Thursday, September 16, 2010

Monkey Massage

Our youngest daughter, now four, contracted pneumonia when she was eight months old. My wife and three children were on holiday in Cornwall when she was taken ill. The condition worsened and developed into bronchiolitis, and she was taken into hospital where she was given antibiotics and placed on oxygen for four days and nights.

The care she received in hospital was of a very high standard and the staff were sensitive and supportive of my wife in this difficult situation (I was still 400 miles away for the first two days) and when they were discharged we spent the remainder of our extended holiday thankful that our little girl, nicknamed ‘minimonkey’, was alright.

It was several months before her eczema appeared. It began with a patch of dry skin on her upper leg and gradually, over two years or so, has extended to cover most of her body. She has good days and not so good days, and until recently we have been able to keep it at bay with natural, non-steroid creams and by avoiding soap-based products. However, the eczema has got worse over the last three months and earlier in the summer she had a horrendous flare-up that led to a dash to the local A&E department for treatment. She returned bandaged like a mini-mummy and with a prescription for various creams and lotions.

Once the dressings were able to be removed (approximately 48 hours after her midnight adventure) part of our twice daily routine became a gentle massage of all the affected areas with an emollient cream. For the first week we relented and used, sparingly, the steroid cream just to speed the healing. We soon discovered that the time spent massaging the cream into our daughter’s arms, back, neck, torso and legs became very special.

All the family became involved in the routine. In the first days this was a necessity as the discomfort and pain of the eczema made the changing of dressings quite traumatic for our little one. We all had a part to play, therefore; one ready with the fresh dressings and cream, one taking the old ones away, big brother (‘maximonkey’) reading stories to take her mind off it all, and our nine-year-old daughter (‘midimonkey’) efficiently assisting in the whole process (she would make a good nurse!).

A week after the flare-up the children were due to stay with their grandparents whilst my wife and I were involved in the Edinburgh Festival. We had already shown the elder daughter how to massage the emollient cream into her sister’s skin and to carefully check the worst affected areas. This was important in developing the empathy and understanding of another’s suffering and how we can alleviate it. This is such a valuable lesson for young people to learn. On a couple of occasions the patient had requested that her sister do this and we were moved and delighted to see that she did so with such care.

During the week that we were away, midimonkey often helped by massaging her sister before bedtime. The quiet time spent together allowed them not only to keep the eczema in check but also to come to terms with our being away. It brought them closer together and has created a lovely, caring bond between them.

So now we have an established routine. In the morning and in the evening, minimonkey, spreads a blanket on her bedroom floor, selects a story tape or a book to read, makes sure that ‘brave bear’, the soft toy given to her by the nurses in A&E to hold whenever she needs to feel brave, is nearby, and settles down. Sometimes Daddy is requested to do the honours, mostly Mummy changes the dressings (“You can do it, Dad, but sometimes you are a bit clumsy!”) and midimonkey helps out. It has brought us all together in caring for our youngest one.

There is something very special in massage; something beyond the physical touch. I found it quite difficult in the early days as I was afraid of causing minimonkey any pain. My wife has since convinced me that all I need to do is remain calm and be firm and my daughter will feel secure. The time spent focusing on someone else and attending to their needs has a meditative quality. The time spent with my daughter is priceless. Watching the two older children care for their sister has been wonderful.

The ‘monkey massage’ has now become a part of the family routine. It has helped to manage the eczema and brought back the quiet, reflective bedtimes that we used to have when our son was little. I would urge anyone who has a little one, either with or without with eczema, to spend a few minutes each day massaging them. If there are siblings who can get involved, then all the better. The physical and emotional bonds between parent and child are sometimes put under enormous strain by our increasingly fractured and pressured lifestyles. Take the time to ease that strain and to re-establish those precious and fleeting moments when we connect.