Kids Need Nature

 

By Mary Richmond

By Mary Richmond

One wet spring, the hills behind my childhood home came alive.  The usually dry ground sprung leaks so that the hills seemed to be crying for joy.  I discovered one of those leaks, a small hole in the ground from which sweet, icy-cold water burbled forth.  I knew that this ground-level fountain was different from the puddles from which the dog lapped.  This was clean water from deep within the earth.  I got on all fours and took a long pull.  It was the best drink I’ve ever had.

That was the first and last time I ever had the privilege of discovering a spring, and it made a lifelong impression.  It worries me that so many kids are deprived of the opportunity to have experiences like that.  Daily, intimate contact with nature is vital to the well-being of children, a point which Richard Louv brought home in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.

In the introduction to the book, Richard Louv describes a conversation he had with his son.  The boy had wondered why “it was more fun” when his dad was a kid.  My own boys wonder the same thing.  They pine for open spaces where they would be free to play and create.  Places with trees.  Places like my childhood home.  What science is beginning to make clear to us, my children seem to instinctively understand: kids need nature.

Nature and Health

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” – Rachel Carson

I used to run up the steep hills behind my house without getting winded.  My daily tramps through the fields and woods had made me strong.  My friends loved to come romp with me in the hills, but they often could not keep up.  Lives spent parked in front of the television had made them soft.

I know that if I had lived in a suburban subdivision, there would have been little to propel me into the out-of-doors.  What got me outside was not the thought that I needed some fresh air and exercise, but the prospect of all those acres to explore – “scope for the imagination”, as Anne Shirley would have said.  I didn’t care a snit about the condition of my muscles or lungs, or how much my play was increasing blood-flow to my brain.  All I knew is that outside felt good, and that is where I wanted to be.

Nature and Spirituality

“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.”  – John Burroughs

I could see out over the plains all the way to the distant mountains from my perch on the hill.  That was where I went to be alone with God.  Above it all, I was able to put my troubles in perspective and gain a sense of peace.  All children should have the opportunity to find a special place, a thinking spot.  They should, but they do not, which is why frequent family outings to the woods or the mountains, the lake or the river are so important.

On one such outing, I had invited a student and friend to join me and my family.  On a trail in Mt. Rainier National Park, she stopped to admire the chain of jagged peaks marching off into the horizon.

“How could anybody deny that God made this?”  she exclaimed in wonderment.

By Mike Baird

By Mike Baird

My own son said something similar once.  When he was 5 years old, I took him on a camping trip to the Olympic Peninsula on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  We could see all the way to Canada from our side of the straight, and daily we would watch the cargo ships, sailboats, and even a submarine pass by.  But what really impressed my son was not anything man-made.  One day we were examining the anemones and starfish in a tide-pool.

“I just love Jehovah!” said my son.

Such is the power of nature to inspire awe and appreciation.

Nature and Intelligence

Howard Gardner is known for his theory of multiple intelligences.  He originally theorized that there are 7 intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.  He more recently added an eighth intelligence:  naturalist.

The core of naturalist intelligence is the human ability to recognize plants, animals, and other parts of the natural environment, like clouds or rocks.

–  Howard Gardner

Transcendent experiences in nature intensify our senses and ability to see connections.  Many of our most celebrated authors seem to owe much of their genius to their attunement to the natural world. Jane Austen, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and Barbara Kingsolver are a few that come immediately to mind.

Leslie Stevens views nature as an educational necessity, which is why she has moved her family to the edge of a canyon where her children might be free to roam and play.  Here, she describes how nature taught her about the concept of shelter:

A child who is allowed to run free in a place that is natural will very quickly begin to look around for a special shelter.  The interior framework of bushes is inspected and judged for its suitability to act as a fort.  Trees, especially mature ones, provide towering castles, and the best climbing branches are claimed as “rooms”.  In contrast, the exposure a child feels running across a grassy, sunny, slope or wide, open field allows her to feel the lack of shelter.  It is only through experiencing both opposites that children begin to understand each part more deeply.

I learned much about shelter from my own wanderings.  A big old ponderosa pine inhabiting some woods on a hill near my home provided the perfect skeleton for my playhouse.  The branches of the tree curved to the ground as if it were purposely sheltering the place around its roots.  I saw that with the addition of some sticks for more support, that I would be able to insulate the framework with bundles of pine-needles to create a cozy shelter.  I engaged the cooperation of my brother and sisters, and we soon had a little house to please any hobbit.  Many happy hours were spent there.

By Mike Petrucci

By Mike Petrucci

Other things I learned from my experiences in nature include the fact that snow berries are very bitter, lichens are edible but taste very bad, maple leaves are edible and taste very good,  red clover is an acceptable substitute for bubble gum, certain types of flowers contain so much nectar that it can be sipped from the blossoms, moss is one of the first green things besides crocuses to appear in the Spring, and pineapple weed tastes like chamomile.  I also learned that what we do makes a difference to the Earth.  Because I loved to see beautiful things, I deeply resented litter and would never have thought of tossing my candy wrappers on the ground.  For the same reason, I hated to see trees being cut down or streams polluted or the advancement of urban sprawl.

Important lessons I would say.

Nature and Creativity

Natural, more loosely structured environments encourage more creative play.  On the playground at my school, we played tether ball.  But in the hills behind my home, we played Crystal Kingdom, Lost, Train-wreck, and Indians.  We created entire fictional worlds up there.  It seems as if this type of play must be the stepping stone to the type of creativity that, in later years, writes great novels, paints beautiful pictures, and sculpts beautiful objects.

I could write pages about all the famously creative people who were inspired by their experiences in nature.  I will, instead, let a few of them speak for themselves.

“It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to…The feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures.” – Vincent van Gogh

“I am well again, I came to life in the cool winds and crystal waters of the mountains…” – John Muir

“And this, our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” – William Shakespeare

“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.”  William Wordsworth

I wrote poetry when I was a girl.  The inspiration came from trees, sun, wind, and animals.  I don’t think I would have written things like the following haiku without intimate contact with those things.

Silence in the wood

A silence the wind can blow

With me there is peace

How many of our young Shakespeare’s and Van Gogh’s sit languishing in classrooms and in front of screens?

The Problem of Distraction

My kids would sit at the computer or with a tablet like punch-drunk social butterflies connected to the hive mind nearly all of the time, I believe, if I allowed it.  Television and internet have drastically changed the way that we relate to the world.  We are at once connected and disconnected.  I once heard electronic media described as WMDs, weapons of mass distraction.  That seems apt.

Henry David Thoreau had some thoughts on the social media of his time, newspapers and letters, that now seems almost prophetic:

You may depend on it that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while.

Change that to read “the greatest number of likes”, and you have a profound indictment of uncontrolled use of online social media.  There is nothing inherently wrong with social media, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with newspapers or letters.  But the point Thoreau was trying to make, and the one I want to make, is that those things may become a distraction from pursuits that are much more important.  We should not, as Thoreau, stated, “live for idle amusement.”

In his book, Data Smog – Surviving the Information Glut, David Shenk said this:

Turn the television off.  There is no quicker way to regain control of the pace of your life, the peace of your home, and the content of your thinking than to turn off the appliance that supplies, for all too many of us, the ambiance of our lives.  Millions of Americans have been discovering the serenity and empowerment that comes with using the OFF switch, not to mention hours and hours of newly acquired free-time with which they can begin to do some of the things they’ve never found time for in the past.

The point is this: for kids to gain the benefits of contact with nature, we have to help them unplug.  It’s amazing what happens when all the screens go dark.  The skateboards come out.  The dirt pile outside begins to look more attractive.  Young eyes begin to rest upon birds and rabbits and clouds rather than those flickering pixels.  A child begins to “hear from himself”, and I might add, from God himself as well, as God reveals himself in his creation.

The Problem of Access

I always get stir-crazy in the winter.  I miss green so much that I begin looking for ways to get somewhere, anywhere, that will soothe me.  One winter, after having researched Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife river access points, I went looking for somewhere to walk where I could see water.  Every access point I checked was closed to the public.  The only way to approach the river anywhere near my home would have been to break the law.

I finally found a hill that overlooked the river that was not farmed (quite rare in my part of the world).  I parked my car and took a walk with my dog.  I enjoyed my solitude while Elsie bounded around in the brush, sniffing here and there, long tongue hanging out the side of her mouth.  She flushed a covey of quail out of the sage as we approached the crest of the hill where we could see the sparkling coils of the river below, gray, leafless trees flanking its sides.  I stood for a long while and let the scene penetrate and calm my beauty-hungry heart.

As I was driving away, I saw it.  NO TRESPASSING.

I had done the thing I had been hoping to avoid.  I had broken the law in my attempt to get close to the water.

As a property owner, I understand what it is to feel protective of my patch of ground.  I certainly don’t want herds of teenagers partying on the back forty (or in my case, the back 1/4), tossing their cigarette butts and empty beer bottles all over the place.  I don’t want hunters with their rifles tramping over my pasture in search of pheasants.  But why can’t I go to the river?

Nearly all riverside land in the 20 miles surrounding my town is privately owned, most of it by farmers who are in the process of completely destroying it.  They plow land right up to the river’s edge, encouraging soil erosion.  Chemical fertilizer and pesticide runoff  cause algal bloom and poison fish so that we take our lives into our hands if we try to eat anything from the river.  These farmers don’t want the general public tramping through their fields, orchards and vineyards to get to the river.  But we shouldn’t have to.  The state owns pieces of land all along the it.

One of the reasons people are denied access to state land is because ecologists want to protect what’s left of wildlife habitat.  Although I agree that protection of wildlife habitat is a necessary and laudable goal, the state shoots itself in the foot by failing to provide year-round access to state land not just to hunters and fisherman, but to all of us who just want to enjoy nature.  If we can’t find places near home where our children can go on a daily or weekly basis, there may be no one left in the future who even wants to protect wildlife habitat.  How can we encourage a love of nature in our children if they can’t even get near it?

It is difficult, but not impossible to find places close-by that might inspire love of nature in children.   We don’t have to go to Rainier National Park or the Oregon coast just to enjoy the natural world. Beauty is everywhere for those who have eyes to see.  Sometimes little patches of leftover wildness can be enough.  On our walks along an irrigation canal near our home, my kids and I often spot ducks lazily paddling in the water.  The blackberry brambles whose juicy, dark purple jewels are a delight to my boys also grow along that canal.  The sycamore in the yard, the flowers in the garden, and the butterflies in the grass all wait outside our door to be appreciated.

 

What price do our children pay for our disconnection from nature?  The price is stunted talent, soft, weak bodies, lost opportunities for learning, and a planet in ruin.  The price is depression, anxiety, and apathy.  The price is disconnection from God and from all he created.  The price is too high.

We must teach our children to unplug, go outside, and open their eyes.  Show them how important contact with nature is by driving them to the wildest places we can find.  Talk to them about what they see, about the significance of it.  Revel with them in the beauty.  Almost nothing could be more important.

richardlouv.com

http://www.childrenandnature.org/

 

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.  This post contains an affiliate link.

All photos under Creative Commons license

 

 

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Kids and Chemicals

glowingember

Like an ember glows bright red when blown upon, my son’s skin reddens in response to chemicals.  His nose runs, his eyes become glassy, and his breathing labored.  As if someone had slipped speed into his drink, his mind races and so does his body.  This has been my son’s reaction to substances like fragrance, cleaning chemicals, and car exhaust since he was just a baby.

About a year and a half ago, we were forced to remove our boy, then 12, from public school.  The state of his health had reached crisis level.  Weepy, bloody, septic eczema plagued him day and night.  Asthma left him breathless.  He cried nearly every evening when we insisted he go to school the next day.

Public school, far from being a place of safety, can be one of the most dangerous places a chemically sensitive child goes.  Things like regular fumigation for pests, application of lawn chemicals, use of strong cleaning chemicals and air fresheners in classrooms, and even kids who come to school with heavy fragrance hanging about them from fabric softener, deodorant, hair products, and cologne all contribute to the creation of a very toxic environment.  No child should be subjected to these things.  But for a chemically sensitive child, school is very often a nightmare beyond anything most of us can imagine.

Sick-building syndrome surfaced in the 1970’s when to conserve energy, many naturally ventilated homes, schools, and offices were replaced with airtight, air-conditioned buildings. Insulation, treated wood, volatile adhesives, and synthetic fabrics and carpets were often incorporated into these buildings and their furnishings.

Especially when new, many of these products release low levels of potentially harmful chemicals, such as formaldehyde, into the recycled air. Carpets add to the problem by absorbing various cleaners and solvents and then releasing them over a long period of time. “Vapors from various solvents are the most prevalent of indoor air contaminants,” says the book ChemicalExposures—LowLevelsandHighStakes. “Solvents,” in turn, “are among the chemicals most frequently implicated by chemically sensitive patients,” the book states.

While most people seem able to cope with the environment inside such buildings, some develop symptoms ranging from asthma and other respiratory-tract problems to headaches and lethargy. These symptoms generally disappear when the affected people leave that environment. But in some cases, “patients may develop multiple chemical sensitivities,” says the British medical journal TheLancet. But why do some get sick from chemicals while others do not? This is an important question because some who seem unaffected may find it difficult to be understanding of those who become ill.

When Chemicals Make You Sick, Awake!

I never wanted any of my kids in school.  But for my middle son especially, it felt wrong.  It was like trying to pound him into a wrongly shaped container.  It made him sore, out of sorts, and very sick.  That’s why I was so relieved when my health finally improved enough to pull him back out.  Just in time, too.  I’m not sure he could have taken much more.

At first I didn’t even know how to begin to clean up the emotional and physical mess school had made of my son.  We talked and talked.  I put him in soothing baths of clay and Epsom salts.  I gave him things to help his body heal and detoxify.  I tried to teach him how to relax and think positively.  But he remained fearful, depressed and exhausted until he saw the doctor, who informed him that he was not, in fact, dying.  From that moment forward he began to rally.  Although his rash had slowly been healing up until that time, he now made rapid progress in spite of the fact that we used almost none of the medicine prescribed for him, dramatically demonstrating that doctors can act as powerfully healing placebos.

My son’s travails must have begun in my womb.  When I was pregnant, our home was brand-new and smelled like it too.  It was making me sick.  Imagine what it was doing to my tiny baby, developing in that chemical soup.

“We know the developing fetus is one of the most vulnerable populations, if not the most vulnerable, to environmental exposure,” said Anila Jacobs, EWG senior scientist. “Their organ systems aren’t mature and their detox methods are not in place, so cord blood gives us a good picture of exposure during this most vulnerable time of life.” –Scientific American, Tests Find More Than 200 Chemicals in Newborn Umbilical Cord Blood

Three months after my son was born, he developed his first rash, a little patch on his cheek.  No big deal, right?  Soon, a pustule formed near the red patch which broke and gave rise to more pustules until his entire face was covered in weepy impetigo.

The antibiotics seemed to clear the rash right up.  Or had they?  Just as we began giving my son his medicine, we left for a vacation on the Olympic Peninsula.  As the rash cleared, I assumed the pink liquid was doing its job.  By the time we arrived home, not only was the infection gone, but so was the rash.  It was the first and last time for many years that the poor boy would have clear skin.

A day after our return, the rash reappeared, and for the first time it began to dawn on me that home might be the problem.  Not only did we live in a brand-new house still off-gassing toxic chemicals, but also in a dirty, dusty agricultural valley, reeking of cow manure and drenched in pesticides.

On our trip, we had breathed some of the cleanest air available on planet earth, air that was continually scrubbed by frequent rain, rich in oxygen, and infused with calming ocean salt.  I believed then, and still believe now, that it was the air that healed my son’s rash, not the antibiotics.  From that time forward, I would continuously look for ways to move our family to cleaner air.

Why Living Near the Ocean is Beneficial to Your Health, Natural Health Ezine

Straight of Juan de Fuca where the air is pure

Straight of Juan de Fuca where the air is pure

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.

– Isak Dinesen

My son finally has clear skin.  We have not moved out of our home, but most of the chemicals seem to have moved out of it.  We still live in the dirty, dusty valley.  But the combined effects of pulling the boy out of school, plus our efforts to use only non-toxic products, to feed our kids healthy, clean foods, and to keep the air in our home clean and free of most chemicals seems to have finally made a difference.

What a novel and wonderful thing it would be to live in a world where keeping our kids safe and healthy is easy, where chemical toxicants in common products are unheard of and all children are safe.

The Biodwell Blog, Holistic Home Ecology

 

Photo by Sharon Mollerus

Photo by Alex Thomson

 

 

 

MA State Reps Move to Release Justina Pelletier

Representatives Marc Lombardo (R-Billerica) and Jim Lyons (R-Andover) have begun circulating a Resolution of the House of Representatives calling for the Department of Children and Families to begin the process of releasing Justina Pelletier to the custody of her parents.

– Rob Eno, Red Mass Group

Read Full Article

Earlier this week:

Related posts:

Father of Justina Pelletier Speaks Out on Fox News

Justina Pelletier

Surviving Botulism

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(Continued from Why I’m Such a Lousy Patient)

It started with difficulty breastfeeding. My four-month-old baby didn’t seem to want to eat. What I did not know then was that it had nothing to do with wanting.

I knew from my reading that if a baby stopped feeding, it was time to go to the doctor. The emergency department physician diagnosed him with strep throat and prescribed amoxicillin. Although it didn’t altogether make sense to me that a baby would suddenly stop feeding due to strep throat, I squirted the pink goo into him and hoped for the best. But the best was not to be. He continued to worsen. His muscles became weak. He was losing his ability to hold up his head. Even the easier bottle nipple was too difficult for him.

We went to baby’s doctor who thought the strep diagnosis must be correct. The culture had come up positive. He must be refusing to nurse because of pain. Give him some Pedialyte and wait for the pink goo to work.

Home again. Quickly, baby’s condition became not worrisome, not scary, but terrifying. He was losing muscle tone. He cried non-stop, a weak, high-pitched mew. Frantic, I began to rock him, and then to whip about in a desperate frenzy, holding tight his head which had become like a bowling ball on a rubber band. In my panic, I thought I could rouse him with vigorous motion. Maybe I thought that. I don’t know what I thought.

Soon, I was spoon-feeding milk and Pedialyte into my son. But he seemed to choke on everything that went into his mouth. On our next visit to the doctor, we demanded that our son be admitted to the hospital, and that is finally what happened.

After a couple of bags of IV re-hydration fluid, baby perked up a bit. His color came back and he stopped crying so much. I was optimistic. It was almost over, I thought. But his muscle tone was not returning. Baby still could not eat. He still could not hold up his head. Something was still not right.

The pediatrician took my son away to do a spinal tap. Meningitis maybe? He soon returned to tell me that my son had stopped breathing during the spinal tap and that he had done CPR to restart him. A primal groan issued forth from so deep within me that it seemed to come up from the bowels of the earth, through my feet, and out through my mouth. As I sank into my mothers arms in the deepest grief I had ever experienced, I knew that my son was dying and that nobody knew how to save him.

The pediatrician performed test after grueling test in the ICU as nurses periodically suctioned baby’s airways to keep him from drowning in his own secretions. I was so overwhelmed with grief, shock, and fear that my body began to shut down. The nurses put me to bed with oven-warmed blankets until I felt strong enough to go back to my dying boy.

As I held and rocked my son in my arms once more, he began to choke. He was suffocating! I shouted in a panic at the nurse: “He can’t breath! He can’t breath!”. Several nurses came then, quickly took him from me and began suctioning. Shortly afterwards a life flight from Portland’s Legacy Emmanuel Children’s Hospital arrived with equipment to finally intubate my son so that a respirator could do his breathing for him.

Earlier, our son’s doctor had been in contact with a pediatrician from Legacy. I had spoken to the pediatrician myself and been assured that he was almost certain that he knew what my son had: infant botulism. “But how?” I asked, “He’s never eaten anything but breast milk and a spoonful of baby pears!” The pediatrician explained that infant botulism is not food poisoning. Some babies seem able to grow the botulism spores in their gut as if it were an airless food container. The good news was that baby would most likely get better. But he would be on life support until the toxin worked it’s way out of his system.

My mother accompanied our sick boy and the team of EMTs on the Life Flight to Portland. I had not slept in 5 days and was completely overwhelmed by emotion and exhaustion, so I rode down in the car with my husband. What went through my mind during those three hours on the road? My first thought was this: my son’s life is permanent. Were he to die, he would live again. Second: if he were to die, I would not go home until someone had removed all of his things. Then I fell to beseeching God for guidance and wisdom. In all other ways I was powerless.

When we finally arrived at the hospital in Portland it was midnight, and although I was desperately sleep deprived, we still had to meet with the our son’s new pediatrician. His news was comforting: although test results take weeks to come back, he was sure that our son had botulism and that we had caught it (barely) in time. He would make a full recovery. I was overwhelmed with relief!

All I could think of after that was getting to a place where I could lie down. The hospital provided us with temporary cots in a special “quiet room” reserved for situations such as this. After I found my bed, I lay myself down without my baby next to me for the first time since his birth, closed my eyes, head swimming, and fell into a deep black hole of unconsciousness. When I opened my eyes again, it was time to find my son.

Walking into the glaringly bright ICU for the first time, my eyes were met with the most heartrending scene I had ever seen. My four-month-old mite of a baby was lying on his back covered in wires and tubes. Tears were streaming from the corners of his eyes and his little chest was heaving sobs, but the tube down his throat made sound impossible. I tried very hard to comfort him, but to no avail. He was inaccessible now, tethered to so much equipment that he seemed part machine.  A nurse had tied his arms to the sides of his crib so that he couldn’t pull out his tubes. This felt so wrong, so strange after months of constant contact. I stroked his arms and legs and put my head near him so he could feel my hair. But he was so weak that he could barely lift his arms.  In the weeks following, a little stuffed lion with long hair named by grandma, originally, Mr. Lion, would often substitute for my hair, which baby had always loved to feel.

We decided early on that baby would never be left without a family member right next to him except during the twice daily shift changes when the nurses forced us to leave for an hour. Dad and grandma took turns pulling the night shift and I stayed with him all day. This was to protect my health so that I could keep providing the breast milk that would be given baby through his feeding tube.

At that time, in 1998, the botulinum antitoxin, a medication that can cut recovery time by neutralizing the botulinum toxin, was still in the experimental stages.  If we had decided that we wanted to have access to it, we would have had to transfer to San Francisco, which didn’t seem like a very good option given that the medication would only have shaved maybe a week or two off of recovery time.  We were 3 hours from our home, which allowed for friends and relatives to visit often.  The move would have isolated us.  We made the decision to stay.

My days were completely consumed with caring for baby and alternately finding private places to pump my breast milk every two hours.  I spent hours and hours holding   my baby in the blue reclining rocker next to his ICU crib, he and his tubes and wires propped up with pillows.  The stress of watching my baby suffer through daily blood draws, respiratory therapy, and IV placements was sometimes so overwhelming that I had to leave him with daddy or grandma in the ICU.  What helped was to look at the photo of baby which we had taped to the end of his crib, eyes curious and wide open.  We knew that he would be that sweet silly boy again.  It was just a matter of time.

One day, tests revealed that a potentially dangerous bacteria had taken up residence in baby’s breathing tube, so antibiotics were prescribed.  Unfortunately, the antibiotic chosen was a sulfa drug which baby turned out to be exceedingly allergic to.  He went into anaphylaxis and had to receive breathing treatments.  I don’t think the doctor or nurses ever admitted just how scared they had been that day.

Since infant botulism is exceedingly rare, our pediatrician informed me that he had only a basic understanding of how to bring a baby through it safely. If I wanted to know more, I would need to do some research. Doctor handed me a thick, black binder full of articles on botulism which seemed rather unprecedented to me after so many negative experiences with doctors. Here was a doctor who was more interested in the welfare of his little patient than he was about his ability to appear infallible. I took him at his word and devoured everything in the binder.

Clostridium Botulinum bacteria produce the most toxic substance known to man. Botulinum toxin causes progressive paralysis, beginning with tiredness and muscle weakness, and often progressing to the point where the muscles used to swallow and breath are so weak that the patient dies. The symptoms of infant botulism include constipation, lethargy, weakness, difficulty feeding, and an altered cry, often progressing to the point of respiratory failure and death if prompt medical care is not sought. Because supportive medical care is now available, the case fatality rate for infant botulism has dropped from 50% down to 7% in the past 50 years.

Botulism spores are found in soil and tends to be present in the air in places where the soil has been disturbed such as agricultural regions and constructions zones. It also tends to be present in honey, which is why doctors counsel new parents not to give honey to their infants. In spite of that, however, most infants who contract botulism had never been given any honey. The reason some babies develop botulism while others exposed to the same environmental conditions do not is unknown. My hypothesis at the time was that since my son had had very infrequent bowel movements since shortly after birth, that his septic, stagnant tummy had acted as a perfect breeding ground for the deadly spores.

Botulism tends to cause anemia. Because of that and because we are Jehovah’s Witnesses and do not accept blood transfusions, baby was being given things to build his blood count. One of the blood building medications he was given was erythropoietin. He was also given iron. Because of the reading I had done, I knew that botulism feeds on iron in the gut. I wondered if stopping the iron supplementation might speed his recovery. The doctor had not considered that and immediately ordered that the iron be stopped. It did seem that baby’s recovery progressed more quickly after that.

Some of our nurses thought they were being reassuring by informing me that I needn’t worry too much about my milk supply since they could always mix my milk with formula. Well, I very well would be concerned about my milk supply. I was well aware that baby’s immune system was under a terrible assault and that the last thing he needed was less breast milk. One nurse took my convictions personally and proceeded to angrily defend her use of formula with her own children, trying to convince me that formula would do no harm. That was one of the days that I walked across the street to the Ronald McDonald House where we were staying, completely overwhelmed and in tears. At least the doctor was on my side if the nurse wasn’t.

There was one nurse in particular who was special. I did not like her at first. She wasn’t very friendly and she was very strict about kicking us out during shift changes. But she was good. She knew her business and she was very particular about how it she went about it. She understood that the job of a pediatric ICU nurse is keeping children alive, and she took this very seriously. She did not tolerate mistakes. I think she would have taken all the shifts if it had meant that her charges would be kept safe. And what meant most of all is that she learned to care about our little boy.

My family and I did not come through this ordeal by ourselves. God answered our prayers by giving us “strength beyond what is normal” and by sending us the loving support of our friends. Many made the long trip from home to see us. We also met many friends from the local congregation in Portland who truly proved to be “a strengthening aid”. One family in particular went above and beyond by bringing dinner to share with us in the hospital on several occasions and were very often with us during those difficult days.

Baby gradually began to regain the use of his muscles. After about 3 weeks, he was successfully taken off the respirator. Soon after, he was able to move to the pediatric floor where he had much more freedom. He received physical and occupational therapies to help re-teach him to use his muscles. And here’s the best part: he began to smile again.  True, it was a pale, eyes half mast imitation of his former bright smile, but it was beautiful to see. We used to strap him into his little red therapy chair and put him in a wagon. He loved that, and was often seen being wheeled about with what looked like a sucker hanging out of him mouth (actually a moistening sponge), kicking his little legs in glee at his newfound freedom.

The time was approaching when we would finally be able to go home. Nurses were teaching me how to tube-feed baby, to administer his medications, and to generally be the nurse to a child recovering from a deadly infection. I was overwhelmed and apprehensive. I had so many questions: How long would he have to take the laxative medications? What if he was never able to come off them? Were they doing any harm? Wouldn’t vaccines overstress his system now? Would there be any long-term consequences from all the medications and interventions baby had received? I didn’t get many answers. In fact, I met with anger when I asked them. I found that long-term wellness is not the province of hospitals, and again, I would have to become the expert.

Botulism taught me right at the beginning of my mothering journey not to ever, ever take life for granted; to cherish every moment. You never know which one might be the last. It also taught me  deep gratitude for the technology that saved my son’s life, but at the same time, that taking personal responsibility for our health and the health of our children is not only responsible, it is necessary and life-saving.