To the Internet, Not So Fast

Back in 2007 I had a troubling sickness. It started with migraines, then it transitioned to the frightening Bell’s Palsy, and whatever I had did not stop there. I developed iritis (inflammation of the iris, which makes the whites of your eyes blood red and the photophobia can be unforgiving). I had partial hearing loss in one ear. Doctors ran me through a battery of tests. In a few months I had a CT, blood draws, many eye exams, an MRI with and without contrast, X-rays, and a flexibility test, where the doctor looked for signs of Ankylosing Spondylitis, a symptom of which can be stiffness and pain in the spine and neck.

The tests turned up nothing of concern, but the symptoms continued to give me plenty of reasons to worry. In between visits to the doctor I would sometimes have a lapse of judgment during which I logged onto the internet and did some self-diagnosing. What I found was terrifying. There was an encyclopedia of diseases and unheard of (to me) maladies that could, in theory, give me some of the symptoms I had. Brain tumors. Cancers. Crohn’s disease. Thinking about it all scared me. The doctors, I knew, were doing their best to give me an answer. For a time, I thought that their lack of explanation was a bad sign. When I was firmly convinced of this I went to the internet. Ultimately, what I found led to prolonged worry and who knows, maybe some of the symptoms would have gone away sooner if I was not giving them their unwarranted attention.

By 2008, all of my aches, pains, and inflammation were gone. Most likely a virus had attacked me and, my body, with some hiccups along the way, crushed it. However, if any of the symptoms had returned in the seven years since I would not have consulted the internet. I would have gone to a doctor.

To have this lesson in my back pocket heading into London’s bumpy start to life was an unexpected blessing. London’s actual and possible complications from prematurity were a tsunami of information compared to my sickness years ago. The first wave of preemie particulars and statistics hit even before London was born. While I was waiting outside the operating room a doctor came by and ran down a random list of possible complications. She told me 26-weekers have an 85% survival rate. This brief conversation introducing me to the challenges preemies face was similar to seeing the tip of an iceberg above water. The other 90% was below the surface, or in our case, through the OR’s double doors and on into the NICU. To borrow from The Lord of the Rings, it was “the deep breath before the plunge.”

*          *          *

Upon your family’s arrival in the NICU, you might feel like you’re drowning. There are more people taking care of your baby than you can keep track of. There is a new procedure every day. Thus, there are results every day, results that must be explained to you, sometimes three or four times. In addition to that, there are a lot of unknowns and, regardless of how talented the NICU staff may be, no one can accurately foresee the obstacles ahead for your baby. The internet is not going to be any different. There, you will find many question marks and new and more dangerous preemie complications to worry about, even if your baby is not suffering from them.

As parents with a baby in the NICU, Kate and I felt like there needed to be a sacred part of the day, during which we would try to not worry about the next results from London’s latest blood draw or echocardiogram. Of course, to not worry is impossible. It is more accurate to say we carved out time in each day during which we would purposefully not heighten our worry. This time became essential to getting us through every month our daughter was in the NICU.

Seeking information or support online seemed to only disrupt any sense of peace and hope we had regarding London’s course of treatment. If it was information we sought, then it was to go down the rabbit hole again, entering a world where one complication, like a brain hemorrhage, could lead to hydrocephalus and, almost certainly, cognitive disabilities. At least, that is what the internet would like you to believe at times. And if it was support we queried, we discovered far more troubling accounts than our own, which led to more worry.

Very early on in our NICU adventure we discovered the very poor predictive quality of the internet. Thus, the net never became a source of information for us. We much preferred getting answers straight from the trained professionals who were taking care of our daughter.

I have used the internet for queries about preemies many more times since starting this blog than I did while my daughter was in the NICU. When I am using the internet to find a definition of a certain malady, it can be helpful and I am grateful for that, but the internet will remain a horrible diagnostician and a font of worry for parents with a baby in the NICU.

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