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August 27, 2012
We the Parents
Lessons from a Hospital Stay
by Melissa Howell

The list of tests scribbled on the white board was daunting: IV blood tests; nasal swab for influenza; throat culture for strep; catheter for urine analysis; chest X-ray; head CT scan; neck CT scan; and spinal tap.

Just an hour or two earlier, my phone call to the after-hours nurse resulted in the command to call 911 immediately. An ambulance ride later, my husband and I sat in a hospital emergency room with our very sick 2-year-old, who suffered a high fever, severe neck stiffness and pain, and extreme lethargy. Such words as meningitis and West Nile Virus had surfaced.

Shortly after the doctor wrote down these tests and stepped out of the room, our nurse walked back into the room. She spoke softly, and calmly.

“We aren’t having this conversation, and I could be putting my job on the line,” she said (or didn’t say). “I sat out in the hall a moment, deciding if I should tell you this. But you have a beautiful little boy and I want him to get the best care.”

“Oh, good land,” I thought. “What IS it?”

She leveled her gaze at us. Oh, here it comes. I braced myself.

“You have choices,” she said.

Again, that gaze.

“Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

“No, I’m afraid not.”

So she spelled it out. She told us she had worked for years in one of the top pediatric hospitals in the nation, which was in our metro area, and that the hospital we were at, while excellent at providing care for adults, was not equipped to care for children on such a level. She also expressed concern at the long and invasive list of tests, and encouraged us to work with the doctor to try to pare down the list. And then she walked out of the room.

We have choices.

My husband I looked at each other. There was a discussion to be had.

As parents, we are called on time and again to be advocates for our children. I’ve had to do it before, and here I was again faced with the opportunity. Sometimes we advocate for their education, sometimes for their health care, and more.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we have choices. But we do. And, it’s our job to try to decide what is in our children’s best interests. Without a doubt, there is a line between being rude, pushy and difficult, and being informed, educated and inspired.

My husband and I decided to try to work with the doctor to prioritize the tests. When the doctor came back in the room, we calmly and kindly expressed our concerns about the list of tests, which he agreed was daunting. Surely, he was covering his bases, not having a pediatric background. Since we had already done the blood work, as well as the strep and influenza testing – all of which showed normal results – he determined that we should start with the neck CT scan. We felt good about this decision, and proceeded.

As it turned out, that was the only test we needed, as the problem was identified: Mason had a retropharyngeal abscess, a very serious infection in a lymph node and tissue between the back of his throat and his spinal column. Swelling from the infection could obstruct the airway, thus rendering his situation potentially life-threatening.

Diagnosis in hand, the doctor then determined we needed a second ambulance transport to Children’s Hospital, where they were equipped to care for Mason. Mason spent a total of four days in the hospital, where he received excellent care, as well as two round-the-clock IV antibiotics; he eventually regained his strength, fought the infection and returned to normal. I forever will be grateful that all of the pieces to this puzzle fell together so smoothly.

In addition to the reminder to always be an advocate for my children, I was reminded of a few other lessons during this time:

1. A mother’s instinct is real. My husband and I were set to celebrate out eleventh wedding anniversary on the day Mason become so ill, and my husband was visibly annoyed when I announced that I would not be going out with him that evening, because Mason was so ill. But I just knew something was wrong, that his symptoms were outside of the range of a “normal” illness in a child. My husband has repeatedly thanked me since then for trusting my gut instinct and being informed enough to know that neck stiffness in a child can be a sign of severe problems, and has declared his restored faith in mother’s intuition.

2. The power of prayer is real. As Mason’s medical status became the topic of my Facebook status updates for several days, there were many promises that friends’ thoughts and prayers “would be with us.” But what really struck me was one friend, who after writing that her thoughts and prayers would be with us, added, “I promise.” I thought of how this is such an easy phrase to throw out when someone is going through a difficult time, but do we really take to our knees and sincerely pray for those who need it? There is power and comfort in knowing that others are sending to heaven your name and your trials to be heard.

3. The need for service is real, and we should make ourselves available to both the giving and receiving of kind acts. Partway through Mason’s hospital stay, one of his nurses brought in an adorable, soft, tied fleece blanket, a bright orange fleece on one side, and a darling, colorful monster pattern on the other (altogether fitting for my 2-year-old!). It was a gift for him from Project Linus volunteers, and quickly replaced the scratchy, drab hospital blankets he had been using. Even now, nearly two weeks after he left the hospital, “monster blankey” continues to envelop him each night as he goes to bed. Earlier this summer, as part of our Summer of Service group, we dedicated one of our weekly service days to tying blankets for Project Linus. I smiled at how this act of service had for us come full circle, not previously having a full appreciation for how much joy a seemingly small act of service could provide. In addition, the meals and childcare provided to us from concerned friends and family eased mine and my husband’s burdens.

Through this, I am so grateful for the many hands that played a part in Mason’s journey back to health: hands that provided medical care, hands that gave him blessings, hands that provided a variety of acts of service. And subsequently, I am joyous that he is back in my hands.

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