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On Call: The Venn Diagram of Parenting and Doctoring

Thu, 10/07/2021 - 11:11

This morning, I had to hold my 5-year-old daughter still while we tested her for Covid. 

In and of itself, having to hold a child still is not a terribly noteworthy event. It can be hard for small children to keep still -- at the doctor's office, during school plays and graduations, even sometimes during a home movie. You have to pull them into your lap, reassure them, distract them with prizes, or sometimes even wander down the perilous, slippery slope of electronic devices. 

You do what you have to do, parents tell each other, to keep your kids safe. 

Or at least quiet. 

Today was an event along those lines. My youngest daughter has had the sniffles for about three days, along with a minor sore throat. No fever, just those minor symptoms that would, in any other year, hardly be of note. 

Except we are in a pandemic. 

So, for the past three days, I've started the day by doing a rapid Covid-19 test at home. These tests have their own pitfalls, and I've written about them previously, so I'll just say here that they are most useful when someone is acutely symptomatic and there is a substantial local infection rate. In addition, they are most likely to be trustworthy when testing sequentially in a daily fashion, as I've been doing with my daughter. 

We survived the first two days with a combination of cajoling, bribes, and outright begging on my part. (All you parents at home who wonder if it's just you can take heart at the sure and certain knowledge that even physicians have to contort themselves into a thousand pretzel-like caricatures of parenting in order to get their kids to comply with medical advice.)

Today, however, my daughter was not having it. I told her she wouldn't be able to go to school. I offered the usual piece of candy as a bribe. I tried asking if she wanted Mommy to hold her hand, or a beloved stuffed animal to comfort her, or any of a half-dozen other tried and true tricks of the trade. 

Not a one worked. 

Finally, time running out to both get the test done and get all of my children ready for school, I resorted to holding her and doing the test in as safe and efficient a manner as I could. I've spent my share of my medical training in pediatric offices and hospital wards, and I've had to help hold children for blood draws, immunizations, medication administration, and, yes, Covid-19 swabs before. 

It is no easier when it is your own child. As she cried and hollered, I firmly but as gently as possible held her still, braced her forehead with one hand, and did the nasal swabs as per instructions. 

It was absolutely miserable for everyone involved. 

Afterward, she climbed into my lap for a hug. We consoled each other, and a negative test result 15 minutes later (the third in a row) helped everyone breathe a little easier, too. There was a point, however, where my daughter said something that stuck with me: "But it hurt, Daddy! That's why I didn't want to do it." 

I spend what feels like a very large part of my life talking to people of all ages, backgrounds, and cultures about pain, about the myriad presentations it can take, how it can subvert an entire life's narrative, how it can be a warning sign or a red herring. These are vital discussions to have because so often, we just need someone to hear about our pain, to recognize it as real and give it a seat at the table so that it is not shoved aside, as so often can happen with patients who are perceived to be malingering, drug-seeking, or merely "anxious or histrionic." 

Pain matters, and we have to acknowledge that in medicine, or we run the risk of missing something hugely important. 

But we must balance this, as most all parents know, against the idea that pain sometimes just happens. It is an inevitable part of life. Physical suffering, something that comes to all of us at some point and often, as with my daughter today, is a necessary threshold to cross in order to achieve some desired goal, what's "best."

Balancing this conversation is so very hard, both as a parent and as a physician. This moment with my daughter today is where a pandemic has brought us, yes, but it's also just one more opportunity for my daughter and me to learn about growing older together. Someday, I'll be the one in pain, maybe as a nonagenarian having just had my first stroke, and it may be her responsibility to decide how to deal with my pain and suffering. 

Hopefully, she'll look back on days like today with kindness, patience, and understanding. And if she has to keep me still, metaphorically or literally, hopefully I'll do the same.


Joshua Potter, D.O., a physician with Stony Brook Southampton Hospital's Meeting House Lane Medical Practice, oversees the practice's Shelter Island office. He specializes in family and neuromusculoskeletal medicine. Opinions expressed in this column are his personal and professional views and not necessarily those of his employer.

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