23: The Invulnerable Child

23: The Invulnerable Child

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

The Invulnerable Child

If you truly believe in the value of life, you care about all of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society.

~Joni Eareckson Tada

The call came in at 2:00 a.m. “Young female runaway needs help.”

Police often called from the hospital when they suspected a mental health problem. As a Community Mental Health Nurse, I had spent many nights with students who had overdosed, women who had been abused, and teenagers who’d lived in far too many foster homes. The voice at the other end of the telephone sounded urgent.

Because of the hour, my husband insisted on keeping me company. He was used to driving me on late-night visits. It gave us a chance to catch up on our busy lives.

In the hospital, I was rushed into a private room while my husband settled in the hallway with his book. A tiny girl of seventeen sat on a cot with her back to me. All I could see was her long, matted, vibrant red hair. “Red” turned to face me and my heart melted. I had never seen such a lonely looking child. She reminded me of a doll our girls owned when they were little — Miss No Name.

“But why?” I asked the policeman standing guard.

“We found her huddled in the stairwell of an apartment building, with a weapon. Refuses to pass it over.”

“A weapon?”

“A jackknife, curled up in her hand.”

Red opened her fist and showed me the little knife. Our eyes met as I passed her a cup of hot chocolate.

Conversation wasn’t easy. I had to be patient. We sat for what seemed like hours while my husband kept sending in treats. My role was listening. Red’s pain welled up with silence and then guilt. Between hugs, words seeped out, as if crying for release. Eventually, I learned her family had disowned her because of her erratic behavior.

“I get wound up and run the roads,” she said. “I can’t help myself. I don’t know why I do these things. I run and run and don’t eat or sleep.”

“And now,” I asked. “How do you feel now?”

“Exhausted.”

“But why the knife?”

“I don’t know. I just want the pain to end.”

While the policeman hovered close by and Red accepted the doctor’s medication for sleep, I thought of my own family and wondered why some children suffered so much. After telephoning several numbers she’d given me, I reached an aunt who offered to help. As I explained the situation, the aunt said she would take Red into her home until she recovered.

“Life hasn’t been easy for her or her family,” she explained. “My niece was a terrific child when she was young. Kindhearted and loving. Always helping others. But my sister is a single mom now and doesn’t know where to turn during the frightening mood swings. There are so many arguments.”

I asked the hospital staff to keep Red until the psychiatrist visited in the morning. While the attending doctor and patient advocate scrambled to find a bed for her, I gathered my thoughts and wrote my nursing diagnosis: bipolar disorder, a roller coaster ride with wild highs and devastating lows. Red’s symptoms hadn’t included hallucinations or delusions, but I still worried. With her persistent feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, I feared she was heading for a major depression, with suicide a serious risk.

I knew what I had to do. I had to protect Red from herself, with education, and most important, with loving care. I promised I would do all I could to help this little girl tackle her illness and the stigma involved. I reminded myself of a quote from the book, The Invulnerable Child: “Against all odds, they cope. And they survive.” Although there’s no cure for bipolar disorder, there is recovery.

By self-managing her medications, the cornerstone of treatment, and with support from family, friends, and self-help groups, Red could one day lead a healthy and productive life. She had already proven she was a survivor. Our journey into wellness had begun.

Several years after our daily, then weekly, then monthly appointments, Red visited me again. She wanted me to meet her husband. And her beautiful red-haired daughter. “And,” she said excitedly, “I’ve been accepted into nursing school and plan on specializing in Mental Health.”

As for Red’s jackknife. I still have it.

A reminder that against all odds, they cope and survive.

~Phyllis M. Jardine

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