimacy of those moments between Dr.Splinter, Kate and I. There in my pyjamas, my glasses on (I wear contacts typically), no makeup, hair tousled, sleeping with my daughter in her bedroom in our home. You would think I would not give it a second thought considering all of the years I had been admitted into hospital with Kate. (Yes, when you admit the child, the parent is admitted to). I had walked in the halls in my pyjamas to go to the bathroom, or upstairs for a late night tea in the kitchen. I had a nurse walk in on me more than once while I tried to quickly get dressed in Kate’s room. I stumbled for my glasses and to gather myself from a sleep stupor as residents came in to our room in the  early morning. Dr. Splinter and I had known each other for years, but I still felt a little exposed as he stepped over my husband and son on the floor next to Kate. He thought nothing of it. His incredible years of experience, our long term relationship, and his astounding ability to do this part of his job so well and with so much directness put me at ease.

He listened to Kate’s chest and told me she had fluid overload. He turned off the IV fluids. “She doesn’t need this”, he said. Her body was not using the fluids we were giving her efficiently and the wet sound in her chest was the result. (I learned later that this was also a first sign of her body shutting down.). He introduced a medication to reduce her secretions. We came to use it a lot through her subQ site over the next 24 hours.

I told Dr.Splinter that Kate had not been getting her post bone marrow transplant medications, including her heart medications. I had been told to keep to our schedule as much as we could, but the night before Kate was not conscious enough to take them orally. Dr.Splinter reassured me that he was not concerned. I knew on some level that this was important, but I didn’t process this information. I filed it aside as something to worry about later, when Kate was feeling better and more alert and we could get back on track with her medications. Although we had brought Kate home because her team felt nothing further could be done, I wasn’t understanding yet that she would likely die and that she was declining quickly.

Dr.Splinter was back and forth a couple of times that day. It was a busy, confusing, overwhelming day. It was a day of enormous change.

We had let friends and family know what was happening, and that we were home. On Friday I had called my brother to let him know we were taking Kate home. He  said he could fly to Ottawa early next week. “I don’t think she’ll be here Michael”, I told him. We had also called Brian’s sister in Newfoundland, she was on her way to Ottawa with her husband and daughter. His other two sisters were making arrangements. My parents were here. They had moved to Ottawa temporarily to support us during the bone marrow transplant. They had stayed after all of the complications had occurred and we found ourselves back in Montreal. I did not speak to them much over those few days. I could not even look at them as I could not bring myself to see their grief on top of my own. It was all I could do to keep myself together. I feared the grief of others, especially my parents. It would be too much to bear, and I would fall apart.

My tribe of friends from Rogers House and CHEO were waiting to take action. A couple of them came over and offered advice and assistance about oxygen lines, positioning Kate so she would be more comfortable by propping up the head of her mattress, giving advice about pain management, fluid overload etc., and taking on the massive job of cleaning out my fridge which had been filled beyond max with food from concerned neighbours. Other close members of our tribe kept in touch by text, and shared advice, and words of support. I poured out my heart and deepest fears. They responded with compassion.

These were knowledgeable, smart moms who also had sick children, or who had lost their child after a medically complex life. I know how lucky I am to have met them through the CHEO Complex Care Program and Roger Neilson House, and to have had their support and love. Sadly, they were also attending to other friends of ours who had lost their son several days earlier. Not everyone has that sort of ‘tribe’ at such an incredibly difficult time.

Sunita and Stephanie continued to manage medications and tried to set up a schedule to keep track of what was being given, by whom, and when. I relied on them both heavily. I did not want to have nurses in our home. I felt an immense need to nurse Kate myself, and with the support of Sunita and Stephanie, I felt I could do that. Between the two of them, one of them was always at the house.

At one point there were a few nurses downstairs, all sent from various agencies via CCAC. There was much discussion about who should be there, what their roles were, and who was best suited to support our family and care for Kate. A nurse we had worked with all fall, finally put her foot down, insisting she knew our family best (she did) and that she would look after us. The other nurses left. I was grateful I didn’t have to intercede and grateful for the quiet presence of this nurse who knew us, and played an important background role of organizing medications and drawing up syringes, and monitoring Kate.

What I remember most from that Sunday was confusion. I had convinced myself that this possibly wasn’t the end. No one had said it was. Maybe it wasn’t. I asked about bloodwork, maybe we need to adjust her fluids? When Kate opened her eyes, unfocussed and rolling, I thought it was a sign of her regaining consciousness. She was squeezing the hands of people who were sitting with her, I thought in response or recognition that they were there. I reminded myself that we were managing her pain, she was well hydrated and she was resting, all the things we were supposed to do to manage the pancreatitis crisis. We just had to wait and see and give her time. We could have weeks, maybe months if we got her stable. Isn’t that what we had talked about less than 48 hours before?

I blame panic and and inability to process what was happening, for my confusion about what was happening to Kate. It was the denial of grief, and I was exhausted. Beyond exhausted. I had not slept in 48hours. I had had little sleep in the past 9 months, while living in 24/7 isolation with Kate. Compounded by 8 years of caregiving that never involved a full night sleep.

I asked my questions and made my case to Dr. Splinter when he arrived in the afternoon to check on Kate. And he reacted exactly in the way I needed him to. Firmly and directly. Kate did not need bloodwork. We are managing her exactly as she needs. She is declining faster that he had anticipated. We are doing all the right things for her. “You are doing a good job”, he said to me.

We set up a chair next to Kate’s bed. If I was not laying in bed with her, someone was always with her to hold her hand. Touch was important. We respected Kate’s space and did not put her cochlear implants back on. We also tried not to move her or pick her up. As much as I wanted to hold her, I did not want her to have any pain.

Jack took charge of monitoring her vitals. He wanted to know exactly her heart rate and oxygen saturation. If they changed or were elevated, he would let us know. It was a good indication if we need to increase Kate’s oxygen or morphine. When she developed a fever, Jack got cold face cloths to cool her off. I let him help me manage her PICC. He was better than most at ensuring infection control was respected and knew what materials to hand to me and when. As much as anyone, Jack was involved in nursing her. He was her brother. He had always been there for her, and that wasn’t going to change now. It was also very natural for him to be involved and helping me. He always had. I am so proud of him.

I was scared to sleep that night, Sunday, November 29th. I was grateful the day was over. I was grateful for the stillness and the quiet of just us in the house. Brian and Jack slept on the mattress on the floor again, and I climbed in with Kate. She was naked, having soaked through her pyjamas and her body heating up. We thought it would keep her more comfortable not to fuss with putting another set on pyjamas on. I stroked her chest, her arms, her face. She had changed so much physically. Her face was distorted from steroids, her hair was growing back a light brown, her body was puffy, and her hands were exceptionally warm.

I talked to her that night. I told her it was ok, that I understood what was happening now. I told her how amazing she was. How brave, and beautiful, and smart. I thanked her for being my daughter and for all she had taught me. I told her I was sorry. I was so so sorry for all of it, all of this, everything she had had to endure. I told her that I would always be with her, that I would NEVER leave her. I would find a way. And no sooner had those words left my thoughts that I felt an incredible intense pain in my chest. A ripping sensation, a tearing, a shredding. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t understand. And then Kate showed me, it was her. She had heard my words, she was taking a piece of my heart for herself. So that I would always be with her. I smiled at her and I cried. “Oh smart girl Kate-O”, I said. “You figured out how to keep us together”. “I don’t want you to go Kate, but you don’t need to stay for me. I’ll go with you.”

This is what I can remember. The raw truth and love and honesty that spilled in whispers from my lips to her ear. She couldn’t hear me, but I held her hand to my mouth so she could feel my words. I whispered to her so we wouldn’t wake the boys. Mother and daughter secrets. Kate-O and mama. I felt calmer after. A strange aura of calm and understanding between she and I. I also felt gratitude. Grateful we were all together and at home. Grateful she would not suffer with strangers at her side. I didn’t want her to die, but if she had to, this is the death I wanted for her.

 

 

Kate and Ani

The Journey Home – Part 3

On Saturday, November 28th, 2015 we left Ste.Justine for the last time with Kate. She had suffered a crisis, and the team had decided that any further intervention would not be helpful. The decision to undertake an experimental treatment for her graft versus host disease was now no longer necessary. Kate had made the decision for us. With the support of our Ste.Justine team, we organized ourselves to take Kate home, make her comfortable, and wait for what might come next. 

Part 3

As we walked the long passageways and corridors of Ste.Justine, toward the parking lot, we passed by so many people. I found myself wondering what they thought as we walked by. Was it pity I saw in their eyes? Concern? Shock? Understanding? I drew my attention away from them and inward, forming a bubble between us and them. I felt exposed by the intimacy of our situation, and by the decision we had just taken to take Kate home. Possibly to die. “These people should not be witness to this”, I thought to myself. “They don’t know us. They can’t imagine what we have been through”. I imagined them there with a broken arm, or recovering from a minor surgery. In those moments I was angry and jealous all at once. Their journey would be nothing like ours. I didn’t want them watching us at this most intimate and private time.

Our van ride home was something I remember vividly. Kate was most comfortable in a stretched out position. We couldn’t seem to make her car seat work, so I simply unbuckled it and tilted it on a big angle so that it was almost laying flat. I readjusted the lap belt to secure it again, but it was clearly not secured properly. I gave it a thought for a moment, and then decided to myself “Did it really matter?”. I stowed the DNR letter Dr.Duval had given us in the dash.

Kate loved her van. She loved going for drives. Over the past week in Montreal with Brian, she was less interested in her daily walks outside, so she and Brian made the trek to the parking garage and would drive around the city of Montreal. A ritual they did back at home in Ottawa. Brian would have a random errand to do, and he would take Kate with him. I could see the relief on her face and the comprehension that she was going home as we arranged her in the van and made her as comfortable as we could.

Jack sat in the back with her as he always did. Now feeling a responsibility to watch over her, and let me know how she was doing. Something that was not new to him. He was also her DVD manager, and located her Dora Christmas video for the ride home. I remember asking my 11 year old to “check and see if she was still breathing”. Even as I remember this now, the enormity of that request hits very hard. And he did it, “Yes, mom, she’s ok.” he said. “You’re ok, right Kate-O”, and then would go back to watching his movie (Dora Christmas had long been ejected and replaced).

I think we all felt a sense of release on that ride home. Brian and I talked about the fact that we wouldn’t be making this drive to Montreal ever again. It was surreal. “We went to Montreal for 9 months and all we got was this fucking t-shirt”, we joked. We wanted to hate that city, where there had been so much pain and suffering. Where our lives had been ripped apart. Even now, I can’t think of Montreal fondly, or without a sense of sadness and grief about the city and that highway. As we drove, the sky was overcast, the traffic was light, Kate slept almost the entire way home. She was so peaceful, the morphine was timed just perfectly.

Brian and I discussed whether or not we should go to Roger Neilson House and seek support there for Kate. It was an option. We would be well supported, Kate was known there, it was familiar to us, and there was an entire team ready for her. In the end we decided to head home. We had promised her home, and though we were uncertain about how it would all come together, we thought it was the best decision for Kate and our family.

As we pulled into our driveway, Kate started to stir and wake. But she was not happy. “No no, van van”, she said. She did not want her van ride to be over. She did not want to get out. I paused for a moment thinking, what could it hurt to drive a little longer, but I wanted to get her in the house and settled. I thought we could take her out for a walk and fresh air, and Dr.Splinter was on his way to our house to assess Kate. “Kate, we’re home baby, we’re home”, I signed and said to her. I thought she didn’t understand that we had made the trip to Ottawa. Perhaps she  thought we were back at Ste.Justine. She seemed to realize and settled, allowing me to pick her up and carry her inside.

We arranged Kate on the couch supported by pillows. I wasn’t sure of the most comfortable position for her. Being at home changed things for me. There is something about being out of the institutional environment of the hospital setting that is freeing to your emotions and thoughts. This was our personal space, where we felt safe and where people were our guests and not the other way around. I could relax, Brian and Jack could relax, Kate could relax. There is something that you cloak yourself with when you are in the hospital, constantly interacting with veritable strangers during the most intimate of times. You are on your guard. You need to show restraint and control under the most incredibly stressful situations. You need to control your emotions, because crying too much, or being angry and frustrated can will compromise how you are treated and how your child is treated. You need to be on your guard – ask the right questions, smile and be kind (when you want to be anything but). You are better received when you are the ‘good parent’, the ‘strong and cooperative parent’, ‘the organized parent who asks the right questions’…’the attentive to the physicians and nurses parent’. I was very good at it, and I was sooo tired of it. I wanted to let it go and be direct and honest in how I was feeling, and what I felt about what was happening to Kate. I wanted to sink into my couch and not a plastic hospital chair. It didn’t happen right away, I had worn the cloak for far too long, but being home helped considerably.

Dr. Splinter arrived soon after we got home and had Kate settled. He was there to assess the situation, assess Kate, and determine next steps. He arrived with a ton of medications, and nurse from CCAC whom I had never met before. She came unprepared with no supplies, and I honestly didn’t give her a second glance – even now, I can’t even remember her name. I didn’t like that she was there. She was a stranger at the most intimate time. I chose to ignore her and to reconsider her if and when I actually needed her help.

I am not sure what Dr.Splinter and Dr.Duval discussed before we left Montreal that morning. I know they spoke and I assumed that Dr.Duval was clear about Kate’s condition. Unfortunately what happened over the next few hours was extremely stressful and caught us all off-guard.

It quickly became clear that Kate’s oral dose of morphine was not adequate to manage her pain. She was likely not absorbing it properly due to her GVHD, and her pain was not being well managed. Kate had also been on a morphine pump for the previous 18+ hours, and I had made the assumption that a morphine infusion would be waiting for us when arrived home. It was not, and it had not been ordered. Dr.Splinter’s plan was to continue with oral morphine and ‘see how she does over the next couple of days’.

A prescription for an increased dose of morphine was quickly written, but it required one of us to run to the pharmacy to fill. I was not willing to leave Kate, so Brian set out to pick it up. The prescription was for a higher concentration of morphine not often carried by regular pharmacies. As we waited for Brian, he went to three different pharmacies before he could find one that carried the concentration of morphine Kate needed. The lovely woman at the counter asked who the drugs were for, “My daughter”, Brian replied. “Oh, has she had a dental surgery?”, the lovely naive idiotic lady asked. Making the assumption that this is what the morphine was needed for. Brian never answered her.

As we waited for Brian, we talked about Kate’s pain management. I felt she needed a morphine pump as soon as possible. Slowly increasing her oral dose of morphine was discussed, and adding a subcutaneous access for additional pain management was also decided upon. However the CCAC nurse had not brought any supplies to do a subQ, and she wouldn’t be back until later that evening. She had spent her entire visit trying to figure out how to hook up Kate’s pump to her PICC line so we could administer the IV fluids that Ste.Justine had sent home. I finally took the pump from her and did it myself already very familiar with it. With no supplies and nothing to contribute, she left and said she would return when the morphine pump arrived.

I can remember feeling confused, unsure about how hard to push for the pain management I knew Kate needed. I remember Ste.Justine’s promise to us that they would never allow Kate to be in pain and suffer, and they had been prompt with any requests we made for pain management. This situation wasn’t new to me. I was unsure about the increased oral dose of morphine. I wasn’t loud enough with my concerns. It was a lesson I should have already learned. Dr. Splinter did agree to order the morphine pump and sent the requisition off to CCAC that afternoon.

The next few hours were a blur of administering medications and managing Kate. Kate spent the afternoon on the couch in the living room. Sometimes awake, but uncomfortable and other times sleeping. Brian had arrived home with the morphine only to leave again. He wanted to get Kate a Christmas tree, and because she was not allowed a real one (due to infection control and possible mold from a real tree), he was off to Canadian Tire for a fake one. My parents arrived to see Kate. Sunita left with a promise to return. I thought I would take Kate outside, but only managed to get her boots on before realizing it wasn’t going to be possible. Kate refused to let me take her boots off though, so she had them on as she dozed in and out of consciousness on the couch that afternoon.

Sunita returned and we thought that Kate might want a visit from her daughter Anika, one her best friends. Kate was somewhat awake and when we asked her about Ani visiting she said “Yes”, and signed “Ani”. By the time Sunita returned around 5 p.m. with Ani, Kate was asleep again and couldn’t be woken. Her Christmas tree had also arrived and was hurriedly put together and the lights turned on. The room was overwhelmingly full of people Brian, Jack, my parents, Sunita and her kids, Dr.Major who had stopped in, and Stephanie who was helping me care for Kate. Kate looked at the tree briefly, but the reaction was not what we had hoped. Kate was working on just coping with her pain. I felt like I was playing hostess. It was too much.

The house became quiet again, and I was alone with Kate and my friend Stephanie. Brian and Jack were out. Dr. Splinter had left with instructions to call him if needed. He would be an incredible support to us over the next couple of days. As the evening passed, Stephanie and I administered medications to Kate and quickly became overwhelmed with her pain management needs. The morphine was not working. I made phone calls to Dr.Splinter who adjusted Kate’s morphine dose up even further. I called CCAC to inquire about when the morphine pump would arrive as it had been ordered that afternoon by Dr.Splinter. I was told that the order had simply been placed in a “To Do” pile, and that it had not been marked as urgent. It was the weekend, nothing was going to move quickly at CCAC. I was told the pump should arrive around 11 p.m. (give or take). I looked at my watch, it was 6 p.m.  I was incredulous, and tried to remain composed with the woman on the phone. “My 8 year old daughter is dying. She is in incredible pain. We have been waiting for this pump all afternoon. We need it now”. I did my best to be calm and direct, and not to scream in frustration at this impassive person on the phone, but I cried and my tears of grief and frustration fell. “Please”, I said. “She’s just a little girl”. Gratefully the woman from CCAC finally got it. “I can have it there for 8:30 p.m.”, she told me.

There are many things that haunt me about the last few months of Kate’s life. That afternoon is one of them. Watching her suffer and feeling like I did not do enough.

Over the next 2.5 hours, Stephanie and I nursed Kate. Steph became a pharmacist and nurse drawing up meds like nobody’s business, and recording what we had given and when as we adjusted morphine doses, our own version of a MAR (medication administration report). Kate stirred and showed obvious signs of discomfort, but she did not wake. Dr.Chakraborty visited, and I could tell he was disturbed and so incredibly saddened by the state Kate was in. I didn’t have much to say to him. I tried to be comforting and reassuring. I’m not sure why I felt responsible to do that, I just did. Dr. Chakraborty was Kate’s metabolic/genetics doctor. He was our closest advisor about undertaking the bone marrow transplant. I knew this is not what he wanted for her – he said as much.

At 8:30 p.m. the morphine pump arrives and the CCAC nurse (Sarah?) along with it. This is a pump she knows how to operate and she quickly gets it hooked up to Kate’s PICC. She also asks me to put some Emla (skin numbing cream) on Kate’s tiny tricep area so that she can install a subQ access. This, I am told, will be needed for further medication as “things progress”. I am so focussed on the morphine and making Kate comfortable I ignore the whole idea of a subQ port and stored that in the back of my mind. I warm up a bit to Sarah, and she goes off to check our hastily written MAR and organize further subQ medications that might be necessary overnight. She left a couple of hours later. I don’t remember speaking to her.

Around 9 p.m., Kate seems more settled and Stephanie and I decide to move her to her bedroom. We carefully lift Kate together and carry her upstairs, Brian followed us with her IV pole. We gave her a little sponge bath, and change her into her pyjamas.

I can’t remember much about that evening. I planned to sleep with Kate in her bed, Brian had gone to Sunita’s to pick up a small futon mattress. He and Jack are going to sleep on the floor in her tiny room. Somehow we made it work.

There is some sleep, not enough and not comfortable, but Kate is home and she is comfortable.

Kate and Jack

The Journey Home – Part 2

On Friday, November 27th, 2015 CHEO and Ste.Justine held a video teleconference to discuss Kate. Brian attended in Montreal with the Ste.Justine team, and I was in Ottawa with our team here. We discussed how or if we should intervene in trying to treat Kate’s graft versus host disease, and Brian and I were very clear about our wish to have Kate come home for the weekend as we tried to decide what to do next. 

 

Part 2

I left the meeting with CHEO and Ste.Justine in disbelief and shock, but I also had hope and I wanted to be smart and think through the options that had been placed in front of us. The room emptied, some people said goodbye, our palliative care team asked us to keep them in the loop, and others I didn’t know as well looked at me with grave sympathy.

My friend Sunita had attended the meeting with me, as a pediatrician and friend who had been by our side during this entire journey, I trusted her judgement and opinion. I could also always count on Dr.Major to be there for us, and she was again, knowing that I needed further support and discussion about the conversation that had just happened she lingered behind. The three of us agreed that we needed to further discuss the conversation we had just had, and we headed to the security and comfort of Rogers House (Roger Neilson House) to talk more.

The details of that intimate conversation are difficult to share here. To discuss how to save your child’s life. To talk about the fact that her little body may have had enough. To try and decide between a ‘hail mary’ treatment with high risk, or a possible slow and painful death. To have that conversation. It was surreal. I was in so much pain. I felt so much fear and grief and loss already, and I felt an incredible enormity of pressure to make the right choice for Kate. Just as I had when we decided to do the bone marrow transplant. The grief about making that decision and where it had brought us to, I cannot even express in words. I felt incredibly betrayed by life, fate, the randomness of the universe. How did this happen?

Dr. Major and Sunita shared their opinions and thoughts. They coached and they supported in the best way they could. I think they too were relieved that Ste.Justine (Karine) had found a solution to get Kate home. They reflected on how  unwell Kate was, the complications she was dealing with, and the highly risky nature of the proposed procedure. What that conversation did was allow me to settle, ask more questions, repeat questions I had already asked and to have the time to absorb what Brian and I had been told. It might surprise you that in medicine, and the medical world, the patient or parent is typically the last one brought into the discussion of “what should we do next”. Kate had been discussed. Options had been thrown around a board room with people who only knew her medically. The seriousness of the situation, how to manage it, the possibility of experimental procedures to address Kate’s GVHD, we were not part of those conversations until that Friday morning. And then we were asked to make a decision.

That lack of engagement, of me being intimately involved in discussions about MY child, still haunt me.

Sunita and I drove home from CHEO later that morning. I did not rush. Brian was with Kate, and I had ensured that one of our private respite workers was there to support him. As I arrived home, to change and prepare to drive to Montreal, I thought of picking up Jack from school. I wanted his company for the drive, and after 9 long months of ongoing separation from his sister, we tried to include Jack in our Montreal trips as much as we could. I made a ‘mom decision’ to not disturb Jack that day. Although Kate would be excited to see him, I decided it could wait until we arrived home. I would later regret that decision.

As I drove to Montreal, I tried to touch base with Brian by phone. He was not answering which I found strange. Brian was never far from his phone. Neither of us were during our long stay in Montreal. I was finally able to connect with one of Kate’s nurses, she told me Brian could not answer because he was rocking Kate. She had fallen asleep in his arms. I still found it strange that no one could hand him his phone. I felt something was ‘off’, and hurried the pace to get to Montreal.

Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Ste.Justine is a large children’s hospital. It was under heavy construction at the time as it was expanding. The parking garage was always full, but I had a secret spot close the elevators where I always seemed to find parking. The walk to the Charles-Bruneau centre the cancerologie (cancer centre) is long and winding. Having been at Ste.Justine for 9 months, I knew that wing of the hospital with my eyes closed, and had a short cut to get to Kate’s room. I moved quickly through the basement hallways and passages, and up the elevator to the 2nd floor. I didn’t stop to say hello to the nurses, or staff at the desk by Kate’s room as I usually did. I wanted to get to her. As I entered Kate’s room, I felt the tension and fear in the air. I saw Brian first, a look of fear and confusion on his face. I looked at Dr.Duval next and he looked back at me with almost apologetic sadness. “Something is wrong”, Brian said. I took one look at Kate and just moved toward her, not speaking, not asking questions, just focussed on my girl and needing to comfort her and figure out how I could help her. “Kate-O”, I said as I crawled into bed with her. “What’s wrong dolly?”.

Kate could never tell us she had pain. It wasn’t a word, sign, or concept she had managed to grasp. She relied on me to understand and to know for her. And I did, by the look on her face, the way she held her body still, her arms above her head. If the pain was bad, she would try to minimize and stimulation. Her ‘ears’ (cochlear implants) were the first to go. She would take them off. She refused cuddles, or being touched. Sometimes she would let us hold her and rock her, but only standing upright and only if we swayed and created some side to side movement. As I crawled into bed with her – drawn to her – I could sense her pull away. But I needed the closeness, so I stayed with her, and I listened as Dr.Duval spoke.

What I remember is this:
Something happened when Brian came back to Kate’s room after our morning videoconference. Maimoona, our caregiver, had been with Kate doing arts and crafts, making cute handprint cards for us. Kate had seemed fine until she started to get more and more quiet. When Brian returned to her room, she wanted to be held, and she fell asleep with him. One of Kate’s responses to pain and her way of managing her pain, was to withdraw and ‘sleep’, shutting the pain and any stimulation out. Brian knew something was not right and alerted the team. As Dr. Duval assessed Kate, he had concluded that an ‘event’ had occurred. Possibly a perforation of her bowel from the GVHD which may have caused an acute pancreatitis (this would explain her unusual bloodwork). When I arrived, they were trying to decide what to do next.

My first question was, “What has she had for pain?”, immediately alert to the need to make Kate comfortable. This had been addressed, but it was clear more pain management was needed, and Dr.Duval ordered a morphine bolus.

My next question was, “What do you suggest we do?”. Dr.Duval was unsure of this, there was some back and forth among the team. Should they image Kate? Should they take her surgery and see if they can repair her bowel? Would she survive such a procedure? What Dr.Duval was clear on was that Kate was now in no condition to undergo the highly risky and experimental treatment to ablate her immune system and try to end her GVHD. The decision had been made. We had not even had time to discuss it together, Brian and I. Kate had made it for us. And this decision made by a little girl, led us and her team to the knowledge that imaging her to diagnose the issue, and taking her to surgery were no longer necessary either.

My third question was not a question, it was more of a statement, “I want to take her home”.

Dr.Duval was concerned about us leaving and taking Kate home. Pain management was a concern, and I think he wanted to be certain of his diagnosis and prognosis for her. He wished for us to spend the night at Ste.Justine and allow the team to observe Kate and stabilize her pain. Pancreatitis is painful, but it can be recovered from through hydration, rest and pain management. “Perhaps there was a chance?”, I thought to myself. I know now that Dr.Duval was concerned that Kate might die that night.

I felt a pressing need to have Jack with us. Almost a panic. What if he was not here with us when the unimaginable happened? It was a 2 minute phone call to Sunita who agreed to drive through a snowstorm to bring Jack to Montreal. “Hurry”, I told her.

Our Ste.Justine team were incredible in supporting our family that night. In addition to the small built in bed in the room, they brought in two cots for Jack and I. (I guess they didn’t realize that we’d likely only need one as Jack typically slept with Brian or myself). Though we were next to the busy nursing station, it seemed they were extra quiet that night. Respectful and knowing. Like they were holding vigil for our little family, and their favourite little patient. They loved Kate, and they all felt the enormity of what was happening. I told our nurse Sophie to wake me if there were any changes in Kate, and though she and I knew that I would not sleep that night, she promised me she would. Sophie was gentle and quiet and reassuring, and I felt comforted.

We called my parents, we called Nancy, Brian’s eldest sister. We told them not to come, that we wold be home soon.

Sunita arrived with Jack. Oh that moment, my brave boy – my heart is breaking as I write this (can it break anymore?!!). I was in bed with Kate, and Brian was in tears. The scene for Jack was such a shock. The moments he has had to live through, the bravery he has shown, the love he has for his sister. I can’t describe…

Kate settled that night. Dr.Duval ordered a morphine infusion to stay in front of the pain. Kate slept soundly. Her breath even. Her body restful. “Maybe it would be ok”, I thought to myself as I watched her sleep. “Maybe they are wrong and she just needs to rest”.

The following morning, Kate woke, she was clearly unwell, but stable (I thought). Karine had come in and requested to be our nurse. Our familiarity with her and her ease with our family were a great comfort. I began immediately packing our things, organizing our room, and making our plan to leave for home. I think I surprised Karine. I’m not sure this is what she understood the plan to be. She asked me, “When did you want to leave”, (it was 8:30 a.m.), “Dr.Duval would like to see Kate before you go”. “In about a half an hour”, I replied. Dr.Duval arrived to the hospital about 30 minutes later.

I can’t speak for Dr.Duval, I don’t know what he was thinking or what he felt. We had one more conversation about Kate’s condition and his prognosis. He stated again that he felt there was nothing they could do that would be a worthwhile intervention. At the same time, I could feel his reluctance to let us leave. Dr.Duval made phone calls to our palliative care team at home. He wanted to ensure someone would receive us at home in Ottawa. Kate’s pain management and comfort were now his priority, and it was the weekend, so specific arrangements had to be made to ensure proper medical and nursing care were in place for Kate to go home as we wished.

I spoke with our palliative care doctor, Dr.Splinter, and confirmed the plan to call him as we arrived into Ottawa. He would meet us at home. I didn’t ask any questions about anything else. Dr.Duval gave us a DNR (do not resuscitate) note in case anything happened on the 2 hour drive home. Karine ensured we had the hydration fluids that had been already planned for the weekend, a full tank of oxygen, and all of Kate’s medications. There was still hope that Kate might recover from the crisis, and the plan was to continue her medications until she could no longer tolerate them. Kate was given a double bolus of morphine. We hugged our team goodbye, there were tears and a few words. A couple of our nurses came in to say goodbye, and Karine made one last “I love you” sign to Kate as we left.

Kate would not put her cochlear implants on that morning. In fact, she never wore them again. But Kate understood American Sign Language, something we had committed to when she was diagnosed as profoundly deaf at age 2. I signed “Home” for Kate. I told her we were going home – all of us. She didn’t seem to understand or believe me at first, and then she perked up as she signed “Home” back to me and said “Yes”. What a simple thing, to go home.