Blog Post by Elora Apantaku, a medical student at Chicago Medical School
I’ve never been a huge fan of babies. Toddlers are cute and “children are our future” but neonates are really boring. In comparison with other newborns of the mammalian order human babies are completely useless. Utterly useless… one month out and they can only “coo”? And they don’t start speaking intelligible words for at least 270 days? Not impressed.
But several weeks ago, I was introduced to a patient on the floor–a five month old: puffy-cheeked, bright-eyed, and adorable. A complicated perinatal period had ensured that she would require intensive additional medical attention indefinitely, and now she was back in the hospital with a diagnosis of “r/o aspiration pneumonia” after a two week reprieve at home.
At five months of age, she was operating at a one to two month old level. There was no social smile, no babbling of words, no raking grasp. But she was able to grip my pointer finger whenever I placed it near her palm, and I thought that was a good sign. I spent a lot of time with this baby. Partially because I was trying to figure out what milestones she had missed as a way of quizzing myself on infant behavior, but mostly because she was adorable.
And I never saw the parents. For an entire week I watched this baby: rotating her head to help her mold out of her plagiocephaly; baby talking at her so she could hear words; setting her on her stomach for tummy time to develop motor skills; smiling into her face so she could see facial expressions. And I never once saw the parents.
I checked in her files to figure out her family story. Several young children at home, maybe they weren’t ignoring her. Maybe they weren’t bad parents. Maybe they were just excruciatingly busy as I can only imagine young parents with a handful of kids could be.
But I still worried. It was weird how attached I became to a thing that never smiled. And I felt more and more like I should be the one to guarantee her safety. In the hospital, it was easy to walk into any room to make sure your patients were progressing as well as could be expected, but when a patient goes home, how can you make sure they will be taken care of in a way that will maximize their healing and perpetuate good health. I found myself wanting to tell people about my frustrations and my fears for how this baby might grow up. But who would I tell? And in a hospital full of sick kids, was this kid any more special than anyone else?
Yes. Of course. She was my patient. I was her hospital guardian. Every minute of free time I had on the wards I would gown up to avoid transferring her MRSA colonies to other patients, put my gloves on, and hold her hand while I tried to get her to smile.
Miraculously, somehow, I finally met the parents. Or rather, the patient did. They were a flurry of excitement as they entered the room, mother and father and brother. And suddenly her face was being kissed and her mother was pulling out tiny matching outfits from a shopping bag for her to try on before she was discharged home.
I was fortunate this time. This baby was going to be a burden on this family–no question. But this family had a lot of something that I wish I had seen more of as a child: love. I no longer felt a need to voice my concerns. But I wonder how I will police my concerns over patient well-being after discharge as I spend more and more time getting to know patients in the sterilized world of hospitals.