hen I showed up to the pediatric transplant unit for my first day of residency, it was mercifully dark and quiet, the nurses flitting purposefully about as stealthily as they could. The only sounds I could make out beyond the steady mechanical hum found on any hospital unit were the occasional IV beeping, signifying, perhaps, an occlusion in the line or that a bag of fluids was now emptied. It was quieter than any unit I’d ever been on before.
Reds and blues and bright yellows lined the hallway and I noted cheerful balloons painted on the walls as I thought to myself, how wonderfully non-clinical it all looked. How perfectly child-like. It seemed only fair that if a kid were sick enough to have to be in the hospital, at the very least, they could feel at home.
I spied a television with a DVD player and PlayStation stashed in a corner, and marveled at how this hospital really had been designed with children in mind. The unit fridge was stocked with puddings and chocolate milk and chips and graham crackers; all stuff my own two-year old would have happily eaten. I felt as though I might actually be in some sort of elaborate daycare facility rather than a major children’s hospital. There was even a McDonald’s in the basement.
It wasn’t until I got my first assignment -a baby; severe liver failure- and saw that my one-year old patient was the size of a three-month old that these children weren’t having much fun. These kids weren’t on vacation. They weren’t at daycare. They were sick as hell. Some were well on their way to dying.
And still, even as these children died, life went on outside.
People bustled by on the streets, knowing, perhaps, the name of the hospital and the types of patients, but never knowing that fear. The fear that lives in your gut once something horrible happens to you and you know how in the cosmic scheme of things, there is no “fair.” They’d never know how terrible it is to listen to children -innocent children- in pain. These people would never have to voluntarily inflict pain upon their own flesh, their own blood, because sometimes life deals you a wild card, and you do the best you can.
They’d never know about the secret places in the hospitals, the PICU’s; the NICU’s where small, but real lives routinely hung in the balance. Where cosmic scales made absolutely no sense. Where kids lived and where they died.
This secret place, the land of tears.
When they’d think of hospitals, they’d think of the places where old people went when they were ill. Where your appendix or a foot or two of colon would be removed and you’d go home. Cured. Where you’d splint your broken arm, x-ray a broken leg, and bandage up that nasty gash on your finger. Where old people died.
Hospitals weren’t places for children. Because in a fair and just world, kids wouldn’t get sick and kids wouldn’t die.
Kids wouldn’t be born without brains, or with only part of their brains, or born too early, too soon to live. Babies wouldn’t be born still. Kids wouldn’t need dialysis or organ transplants. No kid should have to know the torture of chemotherapy. No parent should have to send their kid to the morgue. No family should have to plan a funeral for a child.
Death, dying; transplants and cancer, those are things that should affect the old, the people who had loved and lost, married and had their families, kids, grandkids; people who had lived.
My universe is less random than I once thought it to be.
When I birthed my sick daughter, Amelia, it just so happened to be where the very same children’s hospital where I’d previously worked had just opened up a satellite unit. At three weeks of age, she underwent neurosurgery, and for the second time in her life, she became a patient there. First in the NICU, then the PICU.
The monitors blipped intermittently for my daughter, gown bearing the same logo I’d seen so many times before, when her heart rate dipped or she’d forget to breathe and watching them, I’d shake her tiny feet, whispering breathe, baby, breathe into her pink shell of an ear. And then she would inhale, those glorious oxygenating breaths filling her lungs as the monitors would once again blip normal vitals. The alarms would stop shrilly alarming and yet another crisis would wink at us in the rearview mirror as it passed.
Her father and I signed furtively in and out of the NICU, then PICU after we were buzzed in by some unseen, nameless, faceless person into a locked, secret unit; mere ghosts of ourselves. We’d drift in and out for the tenth or sixtieth cup of coffee to keep ourselves awake and functioning, getting gluey food from the cafeteria to put into our mouths and chew, never tasting it. Sometimes, our paths would converge with other shells of parents. We’d smile knowingly as we passed; the kinds of smiles you smile without any trace of joy. Those commiserative, “you too, eh? Well, FUCK,” smiles, not the, “hey, friend, how are you?” kinds.
We learned later that we were the lucky ones. The ones that were buzzed out of this unit with our daughter in her carseat, strapped tightly in and screaming her head off.
The unit of sadness, of broken dreams and tears. Laughter and heartache.
This secret place, the land of tears.