Family History: a map for the adventure of life

larch-forest-358059_640Last month I had an incredible experience. I was present for the birth of my nephew. It’s not the first birth I’ve been present for, I have three sons of my own, but it is the first where I was fully overwhelmed by the intensity of the situation. I wasn’t listening for my cue to push or holding my breath and bearing down. I was just there, committed to the moment, and as trite as it sounds, witnessing the miracle life. And what a miracle it is.

When my nephew took his first breath I was unprepared for the flood of emotions. Unlike the birth of my own children, at a time when my adrenaline was pumping and my heart exploding with love and gratitude, I was enveloped by a fury of anxiety and devotion. This perfect little person came into the world more loved than most with years of life to live.

And life can be messy. Life can hurt.

But knowing family that will always support him and stand by him through the valleys and peaks of life, will give him the courage to get messy. To get hurt.

When we’re born, we’re born into a family with complexities, eccentricities and deep-rooted psychologies. We’re not simply a mash-up of genetic material. We’re a complicated, mash-up of generations upon generations.

And if for nothing else, preserving my family’s history serves as a map for the adventure of life.


Mothering Through Adversity

“He’s the luckiest unlucky baby,” says his mother, Marina with a wide smile.  You wouldn’t know from talking with her that her infant son is recovering from major surgery.  Her optimism is as authentic as her love for her family.

More than six years ago, Marina and her husband, Robin, decided to have a family.  When things didn’t go as smoothly as planned, they turned to fertility treatment and were fortunate to have a healthy daughter.   A few years later their joy multiplied when another daughter joined their family.  Counting their blessings, Marina and her husband decided to graciously accept the gift of their daughters and considered their family complete.

I remember three years ago, sitting with Marina at a children’s consignment sale.  She was giddy at the thought of no more Exersaucers cluttering her family room and when I asked her if this meant that there were no more babies in her future, she emphatically replied, “Nope.  We’re a two-kid family.”

Life certainly does laugh at our plans.  Almost two years ago, Marina unexpectedly became pregnant for a third time.  She and her husband were overjoyed albeit a bit surprised.

“We were shocked!  I couldn’t believe it when I found out that I was pregnant.  How did that happen without fertility meds?” Marina says followed by a playful laugh.  “I guess you can’t plan everything!”

Marina endured the usual question during her third pregnancy: “Are you hoping for a boy?” to round out her family of girls and she answered people sincerely by saying that she didn’t care what the sex of the baby, all that she wished for was (s)he be healthy.

Secretly, Marina was anxious.  She felt as though she had tempted fate twice before and won.  She had two healthy babies.  What more could one ask for?  Marina’s fears were brushed aside by most everyone she talked to as “normal” especially for mothers with more than one child.  Nonetheless, she couldn’t let the suspicion go.

After a fairly uneventful pregnancy, Marina went ahead with her planned C-section.  Robin was by her side when they welcomed their baby boy into the world on an early June morning.

Immediately, Marina sensed something was wrong.  Having had two previous C-sections she knew what to expect and reading the expressions on the faces of the medical staff and her husband, she knew her worst fear had been realized.

“They definitely didn’t handle it well at all.  I guess everyone was in shock.  It’s not something you come across every day.” Marina says casually, having forgiven the medical team for their lack of composure.

At first glimpse her tiny son looked dark purple.  His skin wasn’t the pinky hue she’d been expecting and seen twice before.  Immediately the doctors began calling for specialists to make their way to the OR.  Marina felt helpless lying on the table, her stomach being tethered back together, watching her son being examined under lights on a table a few feet away from her.

What seemed like hours later, but in reality was probably minutes, a nurse handed Marina her son.  With her husband by her side, she held baby Niklas in her arms for the first time and instantly fell in love.  Their special moment abruptly came to an end when not even a minute later, Niklas was taken the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) because he was experiencing difficulty breathing.  That turned out to be un-related to the skin condition, but Marina was unsure of what was happening and feared the worst.

An hour later in the recovery room, a young female doctor made her way over to the bedside and gently explained to Marina that her son was born with a very rare and potentially fatal disease, Giant Congenital Melanocytic Nevus.

“I didn’t know what to make of all she was saying.  All that I was heard cancer, and mortality.  I think that I blocked it out.”  Marina says of those first few minutes when she learned her son wasn’t born “perfect”.  In a daze of operative drugs and post-partum hormones, Marina continued to sit in the recovery room frightened that her son might not make it.  She was told that she wouldn’t see Niklas again for at least 24 hours because of his status in the NICU and that she was unable to sit in a wheelchair due to her c-section.

“I didn’t think, at first, that it was that bad until Robin went to speak with the doctors.  We had always agreed that immediately following the delivery; I would stay in the hospital with Niklas while Robin attended his graduation (from an MBA program) that afternoon just a few blocks away.  He’d come back to the hospital later and in a few days we had planned to head home.  But when Robin came back into the room after his meeting with the doctors and told me that he wasn’t going to the graduation, I knew something was wrong.”

Staying in the hospital to recover from her C-section ended up being a temporary reprieve for Marina.  Without Google at her fingertips she was able to digest what information the doctors had told her.  Keeping positive was easy without the evils of Wikipedia permeating her brain.  Robin wasn’t so fortunate.  He went home and preceded to do the very thing the doctors had advised against: he went online to research more about his son’s condition.

Marina explains to me that most people are not born with moles but acquire them over their lifetime.  By age 20 most people have 20 moles but because Niklas was born with so many birthmarks, particularly the large birthmark on his back, his propensity to develop skin cancer is much, much greater.

Congenital Melanocytic Nevus is a dark mole, which cover the body.  There is usually one main nevus that can have hundreds of satellites.  These moles have a high likelihood of either being cancerous or turning cancerous, even in childhood.

The reason the medical staff cautioned against self directed research is that they were still uncertain the extent of Niklas’s diagnosis.  Statistics pummeled Marina and Robin.  Only 0.02 percent of babies are born with Congenital Melanocytic Nevus.  Of those, 1/3 will have nevi on their brain or spinal cord and a very small percent will develop complications that can result in death.

“He’s the luckiest unlucky baby!” Marina says again.  Niklas’s MRI determined that he does have a nevus on his brain but so far he has been developing like any normal infant and recently celebrated his first birthday.  However, it is the fear of the unknown that has weighed heavily on both Marina and her husband.

That is not to say that Niklas hasn’t had his share of challenges over the year.  He has had surgeries to remove nevi (called excision) and is going to undergo tissue expansion surgery.  Like a sci-fi movie, doctors insert a balloon under his skin that will cause it to stretch.  Once the skin has expanded enough, it will be stretched over the area where the birthmark will be removed.  Marina admits that she feels very lucky to live so close to Sick Kid’s Hospital home to some of the world’s leading physicians and surgeons.

In addition, Niklas must stay out of the sun, or completely covered and visit with a dermatologist every six months for the rest of his life.

In spite of this adversity, Marina and Robin remain optimistic and thankful that this all they have to contend with.  “Sitting in the waiting room for Niklas’s plastic surgeon or meeting with other specialists puts things into perspective.”

Please watch for Part Two of my interview with Marina as she shares how Niklas’s diagnosis has changed her family and how she has used social media as a support network.

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