Ben had brain surgery last week. It was an elective operation, in which electrodes were inserted into his brain. These are connected to a battery pack about the size of a cigarette packet on the right side of his tummy. The idea is to try to reduce his dystonia and therefore give him a bit more control over his body. It’s called Deep Brain Stimulation.
Ben spent a week in hospital after the surgery. He was discharged yesterday and is now back at home – recovering well but still in discomfort. We are relying heavily on paracetamol and films.
We chose for Ben to have this surgery. We entered in to it open-eyed – we knew the risks and we knew it would be hard. We hope that the benefits of reducing Ben’s dystonia, and therefore his disability, will outweigh the pain and disruption of the procedure. We thought hard about whether the gains would be enough to compensate for Ben never again being able to trampoline (in case the wires that now run down his neck snap), and not being able to swim for three months.
Having a child go through major surgery and recovery sends you into a hole. The intensity of the emotion and the level of care required is enormous and exceptional.
It feels all wrong to spend your child’s life taking so much care over who looks after them – we have never previously left Ben with anyone except trusted family, carefully chosen carers, at nursery or at school – then leave them with a group of doctors and nurses who you have only just met, and who are going to do unthinkably invasive things to him while he is unconscious. These places are so weird – full of people for whom this is all in a days work, while James and I are reading Ben knock-knock jokes and trying to convince him and ourselves that everything is going to be okay.
The six hours that Ben was in surgery felt like being in the eye of a storm. Everything calm and controlled, but filled with anxiety and waiting for the call to say he was in recovery. I tried not to dwell on the thought that if Ben’s brain was damaged for a second time I would never forgive myself. Then the call comes, and in we go, and the storm sweeps across us all.
We only really emerged from the swirl of hospitals, and cannulas, and exhaustion yesterday. Here are a few thoughts as we come into the light.
When Ben has been in hospital previously, we only had one child and this time we had two. This made a bigger difference to our ability to cope than we expected. Someone who knows Ben well needed to be with him all the time – partly because he was sensitive and sad, mainly because he can’t communicate with anyone who doesn’t know him beyond crying. I had created a rota on a geeky spreadsheet to ensure there was always someone with Ben and someone with Max, but the reality of organising it was so tricky.
The easiest solution was to largely have me or James, or both of us, with Ben and for Max be with family and carers. We knew he’d be confused and annoyed, but hoped new Playmobil pirate sets and promises of cake would get him through. And it did for the first few days. Then, he realised that he hadn’t seen his dad for three days and Ben wasn’t at home. He didn’t understand why last week he’d been on holidays with the four of us hanging out all day, but now he never saw his parents in the same place, his brother was in this mysterious hospital place, and we kept trying to offload him on other people. He was so confused. At one point the fact that both of our kids were struggling nearly broke me. Things improved a bit once Max started visiting Ben at hospital, realised he wasn’t too far away and just looked like Mr Bump, and found out that hospitals have not only play rooms but also cafes that sell croissants.
I am raw to Max’s feelings about all of this. He shows such insight and accommodates so much. On the day before surgery, he asked where we were going to be while he was staying with my sister. We explained (again) that we would be at the hospital with Ben, that he was having brain surgery, that we hoped it would help Ben control his muscles. His first question was, ‘Will Ben be able to eat after the surgery?’. No, he won’t. But the three-year-old is asking all the sensible questions. Be still my heart.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Our family is kept on the road by us all pulling together. For eight days I have spent up to 15 hours in a small room of a hospital. Sometimes with company, largely on my own with Ben, reading The Twits for the sixth time and eating fondant fancies for lunch because I can’t leave Ben for long enough to buy a sandwich. It’s not been that much fun.
But being James has been quantifiably less fun. James did six night shifts with Ben in a row. We were meant to alternate but the kindness of my husband and the frequency of my tears led to him doing every night. These were nights of Ben being miserable, almost no sleep, frequent observations and intravenous antibiotics. This last week, our family has been kept together by this man.
Ben and James developed an amazing kind of symbiosis from spending all of these hours together in adversity in a small room. By the end of last week James knew what Ben wanted or needed from the smallest facial gesture or the subtlest wriggle. He knew when Ben wanted to be held, or how to get him to sleep. Oh man, these boys of mine.
Meanwhile, our families have been at our beck and call. My sister Maddy has once again proved that her capacity to sit in hospital rooms for hours is one of her most valuable skills (photo below of Ben and her just before his surgery). Along with looking after Max for days despite him almost continually insulting her.
It will be okay
So here we are. We’re on Day 9 and Ben is well as he could be. It’s all held together with Calpol and constant entertainment, but we’re home.
A few weeks before the surgery we had a party to celebrate our new house and summer. It was our normal combination of friends, prosecco and semi-naked small children. Uncle George brought his decks and at some point before bedtime he played this song: Can’t Do Without You by Caribou. James and I went to Latitude Festival in July and we arrived, via horrific food poisoning, an emotional final assembly at Ben’s school and six hours of Ipswich traffic jams, to Caribou playing this song on the main stage. I love it.
As we then danced to this song in our garden at our party a few weeks later, with James holding Ben and Max jumping around, I had a moment. A little bit of clarity that Everything Is Okay – Ben is happy, our family is amazing, and we can all dance together at a party with our friends on a summer evening. I imagined looking at us from the outside and thinking ‘they look happy, that little family of four’.
As I sat in the hospital room when Ben was in surgery I listened to this song. As I stood in our kitchen at midnight during the last week, having just returned from the hospital but needing to make Ben’s meals for the next day before I could go to bed, knowing that I needed to be up at 6.30am to get back to Ben and James, I played this song. I imagine that many people associate this song with taking drugs on dance floors, but it’s become my anthem of Deep Brain Stimulation. I absolutely cannot do without my little gang of boys, we just need to get through this little patch of discomfort.