For the entire month of June, our family battled a brutal GI bug. The symptoms themselves were fairly routinely awful; it was, rather, the course of the illness that was so bad. The bug had a weeklong incubation period and an approximately two-week course, so by the time my two-week course wrapped up, it was fully four weeks after Monkey had initially gotten sick. For most of us, the illness was biphasic; we were sick for a couple of days in the beginning, then had an extended period of no or minimal symptoms, followed by a brief (but intense) resurgence about two weeks after the initial onset. But Froggy was intermittently sick throughout his two and a half week course. Given the unusual course of the illness, we couldn’t string together more than two or three nights in a row when someone wasn’t actively ill. Brutal.
I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. A week and a half into the illness, I stopped sleeping well. I startled at every bump in the night, sure one of the boys was sick again. I over-analyzed every twinge in my body. I worried when one of the boys wasn’t hungry. I peppered the boys with questions about their trips to the bathroom. I fretted over how many people we must have inadvertently exposed to the bug because we kept thinking over and over again that, surely, we must be at the end. The big boys missed the last two days of school (plus many others) and year-end pool and class parties. Trips to visit grandparents were postponed. A family weekend away was cancelled. We finally just stopped making plans to do anything. I consoled disappointed children at each turn. I cried every day. Even now, a week and a half since the GI bug apparently released its grip on us, I’m relearning how to relax at night, and sweet Froggy still cannot sleep without the “puke bucket” next to his pillow.
On what turned out to be the final day Froggy was sick, he had such debilitating abdominal pain that I took him to the pediatric Emergency Room one night. It was our fourth trip to the doctor for this illness, the first to the ER (which is especially notable because I am not a mother who takes her children to the doctor for every fever or cough). I was desperate for someone to explain what was happening to us. I was struggling with feelings of helplessness that I couldn’t make my children better, that I was failing them as a mother. Froggy was in agony and scared. And I was on the verge of tears, yet again.
Five minutes after being brought to our bay in the ER, Froggy vomited. There was an attending just outside our bay, and I called out for help. She came right in, quickly explained that a 4-year-old drowning victim who was receiving CPR was in route by ambulance and arriving momentarily, so she only had a minute to help us.
No. Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Please, no.
The history I had given to the doctors before, that I had rehearsed on the way to the ER, stuck in my throat, as the tears welled in my eyes. I caught my breath for just long enough to provide some semblance of a history. The doctor ordered a Zofran and hurried out, closing the curtain behind her.
I never heard the paramedics come in. There was no audible flurry of activity. No doors banged. No one yelled. The only reason I knew the boy had arrived was because I heard his mother tearfully telling the staff that her son was healthy and that she was praying, praying that the doctors could get him back. Part of me longed to go to her, to hug her, mother to mother.
It was eerily quiet.
Until fifteen minutes later, when I heard the wail.
I hope someone was there to catch her.
I fell on top of Froggy, who wondered aloud about the wail but didn’t ask for an explanation. I held him and silently cried, willing my body not to shake. Under the curtain to our bay, I saw the shoes of the attending who had ordered Froggy’s Zofran. And I heard her trying to stifle her sobs.
Our nurse returned and communicated with her eyes what I already knew: The boy was gone.
The Emergency Room remained quiet for the rest of our time there. When I stepped out of the bay while Froggy got an abdominal X-ray, I was surprised to see several police officers standing in the halls. Later, when we returned from ultrasound, no one closed our curtain, and I watched as an orderly and nurse solemnly wheeled the boy’s body out of the ER.
Part of the way I process tragic or frightening or unsettling events in my life is to be intentional in looking for something that I have learned. Certainly, I was reminded that I, as a mother, cannot perfectly protect my children. I was overcome with the fragility of life. But these ideas are neither new nor particularly insightful. Instead, I found myself wanting – needing – to tell and retell the events of that night, not because it provided a new perspective but because I couldn’t carry the burden alone. I needed to tell people that this happened. I needed connection. I needed to continue to bear witness to the last moments of this precious child’s life.
On Saturday, June 28, 2014 at approximately 9:00 p.m., a four-year-old boy was found by another child in a friend’s pool. While I was in the Emergency Room with my sick son, this little boy arrived with his mother. The paramedics and the doctors could not revive him. He was pronounced dead feet from me. I heard the mother’s agonizing reaction to the news that her son was gone. I heard the doctor’s stifled sobs for a life she could not save. I watched as the boy’s body left the ER. I bore witness to some of the last moments of a child’s life, and I am forever changed.