07 January 2013
on spending the holidays in a hospital.
It was neither as depressing as I'd feared, nor as glittery-uplifting as some Hallmark special might lead you to believe. Imogen had a visit from Santa (fake beard, for those who keep track), who left a teddy bear and an autographed photo. Other groups dropped by to distribute donated gifts--more stuffed animals, a book, a crocheted blanket. Signs of compassion, strange and anonymous, but heartfelt and thankfully received.
My due date for this pregnancy was December 29, and soon after Imogen's diagnosis, we started asking questions: how would the holiday schedule affect her care? The doctors preferred an induction so that the necessary staff would be at the ready. We wanted to wait until the 28th or so, to have a quiet Christmas with the boys before the reality of baby and surgery and general upheaval set in. But concerns about how the baby was growing (she wasn't, much, so better out than in) pushed the schedule earlier.
And thus, to make many long stories short, we found ourselves with a 12/19 baby and a 12/24 heart surgery. There was much of the non-ideal: our social worker, cardiologist, and the hospital's top-billed surgeon were out on vacation. And just as much of the surreal: the thirty foot lobby Christmas tree we all passed without noticing; the Christmas Eve vigil by the bedside of our swollen, open-chested daughter.
But in the midst of it, I was struck by all that was unchanging. Carols played on the radio as we drove back and forth from home to not-home. My boys' faces as they opened gifts Christmas morning brought me joy even as I ached for their sister, who was no longer safe alongside my own heart.
Unchanged, too, was the world of the hospital. The holiday schedule absolutely did not affect the quality of care we had those days. Imogen's surgeon performed a beautiful repair; he is junior but no less skilled or successful than his better-known associate. Other care providers checked in on us from afar. The nurses who watched with us that first night of recovery were gifted and compassionate. Professionalism reigned--and that, I think, is the dually reassuring and sad reality of hospitals. Volunteer Santa visits excepted, hospitals operate outside of seasons, calendars, and red-letter days. They follow regimens, mark time by morning rounds and 4 hour care schedules. There is not much room for making merry when lives hang in the balance. On some level I wanted and even expected a Norman Rockwell moment, some doctor bringing in glazed ham and carving it for a ring of nurses and wide-eyed patients, or maybe a midday break for a raucous white elephant swap. If that happened, I didn't see it; the closest I came was a spontaneous Boxing-Day rendition of a few lines of "Let it Snow," courtesy of one of the attendings. When I mentioned it to our nurse later on, she shrugged and said, "It's the end of a 3 day shift. We're all getting a little punchy."
Our lives intersect like this--my family's crisis is their next day's work. Our holidays and celebrations (which, I'm aware, we may not even share in common) are set aside at this crossroads of life and death. And that is, I suppose, as it should be.
New Year's Eve, 11:58. Zach rubbed Imogen's head and I helped hold her steady as a nurse cut stitches to remove an arterial line that had been leaking throughout the day. A small procedure, the next item on the list of to-dos after rounds. "I'll work fast so you can kiss her at midnight," she said. We didn't see the ball drop but we heard a couple of cheers from down the hall. I stared at my husband, this baby, the hospital room. Breaking routine for just a moment, another nurse brought plastic cups of sparkling juice and we toasted the staff, the new year.