Feeding our children is a fundamental duty of parents. Our culture equates food with love and nourishing your child is a means of showing your love. This is why it is so devastating when your child is sick and will not eat, or cannot keep down the food that you provide. Parents watch their children dehydrate and lose weight and it feels like they are failing them in meeting this basic goal.
This time of year, my office is full of children with gastroenteritis. I counsel these frustrated parents about how to maintain hydration and advance the diet of their sick child. We review the physiology of what is happening in their child’s gut to explain the symptoms and recovery. We trial oral rehydration so that I know the child can succeed at home. We discuss goals for their intake and plans for follow-up.
After all of this, parents will still look at me with a look of hopelessness. With a sheepish look, they often admit to me that they are just “so tired” or that they “have done nothing but laundry” as they care for their helplessly messy and cranky child. I recognize myself in their look of exhaustion. Almost a year ago, a stomach virus ran through our family of four. Our toddler threw up everywhere. Our infant threw up on every outfit I managed to put on. I struggled to breastfeed between my own bouts of sickness. Then, our washing machine broke. At a state of desperation, the thought ran through my head that it would just be easier to move and start fresh than to clean the wreckage of this illness.
Sharing this moment of vulnerability with patient’s families usually brings a smile to their weary faces. Even doctors are humbled by the power of illness. Then, symptoms start to fade, your laundry pile shrinks, and you gain some perspective on the situation. There is nothing like being sick to make you appreciate the days when you are all healthy. When I am having a stressful day managing work and toddler tantrums, I remember to be thankful that we are well. So I tell these frustrated parents that while there will always be more laundry, this illness will eventually pass, their child will eat normally again, and for that they should be thankful.