Monday, November 16, 2009

The Big Lie-Bowski

Now that the trauma has begun to fade, I am issuing this entry as a warning to any and all expectant parents. I'm guessing that friends and family never thought to caution me about the dreaded PKU test because they continue to block it out, imagining that it was merely a nightmare or some sort of gory, sleep-deprivation-induced hallucination. Maybe it's one of those secret parenting initiations that you have to go through without preconception just to prove to those who have fallen before you that your skin is thick enough to deal with this parenting thing. To that I say: Enough is enough! Let the secret be told - PKU is a euphemism for Baby Torture. It's a necessary evil, but have no illusions - it is evil.

Last Thursday afternoon, we took Amari to the hospital - our first official family outing. What a lousy first field trip. Maybe there are some people love hospitals, who associate them with successful surgeries or the blissful after-glow of pneumonia, but I have never been a fan, never thought to myself, "Man, this sterile, white corridor and rooms full of sick or dying sure brings back fond memories." Come to think of it, I did really enjoy the game room at UCSF when my dad was sick with a staff infection. This time, however, there would be no games, unless you fancy and quick round of Bleed the Baby.

Our midwife mentioned the PKU in passing at the end of our Wednesday visit, handed us a referral, and suggested that we do it at our convenience - no big deal - but as soon as possible. The afternoon of the test, a colleague told me that the PKU is very important, that it tests for an amino acid deficiency that can ultimately lead to mental retardation. She's a kind, compassionate friend, not the sorority or Skulls type, so I don't think she was in on the initiation, and I can only imagine she omitted the details of the test to spare me the added anxiety. Her overall tone was "This important, but also no big deal." So, until we arrived at the hospital, the biggest deal I anticipated was taking Amari in and out of the car seat. Guess what? No big deal.

By the end of the weekend, I was brave enough to Google PKU, because the acronym and even the word itself - phenylketonuria - sounds innocuous. During the test, however, I was convinced that PKU was a Latin acronym that meant Infant Blood Letting or Phucking Krazy Unbelievable. I felt misled, even betrayed by the nomenclature. Call it what it is for Pete's sake. If you're going to puncture my baby's foot and juice it until her blood fills five circles the size of her palm, give some kind of indication in the title. Call it the BBJ - Baby Blood Juicer or even the PTT - Parental Trauma Test, anything that would give us a sense of what was about to happen.

When the nurse pricked Amari's foot she began to cry as quickly as the blood began to pour out of her foot. I watched for a while, hoping that she only had to fill one quarter-sized circle on the test sheet. When she moved on to the second circle and Amari's blood was already beginning to clot, I thought, "You've go to be kidding." At one point I said "I need to use the bathroom," hoping it was somewhere on the other side of the hospital, hoping that by the time I returned this would all be over. "Sure. It's just around the corner," smiled the homely, sadist lab tech as if to say, "You can still hear your daughter's screams from in there."

When I got back, Carrie asked me to take Amari's leg that she was holding in place. The wailing had reached new heights, a pitch we hadn't experienced yet. I felt conflicted about putting my face near her to soothe her crying, worried that she would think I had something to do with all of this. I wanted to whisper, "This is all her fault," and turn Amari's face toward the lab tech, but Amari was too consumed with screaming and blinded by tears to see anything. I thought in that moment that I would craft a mask resembling one of my least favorite relatives for future occasions such as this.

Her blood clotted and the nurse had to puncture Amari again. On the plus side, I guess she's not a hemophiliac, but it was too soon to see that silver lining. I was annoyed; I was certain the lab tech was incompetent, leaving patches of cotton swab on the bloody foot, telling us to wipe it off later when we give her a bath. I brought a swab-free, un-punctured baby in here and she wants me to clean up her mess? The second time the blood came faster and so did the tears. I imagined Amari as a young child or a teenager suffering from an injury or an emotional loss. I knew this was the first of many heartaches for me, helplessly watching her in the hospital were just part of the parenting territory. I'm pretty sure that, with time, it will get easier...and then harder...then easier again, and so on.

Carrie and I felt fragile when we got back to the car, each expressing it in our own unique ways - she with tears and humor, and I with humor and indignation. Amari, on the other hand, snuggled tightly in her car seat beside me, had already traded in the PKU for some R.E.M. To us, she might have said, "Mom, Dad - no big deal."

Unsolicited Parenting Advice: Now that I'm licensed by birth to pass along my opinions, the only suggestion for those who have not experienced the PKU is to ask if you can either feed or just hold your baby during the test. Our lab tech did not give us that option, and we were too rookie to ask.

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