Sophie had her annual well-check yesterday. It was blissfully uneventful.
She is still in the third percentile for both height and weight, she caught air when she was asked to jump up and down, and no one even mentioned her twice-mended heart — though the pediatrician did give it an extra-long listen.
As he turned to leave the exam room, Dr. Alexander stopped and turned to me, file in hand, gesturing to Sophie.
“She’s really special,” he said. My heart melted because I knew he didn’t mean it in a special needs kind of way — and when you have a kid with Down syndrome, you just don’t hear the word special in any other context.
I love our pediatrician. David Alexander has practiced in Phoenix forever; in fact, he’s been around so long his mentor was my pediatrician. I have to schlep across town to make it happen but it’s worth it to bring the girls to the same practice.
Even though I probably should have found Sophie a “special needs” pediatrician as soon as she was born, it turns out that Dr. Alexander was exactly the doctor we needed. He’s a generalist. I have no idea how many patients he’s had with Down syndrome over the years — it can’t have been many.
I know there’s at least one besides Sophie because 11 years later I still remember a conversation Dr. Alexander and I had right after she was born.
It was her first or second pediatrician visit, and even today I can clearly picture the doctor standing over my tiny infant, listening to her heart (this time there was lots of discussion of that, with surgery in the offing) and feeling her abdomen for obstructions.
“You know,” he said, turning to me, his hands on Sophie to keep her safe on the exam table, “I have another patient with Down syndrome. He is in third grade. He’s doing so well! Fully integrated in a mainstream class!”
And then he grinned.
At that point, I didn’t even know what integrated and mainstream meant. I just knew that there was a kid out there with Down syndrome who was thriving. Dr. Alexander said so. He was proud of him.
It was a tiny moment. I’m sure the doctor didn’t give it a second thought. But I lived off that conversation for years, thinking about that kid.
Yesterday, I filled Dr. Alexander in on Sophie’s accomplishments as he examined her — that she’s swimming, taking ballet, writing a play, that she’s mainstreamed in sixth grade.
“Really?” he said, turning from that same spot in front of the exam table, his hands on Sophie to keep her safe. “Wow! That’s really something.”
After the exam, Sophie was allowed to pick out a sticker from the nurse, choosing from a chart displaying a half-dozen options. Somehow she talked her way into one of each, handing me Grover because she knows he’s my favorite. I smiled at the nurse and thanked Sophie, my mind elsewhere.
I was wondering, one day would another family come to see Dr. Alexander with a baby with Down syndrome and would he tell them, “You know, I have another patient with Down syndrome and she’s in sixth grade, and she’s doing so well!”
And would that mom grab onto that comment like a life line?
Even if Sophie hadn’t ultimately been mainstreamed in school, even if circumstances had prevented her from doing a lot of what she can do now, I think I’d still be incredibly grateful to Dr. Alexander, because as parents, we all need hope.
Think about your typical kid. When he or she was born, no one put any limits on what that kid would be able to do. No one questioned his or her worth to society, or assured you off the bat that this kid would never drive or have kids or leave your side. The sky was the limit. Yeah, as kids grow we realize that like everyone they have their strengths and weaknesses. But they enter the world with hope on their side.
That’s what Dr. Alexander gave me that day with the story of that third grader. That little boy would be 19 now. I never met him, never learned any more about him. I wonder how he’s doing. But to be honest, I don’t wonder too hard. I know life gets harder for people with Down syndrome as they get older (for all of us, to be sure, but particularly in this case) so I don’t want to know if he struggles with depression or doesn’t have friends or got leukemia.
I’ll always hold onto the image of that third grader, and I’ll always be grateful to Dr. Alexander.