‘Holding onto anger is like grasping a burning coal to strike another’— so goes the ancient proverb.
This week, the thing I most dread in the world happened.
After a few bites of a shrimp burger she had prepared on the stovetop, my teenage daughter fanned her face.
“Mom, something’s wrong.”
She leaned across the kitchen island from her barstool and grabbed the container of mustard she had just squirted on the bun.
“Nutmeg,” she said, scanning the ingredient list. She hadn’t reacted to nutmeg since she was little. I’ve baked with it for years. This didn’t make sense.*
“Call 911, I can’t breath,” she said. I swiped my cel off the counter and phoned for help.
Jane dug in her purse for the Epipen, lifted her arm high and jabbed her thigh, holding it in place to drain. Despite the full dose, she continued to gasp for air, nearly passing out between labored respirations.
I took her by the shoulders and locked eyes.
“In through your nose, out through your mouth,” I repeated, assuming panic was making it worse. Trying to calm her breath accomplished nothing. Her throat was closing.
Seventeen interminable minutes later, the ambulance arrived. Masked up paramedics filled our living room. One of them swiftly fitted an oxygen mask over Jane’s face, another attached a monitor to her finger and started an IV. She fought for every breath.
Stepping back to give them room, I willed the epi to work. I aimed my phone at the scene and texted her dad a photo.
Nutmeg in the mustard, I wrote.
“Ma’am, her oxygen number is low. We need to transport. Covid protocol doesn’t allow you to ride with us. Do you prefer Baptist or South Miami?”
Going to hospital, I texted.
If you go to Baptist, remember Radha works there, he wrote back. The wife of Mark’s former partner was an ER doc.
Is she there today? I recalled her describing a three day on, four day off shift.
He didn’t answer.
Jane would arrive at the hospital alone. If she had a friendly face to receive her, it would make all the difference to her and could improve her treatment. I had heard some terrible things about ER visits without an advocate on staff. My friend’s son had nearly died waiting for someone to notice him.
I waited for an answer from Mark until they insisted I make a decision.
“Let’s do Baptist,” I said.
They strapped Jane to a gurney, I kissed her head and they wheeled her away.
She would be cold.
I ran down the hall to her bedroom, grabbed a sweatshirt, swiped books off the nightstand and took off in my car.
Still no word about the doctor. The ambulance would be pulling into the hospital any second. I called Mark at the office, openly frantic now that Jane was no longer watching me.
“Is Radha there?”
“Let me check.”
“YOU HAVEN’T ASKED?”
“I’ll call you back,” he said.
Pulling up to a red light, the memory of the first time I had felt like this flooded my thoughts. Fifteen years earlier, I lay on the wood floor, very pregnant with my second child. On my way to the bathroom in the wee hours of the morning, my back went out and I crumpled to the floor. Mark was out of town. With a toddler due to wake up any minute, I chucked a pillow at the landline sitting on the desktop. It clattered to the floor next to me and I dialed my husband.
“What am I supposed to do from New Jersey?” he asked. I don’t know, say something comforting to your hugely pregnant, incapacitated wife maybe?
“I’ll call Dr. Mike,” I said, stung by his lack of concern. Our chiropractor had mentioned house calls under special circumstances.
“You can’t call him at this hour,” he said.
“So, you have no suggestions and I shouldn’t bother Dr. Mike.” He hadn’t mentioned calling his parents who lived in town.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. I hung up.
The light turned green and I snapped out of my reverie. The phone buzzed.
Not sure if she’s working today. Trying to find out.
Two minutes later Mark texted that Radha had Jane’s date of birth and knew she was coming.
At the hospital, the lot was jammed. From my faraway parking spot, I traversed the distance of a football field to get to the entrance. Rushing through the Covid gauntlet, I searched the halls for ER Room 49. Through a glass window, I spotted Jane, slumped on a mobile bed with her eyes closed in a room by herself. The nurse followed me in and mechanically ticked off a list of meds. Jane opened her eyes halfway.
“I thought I was going to die alone,” she said. I held her hand and smoothed her hair away from her forehead.
One of the EMTs who’d transported her came by to check in.
“Can you tell Dr. Radha Jane is here?” I asked.
“You know Dr. Radha? She’s just next door,” It had been an hour and a half since I had asked Mark if she was working that day.
A few minutes later our friend entered the room.
“I missed seeing her come in or I would have asked to be assigned,” she said.
The EMT injected a steroid ordered by the doctor. Jane began to convulse.
“Just flush it out,” Dr. Radha told the nurse. “That one has really bad side effects, like fire in your veins, burning and itching. I am so sorry,” she said. “We have another one that doesn’t do that.”
If only my kid had been assigned to someone who worried about side affects.
Over the next few hours, Jane stabilized enough to go home.
We were too exhausted to share much with the family about the experience that night. We crashed early.
The next morning as I washed my face, I glanced up at the two baby pictures I’d recently displayed next to my mirror, one of me as a wide-eyed one year old and one of Mark as a toddler on a tricycle. I had read that keeping images of yourself as a child serves as a reminder that you are worthy of unconditional love and empathy, just like you were as a kid. The you before the walls went up. Before you tried to protect yourself and pushed people away. Keeping childhood photos of loved ones around also helps locate that unconditional goodwill for them too.
My husband’s sweet photo brought back a story he’s repeated over the years. As a third grader, he’d raced through their apartment building with a friend while his parents met with movers. When he reached the end of the hall, he stuck his hand out to avoid slamming into the wall. He didn’t see the window. As pulled his arm back from the shattered frame, a thick piece of glass lodged deep into his forearm. Not wanting to disturb his parents, he went for help at the friend’s apartment, leaving a trail blood on the white shag carpet. I could relate. I didn’t feel comfortable telling my parents when bad stuff happened either.
That evening after dinner, I pulled Mark aside and told him I wished he’d reached out to Radha sooner to make sure Jane had received the best care during the scariest moment of her life. How awful it was to find her in a huge room of cold equipment all by herself. How it reminded me of how I felt when he didn’t do or say anything to help me when I’ve needed him over the years. It felt far worse when it was our child.
“But Jane was the one going through it, not you,” he said.
“As her mother, this experience was terrifying. I am allowed to have my own feelings about it.” There was nothing more to say. I left the room to go read.
I stared blankly at my book. We didn’t see this situation in the same way, that was obvious. And then I recalled something from a recent relationship class we had taken. Oftentimes in couples, we think, “we are one and that one is me.” I know that I am prone to overly identify with my emotions. Intellectually, I know that we are not our emotions but rather the awarness behind our emotions. In the moment, I forget this. Mark’s way is to bury his emotions. Both ways are trouble.
On his way home from the office the next night, Mark texted me and Jane with the contacts of his former law partner in Los Angeles where Jane will be at school in a few weeks. This woman also happens to be the mother of Jane’s good friend, a wonderful coincidence. Jane leaving home after this experience concerned us most.
Save this number. She is available if anything happens when you are out there.
He had asked for help for his daughter. A little while later he forwarded a text from another parent out there who also has a son with serious allergies. This other mom offered to supply contacts and anything else we needed. Jane had some people she could ask for help if she ever needed it. That was everything.
When you realize we are all just doing the best we can with good intentions, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.
WRITING PROMPT: Do you hold onto past hurtful experiences or do you easily let them go?
*If you are reading this footnote, you are probably concerned about allergies. This is how it happened, according to Jane’s allergist. She’d had a mild allergic reaction a few days prior to this event. For thirty days after an allergic reaction, the body produces a heightened response to even the slightest allergen. In Jane’s case, to a seed (nutmeg is a seed, believe it or not) she hasn’t been sensitive to in years. In other words, after you suffer an allergic reaction, hyper-vigilance is a life-saving necessity. Also, it was the first time she had administered the Epipen. Her continued labored breathing indicated that she should have had another dose. From now on, she will always have two on hand.
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