Faith Gong: Of hospitals and hawks

One thing I’ve learned over the past few weeks is that we are able to endure a great deal more than we believe is possible. Life is not a benevolent tutor, handing down lessons one at a time in order of increasing difficulty; instead, life often feels like an opponent in a boxing match landing a punch in your ribs and then throwing a jab to your eye while you’re still catching your breath. The remarkable thing is how many of us remain in the ring. We may be hanging on the ropes, bruised and battered, but we don’t go down.

This is why, when I found the mangled carcasses of two of our chickens (the rooster in the shed, the hen on a snow drift next to the coop) after having just switched places with my husband at the bedside of our ten-week-old son (who was beginning the second week of his second stay at the University of Vermont Medical Center in less than a month) – on the same day that my husband discovered fraudulent charges on our credit card – I simply thought, “Of course: Another predator.”

We never did put a name to our son’s predator, but it was assumed to be a virus. He’d been admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) at UVM for “acute respiratory failure with hypoxia.” This started as what appeared to be a mild cold – gloopy eyes, lethargy, no fever, lack of appetite. The lack of appetite was our biggest concern, since a week earlier he’d been admitted to UVM after being diagnosed at a routine appointment with “failure to thrive.” Thankfully, our son had another routine checkup the day after his cold-like symptoms began, so I planned to consult his doctor then.

At that checkup, our doctor examined our son and got very serious.

“He needs to be seen at the hospital,” she said, her voice trembling.

“Okay. Should I drive him up to UVM?” I asked, having just been through this drill.

Her response is burned into my memory: “You don’t have time.”

It turned out that our son’s mystery virus was causing sepsis and apnea; in other words, he was having episodes during which he stopped breathing.

There is a moment, right after crisis strikes, when you freeze. You stare at the bloody piles of feathers and think, “Where do I start?” You hand your baby over to the EMTs and wonder, “Who needs to know first? Who can watch the girls? What do I need to cancel?”

Somehow, you don’t go down. You secure the surviving chickens in the coop and grab a shovel and a trash bag. You call your husband on speakerphone while following the ambulance to the hospital, and give your son’s health history in a calm, steady voice to the ER doctors who are running tubes and wires into his little body.

I’d never spent much time in hospitals until recently, and I was surprised at how they bolster this calm, steady, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach to crisis. Hospitals are their own world, with their own language and culture. Learning the language –  speaking of intubation and extubation, pulse-ox, cc’s, ng tubes, and vitals – was how I first learned to normalize a horribly abnormal situation.

And hospitals are so quiet. These are places where the very worst happens -- and I spent three weeks along corridors where the very worst was happening to children -- yet never once did I see anybody break down. There were no tears, raised voices, or cries in the night, just the beep of monitors, hushed whispers, and the swish of the floor buffer. The closest I came to breaking down was when I stood by my son’s bedside that first night in the PICU. He was sedated, his lips taped in a fish-pucker around a breathing tube; a feeding tube ran through one nostril, an IV delivered fluids into his arm while a backup IV protruded from a vein in his head. Tears welled up in my eyes; as I brushed them away his nurse watched, puzzled.

“Oh,” she said, “I guess it’s hard to see him like this, isn’t it? We see them like this all the time, so we’re used to it.”

Hospitals make it hard to feel sorry for yourself.

Our poultry predator turned out to be a hawk. The day after I discovered the two dead chickens, I startled him off the body of a third. He flew out of our shed and perched on a tree nearby.

“Hey!,” I shouted, stomping after him through the snow, “Cut it out! Leave our chickens alone!”

He didn’t make eye contact; he stared straight ahead, impassive and unimpressed, before winging off across our field.

If the virus that infected our son had eyes, it wouldn’t have made eye contact, either. Predators are like that: It’s nothing personal, they’re just doing what they must to survive. If it’s your chickens or your child in their path, they swoop. After two weeks of testing, we were told that our son’s repeated hospitalizations boiled down to “bad luck.”

Hawks present a unique challenge, because they strike from the air. Had our predator been a coyote or a weasel, I would’ve known what to do: Keep the chickens fenced in their yard with the electric fence turned on for a week or so, until the predator gives up. But fences mean nothing to a hawk. The immediate solution was to confine the chickens to their coop all day, transforming them from “free range” to “no range.”

In many ways, having a hospitalized child is easy. Life shrinks down to the barest essentials: your child in the hospital and your children at home. Everything else drifts away. During my son’s time in the hospital, the world was ending: missile strikes, assassinations, impeachments, planes dropping from the sky, wildfires flaring from the earth. None of these things was my problem.

Gradually, my son shed the wires and tubes that had tethered him to monitors and bags; he became a free range baby once more, and we returned home.

Home is more complicated than the hospital. How do you protect a baby’s fragile health from all of the predatory germs circling constantly? How do you rebuild a family after weeks of stress and separation?

We can’t lock our chickens in the coop forever. My husband bought shiny disks to hang on the shed, and a fake owl. He installed netting over the top of the chicken yard. These safety measures might work, or they might not. I am certain that I’ll shovel up chicken corpses again – if not thanks to this predator, then to another.

Tonight there are parents who sit watching their child’s pulse ox pleth, while nurses arrive at regular intervals to take vitals. But for tonight, at least, I am holding our baby in my arms next to our woodstove, and I am watching him breathe.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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