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Parent as Patient: How a Major Surgery Taught Me What My Daughter Needed 

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This summer, I stumbled upon a surprising discovery: My major hip operation — and the arduous recovery that followed — had a positive impact on my 5-year-old daughter, Poppy.

I'd struggled with leg pain all my life, but a year after Poppy's birth, when I was 34, the sharp pain in my hip became excruciating. I visited a world-renowned hip specialist in New York City, who finally diagnosed me correctly: I was born with hip dysplasia, a genetic condition in which the hip socket doesn't fully cover the ball portion of the thigh bone. My pain and physical indicators had been misdiagnosed and misunderstood for years.

The specialist told me I needed a hip replacement. My reaction was one that I imagine most people with a 1-year-old would have had: Heck, no.

But last spring, when the course of hip injections I'd been following for years stopped giving me relief, a heart-to-heart with a chiropractor persuaded me to reconsider. "How much more of your child's life are you willing to miss out on because of your pain?" he asked me.

This question forced me to confront the brutal truth of how much my pain had changed me as a mother. How I'd stopped carrying my daughter on my hip at 14 months, when she began walking. How bath time had to be kept short, because it hurt to sit on a low stool next to the tub. How my outsized reactions to her sneaky efforts to dodge bedtime and get into my room were not about her behavior, but rather a response to the roaring pain I was feeling. She deserved more.

Still, I resisted. Poppy was too young for me to be so limited in my functions during the recovery process, I thought. Plus, I'm a single parent, responsible for the bulk of her care.

But that conversation did prompt me to schedule a consultation with another surgeon, in New York City.

I learned that, in the four years since I'd initially sought help, a new procedure had been developed. It entailed drawing high-potency stem cells from abdomen fat and injecting them into the hip joint, and it could delay the need for hip replacement for up to 10 years. The doctor suggested I try this experimental, yet safer, technique.

The post-op protocol seemed like a deal breaker, though. With a fake hip I'd be walking in days; with this procedure, I'd be on crutches for a month. I would not be allowed to drive for six weeks. My surgeon suggested that someone else care for my daughter for a month. He clearly doesn't know any single parents, I thought.

But that chiropractor's question kept plaguing me. In what myriad of ways was my daughter already suffering alongside me? So I decided to go for it.

I spent June preparing. I set up rides to school with my daughter's classmates. I scheduled my mom and my brother's family to help with childcare. I made pancakes and chili in bulk and froze them. I asked coworkers to donate prepared meals.

When my flight to New York departed in July, Poppy was attending a morning yoga camp. That week, a neighbor dad picked her up every afternoon, fed her and watched our girls until a family member came to get her. Those neighbors gave her the closest thing to a vacation she'd get all summer.

My operation, meanwhile, went smoothly, but the five-day hospital stay afterward was miserable. I had to ring a nurse for everything: if I dropped my book, if I had to take my meds or if I wanted my food tray taken away. Parents are equipped to fix things, not to ask for help and accompaniment to go potty.

I worried about how it would feel to be incapacitated in front of my daughter and how I would manage everyday tasks and duties. But on day three of my hospital stay, I received a glimmering message of hope from my bucolic Essex Junction neighborhood, 300 miles away.

I had just finished throwing up and was waiting for an IV drip, when I checked my email. My neighborhood friend had shared 200 photos with me. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I flicked through photo after photo. There she was, my corn-silk-blond, giggling daughter, eyes bright, running around in a swimsuit, hammering nails into a bug house, swapping sneakers with her newest best friend. A video showed her and two friends, all in leotards, doing an interpretive dance.

She was not only fine, she was great. I was going to be fine. Maybe even great.

At two weeks post-op, Poppy moved back home. I'd been managing at home for six days at that point, with some assistance from friends, and felt ready. She quickly adapted to curling up in the nook my knees made on the sunporch couch, where I lay most days, hooked up to an ice and compression machine. We colored together. We watched movies and TV shows. After our time apart, she wanted nothing more than to be close to me.

I discovered that by having to do exactly nothing, I was doing exactly what she needed: being present. Sharing close spaces with her. Being constantly available to her.

Friends and relatives continued to help with meals, cleanup, bedtime and driving. One night, a friend let Poppy make macaroni and cheese. I'd never let her near a boiling pot of water but he — a professional manny in a previous life — just gave her a few safety tips and let her have at it.

At last count, 27 people have helped me, in little and big ways, since I came home from New York. They have made it clear to me that I am not alone raising my child.

The surgery eased the pain in my hip, but it also gave me something of greater value. It nourished the bonds that were already surrounding me. All I had to do was ask for help.

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