Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Power to the people

I've never been much of an activist. I tend toward the conservative in most of my views, with a few bizarre left-wing outbreaks. I do vote regularly, but otherwise my political action runs to watching the evening news and bitching about my state's illegal funding of public schools. If that counts. Recently, however, I did something that made me think about the power of the individual. Specifically, me.

A little background. Frequently -- I should rather say, daily -- I am on the Internet researching something to do with Maddy's spina bifida. It's a two-edged sword, as I wrote about in my last post: Often I find information I wasn't looking to find, that causes pain or worry. (For anyone who's wondering, I've confirmed with a geneticist that obese women are twice as likely as normal-weight women to have children with spina bifida. I'm dealing with it, in my two-steps-forward, one-step-back way.)

When I do my research, I usually start with the Google search engine. I will cop to the charge of being a compulsive googler. And I noticed that whenever I typed "spina bifida" as my search criterion, the same advertisement would display in the top right part of my screen. Something like, "Your baby's spina bifida could have been prevented by using folic acid." To add insult to injury, sometimes this ad would display on my own blog.

Once a person has learned to read, she can't help but take in something that hits her eyes. You'd think I and all other readers would become numb to the onslaught of words. But I noticed that advertisement every time I saw it. And every time, I felt a sickening twist of pain.

Nobody knows the true cause of spina bifida, and it's proven that even women who supplement with folic acid (as I did) can have spina bifida babies. To an admittedly thin-skinned new mother, it's offensive to state categorically that folic acid could have prevented what happened to Madelyn. The dark subtext is one of blame: "Attention please, Mommie Dearest. If you'd taken enough folic acid, your baby wouldn't have spina bifida. Click here now." That advertisement was salt in the festering wound of my guilt.

For months I ignored the ad as it jabbed my eyes over and over, like a paparazzi flash bulb. I told myself it was really no skin off my nose because I did take my prenatals and there was nothing I could do about either the ad or Madelyn having spina bifida. But one day, without really knowing I was going to do it, I found myself clicking on the ad, the way you'll scratch a mosquito bite even though you know you're going to draw blood.

The destination was www.spinabifidalaw.com, which purports to be the Spina Bifida Advocacy Network. Sounds very philanthropic, no? But a few more clicks revealed that this was the web site of a law firm inviting spina bifida parents to sue their doctors for not telling them the benefits of folic acid ("Do I Have a Case? FIND OUT NOW!").

Yeah, I know. You see it on TV all the time: Class-action lawsuits, negligence cases, and the like. Let's all sue for something, right? But this was personal. I was outraged. They were causing pain for spina bifida parents -- at least, for one of us -- with their insensitive advertisement, even as they sought to make money off us.

Full of righteous wrath, I did three things. I emailed my sister-in-law...well, I should say I ranted at my sister-in-law...who will soon be a lawyer herself, wondering if, indeed, I had a case against these lawyers, for adding even one jot to my anguish over Madelyn. I also emailed the lawyers themselves, telling them exactly why their advertisement was false and insensitive. And I wrote to Google about the ad.

And then, having irrevocably hit "Send" on these three emails, I commenced feeling foolish. Temper tantrums will tend to turn on you, and bite you on the ass. Why had I let a little advertisement bother me so much? For the next few days I dreaded opening my email, wondering if I'd get flamed but hoping I'd be ignored. (Cindy Sheehan, I ain't.)

My sister-in-law kindly wrote back to tell me that to sue for damages you have to have damages, and not just of the intangible kind. She said I should consider writing to the bar association in the state where these lawyers practice. I was already feeling so shamefaced about my tantrum that I let that slide. Neither the lawyers nor Google ever responded.

But lo! A few days later, back to my Googling ways, I found there'd been a change to the ad in the top right corner of a "spina bifida" search:

Spina Bifida
Could Your Baby's Spina Bifida Have
Been Prevented By Using Folic Acid?

Holy Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Batman! One little word, moved from one end of the sentence to another, plus a question mark. And it makes all the difference.

Did the law firm or Google change the advertisement because of my email? I'll never know for sure. But now, when I see that ad (and it still pops up regularly), I no longer feel pain. I feel a little glow of pride, and a tiny seed of confidence that I can take care of Madelyn and myself. Whether it's taking on a school board to get Maddy services, arguing with doctors who know loads about children with spina bifida but zip about my baby, or just firing off a few snippy emails, I'm beginning to think I really can do this special-needs parenting thing.

For today, anyway.