In another forum, several people asked about my experience of becoming a parent of a child with Down syndrome. Here is that story, edited somewhat and expanded.
Where to start?
I’m going to go long-form, but that’s historically my style.
Spoiler: tl;dr: it stunk.
We are, for the most part products of our families and our surrounding communities and their amalgamated cultural values. When I was a kid in the 70’s, you didn’t see too many people with Down syndrome in my community. I suspect that many were put into institutions. It took too long to shut down those hellholes. I knew a kid in 6th grade who had two younger sisters, both with Down syndrome. They did not go to our school. I don’t know where they went. I just remember seeing them one day when I passed by his house on the way home from school. They were alien – in the uncanny valley. Maybe they rode the short bus and went to a special school. In 9th grade, I remember a guy on the basketball team singing “Mongoloid” by Devo. I knew, and I don’t know how, that this was about Down syndrome. I didn’t find out until much later that this was half of the term that Langdon Down used to apply to his patients. Mongoloid Idiot. The name from their general appearance due to epicanthic folds and idiot more from the notion of a strictly working class person. Down had figured out that if you educate and care for people with Down syndrome, they thrive. But I’m going on.
We were both working in a school. I was technology director and therefore also did all the IT. The server room was a side room only accessible by going through a classroom that was rented out by a county group that educated kids with severe disabilities. They had a boy named Kenny who was decidedly low functioning. He, at 13, was still wearing diapers and hardly spoke. Around week 20 of the pregnancy, I was driving us to work and in backing out of our driveway, I got rear-ended. They did an emergency ultrasound to check on her (our first ultrasound) and the tech noted a kyphosis in the fetus. A what? A slight hunching. I’m going to have a hunchback? Cool! I had no clue. Nor did the tech or they would’ve ordered an amnio or nuchal translucency test. Hindsight, as always is 20/20.
When Mrs. Plinth was getting close to term, I suggested that since she had lunchroom duty, that it would be totally worth popping a water balloon between her knees and taking a long weekend. The due date was April 2nd, so why not call it the most inspired April Fool’s day prank.
Alice was early – 1 day full term. We had gone home from work and contractions started. E was having trouble sleeping, so I excused myself to the couch figuring that I needed to be more clear headed to drive in. Around 3 we went in and got checked in. The facility was nice and we had a birth plan and a cord blood collection kit. Things didn’t progress. They had a whirlpool tub and E tried to relax in the that while I promptly fell asleep sitting on the tile floor. If she could have reached me, she would have belted me. (Ed note: E says that she did, in fact, hit me. I guess I was pretty out of it)
Things were still not progressing. The doctors monitored fetal heart rate and it wasn’t looking good. They decided that we would steal the team for a scheduled C section (yoink!) and they prepped E. I was disappointed. I had had training in emergency child birth and I wanted to deliver my child. They brought me scrubs and I changed and shot a mirror selfie. I tried hard not to think about how this kind of event in the not-too-distant-past would often lead to the deaths of either or both mother and child. The picture shows otherwise – I was distraught. A few days earlier, we had seen the movie “Catch Me If You Can”, a story of Frank Abagnale who was a professional forger and job chameleon. I told E that I promised I would not go wandering off in the hospital and start diagnosing patients. This was not as comforting as I had intended because up until that moment, she had never thought that was on the table (trivia: at one point I successfully diagnosed one of my own doctors with Bell’s Palsy).
They wheeled her in to the OR and I sat next to her head behind the curtain and joked with the anesthesiologist. They started cutting her open and I wanted so badly to stand up and watch. One in my position does not often have the opportunity to see inside a human body, living or otherwise. Still, the rational side kicked in – at that moment there were two patients, even though I’m not squeamish, there was no need to make a surprise third patient. The room contained, us, the anesthesiologist, the surgeon, E’s GP, E’s midwife, and at least two other nurses.
They pulled out my daughter and started to run through the usual things: goop in the eyes, goop out of the nose and mouth, run the Apgar. But then the tone in the room changed. In watching what was going on I could tell that everyone was working. They weren’t just going through rote. All conversation stopped and they were speaking in curt professional words. They were also using an ambubag on my daughter and one doctor was doing chest compressions. This wasn’t good. They wrapped her up and were ready to put her in a very serious incubator with heart monitors before I stopped them and made them show my daughter to my wife, who had not yet seen her own daughter and was incapacitated with her uterus resting inside out and being scraped clean.
In recovery, there was a lot of hushed tones outside our room. We waited. And waited. At one point, the entire team came in to see us. This did not look good. It was a smallish room and now there were 6 other people in there with us. The surgeon said, “Mr. and Mrs. H., your daughter had seizures when she was born. We think she had a stroke and we think she had Down syndrome. We need to transfer her to Hospital B, which has a NICU.”
We both wept. Wailing. Gnashing of teeth. Worst possible news delivered brusquely by a team that didn’t know how to do any different. No it got worse. E’s GP, who several weeks earlier offered to be Alice’s pediatrician, retracted her offer. She didn’t think she was up to the task of being a doctor for a child with special needs. I lost all respect for the woman in an instant. (trivia note: one of the doctor’s we stole was from a local pediatrician’s office. We selected her as Alice’s pediatrician – a decision that proved itself when she let us know that she was intently reading up on the care of children with Down syndrome on her vacation).
It got worse. You fill out all this paperwork, we’re sending your daughter to the NICU, we’re keeping your wife here. Forget the cord blood collection – the company didn’t know what to do with it. I took my second step on the road to being an advocate and corrected the hospital staff. No, in fact, they were going to transfer both them. E was in recovery, shouldn’t she be in a place where she can nurse her child?
I found a quiet place to call family and friends to let them know what we knew. I wasn’t supposed to use a cell phone in the hospital, but fuck you. The midwife stopped by and was ready to chew me out, but thought better of it and asked me if I needed anything. I said I needed a hug. She obliged and I wept. My opinion of her skyrocketed.
Still, it got worse. They ran genetic tests while they determined that my daughter had a stroke and now had pneumonia. They sat us in a dark office in the basement and confirmed that Alice had Down syndrome in all cells tested (not mosaicism, which we were hoping for). The rep handed us a sheet of out-of-date information. The rep couldn’t answer our questions about the future. She was useless.
The experience of a crowd of medical professionals coming in en masse to let us know their suspicions was a challenge. The lack of useful information from the genetic counselor was icing on the cake. This was a hard introduction to parenthood and one took a long time to get appreciably better.