A rock heart picked up on a hike
It started with a sniffle. Since my husband was working 20 miles north in Providence, and had the car, I walked to the office of a doctor who agreed to see my 18-month-old son. “It’s nothing,” he said, dismissing my concerns, “Just a little cold. Give him lots to drink, keep him warm, and he’ll be fine tomorrow.” I wheeled the carriage home feeling embarrassed for making a fuss, for worrying about nothing.
My embarrassment turned to bewilderment a few hours later when my son and I were playing with blocks. Suddenly he began to gasp for air making horrible sounds as if each breath were his last. Then it stopped. And started. And stopped. And started. I ran to the next-door neighbor and begged to use her phone. I called my mother-in-law who’d been a pediatric nurse and asked her to come as quickly as she could.
As soon as she and my father-in-law arrived my mother-in-law watched in astonishment as one minute my son could hardly breathe, the next moment he was playing with his toys. “Nancy, I’ve never seen this before. I think we should take him to the hospital.” Stunned, thinking about the doctor saying it was nothing, just a little cold, I wrapped him up warmly and held him to my body, begging all the powers that be that he be well, that this would pass.
When we arrived at the hospital the admitting clerk began asking a litany of questions that I answered automatically until she asked what religion he was. “Why do you need to know?” I asked.
“In case he dies,” she responded.
“Oh for godsakes,” blurted my mother-in-law. “I used to work here. I’m taking him up to the ward.” Still holding my son, I followed her to the elevator. “You can’t come with me, Nancy, they won’t let you up there.”
“But I’m his mother. He needs me.” My mother-in-law took him from me and disappeared as the doors to the elevator closed. Despair overwhelmed me. I froze, waiting for her to return. Hoping she’d be carrying my son.
I lost track of time. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. When she stepped out of the elevator looking grim, without my son, I knew something was terribly wrong. “They’ve put him in an oxygen tent and started IV antibiotics.”
How was this possible? The doctor said it was sniffles. Nothing to worry about.
I had to be with my son. To comfort him as best I could. I stepped into the elevator but my mother-in-law stopped me. “You can’t go up. They don’t allow parents to see their children.”
“But he needs me. We’ve never been separated.”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. It’s the rules. No parents allowed. If you try to see him they’ll call security.” I couldn’t stop shaking. Although my mother-in-law was never comfortable with physical affection, she put her arm around me and said, “Let’s go to my house. The doctor has the phone number. He’ll call as soon as they have a diagnosis.”
My father-in-law called my husband to say our son was in the hospital. He said he had to referee a game and couldn’t leave. I sat by the phone, waiting. My in-laws did their best to distract me but I was in a world of darkness, sitting by the phone—hearing nothing, seeing nothing.
When the phone rang, I picked it up. The doctor’s voice was hard and cold. “I’d like to speak to Mrs. King, the mother of Lance King.”
“Speaking,” I said.
“Your son is very ill. If he dies it will be your fault.”
The next thing I remember is sitting on the couch. My father-in-law was handing me a shot of whiskey.
He was in the hospital for over a week. I tried to sneak up to see him and a policeman said if I tried to do this again I’d be arrested. For seeing my ill child? When he came home, I had explicit directions for his care, which I followed as if my life depended on it, not only my son’s, yet he failed to recover and was soon hospitalized for a second time. Once again the doctor blamed me even though I tried to explain I’d done everything he told me to do, just as he’d told me to do it. When my son came home after the second hospitalization he was not the same child he’d been before being hospitalized. He didn’t cry. He hardly slept. He hardly ate. I spent most of my days holding him, crooning songs off key, trying to soothe him.
I told my husband we had to move to Providence, to a city with a bigger hospital and a different doctor. I called the hospital to ask for the name of the head of pediatrics. He turned out to be a young doctor who was willing to listen without judgment, a caring, compassionate pediatrician who let me visit my son for an hour each day when he was hospitalized in an oxygen tent. He agreed to let me take him home as soon as he didn’t need oxygen, despite a fever of 103, despite a snowstorm. He believed me when I said my son would heal faster at home. When he came to check on him the following day my son’s temperature was normal; he was playing with his favorite mini cars.
During the next six months my son was either getting sick or recovering. Every episode began with the sniffles. I learned that after his breathing changed we had about an hour to get him to a hospital and in oxygen or he would die. I dealt with blame and shame from my husband and parents, disconnecting from my feelings in order to keep going, but my dear, caring doctor always reassured me. “By the time he’s two he’ll be healthy.” I don’t know by what measure he knew, but he was right. His kindness saved my life.
Have you ever been in a life/death situation? How did you handle it? What difference did the situation make in your life?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.