Thursday, April 28, 2011

On Illness and Memory

Polly and Pip were sick last week. It was some sort of minor respiratory bug that produced a lot of snot, irritated their noses with all the wiping, gave them both a low-grade fever, and kept all of us from sleeping well. It took about four days for them to get through the worst of it. Now we just have to finish off the last of the snot.

The whole experience was relatively normal except for one small coincidence: About this time a year ago, I had to take Pip to the emergency room because what I originally thought was just another cold turned out to be much more.


Ava had a job interview that week. The day before she left, Pip developed the sniffles and a fever. It seemed like no big deal. He had been bringing home colds from preschool all winter long. That night his temperature went up and with it his breathing rate. We’d seen this before, so I gave him some fever reducer and did not worry too much about it.

At breakfast the next morning, it quickly became obvious that he was laboring to breathe. Every intake of air was short and quick. Every breath out sounded like he was blowing bubbles through a straw. I spent an hour watching the bit of skin between his collarbones flex in and out as he worked to get enough air into his lungs. I kept hoping the motion in this little triangle would fade back to its normal state of calm, that his difficulty was just the result of some overnight mucus accumulation that had to be cleared out. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case and, after a brief phone call to our doctor, I packed up some food and books and took both kids with me to the emergency room at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

The experience of walking into that emergency room in the middle of a weekday was a paradoxical one. It was a relief to be doing something, to be past the stage of weighing whether I should or should not take him somewhere. It was also comforting to walk into the ER and find the waiting area largely vacant. There were a few people scattered about the available seating but the general feeling was one of an airport in the early hours of the morning. The space was calm and still, almost in repose, as if composing itself before the rush that would eventually come. At the same time, I was anxious to get Pip in to see a doctor. He was breathing like Darth Vader, but I had to stand quietly in line as a young woman gradually signed in patients at the registration desk then trundle both kids and our stuff over to the waiting area to hang out until a nurse called us back into the ER itself. The absence of urgency in the process was unnerving.

Once we got out of the waiting room things happened more quickly. We spent only a few minutes in the nurses’ triage station before moving into an examining room. In this room the hospital staff got Pip hooked up to some monitors and a doctor started assessing his condition. After some observation and a couple of tests, they found no major problems. So they gave him a steroid inhalant to dilate his bronchial tubes in the hopes that this would give his body the chance to push back against the mucus. (In another argument for baby-wearing, I was able to do the necessary paperwork, talk to the doctor about Pip, feed both kids, keep Polly from messing with the room’s medical equipment, and eventually get her a nap by holding her in our baby-carrier the whole time.)

After administering the inhalant, the doctors left us alone for a while and Pip took a well-deserved nap. The whole time he slept all I did was watch the monitor that was tracking his respiration rate, trying to exert whatever force I could to make that number move slowly downward. I felt each slight drop as a personal success and each little rise as a horrific failure. Eventually, the drops began to outnumber the gains and my sense of crisis started to fade. Around dinnertime, the doctors released Pip from the ER.


Of all the things that happened in that twenty-four hour period, there is one image that has come to dominate my emotional memory. It comes from our time in the hospital, as we were escorting Pip to the X-ray lab for a chest X-ray. A nurse was leading us. Pip was following close behind her and Polly and I were bringing up the rear. There was something about Pip in that moment. He was walking down the hallway wearing a hospital gown, brown pants, and leather shoes with thick soles and wide laces. A bit of red from the dinosaur underwear he was wearing peeked out between the overlapping edges of the gown. His body posture was relaxed but curious. He kept turning his head left and right as if briefly pondering over each of the things he passed: the beeping green monitors, the empty stretchers, the IV tubes dripping their clear liquid, the stark red bags of hazardous waste. While doing this his bright blue eyes widened and took on an angelic hue. I don’t think I was the only one who saw it because everyone we passed looked down at him and smiled.

It was a beautiful, poignant, and potentially tragic picture – the blond haired boy contentedly padding his way along, unconcerned that his lungs might be filling up with life-quenching mucus. I remember thinking in the moment that so many truly sick kids have this kind of beatific aura about them and that in some ways it is a very cruel thing for a parent to see. I hoped and hoped and hoped that it was not an indication of where Pip’s illness was heading.

Luckily, it was not. Several colds have come and gone without another trip to the hospital. It appears that this event was an outlier, an aberration of sorts, and not an indicator of some chronic or terminal disease. But the crystalline wonder and fear of that walk to the X-ray lab remains with me. I manage to keep it locked down most hours of the day, but in the middle of the night, with Pip’s snot filled nose gargling beside me it skips loose for a few minutes. I find myself comparing his breaths to mine, trying to judge if they are unusually quick or painfully short. When it feels like they are, the image comes floating back. I see Pip in his hospital gown and leather shoes walking blithely past all those smiling faces, down the florescent hallway towards a white light from which he can never return. It never fails to overwhelm me and it may be the real reason why the nights that either child is sick are sleepless ones for me.

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