Friday, October 29, 2010

Rake an eel Malaysia

It has been a very difficult two days.
Yesterday Aurelia became symptomatic of NEC, or necrotizing enderocolitis (contains graphic pictures).  The culture is still growing in the lab but our doctors are calling it and treating it as NEC until otherwise proven. A particularly nasty infection of the bowels (with uncertain causes), NEC (pronounced 'neck') attacks and kills the intestines, releasing gases in the process. These gases build up in the intestinal wall and result in perforation, eruption, and tissue death.

Treatment and the infection itself is difficult because often diagnosis is made only when physical symptoms, like hardened stomach, blood in the stool, and abdominal discoloration, are noticed during routine examination. Luckily Aurelia's case was caught particularly early by complete accident. Little A's NJ tube had been moved back into her stomach the day before and she was quite irritable yesterday morning. Our nurse, Laura, (who was an angel these last few days) noticed and worked with the doctors to get an x-ray taken to be sure the tube was still in the right place in her stomach.

That x-ray revealed the NEC. Doctors are hesitant to use the word, I've discovered. I'm not sure if they want to avoid scaring us as parents or if they treat it like teammates treat a pitcher tossing a perfect game in the seventh; as if nothing special is going on because you don't want to jinx any good luck. Aurelia began broad spectrum antibiotics, taking three of the most powerful drugs available to attack this invasion. Her feeds were immediately stopped and the NG tube removed and a sump put in place to drain her stomach. The IV process was disastrous as Jillian mentioned in a previous post, but this is when today's troubles actually first manifested. During the tortuous procedure Aurelia became so agitated her lungs refused to take air. She wasn't holding her breath; on the contrary she was pulling and tugging for all her worth, but air could not get into her lungs.

This caused concern. She settled however, was taken off the oxygen she was temporarily put on, and began responding well to treatment. Other than being cranky due to her lack of food you wouldn't have noticed much out of the ordinary. They doctors scheduled a surgical procedure to insert a PICC line (essentially an IV on crack) for today. This line centrally delivers Aurelia's medicines and fluids directly to her circulatory system at a place near the heart. While prone to infection, these lines are necessary for long treatments since IV lines tend to become useless after several days (not to mention painful!).

After a quiet afternoon and night spent with Jillian while I manned the RMH with Madison and Cassandra, Aurelia treated us to a nice and relaxed morning. We went down to the Cardiac Prep and Recovery Unit (CPRU) and met with the anesthesiologist working on Aurelia today. He failed to impress us in his level of concern and approach to Aurelia. He possessed decent understanding of her previous surgeries and recognized that a different approach with ketamine would help Aurelia avoid general anesthesia. Jillian and I supported that practical course of action since it would avoid yet another intubation and damage to Aurelia's already abused and battered esophagus.

The procedure itself went well. The PICC line went up through her femoral artery and sat nicely near her heart and we successfully avoided general anesthesia. The penalty for this was increasing the amount of ketamine given to Aurelia over time in measured and small doses. Ketamine, for the uninitiated, is a sedative with a number of interesting challenges that includes a particularly nasty streak in infants as they awake. Aurelia, from 2:00 p.m. on (minus a ten minute transfer from CPRU to CCU) wailed for all she was worth. Her sad and strained cries came with increasing pain and agitation for over two hours.

It felt helpless to watch her in such a state. I still think I am reeling from the experience. Everything happened relatively quickly upon our return and even though each individual decision made in the intervening hours happened so fast it felt like I had some sort of time lapse mechanism working to heighten my senses. My ears strained to hear every word from each doctor and my heart raced. I could feel the blood pounding through my head in my ears, almost whooshing with every heartbeat.

I had just sat down to pay some bills online when Dr.Laurence, our resident, came in for a routine check. She expressed alarm at Aurelia's effort to breathe. She smiled at us, mentioned that she'd be back in about an hour to check on her and left.  Within two minutes she returned with the fellow alongside. He examined Aurelia and his normally chipper demeanor vanished. He murmured something to Dr. Laurence and left. Jillian and I knew something had gone awry when moments later he returned with our attending, Dr. Cohen.

The time mechanism I mentioned above tripped on seconds later when it seemed like our room became part of some set on ER or any other medical drama. Doctors rushed in to her bedside, her nurse scooped her up and the examinations continued. Jillian and I somehow got shuffled to the periphery and we watched this movie unfold. At the center we saw Aurelia screaming and working herself to such a frenzy she could not breathe. The attending, resident, and fellow surrounded her talking about collapsing airways and Malaysia (what the hell that had to do with anything I would find out later) and her crying being good. Other nurses arrived and the anesthesiologist came to consult on Aurelia's condition. Clearly our team in the CCU found his contributions unimpressive. Our group dismissed what he had to say because his greatest observation consisted of, "She was like this when they brought her over to us" and "She looked pale coming off the anesthesia and worked herself up, but she did calm down."

He shuffled in and out of the room for the next half hour, unwanted, not needed, and fueling rising anger and irritation in both Jillian and me. With his hunched shoulders, heavy jowls, slovenly gait, and saggy paunch he would wander bedside and make comments like, "what, is she STILL crying?" and "Is this one still worked up?" and "could this be related to her NEC?" While the venomous stare from the senior doctor on our team silenced him after that last comment, I had to leave the room previously, furious and ready to lash out at the callous and arrogant ass for his behavior.

It was like every horrible comment made by that fool punctuated the horror we saw surrounding Aurelia. First the team called for a consult from the attending in the CICU. We blanched at the request, frightened by the sudden need for critical care. The doctors kept maneuvering Aurelia around, searching for positions to ease her breathing and trying to find some way to help her get air into her lungs. They kept looking at one another and noting that she'd somehow get a few breaths in and then her body would clamp down and she'd fail to pull any air.  The CICU attending arrived and they talked in serious tones, gesticulating and touching their necks. Each kept talking about Malaysia. Some small voice in my head kept saying, "what the f*ck?!?" each time I heard it mentioned. They ran over all the particulars of Aurelia and Jillian and I chipped in multiple times when something went overlooked in the rush to get an opinion. I felt particularly proud of Jillian in that moment knowing that when she needed to be sharp and focused for our girl she shone brilliantly.

Our attending and fellow came over to us while the rest buzzed around Aurelia talking and monitoring and trying to calm her and help her breathe. They told us that while the obvious concern was still NEC it had become more and more apparent to them the last three or so days that some sort of airway problem continued to impact Aurelia's improvement. She said that cardiac babies with a paralyzed vocal cord often suffer similar issues, but that this seemed somewhat different as the problem went beyond the previously suspected lung disease. They suspected tracheal malasia. Rake an eel Malaysia??!?!

Apparently tracheal malasia is a weakening condition of the trachea in which malformed or poorly formed cartilage collapses during exhalation which prevents any air from reaching the lungs during inhalation. Dr. Cohen just finished explaining this to us when she told us that we'd be transfered back to the intensive care unit. Tears flowed in our eyes at the step back. We knew that something like this might happen but I still hate that it has. Truthfully, even typing about it now makes me cry some knowing that our little girl needs such extensive care still. She is such a fighter, but it is so hard watching her struggle and hurt so much for so long now.

It is the best place for her. Until we get this airway issue nailed down Aurelia needs the closely monitored 24 hour care. The real blow to our emotions and endurance came in two parts during this discussion with Dr. Cohen. First she talked with us about the big picture, making it quite clear that in all likelihood we will go home with a g-tube of some kind and that if this is tracheal malasia that we may be facing some very scary decisions and treatments - the kind that might forever change how our daughter looks and talks and breathes. Second, and even more psychologically damaging I think, she described Aurelia as first and foremost 'fragile.'

What a word. I know it's true and I know it has been true all along. She is such a determined girl, though that I cling to her strength. It sounds silly, doesn't it, that a 33 year old man and father of a CHD baby clings to that same child's strength? She has been the fuel that keeps me going back and forth between here and Gettysburg, or between Gettysburg and work, and above all in my own mind where I have to fight the loneliness of living alone away from my family and working long days in a thick emotional fog.

She is such an amazing girl. She gives me all the strength I need that I think hearing Dr. Cohen use the word fragile described not just Aurelia's physical condition, but also how this emotional and spiritual marathon has left Jillian, Madison and me. Of course this is all reflection after the fact, because moments after Dr. Cohen said, 'fragile' I left to store our personal affects in a locker on site and the team called her away to examine what appeared to be a hardening stomach.

I returned to see Jillian looking even more distraught. Aurelia's distress revealed a hardened stomach, a classic sign of progressing NEC. Immediately the pace and intensity in the room ratcheted up and an all hospital page went out for the x-ray unit to immediately come directly to our room in the CCU. Aurelia so discolored herself and was pushing her lungs and diaphragm so hard that she actually revealed what appeared to be a umbilical hernia. Our room was full of nurses from the CICU, our nurses, attending physicians, fellows, and residents. Even the social worker from the CICU showed up (and thank God she did) to help talk us through this disaster even as Aurelia screamed so loud we could hear her in the hallway. (For the record, that was such a feat given her one paralyzed vocal cord that we couldn't even focus and had to go back in to her room for a  moment to be sure she was OK).

I swear I felt a mixture of awe and fear and pride at the same time during all this. Fear, of course, for Aurelia and for Jillian and me, but awe at this unbelievable mobilization of medical talent and material, and pride at Aurelia's pure determination and will to fight and not give up during any of these challenges. She continues to inspire.

We made our way to the CICU and whisked our way into pod 5, bed 4, where a nurse we had previously in the CICU, Michelle, stood ready. The teams there transferred Aurelia's care with precision and focus and I thanked myself again for the CCU nurse, Laura. She stayed longer than anyone else to work closely with the CICU team to inform them about Aurelia's care and preferences, and even promised to look in on us tomorrow. Not ten minutes later the level of care seen in the CICU versus the CCU became apparent. The fellow informed us of a way to discover malasia (though Aurelia was so worked up we couldn't try it), they called for a mild sedative to simply allow Aurelia to rest, took a babygram (full body x-ray), and got labs drawn to get immediately analyzed.

Aurelia settled finally and we left her in good hands knowing that we needed to see Madison and that we could think clearer with a little distance and space. We'll keep you all posted as to how things develop and please know that your love and prayers and positive thoughts are so very much appreciated.


  1. You and Jillian must be both physically and emotionally spent after the past two days and today in particular sounded like a horrible experience. It takes real courage to witness one's baby experiencing such pain and suffering and it sounds like you and Jillian shone today in your role as Aurelia's advocates. You are both managing so much right now and it is clearly a heroic effort. But I know it can be hard after days like this to keep giving so much day in and day out. You are doing the best you can. Keep on fighting and hold each other close. You are a strong family and you can make it through this situation. Aurelia is clearly tough as nails! We are cheering for the Dittrich's and would love to take some of this burden off of your shoulders. Please call if you need anything.

  2. Hi - just wanted you to know that I'm praying hard for your sweet little Aurelia. Your description of today was so tough to read, because so many of us cardiac parents have been in similar situations at one point or another. Please know that my son Bodie, too, was called "fragile" repeatedly and we were told he wouldn't be able to leave the hospital before the Glenn and once he had his Glenn, he wouldn't be that strong. Well, he showed them. Not only did he make it out before the Glenn (and spend 2 months at home before his Glenn), but he was home from the Glenn in 5 days, stronger than ever! He is STRONG now - a thriving strong little 8 month old. So just know this, doctors don't know everything. They do the best jobs they can (thank God they do!) and make the best educated guesses they can. But our kids are special and different - truly, no 2 hypoplasts are alike. And they never know which one is going to defy the odds and do amazingly well. Praying Aurelia is one of those!

    Hang in there - lots of people praying for you and sweet Aurelia...

    Mom to Bodie (HLHS)

  3. My heart aches for all of you when I read this, but want you to know you are in my thoughts and prayers!!
    Peggy CCPL

  4. Ilene Berman said.... the prayers continue for you and your family as you all ride this roller coaster they call life. We think of you every day and wish we could take away your pain and worry. You are amazing! Love you all, Ilene and Gary

  5. That little girl is so strong! You are all in my prayers! You are all awe-inspiring! XOXOXO

  6. Wish that there was something that I could say or do to ease the difficulties your family endures. My dictionary says that "fragile" necessitates "handling with great care." That's what you and your CHOP team are doing. Fragility often goes hand in hand with preciousness, and that seems to characterize Aurelia well. Fragile doesn't mean frail or broken. We can admire fragility. I admire all of you. Sending you as much strength as I can muster!

  7. I've been keeping up with your blog... your entire family is in my thoughts and prayers. I believe she is truly a strong little girl and will be a force to be reckoned with as she gets older....

    Pat (Hahn)