The day after Thanksgiving my 9-year-old son, Roan, and my 42-year-old husband were playing "Swords" on the tile floor in my dad's home.
Roan slipped, screamed and yelled, "I BROKE MY LEG!"
I was still in bed at the time, treating myself to a nice long sleep in after being up late doing a mountain of Thanksgiving dishes and our annual Thanksgiving karaoke tradition. Despite my son's dramatic scream, I didn't budge. This is because Roan is known to be a bit dramatic. Let's just say you really can't judge the severity of his injuries by his screams. Just the week before he had screamed even louder when he had stubbed his toe.
Finally, when the screaming didn't subside I crawled out of bed. Perhaps something really had happened, I thought. Thirty minutes later, my dad's living room was full of paramedics. (And let me just say, WHY are ALL paramedics the MOST HANDSOME MEN IN THE WORLD? Damn. We had an array of a gorgeous Native American man, a sporty football player type and a sexy "nerdy" one to fill out the group. But I digress...)
Roan said "Maybe I'm OK. I can't tell. No I'm not OK."
The paramedics hoisted my son onto a gurney and minutes later we were in the ambulance, my son being given a drip of morphine. The first time ever pricked by a needle, he now had a full on IV in his arm.
"Does he really need morphine? I really think this is just a sprain or a muscle thing," I said to the cute, super on top of it, competent nerdy paramedic sitting with us in the ambulance.
"Yes, he does," he said.
Roan fell into a deep, drug-induced sleep, and we arrived at the Emergency Room of the local Children's Hospital. A doctor came and looked at my son's leg. He said it was swelling and X-rays were needed.
In the X-ray room, Roan screamed when lifted onto the metal table. I winced and fought back tears, seeing now that he was not being dramatic. He was in severe, crushing pain. A moment later we saw the digital image of the X-ray pop up on a screen. My son had a huge break in his femur.
At this point, my fantasy that this was just a little strain and that we'd be back home in an hour came to a crashing halt.
A doctor came in (who was also quite handsome, I must say, bearded and kind in his bedside manner. Hey, Ladies, we gotta look at the silver linings right?)
"So your son has a tumor in his leg. It made his bone paper thin. The femur never breaks. This is why it broke. He must have been in terrible pain. He will have to have surgery now. I will place two metal rods in his femur. We will deal with the tumor after the leg heals."
My head was spinning. What? Surgery? My son is rarely at the doctor's office. And rods in his leg? And a tumor?
We went to the surprisingly peaceful surgery prep area, and my son said, "I hope I'm totally asleep for the surgery. I just want to get the surgery. So the pain goes away."
At that moment, I had the realization that there are many children who have surgeries like this all the time. There are children with spinal deformities and who live in developing countries, where they have to live with terrible pain and never even get the kind of modern day, amazing care we were getting. There are children who suffer for years. There are parents who must deal with much, much worse. And, if this were years ago, my son's leg would be amputated.
Yes, there was the mystery of this tumor we had known nothing about, which made our situation a little different than the average kids broken leg. But I tried to focus on the fact that the doctor seemed to know a LOT about everything he was talking about. And knowledge is power.
Thinking like this was the first step in remaining positive and calm in an emergency situation. And so begins the "advice" part of this post. I want to share what I learned from this experience. I know there are many of you out there who know much more than I do, but I just want to share the little I know that helped me get through a scary time with my son. I managed to not totally lose it, and I kept keeping my sense of humor. Both of those things were super helpful. So here goes:
1. Realize you're lucky
If your child is in a hospital in a developed country, like the U.S., you are lucky.
You need to ask EVERY SINGLE question you have to the doctor and nurses.
Focusing on the amazing modern equipment and the obvious knowledge of the medical staff put me at ease. Allow yourself to learn from the doctors. They know what they are talking about. If you are a person who views hospitals as scary places of sickness, I urge you to start viewing them as places of healing. Because, I am telling you, there is a lot of healing that goes on there. Be grateful for modern medicine—things like X-rays and anesthesia. Without them, my son would have died or had his leg cut off by some rusty saw.
Seriously. It could be way worse.
2. A sense of humor
A sense of humor will save you in the most dire of situations. Did I mention my son recently TORE IT UP on stage playing Captain Hook in his school's production of Peter Pan? Yeah. He brought down the house. My immediate thought was, "Had this leg break happened in Pirate times, my son would have a peg leg!" Somehow, that made us all laugh. Humor has continued to be a crutch (no pun intended) even now as he continues to recover. My son picked up on the humor and has made some great jokes himself. Like, "I know why this happened. Too many people told me to "break a leg" before my performance ... and I did."
3. BE A SQUEAKY (BUT POLITE) WHEEL
You need to ask EVERY SINGLE question you have to the doctor and nurses. You must try to put aside any worry that you're bothering the doctors by being a squeaky wheel. If you do this in a polite manner with respect, I assure you, you will be so reassured. Again, knowledge is power. While my son was getting surgery, I wrote a list of about 10 questions on a napkin. After surgery, we sat with the doctor and I asked every single one, checking them off as he answered them. And guess what? I made the doctor's job easier by asking questions he could answer in the moment, right after the surgery.
I was also grateful and polite. "Thank you so much for the concentration and energy you had during the surgery. Wow, that is intense. You had to pick out shards of bone? Thank you so much," I told him and meant it.
My son uses a bed pan and a "pitcher" to pee in
Then the onslaught of questions. Followed by thanking him for the answers. The polite questioning continued with the nurses in our hospital room overnight. I can't tell you how many women I know who say they don't ask their own doctor all the questions they want to because they "feel bad" or "don't want to bother them." If this is you, find a therapist who can help you work through where this issue is coming from within yourself, because you aren't doing yourself any favors by not getting the whole story. Ask everything and anything. If you do it in a kind and polite way, you are helping them do their job. And helping yourself.
As my son was being wheeled into the (beautiful modern) surgery room, I asked the doctor two more questions. He immediately answered and put me right at ease.
4. Take care of yourself
Even though it was the last thing on my mind, I immediately called a friend to have her drive to my dad's house and get my medications as well as pajamas. I had a few medications that if I didn't take that night, I would not be in good shape. It's the old, "Put your oxygen mask on before your child's." You must be firing on all cylinders in order to take care of your child to the best of your ability.
Also, EAT. Make sure you eat and drink. I needed energy to be there for my son when he woke up at 11 at night and asked me to "keep him company" for the next six hours. Taking care of myself has continued into the weeks since and those still on the horizon. I am now a full-time, stay-at-home mom, with an hour here or there to do a voiceover job or the like.
My son uses a bed pan and a "pitcher" to pee in. He cannot walk, and I am his butler. I get tired. So I need to make sure I am taking care of myself—so that I have the juice to take care of him. We invite friends over for a little social interaction. And I'll be in a bubble bath in a moment now that my husband is home.
5. Assure your child that you will get through this together
Since you don't know that everything will be OK (we didn't know what the tumor was and are still waiting for a 100 percent diagnosis), you must stick to statements like, "Whatever happens, we will go through this together. Me, you, Daddy, the doctors and nurses, and Papa and ..." (list whomever you want, friends and family). "We all love you, and we will take it one step at a time."
6. Let your child guide you
Depending on your child's age, they will come up with some nuggets of wisdom you don't want to miss. At one point, Roan became very overwhelmed at the idea of getting in a wheelchair. The pain had been so bad the day before that the thought of moving himself was terrifying. I told him to "just be in the moment, don't think about the future, one day at a time." He quickly reminded me that just the hour before I told him to, "Focus on the future! This will all be a memory in a few months when the cast is off."
"How can I be in the moment and in the future at the same time?" He asked me.
"You're right," I said. "I guess you just do what feels best at the time."
Telling him he was right made him happy. He was listening to me, and I knew from then on out I had to choose my words wisely.
7. Show a reasonable amount of emotion in front of your child
When my son came out of surgery he had the monster of all casts on. We quickly realized this was going to be life changing, at least for the next months. His cast goes above his belly button and extends to his ankle. There would be no school and no crutches even for weeks. I was surprised. And devastated. I started to cry. The nurse told me not to appear too frightened in front of him, because he would play off my emotions, but not to be all fake like, "That's a tiny cast!" Because it's not.
So I found a happy medium. "Wow, I know you are sad, and I am sad too. This is a lot to take in. Whatever you are feeling is OK, and I am here. I feel for you too."
Just try not to get hysterical in front of your child. That doesn't do anyone any good. And the more questions you ask your doctors, the less need there will be to be hysterical at all.
I hope these bits of advice from my experience help anyone out there who must deal with being at the hospital unexpectedly or even expectedly. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but the polite squeaky wheel gets the peace of mind all parents want at times like this.