After having a child with special needs, I had to swap out one of the operational metaphors that guided my thinking. Before Ann came, I was a big bootstraps guy: You make your own success, and if you’re struggling, then you’re probably not working hard enough.
After she came, I started thinking a lot more about the kid who asked his dad to lean the ladder against the treehouse, then climbed up, kicked the ladder away, and said, “Look where I got to all by myself!”
Because there’s nothing like a major life challenge to help you realize how dependent we actually are on people who step in to help us when there’s really nothing in it for them. As my wife and I look back on our 15-years-and-counting journey through the education and health care systems, the monuments along the way are to people who stood in the gap. The ones who could’ve filed their form or checked their box and moved on to easier cases. But instead, they grabbed the ends of two (or three or 10) ropes flailing in the wind and tied them all together into an actual solution. If you work with kids caught up in any of our society’s systems, my absolute hope is that you’re one of the gap-fillers, like Dr. Dan, who we met when our daughter Ann was 4 months old.
At that point, Ann was mired in the mysterious diagnosis “failure to thrive.” Slow to gain weight. Slow to hit the early benchmarks. But why? As soon as our first pediatrician realized this went beyond an ear infection, he backpedaled like a guy who accidentally stumbled into an advanced math class. Where should we go? we asked. His answer translated to something like, “Anywhere but here. I’m out at 5 every day.” I’d never imagined a doctor shrinking from a challenge like this. Didn’t every doctor on TV live for those cases no one else in the hospital could crack?
Not so much. So we bounced around to a few GPs and specialists until someone finally referred us to Dr. Dan, a gastroenterologist. We went to the hospital professional tower, found his name on the lobby wall, and trudged to the third floor, expecting another runaround.
But Dr. Dan sat down and addressed us as “Mr. and Mrs. Meers,” even though he was at least 25 years our senior. He asked questions that indicated he’d actually read the file before coming into the room. And then he said, “We’re going to get to the bottom of this.” He admitted Ann to the hospital and lined up a stream of specialists to come in and winnow through potential causes until we ultimately landed on the genetic disorder at the heart of it all.
Even though my wife and I were rookies in the health care game at that point, we realized after a couple of days in the hospital that we’d stumbled onto some kind of guardian angel in Dr. Dan. After the first days, he faded into the role of an unseen guiding force, with every specialist who came in saying, “Dr. Dan said I absolutely had to come see you today. How can I help?” Even I could recognize that your typical GI doc probably doesn’t assemble all-star teams of specialists to help a kid he met yesterday. And I was certain the typical GI doc doesn’t call you on Sunday morning from his exercise bike to ask how things are going.
Occasionally, we’ve seen Dr. Dan in the hall of the office tower since then, and I’m not sure he remembers us anymore. But he’ll always be part of Ann’s story for being the guy who raced into center field and yelled, “I got it!” when everyone else seemed content to let the ball fall between them.