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Nondescript Start, Scary Middle, Happy End

Posted by on December 13, 2009

November didn’t start in a memorable way. It got interesting in the middle, though.

On the Sunday the 15th, I flew to San Francisco for an academic conference. On Monday I called to find out how Alex’s day at daycare went (until now you’ve known him as Red). My mother-in-law answered, which wasn’t unexpected since she came down to help my wife take care of the kids in my absence. I figured Amanda was busy with one of the kids, doing laundry, or otherwise occupied and unable to answer the phone. As it turned out, she was busy with one of the kids alright, but not in an ordinary way.

Just as she’d been preparing to pick Alex up at daycare, someone from the daycare called. Alex had a fever and a cough that some of the staff thought might be croup. By the time she got there to pick him up (a five-minute drive), he was coughing like a barking seal and making a lot of noise as he struggled to breathe. Yup, it was croup.

My poor wife then spent the next several minutes in a fruitless conversation with someone from our pediatricians’ office. Our branch was closed for the day (Monday is the only night they don’t have evening hours.), and the next nearest branch would be a 40+ minute drive away. Children’s Hospital was 10 minutes away. Amanda wouldn’t have had reason to be angry if the woman on the phone had realized that sooner.

So, off to the emergency room at Children’s they went. Alex noisily struggled to breathe and Amanda cried. Within minutes after their arrival, he was triaged and given a steroid shot. Shortly thereafter they were whisked into a room and my wife was left to administer a nebulizer treatment to a frantic,  uncooperative, strong, and willful boy. To make thing even more interesting, Alex was tethered to a pulse-ox monitor and couldn’t run around.

Alex eventually calmed down a bit, but it couldn’t have been fun trying to amuse him. It didn’t help that they were stuck in the emergency room for the next two hours. Thankfully, my clever wife thought ahead and had packed snacks and drinks. I can”t imagine how awful the situation would have been without them.

After two hours lapsed, Alex was reevaluated and given a second nebulizer treatment. He was not a happy camper. At least the nurse tried to help this time. She ended up leaving, though, thinking that he’d feel less threatened with just Mom. Um, no. Alex was no calmer, and Amanda was less so.

After the second treatment they were supposed to wait another two hours to be evaluated again. After about one, he was reexamined and the doctor ordered that he be admitted. The next several hours were fortunately relatively uneventful. As long as he didn’t get too worked up he didn’t sound too bad. By early afternoon Tuesday, they were back home. Amanda was told that if his stridor acted up, she should take him into bathroom to breathe in steam from the shower running full-hot. If that didn’t work, she was to take him out into the cold outside air to open up his airways.

When I went to bed Tuesday night, I felt bad for being so far away from my family, but I expected to sleep peacefully would the knowledge that the worst was over. At 2:30 AM SanFran time, I got a text message telling me Alex was back in the hospital.

He’d gone to bed very early, exhausted from all the craziness. Around 7:30 he woke up barking. Amanda took into the bathroom to breathe steam, and that seemed to do the trick. He went back to sleep without a fuss. Around 2AM, she had just feeding  a hungry Joel (the 1.5mo). As she tried to settle Joel down and put him to bed, she could hear Alex barking again. She took him into the shower again. After fifteen or so minutes, he actually sounded worse, so she put on her bathrobe and took him outside. Fifteen minutes of cool air later, he didn’t sound any better, and she knew she had to take him back to the ER.

He sounded so awful that she kept the windows down to keep the cool air blowing on him. She’d periodically roll them back up to listen for him breathing. When they arrived, he was taken right back again and given another nebulizer treatment. Within an hour, he was getting another, as well as a steroid shot.

The doctors decided he should be readmitted. Unfortunately, that didn’t actually take place until a bed opened up sixteen hours later. God bless my wife for making the best of a rolling stool, a wheeled chair, a curtain, and a few toys.

<rant> The new Children’s Hospital is a state-of-the art facility that could umpteen million dollars to construct. My son was one of ten children waiting for a room that day. Why in heaven’s name didn’t UPMC build more rooms?! God help the children of this city if there’s ever an epidemic or major disaster. Where would they all go?! </rant>

Once they got into the room, things calmed down a bit (unless you count a rambunctious 14+mo getting frustrated because he’s stuck in a small room with lots of stuff he’s not allowed to play with). Thankfully, Amanda didn’t have to wrangle him by herself the whole time. Alex’s godfather, Kevin, and a dear friend from my running group, Ken, visited for a while. Kevin stayed in the room from around 8PM until I arrived at the hospital after midnight.

Ken did other favors for us, too. He and his wonderful wife, Lyn, relieved my mother-in-law of Joel-sitting duties so she could attend an event back home. When Ken left the hospital around 9, it was to pick me up from the airport. He took me home, and after I’d gathered some things for Amanda, he drove me to the hospital.

On a side note, that was a looooong flight. Five hours is a long flight by my standards anyhow, but waiting five more uncomfortable hours to see my family was especially hard. Helping colleagues amuse their son (almost Alex’s age) during the flight was bittersweet. It’s always night to see Pittsburgh from my airplane window, but the lights of my fair city almost made me cry that night. I wanted to see my wife and kids so bad it hurt.

I spent Wednesday night on a twin-sized couch bed with my wife in my son’s hospital room. He was sleeping when I got there. When he awoke in the middle of the night, he didn’t want to be held by Daddy. Mommy was the one who’d been with him through all of the recent scariness, and that’s who he wanted to calm him back to sleep. I knew it wasn’t anything personal, but it still hurt a lot. I already felt guilty about being away when he needed me, and that just rubbed salt in the wound. He sounded so awful when he breathed, and I couldn’t do anything for him.

Alex awoke in good shape on Thursday. He was cleared to go home that afternoon, and by evening he was. When we got home we relieved Ken and Lyn of their duties. God love them, they spent the night watching Joel at our house, sleeping on our couches. God bless retired friends!

Thursday night started out tough for me. I dug my sleeping bag out of the closet and camped out on the floor next to Alex’s crib. I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t stop watching him and listening to him breathe. As a couple hours past, I could have sworn his stridor was getting worse and was accompanied by a wheeze. I thought for sure we’d end up back at the hospital before morning. I’m so glad my pals on Twitter were able to keep me company and assuaged my paranoia. A funny thing happened at 11:30, though. He woke up and coughed horribly for a minute. When he was done, he breathed quietly. He sounded almost healthy for the rest of the night and I was finally able to sleep.

Alex needed a few trips to the steam room over the next couple of days and tried to scare us a few times, but the worst was finally over. The full weight of the emotional strain of what we’d been through didn’t hit me until later.

A day or two after Alex came home, Amanda and I had Kevin over for dinner. We enjoyed a couple beers and some pizza. It hit me while we said grace. Thanking God for our food reminded me of just how blessed we are to have such good and supportive family and friends. I turned to Amanda and just bawled into her shirt. After I gushed about how blessed we are and how sorry I was that I wasn’t there when the family needed me, I walked over to Kevin. I said, “This might seem weird, but step closer to me.” When he did, I hugged him and cried into his shirt. Through the tears I thanked him for being the wonderful friend he is. He’s the kind of guy who would give you his tuchus and crap out his ribs if he could.

Looking back at everything, especially in this condensed version, it doesn’t seem so bad. After all, there are countless families who’ve endured far worse for far longer. Still, it was the scariest experience in my young fatherhood. It couldn’t have been all bad, though. After all, the title of the post says “happy end”, doesn’t it? Well, in what seemed like some kind of gift from God to restore the balance of good and evil in our lives, the emotional drag of Alex’s illness was countered by the emotional lift of his growing communication skills.

During the last two weeks of November, his vocabulary of signed and/or spoken words grew by several fold. It’s been amazing to witness. I’ll save that story for the next post, though. 😉 Let’s just end here with the joy of a happy and (relatively) healthy family blessed with loving family and friends. 🙂