My daughter had major surgery. She was 2.5 years old at the time. Saethre-Chotzen Syndrome (SCS) is a rare life-threatening deformity of the skull where the sutures fuse early and the skull doesn’t grow. It requires surgical reshaping of the skull, breaking bones and hammering them into shape. Surgeons love this kind of operation — it tests their skills in the scariest part of the body. Breaking bones defies nature. Surgeon's break bones. Surgeons intervene when god can't.
Our appointed surgeon, Professor T., didn’t hold back the gory details of what he was intending to do —basically he was going to take my daughter’s skull off, break into about twenty pieces and reshape it like a leggo toy, then put it back together in the right shape with dissolvable plates. I imagined my daughter lying on the surgery table for four hours with her naked brain exposed while the surgeon fiddled with pieces of bone that were her to become her new skull. I imagined Frankenstein’s monster at the end of the procedure. I nearly passed out in the waiting room. The waiting room is really a torture room, an Apple-like whiteness that the mind's fears turn into a milky abyss.
Nine hours later (it seemed like nine lives), the surgeon called my cell phone to say that the surgery went well. Relieved, we raced to the ICU recovery room. My daughter looked like a bandaged black-and-blue basketball. There were more tubes coming out of her than an astronaut's suit.
I cried, as most parents do; tears of relief she had survived, tears of fear about her future, and tears of shame.
Why shame? Sitting next to her bed that night, I blamed myself. SCS is hereditary, therefore it was all my fault. No one else in my family had it, but I did, and because of that, I never wanted to have kids. Not with my first wife, or any other woman after that. Until I met my second wife. I blamed myself for wanting to have a child with her. Look what has happened! Now my daughter has this disease. Now she is mutilated. And if she ever grows up and wants kids herself, they could have it too. Blah blah blah….
It was a bumpy road to traverse that first week post-op, to put it mildly, for both myself and my wife (who mirrored my daily roller-coaster emotions).
Then the bandages came off — that horrid-looking scar, the facial bruises that made her look like she'd done a round with Mike Tyson.
A year later, we went for a routine post-operative check up at the Royal Children’s Hospital (my daughter was now swimming, falling over as she was learning to run, riding her bicycle and speaking two languages). All went well at the check-up and there were no further scheduled checkups for another 6 months. Heading back to the car, we stopped in the foyer for my daughter to look at the fish in the huge indoor aquarium. It was there that I ran into the surgeon who had performed the operation on my daughter. I literally prostrated myself before the guy, so thankful I was for him saving my daughter’s life.
What happened next literally took my breath away.
I thanked him and he dismissed my thanks. I was quite shocked. Though he was smiling, he told me not to thank him. The more I thanked him, the more embarrassed he looked. Ignoring his facial cues, I assumed he hadn’t heard what I saw saying, so I repeated myself:
‘I said I really want to thank you for saving my daughter’s life!’
‘There’s no need to thank me,’ he said, before smiling and walking off.
For days I was miffed that he was so dismissive of my gratitude.
I couldn’t understand why until a year later - deja vu — someone was saying the same thing to me for saving their pet’s life.
‘I really want to thank you for saving my cat’s life!’
‘There’s no need to thank me,’ I said. ‘After all, you did all the work — the nursing, the worry. All I did was fix the problem.’
Then I instantly remembered the word’s spoken by my daughter’s surgeon.
The client who was thanking me slowly began to understand that I appreciated that he did most of the work. Sure, I recognized an infection and prescribed the right medication, but he had the courage to admit there was a problem, sought my advice, and struggled to get the pills down a reticent patient, apply Band-Aids, and so on. And this same thing was what my daughter’s surgeon was trying to explain to me.
In my work, I rarely take credit for no-brainers (I remind myself constantly that sloths and humans both have a knee-jerk reflex), and never take credit for things I do that are hard (what if it goes wrong?!)
Major events like these (my daughter’s operation and the man’s sick cat) don’t happen every day in life, but when they do, it reinforces one inexorable truth — those who are thanking you need to be thanked. Because it is usually they who do most of the work.
My daughter now rides her bicycle, starts school next year and is fluent in two languages. Her face still looks a bit strange and her head has moon craters, but she’s loves her long hair. Fortunately, she doesn’t recall any frightful ordeal at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
Now this is where human emotions become twisted…
Occasionally, I remind my daughter of the ordeal my wife and I went through (together with the accompanying horror pics on my phone), if only as a payback for the same thing my parents did to me when I needed the same surgery as a child. As for my parents. they did remind me from time to time about my own surgery as a child (back then they didn’t even know what the disease was, let along how to approach it surgically). They did this not to make me feel guilty but to remind themselves of the gratitude they felt for allowing their son to reach his own potential. That same gift my parents gave me I gave to my own daughter, and I guess seeing her growing into a normal, happy child has been its own reward.
As a playwright, I loved George Bernard Shaw. Despite his eugenic tendencies, GBS’s play Androcles and the Lion always resonated with me profoundly. It tells of the myth of Androcles removing the thorn from a lion’s foot, thus taming a lion but also saving his own life when he had to confront the same lion in the Colosseum. It is the classic tale of karma. What we see in others is a need we feel in ourselves that needs to be acknowledge.
Pay it forward, pay it back, but always pay it. This is the only way to be debt free.
Jim Euclid is a professional playwright and veterinarian. His play Heartworm received critical acclaim in Australia