Sammy, my 7-month-old, couldn’t stop throwing up.
Violent wretching that produced green bile, complete with little brown flecks we’d later learn were feces. Every 10 minutes — almost on the dot — he would scream in horrible anguish while clutching his tiny belly and drawing his knees to his chest. His face went from cherry red to purple, and when the terrifying silent screams began it was the miniscule yet bulging veins on the side of his head that spoke volumes about his pain level.
But as scary as his screaming was, I preferred that over the lethargy.
When the wave of screams finally subsided, he would go into an even more frightening state of malaise. He just sat there, eyes rolling around in his head, looking totally confused. He couldn’t focus his eyes on anything or anyone, and was basically unresponsive. I begged him for a smile, for a scream, for ANY kind of recognition on his part — but nothing. The only thing that could break him out of his zombified state was another round of gut-wrenching abdominal pain.
The local ER. The preliminary diagnosis of a stomach virus. Sticking a little baby with a needle to put in an IV line. It was all a blur, because all I could do was focus on my helpless son and try to telepathically will him back to good health.
It didn’t work.
Phone calls. Doctor huddles. Plans to open the local pediatric ward just for Sam. Scrapping those plans because they feared whatever was happening was beyond their level of expertise. Four separate people in the ER in addition to the nurses — some of them patients themselves — took one look at Sam (whose skin had begun to turn Simpsons yellow) and wished us teary-eyed “good lucks.”
Suddenly Sam was getting an ambulance ride to Boston Children’s Hospital. MJ rode with him, which meant I had to drive myself the hour north to the city. Actually, it took 54 minutes. I timed it on my GPS. Because those 54 minutes were the only time I was allowing myself to freak the fuck out. To cry. To scream. To let the stark terror I was feeling consume me so I could play the “What If?” game with myself in an empty car instead of burdening my wife.
I thought about my son dying. About buying a tiny casket. About delivering his eulogy at a memorial service. I thought about friends who have lost children and how unimaginable that is. I spent 54 minutes allowing myself to think the unthinkable. Then I stuffed those thoughts in the trunk of my car and let the valet drive them away.
I won’t go into the specifics of Sam’s medical condition, except to say the doctors at Boston Children’s did a FANTASTIC job of diagnosing him quickly and accurately. The treatment is, unfortunately, very painful and invasive — but they were able to avoid surgery. And avoiding surgery on a 7-month-old is a huge, huge thing.
What’s important is they found a diagnosis and the condition was treatable. Because, as I saw first-hand in Boston, that is not always the case.
The hallways of Boston Children’s are painted with bright colors and pictures of animals and majestic landscapes every few feet. But those cheery corridors belie the feeling of dread, doom, and death that looms around every corner. There were too many little kids with bald heads, too many small patients moaning in pain, and too many parents crying in corners to pretend otherwise.
Your world shrinks when your child is hospitalized with a serious condition.
Time of day ceases to matter, and it’s measured instead by time between instances of vomiting. Time until the next nurse check. Time he’s held down his food. Suddenly there’s a hyper focus on the next thing, on what’s immediately in front of you. He has to hold down that food before we can worry about the next test which will tell us if we need the ultrasound which will let us know if we can do a non-surgical procedure instead of opening him up.
Life becomes a series of short, punctuated milestones beyond which is the complete unknown. And if you don’t lock the unknown in your trunk and let the valet worry about it, you’re in for a long, long night.
In the end, Sam was fine. They figured out what was wrong, fixed it (although it took multiple tries), and he got to go home. When they told us he was good to go home, I let my emotions loose for the first time in two days. I ran to him, picked him up, danced around, and let out a full-fledged “WOOOOOOO BABY!!!!” MJ and I hugged him close and we all smiled triumphantly as we collected our belongings to return home.
That’s when we heard the pained and agonizing scream from a child down the hall. So much hurt. So much anguish. And I’m sure he/she had two parents close by, whose hearts were making the same sound of torment.
Our smiles faded as we walked solemnly down the hall toward the elevator, the screams from behind us echoing ironically off the festive yellow walls. They are screams that will sporadically play in my head until my heart no longer beats. They are a reminder that not everyone gets a triumphant elevator ride to the lobby carrying a bundle of joy.
Not everyone gets to go home.