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In the Role of Parent, the Doctor Knows Best

By John Kelly
Tuesday, January 6, 2009

One day, Rahul Shah's 3-year-old daughter walked up to him and made an announcement: "Daddy, I put something in my nose."

In circumstances such as this, what is important is what, exactly, was put in the nose. A finger is easily removed. A peanut, Lego, dime or 1973 Plymouth Duster perhaps less so.

There was every reason to believe that this would be an easy case, however, because Rahul Shah is Dr. Rahul Shah, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Children's National Medical Center. In other words, he is a highly trained professional who removes things from noses for a living.

There, in his Potomac home, he did the same thing he would have done in the emergency room at Children's Hospital: He fashioned a paper clip into a hook. (The paper clip is the great unsung tool in the pediatric ENT's arsenal.)

Dr. Shah asked his wife, also a doctor, to hold their daughter still while he went fishing. It did not go well. The object just would not come loose.

"She was shooting blood from her nose," he remembers.

The Shahs live in an area crawling with doctors, and his wife asked whether, just maybe, there was someone nearby who might be better at levering foreign objects from juvenile nasal cavities.

"No, I'm the best," Dr. Shah said. Being the best means knowing when it's time to change tactics, and so the Shahs drove to Children's, where Dr. Shah sedated his daughter and removed the offending artifact. It was a Barbie shoe, the kind with a stiletto heel.

Said Dr. Shah: "We threw away all her Barbie shoes."

I tell this story not to frighten parents of Barbie-owning toddlers but to illustrate the fact that even doctors' children sometimes need doctors.

It must be an odd thing to spend your days caring for other children -- as doctor, nurse, X-ray technician, whatever -- and suddenly find the tables turned. I know it's weird when a journalist asks me a question.

When I spoke recently with Mary Donofrio, a pediatric cardiologist at Children's, I asked if she'd ever been on the other side of the stethoscope. She mentioned that one of her kids has asthma. In the midst of a severe attack, another doctor was giving her instructions on what to do, speaking to her doctor to doctor. No, she said, I need you to explain it to me as if I was a parent. Even an MD thinks like a mom sometimes.

Linda Metro was working in the medical records department of another hospital when she twice had reason to go to Children's. The first time was for her then-9-month-old son, Michael, who had a blood disorder known as autoimmune neutropenia. He had trouble recovering from fevers and was prone to infection. It's a condition most sufferers outgrow, but until then there were many trips to the emergency room.

Later, when Linda was pregnant with her daughter, Lauren, early sonograms suggested a severe abnormality in the fetus's brain. An in-utero MRI exam at Children's revealed that everything was fine.

I asked Linda if these experiences influenced her decision to apply for a job at Children's. Yes, she said. "It influenced me because I saw what tremendous people worked here," she said. There was the nurse who sat holding on to her son's IV to silence the alarm that beeped every few minutes, and the genetics counselor "who didn't know me ever and made me feel like she'd been a long-term friend." Added Linda: "It's just a very special place to work."

Of course, Children's Hospital extends such care and kindnesses to every patient who enters its doors, not just those whose parents work there.

This is the final week of our annual fundraising campaign. If you've already donated, thank you very much. If you haven't, I hope you'll take the time to make a donation. Any amount -- $100, $25, $10 -- can help us reach our goal of $500,000. Our total so far is $270,840.81.

To make a tax-deductible gift -- and help pay the bills of sick children -- write a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate online using a credit card, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital.

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on the recording.

My blog, "John Kelly's Commons," is at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/commons. My e-mail: kellyj@washpost.com.

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