My little Thing has been unwell.
Turns out what seemed to be an innocuous summer stomach bug is actually a pretty awful bout of food poisoning. The last couple of days have been high drama – a little girl who’s thrown up more than 3 times her body weight, petrified parents and a mad dash to the ER. (Have we thanked you yet, Jazz?)
She’s better now, exhausted, a poster child for ‘Feed the starving in a third world country’, not yet fully recovered, but getting there. Well, at least her sense of humour is. “My puke smells like you, Mama”, she deadpanned this morning. Oh, quiet down my pounding heart.
The thing about kids is, when they fall sick they instantly look a lot worse for wear. The flesh just melts off their bones. Every morsel of food or sip of water is a victory lap that calls for loud, boisterous cheering in the stands. As a parent, you feel an impotence that cannot be described. All you want to do is dive into your kid’s body, sort of like a Ninja Florence Nightingale, and decimate whatever is hurting them. You want to contribute. Do something. Feel like a worthy parent. Be a parent. And then your little person will hug you and smile, comfort and reassure you, and it’s all you can do to keep from sitting right where you are and bawling like there is no tomorrow.
She’s asleep at my shoulder right now, clutching her tiger YouTell by the neck and clinging to me. Yeah, I’m writing this with my child tied to me with a shawl – it’s the only way she’ll sleep. Which brings me to why I’m writing this post – my Thing spent her first birthday in a hospital.
Before she was born we did what the book said, and looked for a paediatrician we liked and who we thought would be the best person to take her through her childhood aches and pains. We like her doctor. He’s kind, gentle, very approachable and available for even a 3 am phone call. And let me tell you, when you have a kid with allergies, that 3 am phone call can be a life saver. The only question we never thought to ask is which children’s hospital he was affiliated with. You know, just in case. Looking back, I think that’s why we never asked that question – you never want to think of any scenario that involves your child being hospitalised.
A couple of days before her first birthday she developed a viral fever, a fever so high her doctor worried it could be meningitis. What made it worse was that she wasn’t eating or drinking. Infants who don’t drink get dehydrated very quickly and have to be hospitalised so they can be fed intravenously. We didn’t think twice; if it was meningitis, it was definitely not something to be messed with. The hospital her doctor was affiliated with is a well known and respected one in suburban Bombay, and we took her straight there, just like he suggested.
Her doctor had called ahead, so while V was getting the admission paperwork sorted, the doctor on call suggested we get started and insert an IV line. “But you can’t stay in the room”, he said. “Mothers turn into nervous wrecks and don’t let us do our jobs”. I explained wryly that I was used to being cut open and wouldn’t scream or faint at the sight of an IV insertion – that I would be able to handle whatever they threw at me. They wouldn’t budge. All they seemed to see was a ‘hysterical’ parent. So I gave in and waited outside the room for three-quarters of an hour while an intern and two nurses held my screaming one-year-old down and prodded her tiny body until they found a vein. Through it all, not one of them thought to comfort my little girl. Instead, they gossiped about their colleagues. I could hear them through the door, these women who ignored my child crying, and my pleas to open up and let me hold her while they looked for a vein. We tracked down the doctor on call and the paediatrician in charge, both of whom insisted that we let the staff do their jobs and not interfere as our child’s well-being depended on it. Only when I finally lost my temper did they agree to come take a look, but by then they were done with Thing.
Transferring her to another hospital made little sense as her doctor was only affiliated with this one. We were promised action against the staff in question, but we all knew they were just making the right noises. The next few days can only be described as a nightmare. We were the difficult parents who asked too many questions. We got answers to all our questions alright, but they were given grudgingly, and with a level of condescension I have come to believe is unique to interns and residents.
Then came the best bit. Most big hospitals insist that home food isn’t as nutritious as anything they cater, so patients must only eat hospital food. Which is fine. Unless you’re being fed a nice, fat, juicy, white caterpillar-like bug as the non-vegetarian section of your supposedly pure vegetarian, nutritious meal. That was the last straw. By then meningitis had been ruled out so we spoke to her pediatrician, who poor man looked like he wanted to start bawling himself and worked out how to care for her at home.
I have never forgiven myself for those forty-five minutes when I let someone tell me that being a mother made me inadequate for a particular situation. It was an excellent lesson though, one that now makes me rabid about every single detail of my child’s care. I no longer accept everything her doctor says. I question everything now. When we went in for a follow-up, the first thing we asked him was – if the need ever arose again would he consider us taking her to another hospital. He agreed. He even helped us with names of doctors in other hospitals whom we could meet with and decide on. See why we like him?
In the weeks that followed, a lot of well-meaning people told us that we shouldn’t have gone to that hospital in the first place, that it had a bad reputation; but I think that’s not really true. I’m sure for every person who spoke ill of the hospital, there must be many others who like the place and have been helped by the staff there. What happened to us could have happened anywhere.
What is my point then? My point is this: the doctors, nurses and support staff who work in the children’s wing of any hospital have an obligation to their little charges, same as the parents, to make sure their spirits make it intact through whatever the hospital and treatments throw at them. And if it seems like your child’s doctors couldn’t be bothered, then you stand up for your child, and make sure you fight for her spirit. I’ve found that what works for me is standing firm. If you stand your ground and insist, doctors are willing to work with you instead of treating you like a nervous wreck. Doesn’t mean they’ll like you, but it’s not like you’re there to win Popular Parent of the year.
It was weeks before Thing stopped being frightened of anyone wearing a light blue shirt. It took her doctor a whole year to rebuild her trust. But the man kept at it, valiantly. And as for Thing and I – we’ve blocked out whole chunks of that first birthday she spent screaming in a closed room with no familiar face to comfort her. The one memory I have that I will carry with me forever is when my sister Mix came to the hospital a few hours later. Thing pitifully held out the hand that had the IV to Mix and said, “Miti booboo”.