It all started with a belly ache.
Anyone who has had kids knows that bellyaches are about as common as scraped knees and hurt feelings. An hour or two and a little TLC is usually good enough to see them through. Some last longer and you hope it’s not the beginning of a bug that’s going to light up the gastrointestinal tracts of the whole family.
But Ben’s belly ached just kept grumbling along. Ben is our introverted and unassuming 12-year-old – the second youngest of four. Some middle children turn a little rebellious (that was me), while others become peacekeepers. Ben is decidedly the latter: gentle, creative, and observant. He never wants to bother anybody.
Over two days, he moved from his bed to the couch every few hours. He never complained, but his appetite fell off. He got pale. On the morning of the third day, he came into my office to say good morning as he always does, this time walking very slowly. He struggled to bend down to hug me.
“Rough night?” I asked. Stupid question. He was hunched over, face white, puffy eyes tight at the corners.
“Your stomach is worse?”
“It got worse last night. I couldn’t really sleep.” In spite of the pain, he leaned in for another hug.
With some trepidation, he allowed me to palpate his abdomen. Softly and slowly, I worked my way around to his right lower quadrant.
One thing that quickly becomes apparent in medical school is that there are a lot of diagnoses, syndromes, and clinical findings that are named after the dead doctors who discovered and popularized their utility. One of the first that every medical student learns is “McBurney’s point”, a spot that lies 2/3 of the way from the umbilicus to the ASIS – the “hip bone”, which is really that part of the pelvis, that you feel just above the beltline.
When I got to McBurney’s point on Ben, his abdominal muscles clenched reflexively and he staggered backward, tears in his eyes.
“I’m so sorry, buddy. I just had to do that once.”
I put my arms around him and told him the news. “Ben, I think you have appendicitis.”
Our day was spent moving slowly but surely through the health care system. First, our small local ER where an ultrasound confirmed the diagnosis a few hours later. The emergency physician called ahead to a larger neighbouring hospital with surgical services and arranged a consult with the general surgeon on call. We dropped in at home to grab a few things, then drove the 30 minutes, careful to avoid as many potholes as possible on the way. Ben sat in the passenger seat asking me one hundred questions about IVs – the part he was most afraid of. Needles are easier to understand than surgery and, therefore, scarier.
We found a spot in the waiting room of the second hospital’s ER. Ben lay down with his head on my lap, his pain getting worse. Eventually, we were brought into a room. I sat beside Ben as the surgeon assessed him and confirmed that emergency surgery would be booked for that evening. I sat beside Ben as the IV was inserted by a kind young male nurse bulging with muscles – thankfully on the first try. Hours later, I walked beside the stretcher as Ben was wheeled up to the pediatric floor and we met the wonderful nurses there. I helped Ben out of his clothes and into a gown – he could no longer bend over. It was all hard for him to endure, but he didn’t have to do it alone. It was me and Ben, together.
The minutes and hours ground by, much of it in silence. A few times, Ben felt like he needed to apologize. “Sorry you have to stay here the whole time, Dad. You probably have other things you wanted to do today.”
“Ben, there is no other place I’d rather be than here with you. No place.”
“OK.” Pause. “I’m really glad you’re here with me. Thanks, Dad.”
We passed the time watching HGTV and talking about how Grandpa had also needed his appendix out when he was twelve, how different it was back then. I was with Ben when they rolled him down to the OR at 10 pm. I was there as soon as he was allowed a visitor post-op. I stayed beside him all night.
Ben is now recovering at home and doing well. After a few days on the couch, he couldn’t wait to get back to school. A few more weeks and this will all be a memory.
When you think about financial independence, what do you envision? Nice cars? Luxurious vacations? A beautiful new kitchen? Those are all nice things, and thinking about them feels exciting.
Thinking about your child getting appendicitis is not exciting at all. It’s scary. And yet, this is really what wealth is for. The highest purpose of money is to give us control over our time. The fact that I was there to recognize the problem and be by Ben’s side through the whole, scary ordeal is something that I am deeply grateful for. There was literally no place I would have rather been.
People define wealth in all kinds of ways: making a lot of money, having a lot of money, having a lot of nice “stuff”, living a life of leisure . . . But this experience reinforced that for me, wealth is having the freedom and bandwidth to catch life’s curveballs.
The paradox is that we measure wealth in money, but it’s not about money at all.
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Great post Matt. Thank you for allowing us such an up-close and personal glimpse into your family, and a wonderful reminder of what really matters. I was welling up reading this. So happy Ben is better now. Well done ‘Dad’!