• 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.



    • Love can be very hard some times. Thank you for sharing this with us. Very nice entry-look forward to more.

        • Beth Bornstein Dunnington

        • January 25, 2013 at 6:53 pm
        • Reply

        Thank you for your comment, Donald. I enjoyed your recent iPinion piece as well. Yes, love can be very hard sometimes. Hard to watch your child suffer. As parents, we do what we have to do. This mother did it especially well. Best, Beth

    • Beautiful story. I understand how this would affect anyone in the next room or curtain. The sad part to me is that he is in an ER when he must have a doctor or two who could have seen him without all the extra work of the ER to assess someone they have not seen. I am not sure I would look at this as an emergency and rather something that can be handled in the doctor’s office. I have worked in hospitals and with doctors and in the old days they saw you immediately. Now they send people to the ER. What happened to patient care. Someone surely knows all about this young man and his mother and what he takes in the way of medication and not it is like starting from scratch. It costs all of us so much money to go to the ER for non emergency visits when these bills are not paid or when your insurance pays $100’s for a visit that would have cost a lot less at the doctor’s office. I feel for this family but I am not sure any doctor there will want to give the kid anything without a full medical workup which probably has already been done at a doctors’ office. It bothers me when doctors say go to the ER as a first choice.

        • Beth Bornstein Dunnington

        • January 25, 2013 at 7:07 pm
        • Reply

        You make a good point, Madge. I’m not sure why this boy, who must spend a great deal of time with various doctors, ended up at the ER that day. I can only assume he was rushed there after a seizure when his own doctor was unavailable. I was there because my doctor wasn’t in. The Big Island is not an urban hub like Honolulu, it’s pretty rural and very spread out and sometimes it’s hard to get to a doctor here. People often get on a plane if they need a specialist and fly to Oahu (like flying from Boston to NY in terms of distance). There is good medical care here, but there really is a shortage of doctors. It can be a problem.Thanks for commenting. Good to hear from you.

      • Maya North

      • January 23, 2013 at 2:31 pm
      • Reply

      My daughter is an asthmatic. Long before those miraculous little finger clippies, blood oxygens were taken by need from an artery. I recall all too vividly holding my 8 year old as they sawed about in her tiny wrist with a huge needle, looking for that artery. This boy has even more to deal with and doesn’t it just put everything into perspective. What a hero that child is–plus his incredible mom. I will pray for them both and for your own healing, too! Beautiful column, beautifully written! XXXOOO

        • Beth Bornstein Dunnington

        • January 25, 2013 at 7:12 pm
        • Reply

        Wow. Sawing into an artery to get a blood oxygen level! Yikes! That has to be wildly painful. Yes, it does put things into perspective — it certainly did for me. Thank you for your words here. I am a fan, Maya, and I enjoy reading your iPinion columns. Thanks for your kind comments. xxxx

      • Sarah

      • January 23, 2013 at 6:38 pm
      • Reply

      Kudos for sharing an amazing story; well-written and insightful. I have to wonder, though, if there was any chance of this being a case of Munchausen by Proxy. Sadly, the endearing scene you describe could indicate something far more sinister that what appeared on the surface.

        • Beth Bornstein Dunnington

        • January 25, 2013 at 7:18 pm
        • Reply

        Sarah, someone else sent me a private message saying almost the same thing. I so hope that isn’t the case. It would be unthinkable if this mother, who appeared to handle that impossible situation so beautifully, was the cause of her boy’s suffering. I am choosing to believe that she’s the good guy here and not the villain. Anyway, how would we know? It felt authentic from the other side of the curtain. And she talked about another child who is “never sick.” It didn’t feel like that, that’s all I can say. Thanks for writing in.

      • amy ferris

      • January 23, 2013 at 7:41 pm
      • Reply

      you rock my world. period. i love you, beth. i love you.

        • Beth Bornstein Dunnington

        • January 25, 2013 at 7:21 pm
        • Reply

        YOU ROCK MY WORLD BACK! You are the best of the best, Amy Ferris. I am so grateful to be part of your life. I love you too. <3

      • davidlacy

      • January 23, 2013 at 8:58 pm
      • Reply

      What an amazing piece Beth! Talk about making an entrance into iPinion!

        • Beth Bornstein Dunnington

        • January 25, 2013 at 7:30 pm
        • Reply

        Thank you, David! I’m honored to be in the company of so many great writers and photographers. Thank you to you and Debra for bringing me into iPinion! I’m loving it so far. 🙂

    • You had me at steroid/albuterol nebulizer. My father suffered from bronchitis, asthma all his life and your piece made me think of him.
      Your story is an important reminder how lucky those of us are that have our health. Beautiful, well written piece.

      • Beth Bornstein Dunnington

      • January 25, 2013 at 7:34 pm
      • Reply

      Hi Hannah! I’m so happy to hear from you. I love your photography and the words you choose to put with the photos. That had to be hard for your dad — I’ve been dealing with bronchitis for one week and it’s knocked me out. Tough to deal with it over the course of a lifetime. Thank you for posting to me. xxxxx

      • Ana Feliciano

      • January 26, 2013 at 2:28 pm
      • Reply

      Amazing, amazing, amazing. Thanks for the many reminders you just gave me.
      *Big hug*

      • Beth Bornstein Dunnington

      • January 28, 2013 at 5:59 pm
      • Reply

      Thank you, Ana. So grateful for your comment. Virtual hug back. 🙂

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