A habit of compassion

By Shanti Hahler

For The Herald

ARLINGTON — Even though they have two children with severe disorders who require round-the-clock care, Doug and Nicole Chisholm are again giving to others this holiday season.

This Christmas, the Chisholms are planning to make their annual trip to the children’s ward of Providence Everett Medical Center’s Colby Campus.

As they have done for the past three years, they are planning to bring gifts for children and homemade baked goods for other families who must spend the holidays in the hospital.

On the outside, the Chisholm family is like many others in their Arlington neighborhood. They have four children under age 10 and a dog named A.J. Their pale-blue house is the most brightly decorated within their cul-de-sac, complete with strings of Christmas lights and lit-up statues of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus in their front yard.

But inside the Chisholm house it becomes clear that they are not like every other family.

Angelica is 5 years old, but she cannot speak, sit up on her own or play with dolls like others her age. She lies on the side of her colorful daybed, where she spends most of her day, surrounded by stuffed animals.

Her soft blond hair is done up in a stunning fishtail braid and is decorated with sparkling clips on both sides. Underneath her is a foam "wedge" that keeps her head elevated.

Her parents must use a suction machine almost every 15 minutes because she cannot swallow on her own and is fed through a tube.

"Angelica also has probably 100 seizures a day that can be caused from bright lights, loud noises, anything. It makes going out very hard. She gets colds and sicknesses from anyone who comes into the house, but she also gets things no one has, almost out of nowhere," Nicole Chisholm said.

Angelica’s 6-month-old brother, Timothy, is fed the same way and is not able to hold a pacifier in his mouth without help. Both children require intensive 24-hour care.

"Timothy and Angelica, they are our daily lives. (My husband) and I never go out. Our lives surround them," Nicole said.

Child neurologist Dr. William Graf of Bellevue said Angelica has a rare neurological disorder that developed in the womb, most likely because of a recessive genetic disorder, and had nothing to do with environment or actions of her parents.

When the Chisholms decided to have another baby after Angelica, there was little evidence that the child would also be born with a neurological disorder.

"When Timothy was born, everyone was on pins and needles," Graf said.

Shortly after his birth, the Chisholms say they knew something was wrong. And though it is too early to tell, Timothy is showing similar signs that he may suffer from the same disorder as his sister.

In addition, Angelica and Timothy have a significant number of allergies and each requires numerous daily medications, including antacids, seizure medication and various antibiotics. Weekly trips to the emergency room and the hospital are routine.

Because the children require such intensive care, the Chisholm family has found it impossible to find baby-sitters.

"By the time they see the suction and everything else, they’re gone!" Nicole joked.

However, the family now has a registered nurse who watches Angelica and Timothy several times a week, allowing for the first time for Nicole and Doug Chisholm to leave the house without worrying.

"We could probably write a book about all the things that have happened with other (people who have watched them). It’s really funny now, but it wasn’t when it happened," Nicole Chisholm said.

Aside from the help they receive from their nurse, the family’s church in Marysville has also offered a helping hand over the years. Members donated to a fund to help buy the family a wheelchair-accessible van. And for almost two months after Timothy was born, the church delivered dinners to the home.

"And no one acts funny when we bring the kids (into the church)," Nicole Chisholm said.

Though Doug Chisholm has been able to keep his job with UPS, Nicole, a licensed beautician, is unable to work because she must care for Angelica and Timothy.

For the first several years of Angelica’s life, Doug and Nicole, who recently celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary, could not even share the same bed because one always had to be by their daughter’s side to constantly suction or comfort her after a seizure. The couple now shares a pullout couch so they can be close to their children and each other.

"It has been a learning process; we have to keep a sense of humor. At two in the morning what you say to each other is not what you really mean sometimes," Nicole said.

The Chisholms’ first two children, Isaac, 9, and Joshua, 7, were born without complications. Both help their parents with taking out the garbage and walking the dog. The experience of having two siblings with special needs has been hard for them, but has made them compassionate, Doug Chisholm said.

"Timothy is cute, and so is Angelica," Isaac said. "I do the suction when mom can’t, and I tell them when she coughs.

"My family is the same as others because me and my dad wrestle together … and we go to church on Sunday. My dad took us, and we went to a Seahawks game, and that was fun … We just have a disabled brother and sister," the oldest brother said.

The Chisholms say that prayer, comedy and lots of M&Ms are what get the family through the tough times. They also like to keep funny movies around because "they are good therapy once in a while."

"You just have to do what you have to do," Nicole said.

The future prognosis for Angelica and Timothy is unknown, and the family takes the trials day by day.

"It’s by the seat of our pants … We don’t have a crystal ball, and a lot of kids surprise us, so we go day by day," Dr. Graf said.

Despite their troubles, the Chisholms enjoy helping others at Christmas time.

"Last year it was Beanie Babies, but we’re hoping to bring something for them to eat instead of the coffee from the waiting room," Doug said.

Several years ago, when Angelica was hospitalized over the holidays, Nicole brought in treats for hospital staff.

"We know exactly what it is like to be in the hospital on Christmas … The children’s hospital is the only place we have felt normal, sometimes," Nicole joked. "But God has given us the strength and has gotten us through."

Shanti Hahler is a freelance writer.

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