The boy in the ER
Today I ended up in the emergency room. I live on the Big Island of Hawai’i and if your country doctor is away (which he often is), and your naturopath is an hour away in Kona (as is the case with many things on this island, they are an hour away), and you find yourself too sick to schlep that far, you may end up in the ER. It’s actually a perfectly nice ER – clean, state-of-the-art equipment, lovely and competent staff – but today’s visit to the ER meant that I would not be getting on that plane to LA and then Boston, two places I really needed to get to.
That was bad enough. Then there was the reason for this visit: a nasty case of bronchitis I had not been able to shake for several days. And instead of getting better after resting and doing everything I was supposed to do, every single thing in my macrobiotic toolbox, I was instead getting worse. So, I was upset when I arrived at the ER and feeling horrible about cancelling my trip – a trip I had carefully planned, for a change. I was packed, appointments were confirmed, and arrangements had been made. There was a rental car and hotel in LA, and people I needed to see in both LA and Boston. Family. Loved ones. That was the worst part. As I sat on the gurney with a tube in my mouth, five minutes into a 20-minute steroid/albuterol nebulizer treatment, I was feeling really bad for myself.
Then I heard people moving into the room next to mine. Or rather, the cubicle next to mine, separated by a colorful curtain with shades of mauve and yellow in a playful pattern, clearly intended to cheer us up – those of us unlucky enough to find ourselves here. There was a wheelchair, which I could see under the bottom of the curtain, although I couldn’t see the person in it, and a glimpse of a short, heavyset, blond woman in a pink running suit walking behind the wheelchair. She looked to be about my age. The thing about the emergency room is that with no walls separating you from the other patients, you hear everything that’s happening around you. I still had 15 minutes with this nebulizer, so outside of the whirring and beeping of the machine, I was a silent and unwitting audience to everyone else’s ER story.
“What’s going on?” the male nurse asked the woman. He might as well have been asking me, that’s how clear the conversation was from the other side of the curtain.
“He had another seizure,” the woman answered. She had a low voice and a distinct New York accent. It was oddly comforting to hear that familiar accent, five thousand miles away from the east coast, my former home before moving to Hawai’i in 2007. Even under these circumstances. “They’re getting more frequent,” she added. “They used to be twice a month, now they’re twice a week. I’m worried.”
Oh no, someone’s very private story. I didn’t want to listen. I picked up my cell phone, ignoring the giant “no cell phones” sign on the wall, but immediately realized that I wouldn’t be able to talk with this big tube in my mouth. So I closed my eyes, trying to tune it out. Trying to play out all that I would be missing in LA and Boston. But the voices were loud and the tone was urgent. I didn’t know if the “he” the woman was referring to was an elderly man, maybe her father. Or was it her spouse? Then I heard a boy’s voice. Younger than my own son, maybe 11 or 12.
“My legs hurt,” he said. His voice was weak and his speech was a bit slurred.
“That’s from the seizure,” his mother said. The woman was obviously his mother. “He has a seizure syndrome.”
“Any other illnesses?” the male nurse asked, the same question he had asked me just a half hour before.
What I heard next was shocking.
“Yes,” the woman said and ran down a list that included asthma, arthritis, colitis, an autoimmune syndrome, hypothyroid disease, severe allergies – it went on and on. There were maybe 10 other diseases. Then the nurse asked if he took any medications and that list was actually mind-boggling. I knew some of these medicines: Neurontin, Synthroid, Strattera, Mobic, Singulair, Amoxycillin (every night). That list went on and on too, and this mother, a committed advocate for her sick child, knew all the names and doses by heart.
“Oh yes,” she added, ‘I forgot one.” She listed another medication. “Do you want the as-needed list too?” she asked the nurse. Five or six additional medications followed.
The boy sat quietly while his mother rattled off the names of the medications, medications she was clearly used to rattling off, and in another case I might now be writing about the evils of the pharmaceutical industry, an industry that while it helps keep many people alive is also corrupt and filled with greed and also works to keep many people sick. But this story isn’t about that. That’s for later. This is about a boy, on the other side of a faux-cheery hospital curtain, who lives his life in a state of pain and the mother who must spend most of her time tending to him.
“He’s had the seizure disorder since he was six months ” she told the nurse. So this was not a new thing.
The boy didn’t cry until they put the “big needle” in his arm, one “big enough for an IV,” the nurse said, in case the blood work showed that he would need IV meds.
“Nooo, Mommy” he blurted out.” “No more needles.”
“You have to,” the mother said firmly. “You’re having more seizures.”
“I DON’T CARE!” the boy screamed, and God love this mother, she didn’t shush him or tell him that there were other people in the emergency room or that he should pipe down and behave or suck it up. She didn’t say any of that. What she did do was ask the nurse and the female doctor, who had entered by now, for a moment alone with her boy. They left the room and walked to the other side of the ER, leaving just the three of us.
Believe me, at this point I would rather have been anywhere else. This was too personal, too painful to be part of. But there we were. And the truth is, I now cared about this mother and son. I wanted a good ending, wanted to feel hope, promise, something other than a boy’s agony.
“We can do this,” the mother said in a hushed tone, seemingly unaware of my presence on the other side of the curtain. Or more likely, only concerned with helping her son, regardless of anyone else who might be listening.
“Where am I?” she asked him. “Where am I?”
“You’re here. With me,” he managed, in a voice that was barely audible through tears.
“You’re with me, like always.”
“That’s right,” she said. “And I’ll be here through the whole thing and after, like always. Let’s just do this and get you out of here. Deal?”
“Ok… I can do it.”
“That’s my boy! And afterwards you can call Grampy on my cell and tell him how brave you were.”
“Ok!” the boy said, mustering up some enthusiasm. The woman walked over and opened the curtain and called to the doctor and the nurse to return.
Only minutes later, the doctor walked into my cubicle to give me the news that the swab they stuck up my nose showed that I did not have the flu.
“Why are you crying?” she asked, attempting levity. “It’s just a bad case of bronchitis, nothing worse.”
She must have thought I was crying about missing my trip. I was not going to share all I had been privy to. How it reached into my gut and twisted it. How I felt altered just imagining the boy’s ordeal, just getting a taste of what he and his mom must contend with on a daily basis.
“Your wheezing stopped from the treatment,” she said to me, “so I’m ruling out pneumonia. But you are highly contagious and sick, so you cannot get on that plane. Sorry about that. I’ll have the nurse write a note for the plane.”
A note for the plane… my trip… Yes, that’s what I came in thinking about. Mourning. Fretting over. At this moment I was focused on something else – the courage of the boy in the next room and the tenacity of his mom. That’s what was pressing hard against my heart.
On the way out I looked into their room, from the hallway. The curtain was half open and I just had to put a face with the voice, the story. The boy, bigger than I had imagined but still appearing to be 11 or 12, exhausted, an IV in his arm, lay on the gurney, talking on a cell phone. Probably to his grandfather. His mother was sitting next to him, holding his hand. And when I peeked in, they both smiled at me. Me – the coughing intruder, the voyeur, the stranger next door who managed to hear the whole thing, managed to be an uninvited witness to their ordeal, and still, they smiled. Another surprise. Kindness, under those circumstances.
As I left the ER, wearing the white and yellow SARS mask they made me put on, I was trying to remember what I was thinking about when I came in. LA and Boston, my loved ones, appointments – if I am lucky, they will be there in a few weeks when I finally get on that plane. I suspect I will never see this boy and his mother again, although I will remember this ER visit, this woman in the pink running suit, and the brave boy who was making the best out of a truly lousy lot in life. And I will hold my own children even closer, grateful for every moment of wellness offered to them. And grateful for mothers who, through unwavering commitment and fierce determination, make life more bearable for the children they love.