It's hard to describe the emotions and irrational thoughts that go through your head when you learn that your child has to have surgery. The thought of my 3 year old son going "under" and the potential risks associated with the surgery and the general anesthetic was really unbearable for me. I saw my vulnerable child and my instinct to protect was more intense than ever.
My son, Jack, had a lazy eye and needed to have eye surgery (on both eyes) to resolve the crossing of his eyes. Without surgery, he would have to continue to wear an eye patch for four hours a day until the age of eight, and wear glasses. Once a child reaches the age of eight or so, their eyes stabilize and it's no longer possible to correct conditions like a lazy eye with surgery. My husband called the surgery "vanity". He believed that because it wasn't life threatening, Jack should not have the surgery. He was fearful of the potential risks (as was I) and said he would never forgive himself if the surgery made Jack's vision worse.
We drilled the surgeon about the risks. She told us that one in ten thousand had a complication and, in her experience, the worse that had happened was that the surgery simply did not correct the lazy eye and had to be performed again. My husband's response: "would you say you've done ten thousand surgeries? Are you about ready for something to go wrong?"
We learned that the biggest risk was not the actual eye surgery, but the general anesthetic. One in four thousand has a serious reaction to the anesthetic. The surgeon tried to put things in perspective for us: "You have more chance of getting hurt in a car accident."
In some ways, it would have been easier for us if the surgery had been completely necessary. We wouldn't have agonized over the risks versus the benefits. There would have been no decision for us to make. In the end, we decided that we had to do it for Jack. Without surgery, there was no guarantee that his vision wouldn't worsen.
Once the decision was made, we moved into how to prep Jack for his upcoming surgery. We learned that the Children's Hospital hosted special tours for children. We found it to be extremely beneficial and Jack even left the tour wanting to have his surgery done. The tour took us through the various stages: from prep to anesthetic to surgery to recovery. Jack learned that he could choose the flavor of the special "sleeping gas" and he chose watermelon.
In the week leading up to the surgery, we read books about going to the hospital and I even found a Curious George DVD about George going to the hospital. All of these things helped to prepare Jack for what was to come.
On the day of the surgery, we had to get up at 5.30 am. The night before, my 4 week old baby, who had been sleeping really well at night, chose to wake up constantly. It was as if she sensed my anxiety. I therefore started an incredibly hard and emotional day sleep-deprived as well. I'll never forget the look on Jack's face as he was put to sleep. There was no much fear in his eyes and he twisted his head and his eyes to look at me the whole time. I hated watching my "baby" go through that.
There was never more relief than the moment the surgeon came out and told us that the surgery had been completely successful. This elation was only momentary however. As we walked back into the recovery room to see Jack, we heard him screaming uncontrollably. We were told that he was having problems coming around from the anesthetic and that he had what they called "emergence delirium". I held Jack in my arms for two to three hours while he cried and drifted in and out of sleep as he gradually came around. It was a very disturbing experience and one I hope to never repeat.
Three months later we visited the eye doctor and the news was good. Jack's vision was perfect and he would no longer have to wear glasses. So, in the end, it worked out. It was the right decision. Even now, knowing how everything worked out, when I think of the surgery, my chest tightens and I wish that it had been me, not Jack. I pray that we never have to repeat this experience with any of our children.
Karen Sams lives in Minnesota with her husband, Jeff, and her two children, Jack (4 years) and Grace (7 months).