OK, I've pulled myself together now. The memories of that time period are still so fraught with emotion. To make a long story short, my 1-year-old son didn't look at people's faces, didn't wave bye-bye, didn't play "peek a boo", didn't like to cuddle, didn't say "mama" or "dada". He was obsessed with spinning wheels. He was an extremely picky eater, eating only pureed baby foods. He was terrified of certain noises- animal noises, vacuum cleaners, sirens. Simply reading the sentence "The sheep says baaaaa" out of a book was enough to cause him to scream uncontrollably. He had missed several developmental milestones, but his pediatricians had repeatedly told us not to worry. They said I was just being an overly paranoid medical mom and given my history of excessive anxiety during my pregnancy, I was relieved and agreed.
It was my husband who first mentioned the "A" word. At 10 months, our son was so obsessed with spinning wheels, it seemed like that was all he ever did. When we went to his grandparents', he completely ignored them and instead sought out every wheel in the house to spin. My husband, thinking that perhaps wheel spinning was a sign of genius, did a google search and found several parents' stories about autism.
Even I thought that was absurd. "That's impossible!" I told my husband. "We are the most nurturing, loving parents any baby could ever have. Our child couldn't possibly be autistic." Besides, our child did make eye contact with us, he did point, and he loved to read books- he would bring us over 50 books a day to read to him.
But the older he got, the more apparent it became that he was very different from other kids. We took him back to a different pediatrician and were told not to worry. She said he probably wasn't talking because we just weren't talking to him enough - even though we TOLD her that one of us interacts with him all day long and that we read 50 or more books to him daily. We took him to a pediatric neurologist and were told not to worry. I found an internet discussion board on autism and the parents there told me to ignore the pediatricians and go with our gut, so we did. We called our state's early intervention system. They got him evaluated and found significant speech, social, and adaptive delays, so he started getting speech and occupational therapy at 14 months. With therapy, he did finally start gaining words. Two months later, we saw the child psychologist, who diagnosed our beautiful, perfect child with autism.
Words can't even begin to express how I felt when my son was diagnosed with autism. It really wasn't a big surprise, since I had known for some time that it was inevitable, but hearing it from a professional just seemed to import a terrifying finality to it.
I got angry. "WHY ME?" I thought. "WHY MY CHILD?" I felt guilty. What did I do to make my son this way? Was it the formaldehyde in anatomy lab? The mercury in the dental fillings I had removed at the dentist's office? The organophosphate pesticide residues that were in the lanolin ointment I unwittingly used for sore nipples while breastfeeding? Was it the mercury in all those tuna sandwiches I ate while pregnant? Maybe it was the thimerosal in the flu shot I got during my 2nd trimester. To this day, these questions haunt me. Science doesn't have the answers and I will almost certainly go to my grave not knowing the answers.
Meanwhile, my 3rd year of medical school had started and it was miserable. I was on my OB rotation, which was easily the most malignant rotation of my entire med school career. I was never late, never missed a day, never complained, even though I had the toughest call schedule of any of the students. But I got on one resident's bad side through no fault of my own and that haunted me the entire rotation and cost me my grade.
I thought about quitting and staying home with my son, but just couldn't deal with it. My guilt prevented me from accepting my son the way he was. I knew this wasn't good for him. My husband, on the other hand, said he was the greatest kid in the world, autism or no autism. We finally decided that he would quit his job to stay home, take him to therapy, and work with him one-on-one. We educated ourselves as much as possible about autism and learned that the prognosis is not as dismal as once feared, particularly if intervention is started at a young age.
So we took out a massive amount of student loans and he became a full-time stay-at-home father.
It's going to be tough for me to refrain from talking about autism all the time, because basically, for the past 2 1/2 years, my life outside medical school has been about nothing but autism. No parties, no extracurriculars, no dates with my husband, no get-togethers with friends, no long walks in the outdoors, no movies. Correction: on two occasions during 3rd year, I went to lunch with a couple of med school friends. Both times, I felt extraordinarily guilty because I should have spent that time at home helping my son.
3rd year was awful. Some rotations (OB) were worse than others. Psych was nice- I was home by early afternoon most days. Peds wasn't too bad- long 12-hour days on wards, but only 3 overnight calls. On each rotation, I would rush home to see my husband and son. I spent every evening and weekend providing therapy hours for my son. I didn't do the structured teaching his therapists did, but I did use a lot of unstructured play therapy. I tried to get him to communicate his wants, make eye contact with me, imitate hand and facial gestures, engage in simple pretend play. Some days were extremely frustrating, but other days he would make progress that was encouraging. One day he pulled me from the hall into his room, over to his playhouse and indicated that he wanted to play house with me. I nearly cried.
Family medicine kept us busy that winter- we had hospital rounds every AM and clinic every PM, but the attendings and residents were fabulous people who were a joy to work with. Still, that rotation was sheer misery for me because my son was going through a very difficult period at that time. He had basically become completely indifferent to me. Fortunately, he had developed a close bond to his dad, so that was some consolation. But it was so depressing to come home to a child who was never glad to see me and acted as if I weren't even there. Our play therapy sessions became fewer and shorter, since he wasn't paying attention to me anyway.
I started seeing a counselor around this time, just to have someone to talk to, which helped. Our marriage had also really started to suffer- my husband felt overworked and underappreciated as a stay-at-home dad. He felt that everyone blamed HIM for our son's problems, like it was his fault that he was autistic. He also felt really isolated, because he didn't know any other SAHD's and the SAHM's never invited him to their playdates or anything. He would take our son to community events like storytelling and Kindermusik but it was awkward because of his inappropriate behavior at times. People assumed our son was acting out because my husband was a bad father who didn't discipline him.
Our sex life suffered. I think we made love maybe once during an 8-month period. We knew we still loved one another, but we also knew we were both very unhappy.
Things got better, at least for awhile. We switched therapists and our son started doing better. I started my dreaded surgery rotation, but fortunately my best medical school friend was on the service with me. We used the downtime between surgeries to have long heart-to-heart talks, which did wonders for my mental health. Relationships with other women had always been very important to me, but that had completely fallen by the wayside once my son was born. My friend and I survived surgery by spending the long hours in the OR fantasizing about some of the more appealing male residents :censored:
We also covered for each other whenever possible, so we could grab a precious half-hour of sleep or family time. How I wish she could have been on every rotation with me!
My marital life improved exponentially. It didn't hurt that my libido was sky-high from the daily OR fantasy :censored: So even though I didn't see my husband much, we made the most of what little time we had.
My son was also doing better, making great strides in therapy. In fact, he started doing so well that the early intervention team said he had met his goals and cut some of his services.
My husband was still depressed over not having a job, but we decided that he was definitely going back to work after I graduated. In fact, if he got offered a job sooner, we could even leave 5 months prior to graduation and I could do away electives and vacation then.
I always knew I wanted another child, even though the risk of recurrence of autism was 15%. I had always envisioned myself having 3 kids. And since we had no nearby extended family and my son might never learn to make friends on his own, I thought a sibling was all the more important to him.
My second son was conceived during that memorable surgery rotation, during the first month we started trying. Once again, I was to be plagued by severe nausea for 6 months. I still had one more 3rd year rotation to go- internal medicine, of all things. Fortunately, I had great attendings and sympathetic residents who made sure I took care of myself and didn't complain when I left to throw up every single morning during rounds. I managed to do really well on the shelf exam and honor that rotation- God only knows how.
Now I was a 4th year and my goal was to design the easiest 4th year schedule in the history of medical school. Due to my pregnancy, this unfortunately didn't include radiology, but other than that I think I succeeded. Other than the sub-I and ICU rotations, the rest was elective and I deliberately chose the cushiest rotations.
It was a good thing, too. My son had started to really decompensate after his therapies were curtailed. My husband was getting really depressed and frustrated in his job search, which was leading nowhere. And I was so exhausted and nauseated all day, every day, it was all I could do to come home and collapse on the couch every evening. I would still try to do play therapy with my son from the couch, but he would ignore me and I was just too sick and fatigued to chase him.
As if that weren't enough, I developed gestational diabetes that required a very strict diet and daily insulin shots into my abdomen.
Of course, I was still anxious about the baby, though I did a much better job of trying not to worry about it. I still saw my therapist on a weekly basis and tried to keep things in perspective.
We were undecided on whether or not I should apply for residency. My husband was soooo tired of staying home that I knew he couldn't handle it any longer. He had done a fantastic job, but he had had enough. He was worried about his career- and rightfully so. And he didn't feel up to handling the stress of an autistic child during residency. But we couldn't just put a special needs child in just any child care setting. And we were having another baby. So we decided one of us would have to stay home and that person would have to be me.
So my husband kept applying for jobs, but couldn't even get interviews. It seemed no one was interested in hiring a guy who's been home changing diapers for 2 years.
Then we visited my inlaws in our hometown and saw how good my mother-in-law was with our son. She just seemed to have an instinctive knack for how to interact with him and he responded to her. Maybe it would help to have him close to her. This town had a residency program in my field and, lo and behold, it seemed quite family-friendly. Maybe residency would be tolerable with my MIL nearby. Besides, I was going to need a physician's salary in order to provide for my son's needs long-term.
So I interviewed at 2 programs and ranked only that one program. I knew that was the only possible way our family could survive residency.
Then came the thunderbolt. My MIL, who seemed the picture of perfect health, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. We were utterly devastated. She passed away 5 months later.
The match results were released. I had matched at my #1 (and only) choice, but what to do now?