Care and Feeding

Our Pediatrician Prematurely Diagnosed Our Baby With a Brain Tumor

I feel scarred for life.

A woman wipes tears off her face with the back of her right hand.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

About a month ago, as I was getting my 11-month-old ready for day care, I noticed that the left side of her face was drooping weirdly. My husband and I spent that evening consulting Google and more or less arrived at a diagnosis of Bell’s palsy. I made an appointment with her pediatrician.

The pediatrician, who has a stellar reputation, examined her for less than two minutes and announced he would have to immediately consult a pediatric neurologist. He left and returned about five minutes later, when he breathlessly said: “You need to go to the hospital right now. I’ve called ahead. They’re waiting for you at the emergency room.” I was stunned and asked what he thought it was. He answered, “Do you really want to know?” Without waiting for me to reply, he said, “Cranial nerve tumor.”

The next hour or so was a blur. We got to the ER, my husband left work, and he and I had to help the nurses restrain my baby while they stuck needles in her poor little hands and feet as she screamed in fear and pain. It was the worst day of my life. We sat through an MRI that evening and spent the night at the hospital and basically had to confront the possibility that our baby would die. And then, the next morning, we got the results: Bell’s palsy, probably caused by an ear or respiratory infection. It would clear up in a few months.

Our immediate relief has now given way to rage at the pediatrician who made us believe our daughter had a brain tumor based on a two-minute exam. Even the neurologist who delivered the MRI results told us, “No, a tumor wouldn’t even be in the first 10 things I’d check.” Every time I think of this incident, my blood boils. I want to write a letter to our now-ex-pediatrician and explain that this was a traumatic, devastating, and totally unnecessary and irresponsible thing for him to do. I want to publicly ream him out for this and make sure he cannot ever put another parent through what we went through that day. I know doctors aren’t perfect, but this seems inexcusable, and a big part of me wants some kind of justice. Please give me some perspective.


Dear Traumatized,

I’m sorry for this ordeal. It sounds awful.

But please consider that there are parents and children subjected to the same—indeed worse—who don’t get the happy reprieve of a non-life-threatening diagnosis. There are parents who have to restrain their infants for medical procedures day after day, and they would love the relief you are now able to enjoy.

You’re mad at your doctor, and mad on behalf of your kid being put through all that unnecessary pain, and maybe mad at the world, generally, that it contains this kind of fear and stress. It’s maddening. I understand.

I cannot say whether your doctor was negligent or impulsive or anything else; you can’t either, though the clarity of hindsight makes you believe you can. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. You have a healthy baby. You don’t need justice too. Let this go.

If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m on my fifth pregnancy: We have a 6-year-old daughter, and I’ve had four miscarriages. My husband and I are both 40, and I’m at the point where if this one doesn’t work out, I’m not sure I want to try anymore. My husband on the other hand is desperate to have another.

Here’s the thing: He barely spends real quality time with the child we have. After work and on weekends, he spends most of his day watching TV or playing video games, or he asks our daughter what she wants to watch. I find myself taking her to the park to kick the ball around, playing board games, doing Legos, etc., with her alone. He has no problem taking her if I ask, or playing with us if I ask. He is a great provider, he’s home by 5 p.m. each day, and he’s around on the weekends. But if I go out for the day, I’ll come home to find out he’s been playing video games while she watched her tablet. He does read to her before bed, but that’s about the extent of quality time. Whenever I ask him why he wants another kid, it turns into a huge fight where he suggests maybe we should divorce since I don’t seem to want another child. Am I crazy? Is this a normal way for dads to interact with their kids?

—Tired of Trying

Dear ToT,

I’m sorry to hear about your miscarriages. It is perfectly reasonable, I think, to want to stop trying. This is something you and your husband should talk over, but you should think of it as separate from your husband’s relationship to your daughter.

That said, your husband’s approach to parenting is something you should also discuss! This isn’t a matter of one child or two; it’s a conversation about philosophy and practice, and it’s one you should be having openly while working toward real agreement. If the circumstances are so dire that your husband is talking about divorce, this might be a conversation you want to have with a third party—therapists can really help navigate this territory.

Not every parent loves to play tea party and do jigsaw puzzles, but there are ways to spend quality time (both curled up together with your own books for example) that are not just switching on screens. I love watching television and can understand the appeal of doing only that after a long week at work, but it cannot really compare to the fleeting joy of your kid’s childhood.

Be honest and open, and don’t make this conversation about your theoretical next child but your very real current child. I hope your husband can understand that maybe it makes sense to play soccer with his kid while she’s young enough to want that or to take her out for a post-dinner stroll while she’s still willing to hold his hand. That cannot, in my opinion, compare to sitcom reruns. Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My dearest childhood friend is going through a rough divorce and has found herself suddenly single-parenting. It’s a lot to handle—she works full time, and the kids have tantrums.

I want to be supportive, but … she lives a few hours away, and in the past, when she’s visited us for a weekend or vice versa, her 8-year-old has been rude as hell to me. This isn’t divorce-related; he’s always been this way. He ignores me when I’m offering breakfast to everyone. I ask a question, he starts humming. He plays with his phone at the table and blares loud noises while everyone else is eating.

Our house isn’t full of rules, but I expect that when he’s my guest, he will treat me civilly. He is snotty all around, though a little more normal with my husband and kids than with me. It’s got to the point where I’ve stopped asking my friend and her kid to visit because I don’t want my children to continue seeing him treat me this way.

My friend is a lovely, kind person, but she says nothing when he acts like this. She’s never reprimanded him (at least not in front of us) and never mentioned his behavior to me. If I make the kid dinner, I’d like him to be respectful. If he’s sleeping in my house, he shouldn’t be a jerk. But she’s going through a hard time and needs friends to help her. Can I say something?

—Unwanted Guest

Dear UG,

You can say something! To your friend’s son you could say, “At our home, we answer when someone asks a question.” Or, “We do not allow phones at the table.” Or, “Please don’t ignore me when I’m offering you breakfast. I think that is quite rude.” It is possible he’s never heard such messages before; it is possible he’s acting out because of other stressors in his life and needs to be reminded of these manners.

To your friend you could say: “You know, [her son’s name] is not very polite when you come to stay! It’s something that has been bothering me, and it’s important to me to address it with him. I don’t mean to tell you how to parent—I only know what I’m willing to accept in my house and what example I want being set for my own children.”

Your friend might be offended; she might be hurt. But I think it comes down to your intention. If you set out to give the kid his comeuppance, his mom will be upset. If you’re genuine in wanting to offer him some guidance, there is no harm in that. It’s a generous act, if not toward this annoying kid than to his mother, a friend you love.

And this kid does sound like he needs that. If his mom is under too much stress at this moment, you’re in a good position to step in and offer him what she can’t (or is perhaps unwilling to). As they say, it takes a village.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband of many years was recently arrested for child pornography. My kids are devastated. We have three children—one in high school, one in junior high, and one in middle school. I have decided to divorce my husband because there is no longer any trust (I had no idea and was shocked when the police came), not to mention that one of our children is the same age as the children in the pictures.

It is likely the divorce will go through before the trial. How do we explain the divorce to the kids? They aren’t stupid, and I’m a bad liar. Telling them we can’t live together or whatever you would say under normal circumstances of divorce feels wrong and disingenuous. But there isn’t a verdict yet, so telling them he did a bad thing doesn’t seem right either. My oldest knows more details while my youngest has no understanding of the charges. Any ideas?

—No Good Way to Say This

Dear NGWtST,

What a terrible situation for you and your whole family. I’m so sorry. This is not the kind of thing you should go alone! If you do not already have a therapist or psychiatrist to talk to, I urge you to find one now. I think you might need one for yourself as well as one equipped to help you navigate this with your children.

Divorce might be commonplace now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t complex and traumatic for the parties involved. The fact of your husband’s criminal act—and its nature—make this more complicated still. This situation might require more than just “Mommy and Daddy just couldn’t live together anymore, but we still love you and nothing will ever change that.”

A therapist will be better positioned than an advice columnist to understand your kids and what they might need to hear from their parents. An expert will be able to lead you to language and a way of explaining the reasons for your divorce that are appropriate for the kids. An experienced clinician will also be able to help you navigate how to handle this in such a way that your kids might have a relationship with their dad going forward. Please call in that person. If you’re unsure where to turn, please consult with your kids’ pediatrician, their school, or even your own doctor. Good luck to all of you.


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