Leah took this shot of Charlie lying on me this morning. About two seconds after she snapped the photo, he puked all over my face. I didn’t mind. After everything Charlie has been through, a little projectile vomiting from time to time is just fine by me. And it provided a good laugh for Leah!
Charlie and I were lying like this the other night as we watched an episode of “Private Practice.” Do you watch this show? It’s a spin-off of “Grey’s Anatomy.” I like the main actress, Kate Walsh, who plays neonatal surgeon Addison Montgomery at a fictional health clinic in Los Angeles called Ocean Wellness. Like most medical dramas, many of its plotlines are big on High Drama and not always slaves to plausibility. And I pray that Charlie’s doctors were less committed to sexual escapades with their co-workers than the good doctors of both Ocean Wellness and “Grey’s” Seattle Grace Hospital. Jesus, those docs spend more time having sex in the break room than they do on surgical consults. And yet we’re always supposed to believe they are the best of the best—excelling in their careers even though they all suck at personal relationships. So be it, it’s just a TV show.
When we saw that one of the main plotlines of this week’s episode was a baby born very prematurely, Kendall wisely bowed out. But I couldn’t resist, I wanted to see how the show would depict the challenges faced by micro-preemies and their families.
The baby in the episode was born at 25 weeks, just on the cusp of viability according to Addison. That’s true, it’s extremely early, but our twins were born at 24 weeks and there were babies I met at Cedars who survived who were born at 23, considered the very limit of possible survival (there have recently been several 22-week-old babies who have made it although most do not).
As I’ve discussed, Charlie’s twin Oliver was born with massive problems that started in utero (and probably caused the 16-week-early delivery). His neurological condition was catastrophic from birth and he only survived for 12 hours. In my shock at the way “Private Practice” handled the issue of premature delivery, I certainly acknowledge that all babies born that early face serious life-threatening issues. But our son Charlie had every single problem that the TV baby had, and then some. So imagine my horror when Dr. Montgomery says that she doesn't think she can bring herself to perform the necessary surgeries because there’s really no hope for this baby. She tells the parents right then and there that they should call it a day and stop all treatment.
First of all, and this is just an irritating technicality, a baby born that early would have been immediately transferred from Addison’s Santa Monica clinic to the NICU at UCLA, Cedars-Sinai, or Children’s Hospital. Wouldn’t the NICU’s teams of neonatologists have been making these decisions? And yes, all parents of micro-preemies at some point get the speech about quality of life and the actions they might need to take. There are social workers and medical ethicists who help with this agonizing decision, it should not come from a surgeon who’s reluctant to continue providing treatment, especially when her colleagues, the woman’s own doctors, don’t agree with her assessment.
The next day I got a text from a former NICU mother I know that said “If you TiVo ‘Private Practice,’ don’t watch this week’s episode!” Too late! As Addison was telling the couple to stop treatment, I started screaming at our set, “Don’t do it!!” The husband on the show didn't want to give up, but the mother finally agreed to because the doctor tells her it’s the only way she could hold her tiny baby—if they disconnect him from all the machines. “No, just wait,” I screamed, clutching our now 16 lb. Charlie tighter in my arms, “you WILL be able to hold him, you just might need to wait a long time!”
Another woman I know whose son has almost identical issues as Charlie (and the TV baby) was watching the show after coming home from the Canadian NICU where her son still resides. She wrote on her blog that night: “…the baby is diagnosed with IVH (brain hemorrhage) and NEC (necrotizing enterocolitis). The parents are presented two options: operate and your child will have to be on a ventilator and fed through a tube, or remove life support. Umm…I can't even BEGIN to start talking about how this is presented to the parents…very strongly in favor of removing life support. I want to scream at the television what we know. Well, I'm actually talking to the TV as it is, but still. Ugh.” That poor woman. At least we’ve emerged on the other side with Charlie home and healthy and strong and growing. Such shows must be true terror-fests for people who are in the middle of the situations being depicted. It makes me wonder how other medical conditions are dramatized for TV shows. When I know nothing about them, I just take it for granted that the medical consultants on the shows would at least make sure they get all the facts right.
When Addison tells the parents the baby has necrotizing enterocolitis, all of the doctors gasp in shock. Really? Yes, it’s very serious and requires immediate surgery, but MOST premature babies who get this disease fully recover! Look, I get that television shows need high drama to get ratings, no one is interested in seeing a bunch of medical scenarios that are easily cured or have happy endings. Last year, one doctor on “Private Practice” found herself pregnant. True, she didn’t know which doctor was the father (hello?), but she was very excited about the pregnancy. That is, until the season finale when one of her unhinged patients who had recently lost a baby appeared at the doctor’s house, drugged her, and cut the baby out of her body with a scalpel she bought on the Internet. Yuck.
I’m not pretending that many parents of extremely premature babies don’t have to face the decision that the couple on the show faced. Hell, we did, and there’s nothing worse. Let’s be clear: many premature babies die. But you know what? Most of them don’t! Thank God I didn’t watch this or any other medical dramas last year when we were in the throes of our real-life drama. I haven’t forgotten that these are fictional tales aiming for one thing only: ratings. But forgive me if I breathe a sigh of relief that world-class neonatal surgeon Addison Montgomery was never Charlie’s doctor!