By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3
My birthday plans were simple. Maybe a little shopping with my mother, who was visiting for the weekend. Maybe I’d talk my dad into planting some flowers in front of our house. A nice home-cooked meal for lunch. Then Tom and I would watch the kids play outside while my parents packed up and headed back to their house which is about four hours away. It didn’t go that way.
I was dressed and ready to enjoy the day when I realized just how late my 2-year-old daughter was sleeping. She almost never sleeps past 9 a.m., especially after a night when she didn’t wake up once. So I went to wake her up and it was hard to do. Once she was up, she sat eerily still at the breakfast table, refusing food but drinking cup after cup of milk and then water. She looked pale but had no fever.
I sat her on the floor by some toys to see if she wanted to play. She played a little and then got up to walk away. There was this brief instant as she was trying to get to her feet that I got that unmistakable feeling that something was really wrong. There was something about the way she moved – a small yet awkward, uncoordinated movement – that sent a warning shot to the pit of my stomach. Moments later, I noticed that, even after more than an hour of drinking liquids, her diaper was still dry and had been that way all night. I took her to the potty to she if she would go, but she didn’t – or couldn’t. When I lifted her pink Minnie Mouse nightgown, I saw that her stomach was swollen and hard to the touch.
It was a Sunday, as it almost always is when something weird and scary happens to a kid. So I called my neighbors, who are both doctors, and described the symptoms. I asked if they thought I should go to the walk-in clinic, and they both agreed the ER was where we needed to be. We threw a few things into the diaper bag and took off. Five minutes later, we were in the waiting room with a very lethargic little girl – waiting and wondering and praying she’d be fine.
What followed was a blood test, an IV placement and a brutal experience holding Kate down on the table while three nurses placed a catheter. The doctor wasn’t certain what was going on but said he needed to rule out a possible ruptured appendix or kidney problem.
When I heard the words “ruptured appendix” and “possible need for surgery,” I did not handle it well. I wish I could say I had grace under pressure or that my faith buoyed me and kept me calm. But the truth is I shattered into a thousand shards of “what if.” I have not felt that scared and helpless and out of control in a long, long time. I’m hoping that, since God is a parent, too, he understands why I lost it the way I did.
With no real medical training, it’s hard for a mom to know what is and is not normal procedure in an emergency room. I expected a lot of people to be rushing around and acting as concerned as I was. Instead, there were more tests, more anxious waiting, and I thought I was going to lose my mind. I have no idea how Tom held it together or how he sounded so certain when he told me “It’s okay. She’ll be okay. They’ll figure it out.” Why had I so quickly jumped to the worst case scenario and put myself into a maternal tailspin?
Thankfully, the tests showed that her appendix was okay. She did have an infection and was admitted to the hospital for observation, tests and fluids.
Later, the pediatrician told me she had what is called an “ileus” which is a paralysis of the digestive tract sometimes caused by an imbalance in electrolytes. (She had battled a nasty stomach bug on and off all week, but we thought it had resolved.)
After a really bad case of diarrhea and a night and day of IV fluids, Kate was getting back to normal and requesting I sing “Elmo’s Song” over and over again while she ate soda crackers and drank 7-Up. I have never in my life been so grateful for the chance to sing Elmo’s Song dozens of times.
Thankfully, my parents were in town, and they stayed to take care of Kate’s older brothers until the crisis passed. We were discharged the next day, and now Kate seems fine again. But I keep thinking about that day and about my reaction. I think I cried more than Katie did. Perhaps it aggravated that deep need for control most moms have. Maybe it just reminded me how quickly things can change without warning, like they did nearly eight years ago when my brother died about this time of year. I don’t know.
What I do know is that events like that day in the ER give you a new sense of clarity. Regardless of what’s going on in our lives and all the stresses that come with it, most of us really don’t have any problems. When your baby is sick and you’re not sure what might happen, every other thing you once considered a “problem” vanishes instantly. All that matters is that your child gets better. All you want is for your family to be safe and well. The rest is just circumstance.
Although it wasn’t what I’d planned on getting, my birthday did bring me the gift of perspective. And I am grateful – for God’s healing, for good nurses and doctors, and for a clearer focus on what matters most in the big picture.