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A therapist’s perspective: Supporting your child with a rare and fatal disease.
During my son Lucas’s life, I often struggled with how many therapy sessions to schedule. There was so much we could do for Lucas. Physical, occupational, feeding, and speech therapies were just the start. Yet nothing we did would fundamentally alter the course of his disease. What should we do?
I know I’m not alone in this struggle. Most Courageous Parents Network families probably take their children to therapies. We do this with love, dedication, and hope. Whether our child has a neurological disorder or another illness, we want to improve the quality and length of their lives. Still, therapy requires a lot of effort and determining what is “helpful” is not easy.
As I talked about in my recent blog, our hopes influence our approach. Jane Witmer, my son’s occupational therapist, helped me develop an approach to therapy that acknowledged our uncertainties about what was helpful. We focused on activities that helped Lucas find joy in daily life.
Because Jane was able to help us adjust our approach without ever diminishing Lucas’ potential or strength, I asked if she would reflect with me on how therapists can support children like Lucas and their families. I hope other families and providers find her reflections helpful as they support the children in their lives.
A conversation between Occupational Therapist Jane Witmer and Parent Kim Gilsdorf
Kim: Hi Jane – thank you so much for having this conversation with me. Can you start by telling Courageous Parents Network families why you work as a pediatric occupational therapist?
Jane: The families! Being an Early Support Specialist (birth to age 3 years) allows me to work just as closely with the caregivers as with the children. I love being able to partner with caregivers and helping them find what is meaningful for them and their family.
Kim: How would you describe the purpose of occupational therapy for a seriously ill child, particularly if they have a neurological disorder like Lucas, and will progressively lose skills?
Jane: The purpose of working as an OT with any child and their family is to meet them where they are and walk alongside them in their journey. The same applies to PT, speech, feeding, and other early support therapies. We bring our expertise in developmental skills like posture, movement, feeding, social interaction, and play. The families bring their love, knowledge, and priorities. Especially with rare conditions, the family typically knows more than the therapist about the condition. We work together to help the child find meaning and joy in their life. The ways that a child with a serious illness finds meaning and joy may look different, but the goals are the same.
Kim: Parents have a wide spectrum of approaches to therapy. Some may not want to engage at all. Others, like me in the early days with Lucas, engage with a level of desperation and hope that may not match the reality of what therapy can deliver. What kinds of conversations should therapists and parents have to build an alliance and develop shared goals?
Jane: Such a great question! The therapist bears a big responsibility in building open communication with the parent and truly listening. We may enter a session with ideas we think will be best, and what turns out to be best for the caregiver or child that day may look very different. By remaining open and really listening or asking what a parent is hoping to get from the session, a therapist can shift the focus to try to meet the need that day. A parent whose child was undergoing unbearable chemotherapy once told me the best thing I ever did was to genuinely smile at their child every time I came. I will never forget that. Any other agenda became less important once I got that feedback.
You, ever the proactive and totally involved parent, surprised me once by letting me know that sometimes, you needed to watch Lucas play and have fun with me. You needed a tiny (and well-deserved) break. I really respected your honesty and was so happy I could help in that small way. Besides, I knew you were watching and learning even though you were “taking a break”. It really helps therapists when parents openly share what their priorities and hopes are. It also helps when parents tell me honestly when I am off track. I so appreciate the parent who says, “That’s a great idea, but I’m not going to do that!” or something similar. I can work with that!
Kim: Sometimes, our medical systems begin to remove therapy time once a child’s baseline begins to decline. What advice would you give families facing this challenge?
Jane: How awful. First, Early Support (sometimes called Early Intervention or Birth to Three services) will continue whether or not insurance will pay. Also, there are some therapy programs like one funded by The Elks in Washington State, that are no cost to families. A hospital social worker should know of programs like these and be able to connect families to them. I would also counsel a family to look to their palliative care team for help with finding therapy support. Additionally, patient advocacy groups often have wonderful resource ideas.
Finally, one does not need to be a therapist to love and play with a child. Seek support from your circle of friends and family to provide plenty of love and play. Children find ways to do their own therapy if allowed to be playful and given access to things they enjoy.
Jane: I am so lucky that I work with a wonderful group of people who support each other. I am also lucky that my work provides monthly reflective practice groups where we can process the emotions that occur when doing this work. With Lucas, I was extra lucky because you invited me to share in events to remember and honor him and that helped me so much.
Kim: Can you end by sharing a favorite memory of working with Lucas?
Jane: There are so many! His triumph early on when he figured out he could pull to stand against the fence and push the blocks through the holes. And that we would fetch the blocks for him! I will never forget his enthusiasm for telling us just how to carry out the play activity and the satisfied look he got when we finally got it right.
And the smile that came from his entire being! Mouth, eyes, cheeks, and even chest slightly moving outward when he looked through the window and saw me arriving. Most of all, I loved when he saw me and said “Hug!” It was never a question; it was a command and an expectation.
Jane Witmer is a lead therapist at Wonderland Child and Family Services in Seattle, Washington.
Kim Gilsdorf writes and lives with her family in Seattle, the traditional land of the Duwamish people. She works for Perigee Fund, an organization dedicated to supporting early childhood mental health. Her favorite title is “Mama” to her two children, Lucas and Sophia. Lucas lived with and died from a rare disease, Leigh Syndrome, and his life has forever changed the meaning and purpose of hers. You can find Kim’s writing on Instagram at @kgilsdorf.
Kim is a CPN Blogger in Residence, an opportunity available through support from Sanofi.