There have been many times over the course of the last 6 years that I have really wished I had gone to med school. In high school, I had made plans to go to med school, up until my junior year when I decided 1, it was too much work, and 2, I didn’t really want to deal with all that… sick. I did have a brief career as a Certified Nurse Aide, working in nursing homes, a mental hospital, and an emergency room. My certification was good for 3 years, by the end of 1, I was done with it. Ha! Life has a funny way of throwing curve balls at you, doesn’t it. Surprisingly, being a CNA actually doesn’t give you all that much instruction in medical terminology, other than giving you fancy ways of saying pee, poop, and change that diaper. Oh, and something or other about blood pressure and range of motion. In other words, it’s a great introduction to being a mom, but other than that, not really all that informative. As a way to pass the time, I often read patient charts. I like puzzles, I like figuring out why things are the way they are, the cause and effect that leads up to this moment. Patient charts make for fascinating reading, especially at the mental hospital. In those charts there are a lot of words, phrases and abbreviations that did not make a lot of sense to me, so I started asking questions of anyone and everyone who would listen.

As a result, the first time I had to deal with a serious medical condition with on of my children, while my medical terminology skills were rusty, it didn’t take me long to catch back up to “nursing slang.” In my free time, I researched as much as possible, not just layman’s term definitions of my children’s conditions, but also medical journals, and anything I didn’t understand, I researched as well until I did. Yes it took a lot of time. Yes it was frustrating. Yes there was a lot of times I thought my head would explode from all the information I was cramming in to it. But when your children are sick, there’s not a lot you can do for them. You feel helpless, redundant, and completely out of your league when the doctors, nurses, and other experts come in and start throwing a bunch of information at you – information that most people have never even come close to understanding before. By doing the research I did, it gave me something to do instead of sit and feel helpless, it gave me information I didn’t have, information I could use to actually discuss my child’s condition with their provider, not just be told what they wanted to do with my child. And it also gave me a better understanding of the day to day workings of my child’s body. When my son was going through chemo, he had lab work done every day. Because I was the one with my son every day, all day, I was able to spot trends that the doctors who only saw him once a day and the nurses who saw him 4 or 5 times a day would miss – things like when a certain number was high, his mood would be just terrible – cranky, irritable, and unreasonable all day. It only happened on the days THAT number was high. Come to find out, that number is a chemical that effects moods. When you understand what all those numbers on the lab reports mean, you know what to look for in your child, and you are better able to articulate to your child’s providers what your child’s needs are.

The other benefit to having at least some knowledge of medical terminology was recently brought home to me when my dad was in the hospital. My step mother had been spending most of every day with him at the hospital, but when he took a sudden turn for the worse, the hospital started calling me to make decisions (I am his medical power of attorney). When I would call in the afternoons to check on him, I would start with “So, how’s he doing today?” and the nurses who had met my step mother but not me would just say, “Well, he’s not any better, but he’s not any worse, he’s pretty much holding in there. He’s got a little better color today, but you know that anything could happen at any time.” When I would then ask “What was his blood pressure readings and this time and this time, what was his creatinine levels, what was his temperature, how much insulin was he given, what’s the status on getting an NG tube placed” and so on, their attitude would instantly change. It’s not that they were unfriendly or unwilling to give information before, it’s just that when dealing with someone who has absolutely no knowledge of medical procedures and no ability to GAIN that information, it’s very difficult to give any other information than a very vague answer without a dramatic shift in patient condition. A working knowledge of medical terminology can give you insight into more subtle changes, and really, when it’s your child that’s sick, don’t you want to know everything you possibly can?  In my dad’s case, he had serious kidney problems and we knew he would not want to go on dialysis, but if his kidney function dropped below a certain point we wouldn’t have a choice. So we had to watch those numbers very carefully, and even the slightest change in either direction was a big deal for me because I knew how much weight that number carried.

The bottom line, when dealing with your child’s illness, you are preparing yourself for war. Arm yourself with every tool you can because knowledge is NEVER unnecessary or wasted.