I followed the paramedics down the hospital corridor as they wheeled Billy’s stretcher toward the pediatric intensive care unit on the second floor. Hot as it was, I shivered uncontrollably. As we neared the PICU and the paramedics prepared to pass Billy over to a hospital employee, one of the paramedics - my friend, Vince - turned toward me.
“He’s going to be just fine, Dawn. He’s in really good hands here,” he told me.
“I know, Vince. It’s just that the last time we had to bring our son to the ICU, we didn't get to take him back home with us.”
And, just like that, the reality of the situation finally set in.
Eighteen years earlier, our son, Chuckie, fell into a swimming pool. Somehow he slipped out into the back yard unnoticed by any of us. My brother-in-law found him. We followed the ambulance to the hospital, where he spent three days in ICU hooked up to tubes and wires before doctors determined there was no brain activity.
We left the hospital alone and empty.
“I can’t do that again, Vince,” I said to my friend as his arms engulfed me in a reassuring hug.
“I thought about that on the way up here,” he said, “this won’t be like that, Dawn. You’ll get to take Billy home with you.”
I thanked him one more time and said good-bye as the admissions nurse whisked me away to answer questions and fill out paperwork. After about fifteen minutes of regurgitating Billy’s medical history, another nurse escorted me through a pair of locked doors and onto the unit that housed the hospital’s most critical patients. As we rounded the corner and passed the main nurses’ station I saw a small group of people, clothed in hazmat gear, crowded around a patient bed inside a glassed-in room. It took me a minute to realize the patient was my son.
“Well, that’s a bit of overkill,” I thought to myself as I approached the group of healthcare workers.
“Mrs. Sticklen?” One of the scientists asked me from behind her paper face mask.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Hello, I’m Dr. Thompson, the PICU attending physician.” She then introduced the others in her group. I found myself surrounded by a medical team that consisted of one or two residents, a medical student or two, and two or three nurses. All wore plastic yellow gowns that covered their arms and upper torso, paper masks that shielded their mouths and noses, and rubber gloves.
“We need to wear protective gear until we determine whether or not your son is still contagious,” Dr. Thompson explained when she saw me try to differentiate the resident from the medical student from the nurse.
“Wait, you think he’s contagious? I doubt it - he hasn’t had a fever all day. We’re here for an MRI to find out what’s keeping him from lifting his arms,” I told her. Had they confused him with someone else? Billy finally started feeling better that morning. He couldn’t still be sick.
“Mrs. Sticklen, have you heard about the large number of cases of the Enterovirus that we’ve seen these past few weeks?” Dr. Thompson asked me.
“Yes, I have. He had a cold a couple weeks ago, along with an ear infection. We think the ear infection came back because he didn’t finish his antibiotic prescription. But it looks like the new round of antibiotics is kicking in because his fever has finally subsided. I don’t think he’s contagious or anything.”
Dr. Thompson looked at me for a minute before responding. “Well, we are pretty much doing this with all our patients when they first come in. It’s just a precaution because we’ve seen so much of the virus these past couple weeks. I’m waiting for radiology to let me know when we can get him downstairs for an MRI. At that point we’ll know more about what’s going on with him.” And with that she left to check on another patient on the floor.
The students followed her out of the room, leaving Billy and me with his nurse for the evening. “We’ve had to wear these a lot lately,” the nurse told us as he sat down on a stool and consulted the laptop that lay on a desk in the front corner of the room.
I looked at Billy, who stared back at me. I walked over, bent down and kissed his forehead. “Hey, you’re going to be just fine,” I whispered, “you’re so brave, and I’m so proud of you. Don’t worry about anything. They know what to do to help you here if you need it.”
“Jesus, what the hell do they think is wrong with me, Mom?” he asked.
I thought it was a pretty fair question.