- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005

The muffled sound of “Pop Goes the Weasel” being played on the piano comes from the basement. Down the hall, the computer printer rhythmically churns out a document. The washing machine and dryer quietly hum from the laundry room, while construction crews outside my open windows send echoes through the autumn afternoon as they piece together the home that will house my new neighbors.

All of it combines to create a melodic soundtrack for my life. Then, amid the jingling of my dog’s tags as he wanders from room to room and the voice of the SpongeBob cartoon from behind a door (where someone thinks I don’t know she’s watching television) comes the now familiar hacking cough that plagues my eldest daughter.

It started with a head cold two weeks ago. Then, because she suffers from asthma, it sank to her chest and became a persistent cough. With the geese overhead honking at one another, it’s hard to tell whether she’s clearing her airways or flying south for the winter.

Finally, last Tuesday, with my daughter writhing on the living room floor trying to reach for the bottom of her lungs and every breath sounding for all the world like a tuba tuning up for a concert, I dialed our pediatrician’s home number. It pays to be friends with your pediatrician.

I didn’t have to convince him it was serious. He could barely hear me over the phone because her uncontrollable coughing drowned out our conversation. “I think you’d better take her to the emergency room,” said my friend the doctor.

It’s the phrase every mother knows is coming but hates to hear. A trip to the emergency room on a Tuesday evening at 10 will not end until 2 a.m., at best — and that’s if a coughing fit buys us a seat at the front of the triage line.

We climb into the van and head downtown to the hospital. She’s still hacking as we walk past a group of teens gathered at the ambulance entrance, where one of them is wearing a hospital bracelet but wandering around in an agitated state. From somewhere in the darkness, a mother’s voice says, “That’s enough. Settle down.”

We sign in. We sit down. We wait. Across the room are two girls with injuries sustained playing basketball — one holds a bloody towel on her ragged lower lip, the other has ice on her swollen knee. Their mothers sit close, adjusting bandages and speaking in low, reassuring tones.

My daughter and I sit next to a young mom whose child naps on her lap. We strike up a friendly chat, but our words are punctuated by my daughter’s relentless cough. I rub her back and try to help her calm her breathing.

Finally, the nurse calls and we move to the receiving room for an initial interview. After taking my daughter’s temperature, blood pressure and weight, the usual drill, the nurse moves us directly to an exam room, confirming that my daughter is in bad shape.

The visit to the ER unfolds as they always do, but after 16 years of motherhood and four children, I’m not afraid the way I was when my children were small. Besides, it’s always easier when the patient can respond intelligently. It used to be that my children kept me guessing between a miserable cry, a whiney cry or a desperate cry.

Doctors and nurses move in and out of our cubicle. The resident suggests we prepare for the possibility that my daughter will be admitted, but soon enough, the attending physician visits and lets us know we’ll be heading home before the sun comes up.

They give my daughter something to calm her cough and help her fall asleep, and then the inevitable waiting begins as we watch to see how she responds. Sure enough, she drifts off into a drug-induced nap while I stroke her hair and watch her eyelids flutter.

Sitting by her side, behind the curtain that pretends to offer privacy, I listen to the quiet conversations of the experts beyond the veil. Their depth of knowledge amazes me as they assess the patients in their care and offer suggestions based on years of hard-won experience.

It’s not the doctors I’m hearing, but the mothers. Hovering over hospital gurneys, they advocate for a daughter here, a son over there, providing history and context and expected results for the children whose fragile health they work to improve.

My daughter takes a deep, cleansing breath, and I wait for the heavy sound of the cough that inevitably will follow, but it doesn’t come. Instead, she rolls gently under the flannel hospital blanket and sinks deeper into sleep. I ease back in my chair and close my eyes.

I remember all the nights I have spent walking hospital hallways with a baby in my arms or soothing another into sitting still for an X-ray or holding one down for stitches or the sharp point of a needle.

My memories become dreams, and then I catch my head nodding forward. Time to wake up. In a few minutes, the nurse will return with discharge orders and I’ll be driving the empty city streets back home.

When we climb into the van, my groggy daughter whispers, “I love you, Mom,” and then drifts back to sleep. It’s just another night in the ER, but then again, there’s no place else I would rather be.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybeth hicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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