In the Unlikely Event of a Decompression

by Helene Louise  

In my early twenties, I worked as a flight attendant and as I wrote in my book, this experience was surprisingly relevant later in life when I found myself as a single-mother, working hard to rehabilitate my daughter after a childhood stroke. One of my tasks as a flight attendant, of course, was the safety briefing at the beginning of each flight. 

 Along with showing passengers how to buckle and unbuckle a seat belt (which I don't think anyone needed to be shown), we tucked the long tube that was attached to a spare oxygen mask into one hand and then simulated it dropping down from the overhead bins. At that point, the announcements said, "...In the unlikely event of a decompression, place the mask firmly over your nose and mouth and breathe normally." Then, the announcements said  that if you were traveling with a child, you should "put your own mask on first and then help your child".

 As a mother, that seems counter-intuitive at first glance. I can certainly picture myself holding my breath and gasping for air in an emergency, as I frantically try to save my children above all else. But, if I take a step back and think analytically, it makes perfect sense. If I'm not doing well, or if I pass out from a lack of oxygen, then how can I make sure that my children are thriving?

 When I found out that my daughter had suffered a stroke, I threw myself into doing everything that I could to help her. It was years later that I realized that I had basically been existing on adrenaline and caffeine and, that I should have taken some time now and again to make sure that I too was getting enough oxygen, so to speak. Just like it is with the oxygen masks "in the unlikely event of a decompression”, my daughter would still have been as fine as she is today, but I wouldn't have been gasping for air as long as I was. And, maybe I would even have been in a better position to help her along the way.

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What's in a link?

by Helene Louise  

As I’ve written before, one of the things I’ve learned in the context of my daughter’s rehabilitation after a childhood stroke, is the value of the little things—how a sense of kindness and compassion can make the difference between despair and hope, how a new idea can make the difference between success and failure, and how the slightest change can serve to dramatically improve a situation.

In building this website, I know that all that’s required to link a word to another page or website, is putting a tiny bit of information in a field and clicking “OK”. It’s a small action that takes only a few seconds. However, just like the things I’ve mentioned above, the resulting impact can be so significant.

This week, I had the privilege of having my book included on the publications page of the International Alliance for Pediatric Stroke (IAPS). Just like a smile or an unexpected burst of laughter (which I am prone to...) can open the door to a new friendship, a link also opens the door to a new possibility. It is incredibly wonderful to know that in some way, my individual effort is part of a larger collective initiative, working towards bringing about positive change.

For more information on how the IAPS is empowering families to better understand pediatric stroke, I encourage you to visit their website at

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Plain, Spicy and Extra Chunky

by Helene Louise  

In 2004, the New Yorker published an article by Malcolm Gladwell called The Ketchup Conundrum. In it, Gladwell discusses how Howard Moskowitz, an American market researcher and psychophysicist, changed the food world with the results of his studies on consumer preferences. The article describes how, in 1986, Moskowitz was hired by the Campbell’s Soup Company, which also made the Prego brand of spaghetti sauce, to generate new ideas to help the tomato sauce side of the business get out of the slump that it was in.

Instead of trying to come up with the “perfect” sauce that consumers would want to buy over the competing brand, Moskowitz worked with Campbell’s kitchens to come up with 45 varieties of spaghetti sauce and then tested them in different cities. What Moskowitz found, was that there was no “perfect sauce”. In fact, overall, each person had a different idea of what the “perfect” spaghetti sauce should be like. For the most part, people’s preferences fell into one of three general categories: plain, spicy and extra-chunky. Based on these results, Prego launched an extra-chunky sauce which turned out to be extremely successful. And, this was the beginning of the trend towards many different varieties of the same product as we now see on grocery store shelves.

Why am I writing about this in the context of this project? Well, my observation is that in the same way that adults react differently to different tomato sauces, children respond differently to different things as well. For example, in the case of my daughter’s rehabilitation, for each challenge that we faced, we were generally shown a series of exercises to work on. This could be considered the plain tomato sauce equivalent—sitting down each day and just doing whatever we were supposed to do.

But in real life, kids get bored quickly and trying to fit rehabilitation activities into an already busy life is not as straightforward as it may seem. So, to keep my daughter motivated, I found that I often had to “spice things up”. It could be adding funny sounds to the exercises, making jokes, distracting her with conversation or using chocolate chips to motivate her—whatever it took to keep her on task. And finally, given everything else on the to-do list of any particular day, sometimes I just couldn’t find the time to sit down and do what needed to be done. Instead, like the randomly distributed bits of tomato in the chunky sauce, I had to fit the exercises in here and there wherever I could—like always holding her affected hand whenever we walked together and giving those muscles a good stretch without her really noticing.

Overall, I think that there will always be some who choose plain tomato sauce over spicy sauce and vice versa, whereas others, like myself, could choose either, depending on the day. The point is, that there is no “perfect” sauce that will appeal equally to all people, all of the time. In the same way, what children like and dislike, and what motivates them and what doesn’t, varies. That’s certainly been the case throughout my daughter’s rehabilitation. Sometimes a plain approach has been just fine and sometimes a spicy version is what was needed. Other times, a random extra-chunky approach has been the only way to go. For us, variety has been a key ingredient.

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Piano in the Park

by Helene Louise  


Inherent in the idea that "development is a mystery" is the idea that there is always the possibility that something unexpected could happen. No matter how long and how carefully we study something, no matter what our previous experiences might be, no matter what we think is a certain outcome, sometimes things happen that we simply weren't expecting.

 Growing up, I had the privilege of many years of piano lessons. And much later, I creatively applied what I learned in those lessons to my daughter's rehabilitation after a childhood stroke (as I explained in my book). Pianos are big, heavy instruments that are kept indoors and they're not the sort of thing that you move around just because you feel like it. Imagine my surprise then, at finding a brightly painted piano parked in front my local library—outside!

 Every day this summer, this piano has been available to anyone who walks by and spontaneously feels like sitting down and playing it. None of my previous life experiences, musical or otherwise, would ever have led me to believe that one day, I would come across such a thing. But, there it is—and people are in fact stopping to play this piano or simply marvel at the sheer unexpectedness of it all. Once again I am reminded that, no matter what your reference point is, you just never know...

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Development is a Mystery

by Helene Louise  

A couple of months ago, I attended a presentation by a pediatric psychologist. It covered everything from the major milestones in a child's development to the stages of grieving that parents typically go through when they find out that their child has a serious condition. Throughout the presentation, I desperately wished I had received that same information a decade or so earlier when my daughter was first diagnosed. What I particularly appreciated, was that a number of times, to underscore the fact that what she was explaining was to be taken as a guideline, not an absolute, the presenter said to always remember, that after all, "...development is a mystery."

I tried not to let it show that my eyes were welling up and I was starting to feel the tightness in my chest that is all too familiar to parents struggling to help their children with whatever challenges they may have. As I wrote in my book, despite all of the times I was told that my daughter could progress no further and what was now required on my part was a healthy dose of acceptance, I could never let go of the idea that no matter what, there was still a possibility for improvement—no matter how slight and no matter how imperceptible it may be to others. And, as it turns out, the cumulative effect of all those ever-so-slight improvements that I continued to strive for, has been that my daughter has exceeded all expectations.

The basic idea that development is a mysterious process that we can’t accurately predict is at the root of many of my choices as a parent over the last decade or so. Life is not linear, no one can know for sure what a particular outcome will be and so, development is indeed a mystery. To me, that all translates into a reason to always hold onto a little bit of hope and keep persevering, regardless of the context.

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