Children's Hospital often has a profound effect on its patients. But it can have just as profound an effect on their parents.
One father whose daughter underwent major surgery at Children's last month says the institution changed his life as much as his daughter's. He told his story to my associate, Michelle Hall:
The voice on the other end of the phone line said, "My three-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, had brain surgery at Children's Hospital last week. The experience was devastating for the family, but the prognosis is good. I want to help the hospital in any way I can. Maybe if I tell my story it will help get through to people a little more."
Over lunch a couple of days later, Paul Hurdle, assistant general counsel for the National Corporation for Housing Partnerships, began by saying:
"The facts are easy to tell. It's the response to those facts that's so overwhelming."
Elizabeth was plagued with headaches that woke her at night and were sometimes followed by vomiting. A CAT scan discovered a massive brain tumor lodged near her spine. Dr. Kathryn Hammond, a neurosurgeon at Children's, advised immediate surgery. Paul Hurdle and his ex-wife, Lane, checked Elizabeth into the hospital the next day.
The family, including Elizabeth's seven-year-old brother, Paul, toured the hospital the following day. "I wouldn't say it was really soft-pedaled, but children like honesty. Basically all the staff there just told us and her what to expect, on her level," Hurdle said.
"The weekend was phenomenal," he recalled. "We had a liaison between the surgeon and ourselves -- Jeanne (O'Connor), a nurse and clinical specialist . . . . Every step of the way Jeanne would let us know in layman's language what was happening.
"We had a psychiatric nurse, a social worker, a chaplain. Even the radiologists and people who did individual tests would come and talk to us about what they had done. No hospital can be fun, but the way they softened the blows along the way was just amazing."
Dr. David McCollough, chief of the neurosurgery department at Children's, performed the 13-hour operation. He had advised the family that the tumor was probably malignant.
"We were prepared for that," said Hurdle, "and lo and behold . . . ."
Out of surgery came Dr. McCollough, with good news. Elizabeth was one of only two patients he had ever treated whose tumors had seemed malignant but turned out to be benign.
Elizabeth suffered no intellectual damage from the operation, but she will need therapy to correct a number of coordination and motor problems. She is home now, unexpectedly soon, and should be walking normally in three to four months and fully recovered within a year.
Family and staff now must work with Elizabeth to break through her wall of anger and silence. "You say, 'Elizabeth, we're going to the hospital to get rid of your headaches,' " explained Hurdle. "And yet when she wakes up, she has a headache that's 10 times worse than the one she went in with." The wall is beginning to crumble, although slowly.
The family, though greatly relieved, must accept the fact that the kind of tumor Elizabeth had recurs between 15 and 20 percent of the time, though usually in a benign form. In addition, Elizabeth may need to undergo insertion of a drainage shunt.
"But again, if that's going to happen, I'm just so thankful that I'm here at this hospital," said Hurdle.
"Let's face it. We were in a catastrophic situation. Didn't know what day it was, what time it was, where we were -- it didn't matter. We were focusing strictly on whether we were going to lose our daughter or not."
Though the hospital deals with many families each day, the staff seemed to understand that "when it happens to you, it's all new," Hurdle explained.
"If there's one thing I would say, it's that the entire staff acts as if the case is fresh and new. And given the fact that some of these nurses work double shifts, from 7 in the morning until 7 at night without a break except for a quick meal, the fact that they can still bring that freshness to the patient is nothing short of amazing."
"This experience has completely reshaped the way I look at things, my priorities," he said. "Being a lawyer in the real estate business, the primary purpose is to make money for clients. That pales in comparison when you're in a life-and-death situation and you have an institution which is able to respond the way this one did. You can't repay them enough. That's the only way I can put it."
From talking to other parents on Elizabeth's floor, Hurdle said it was clear that many had neither medical insurance nor means of their own with which to pay their hospital bills. Yet the hospital turns no one away.
"I guess my appeal [for contributions] would be directed primarily to parents, because what they're really doing is buying themselves an insurance policy. And I'll tell you, I never have given to Children's Hospital before. Every year I would read the appeal, and I would say 'How nice,' you know, like 10,000 others. 'But I gave to the United Way, and that's my dollar a week.'
"We live in Northern Virginia, and the community there is one of ease and comfort and affluence. You get the deceptive feeling in that environment that everything is sweetness and light -- that health is assumed, along with money and material possessions," Hurdle reflected. Many of his friends and neighbors never gave the hospital much thought until someone they knew needed its services, he said.
"I thought my example might really let other parents who haven't gone through this trauma know that if they ever do, what a great facility they have waiting for them," said Hurdle.
"Maybe the way to put it is this," he said. "What I'm not talking about is the do-gooder -- everybody feels good -- it's happy and cheerful. That's one dimension, but that's only the first dimension. On a profound level, they're on to something in the sense of helping people."