We Almost Lost Her

We Almost Lost Her

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Stories of Faith

We Almost Lost Her

New York City, April 20, 1996. It is Parents’ Day at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. About three hundred professors, medical school students, and proud parents gather in Bard Hall, waiting for the luncheon speaker. We’ve spent the morning touring the facility. We’re delighted that our children are learning at a school so obviously dedicated to excellence.

It is hard for me to believe today that more than twenty-four years have slipped by since our daughter came into the world. I remember her first year of life so vividly. How could I not? We almost lost her....

My mind quickly skips backward across the years. It is 5:00 A.M. on April 8, 1972. Gordon and I suddenly awaken in the predawn hours to a sharp cry coming from the crib in the corner of our bedroom. It is uncharacteristic of our six-month-old daughter to announce her needs with such urgency, so I jump out of bed. As I approach her, Valerie throws up and begins to cry.

“Now don’t you worry, Mrs. Jones,” comes the calm voice of Valerie’s pediatrician over the telephone line. “Little babies often throw up very hard when they have the stomach flu. It’s going around, you know, but it’s nothing to be concerned about.”

So I cradle Valerie in my arms, trying my best to emulate the attitude of her thoroughly unalarmed pediatrician. But her face, usually relaxed and smiling, reflects a mixture of anxiety and discomfort.

By lunchtime, I’m even more alarmed. “The baby is throwing up blood!” I exclaim in a second phone call.

“That’s perfectly normal,” says the unruffled physician. Just keep giving her fluids.”

“But she doesn’t want to nurse anymore.”

“Well, that’s all right. After all, when we have the flu, we’re not usually very hungry, are we?”

My heart continues to sink when, a few hours later, I put Valerie on the changing table and see traces of blood in her diaper. As a first-time mother, am I overreacting?

And so it goes throughout the day, with me calling the doctor, then waiting for the doctor to return my calls. Valerie finally is admitted to our neighborhood hospital late that afternoon when the pediatrician decides she will improve quicker with the help of intravenous fluids. When we arrive, emergency-room personnel cut deep gashes in her chubby little ankles to insert needles when they can’t find her veins. Valerie reacts with admirable stoicism to these painful procedures, refusing to cry in spite of the obvious miseries.

By 9:00 P.M. that night, Gordon shares my concern. “She’s not doing very well at all,” he frowns. Turning to the pediatrician, who remains unruffled, he underscores my observations. “My wife says she’s been throwing up ever since she got here.”

“And I still see blood!” I add.

“The capillaries are still acting up, are they?” the doctor says. “When the spasms stop, the capillaries will heal.”

“Now go home and get a good night’s sleep,” he adds, stepping aside to let us pass. “There’s nothing you can do sitting here. Valerie needs her mom and dad to be fresh and rested when she checks out tomorrow!”

Early the next morning, I am shocked into consciousness by a ringing phone.

“I don’t want to alarm you, Mrs. Jones,” says the pediatrician, “but I thought it best for me to talk to you first. Valerie had a little setback during the night.”

“A setback?” I echo, bolting up in bed.

“It’s nothing serious, I assure you,” he continues. “She had a seizure, but it’s completely under control now, and she’s resting peacefully.”

“A seizure?” I exclaim, feeling the blood rise to my face. “Why?”

“Well, it’s easy to explain, really. The IV caused a slight imbalance in her blood chemistry. It’s not at all unusual.”

“I want to be with her,” I tell him. “I’m coming right away.”

I arrive to find Valerie drowsy. I am told it’s because of the heavy dose of medication prescribed to prevent further seizures.

After Gordon leaves for work, I spend the day hounding the nurses. Are they still taking blood tests to determine the level of her electrolytes? Why is she so restless? Why does she seem so much sicker than the other babies in the flu ward? How long had the seizure lasted? What is wrong with my baby?

By nighttime, Valerie cannot get comfortable. No matter how much she twists and turns, she cannot find a position that satisfies her.

“Can’t I hold her on my lap?” I ask one of the nurses. The tolerant nurse decides that the easiest thing is to let me have my way.

But after about an hour helping Valerie find a comfortable position, I realize her abdomen has distended noticeably. Though I want to go to the nurses’ station to report my findings, Valerie is hooked to two separate IVs, and there is no way I can get her back to bed without help. I sit there, trapped and horrified, watching her abdomen continue to grow, until a nurse materializes.

“Look!” I cry. “Look at the size of my baby’s abdomen! And how could it distend so quickly? I don’t understand!”

“The doctor will answer your questions in the morning, Mrs. Jones.”

“But I want to know right now!” I insist.

“The doctor can’t be disturbed,” says the nurse. “He’s at home.”

“I’ll call him,” I say. “He can’t fire me! What’s his number?”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Jones, but we can’t give out that information.”

“Then you call him!” I plead. “If he gets mad at you, just blame me. Tell him I threatened to report him to the chief of pediatrics!”

“Mrs. Jones, he is the chief of pediatrics,” the nurse replies, smiling pleasantly, turning and walking briskly away.

I sit there for an hour, frustrated and scared. Suddenly, the door bursts open.

“I decided to call the doctor after all,” says the nurse. “He told me to get Valerie to X-ray immediately!”

As Valerie is moved straight to X-ray, a group of doctors, including the pediatrician, gathers and examines the results. Gordon slips his hand into mine as we listen to the doctors.

“How could you have missed it?” says one, looking angrily at the chief of pediatrics. “Haven’t you heard of an intussusception?”

“It never occurred to me!” he replies. “She didn’t fit the statistics! She’s a girl, for one thing. This usually happens to boys! She’s only six months old, and that puts her on the low end, age-wise. And besides, I did not know she was in pain! She never even cried!

Suddenly, the doctors turn and see us. The chief of pediatrics turns pale.

“Mr. and Mrs. Jones,” he says in a trembling voice, “there’s no time to waste. Valerie’s life is in the balance. She must have an operation right now. It’s up to you to decide whether you want my colleague to do it here, or whether you want to risk sending her to Columbia Presbyterian in New York, an hour away. I can’t guarantee that she’ll live for another hour, but they have the best pediatric surgeons in the world there.”

“He’s absolutely right,” says one of the other doctors, a general surgeon. “The physicians at Columbia Presbyterian are highly trained specialists. I’ve never operated on a baby before, but I’ll do the best I can if you want me to go ahead. It’s your call. You have to decide right now, though.”

“We want the best for our baby,” says Gordon. “Send her to Columbia. She’s a fighter. She’ll make it there.”

“What exactly is wrong?” I ask.

“It’s called telescoped bowel,” explains the pediatrician. “By some fluke, the large intestine managed to catch a piece of the small intestine at the valve where they meet, and began sucking it down.”

“Why is her abdomen so distended?” I ask, fearing his answer.

“Her abdomen,” the doctor replies, “is swollen with gangrene.”

There is no time for grief, panic or tears. The surgeon and the pediatrician, feeling there is nothing more they can do, go home. Gordon and I wait anxiously for the ambulance. We hound a kind resident who repeatedly picks up the phone and checks on the ambulance; it’s a good thing. The driver gets lost, and the resident directs him the rest of the way via telephone.

Thirty minutes later, the paramedics come running down the corridor.

“What do you think you’re doing?” says one of the paramedics as I climb inside the ambulance.

“I’m going with you!”

“No, you’re not,” he shouts, pulling my arm. “It’s against regulations!”

But I protest, digging in my heels and holding on to a bar on the wall. “Let’s go,” I tell them. “We don’t have time for this!”

“All right,” he says finally, “but if the baby starts to fail, we may have to resuscitate. So I’m warning you, lady, if you interfere in any way, I’ll knock you out!”

“It’s a deal,” I say. “Let’s go!”

Once we arrived at the hospital, Gordon and I say goodbye to Valerie as we are ushered to a waiting room.

We anxiously wait there for the pediatrician. Finally, a young blond man enters the room and moves toward us, a clipboard clutched in his left hand. This can’t be the surgeon, I think. They must have sent a medical student.

“Mr. and Mrs. Jones?” says the fair-haired youth, extending his right hand. “I’m Dr. John Schullinger. We don’t have much time, so forgive me if I come straight to the point. The prognosis for your baby is extremely poor. The truth is, she is moribund. It would be unfair of me to give you any real hope that she’ll survive. If she does live, she may very well suffer serious brain damage, and she’ll almost certainly have intestinal problems for the rest of her life. I’m deeply sorry to have to be the one to bring you this news, but you have every right to know the facts. And now, if you’ll excuse me, every minute counts.”

I’ve given my baby into the care of a boy, I think with sudden alarm.

Now, there is nothing to do but sit on the couch in the waiting room and cry. I sob until I hear Gordon.

“Stop,” he is saying in a pleading voice. “I can’t stand it! You must stop crying.”

Grief is a feeling that is hard to share, even with loved ones. Gordon seems in another world, far away and out of reach. I feel walled in by a cocoon of pain, hollow silence and unbearable loneliness. We are completely alone together. The only thing I can do for him now, the only gift I can give him, is to stop crying.

I pray to God for the first time. Like many other supposedly self-sufficient people, I have waited until I am overcome with grief and helplessness before it occurs to me to turn to God for comfort. I have often heard it said that God is merciful and is, in fact, love itself. Indeed, those words come to life for me in the barren, silent waiting room at the Babies and Children’s Hospital, a room that surely witnessed the bitter tears of countless other parents.

I peek out the door of the waiting room several times during the night, wishing there were someone I could ask how the operation is going, but the halls are dark and the nurses’ station is empty. Then I hear the squeak of crêpe soles coming down the corridor. I open the door and see a nurse putting her shoulder bag on the desk.

“Could you please call the operating room and find out how my baby is?” I cry breathlessly.

“Okay!” she says wearily, picking up the phone. “What’s the name of the patient?”

“Valerie Jones.”

“And the surgeon?”

“Dr. John Schullinger.”

“Dr. John Schullinger?” she repeats. “You have no worries. He’s the best there is. I’m sure your baby is just fine.”

“No, you don’t understand! He doesn’t think she’ll make it! She is moribund!”

The nurse holds up her hand to silence me as she speaks to someone on the line.

“She’s doing just fine,” says the nurse in a matter-of-fact tone as she replaces the receiver. “She’s in intensive care now. I told you that we don’t lose babies here!”

New York City, April 20, 1996: The voice of the Parents’ Day program coordinator brings me back to the present. Gordon and I, meanwhile, look with astonishment as Dr. John Schullinger rises from his chair at the head table. As he makes his way to the podium, I quietly approach a professor and ask if I might make a short speech after Dr. Schullinger’s address. When I explain what I want to say, she agrees.

When the doctor takes his seat after speaking, I keep my words brief. I say to the smiling audience, after recounting that unforgettable night twenty-four years ago, “I am delighted to have this opportunity to thank Dr. Schullinger publicly. I now know that God was guiding his hand that night. Who could have predicted our daughter would end up being mentored by the very man who saved her life?

“In retrospect, it is obvious that you save babies here at Columbia-Presbyterian so you can train them to become doctors who will save other babies in turn. Isn’t this, after all, what medicine is all about?”

I take my seat as the audience erupts with the applause Dr. Schullinger so richly deserves.

Valerie Jones has completed her second year of medical studies at Columbia. She continues to enjoy life free from symptoms or complications.

Dr. Schullinger is no longer “the boy” I first met, but he seems perenially young.

And God? He’s the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.

~Sonia Jones

Chicken Soup for the Christian Family Soul

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