When I showed up to the pediatric unit on my first day of clinicals, it was dark and quiet, the nurses flitting to and from the nurses station as silently as they could. The only sounds I could make out were the occasional IV pole beeping, signifying, perhaps, an occlusion or that a bag of fluids was now emptied.
Reds and blues and bright yellows filled the hallway with cheerful balloons painted in a serene nature setting and I thought about how wonderfully non-hospital this all looked. How perfectly child-like. It seemed only fair that if a kid were sick enough to have to be in the hospital, at the very least, they could feel at home.
I spied in a corner a television with a DVD player and Playstation attached and marveled at how whomever had designed this hospital had done so with children in mind. The unit fridge was stocked with puddings and chocolate milk and chips and graham crackers, all stuff my own 2 year old would have happily mowed through. I felt as though I might actually be in some sort of elaborate daycare facility. There was even a McDonald’s in the basement.
It wasn’t until I got my first assignment–a baby in severe liver failure–and saw that my one-year old patient was the size of a three month old that these children weren’t here for fun. These kids weren’t on vacation. They weren’t at camp or even at daycare. They were sick as hell.
Some were dying.
The night nurses had had some sort of party the night before and the remnants of the dinner they’d ordered were still sitting amongst the charts. The charts of these dying kids. It seemed so unfair to me, these signs of life going on and life being lived among the rooms of children whose families were now going through their own personal hell. Nothing would ever, ever be the same for these families, even if they were cured. But that paradoxically, life would continue to go on.
People bustled by on the streets, knowing the name of the hospital and who they treated, but never knowing that fear. They’d never know how terrible it is to listen to children, innocent children in pain. The kinds of pain that make grown men weep for their own mothers.
They’d never know about the secret places in the hospitals, the PICU’s, the NICU’s where lives routinely hung in the balance. Where the cosmic scales made absolutely no sense. Where kids lived and where they died. This secret place, the land of tears.
When they’d think of hospitals, they’d think of the places where old people went when they were ill. Where your appendix or a foot or two of colon would be removed and you’d go home. Where old people who had lived a long life died.
Not where kids would go to die.
Because in a fair and just world, kids wouldn’t get sick and die. Kids wouldn’t be born without brains, or born too early, too soon to live. They wouldn’t need dialysis or transplants. No kid should have to know the pain of chemotherapy. No parent should have to see their kid off to the morgue. Death, dying; transplants and cancer, those are things that should affect the old, the people who had loved and lost, married and had kids, or not at all, if they have to affect anyone at all.
Those eight weeks were some of the longest and hardest that I experienced throughout nursing school. Each day, I’d go into my new patient’s room and laying there would be my son. I’d blink and Ben would disappear, leaving in his place another child. Someone else’s much loved child. Sometimes, the parent would be present, other times, they couldn’t be.
Work, other children, and different obligations continued despite their world crashing down around them. When I did see the parents, they all shared the same hollow look, their eyes blank and sad, their body slumped and defeated. My heart broke into a zillion tiny pieces imagining their pain.
It seemed only full-circle that the children’s hospital I’d worked at years before opened up a satellite unit at the hospital where I gave birth to my daughter, Amelia. When she was born with her encephalocele, and needed neurosurgery at three weeks of age she became a patient there. First in the NICU, then in the PICU.
Her gown bore the same logo I’d seen on so many kids before her and my heart felt as heavy as I’d imagined it would, seeing my poor daughter hooked up to morphine, her eyes lidded and heavy, seeing but not seeing us. Her sweet voice hoarse and scratchy from being intubated. Her hand, her precious hand that had always been in her face on every ultrasound we’d had, and all through her first month of life, her favorite hand, bandaged and wrapped and off-limits to her for constant IV access.
The monitors blipped intermittently for my daughter when her heart rate or respirations would dip too low and watching them, I’d shake her tiny feet, urging her to breathe, baby, breathe. And then she would breathe those glorious oxygenating breaths. The monitors would stop alarming and another crisis would wink at us in the rearview mirror as it passed.
Her father and I signed in and out furtively of the NICU and then the PICU after being buzzed in by some unseen, nameless, faceless person into a locked, secret unit, mere ghosts of ourselves. Drifting in and out for the tenth or sixtieth cup of coffee to keep ourselves awake and functioning and occasionally stepping away to eat, occasionally crossing paths with other shells of parents. We’d smile knowingly at each other as we passed without much joy, more of a commiserative, “you too, eh?” than a “Hey, friend, how are you?”
We only learned later that we were the lucky ones.
The ones that left this unit with our daughter in her seat, strapped in and furious about her sudden restraint in her car seat prison.
The unit of sadness, of broken dreams and tears. Laughter and heartache.
This secret place, the land of tears.