In the dimmed lights of the emergency room unit my son lay motionless on a gurney. Nearby, machines monitored his vital signs and an IV bag dripped silently into a little arm that I stroked gently. It was late on a Sunday night when we should have been home relaxing after a nice family vacation.
Instead, our time off together would culminate in crisis. Funny how life can turn. We had not even unpacked from a week of camping when our 8-year-old became suddenly ill with a killer headache and high fever that stubbornly resisted Mom's usually successful remedy of Motrin, fluids, and TLC.
Then he began complaining that it hurt to move his head from left to right I panicked. The possibility of meningitis in a sick kid can do that to a parent. On the pediatrician's advice we rushed our feverish and fighting child to the hospital.
He did not want to go to the same place he had gotten stitches a couple years earlier after a scuffle with his sister. He did not want to go to a place where people are poked with needles and blood is drawn. No way. Not going. Never.
Within a half hour my boy was being hooked up to 1,000 cc's of saline solution to help hydrate his flushed body and bring down his red-hot fever. Just receiving his first-ever intravenous stent would have been trauma enough for him, his frightened sibling, and equally freaked-out parents.
During such taxing times, children-friendly medical personnel greatly alleviate the stress and we were fortunate. The sympathetic medical team treating our son was invaluable as the long night drew on and he failed to respond appropriately after draining a full IV bag.
The burly ER doc with a mustache rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Kids are usually bouncing around, raring to go after that kind of treatment, he said, and our patient was still lethargic, with stiff neck and headache. Could be he was just worn out, wondered the perplexed physician, simply beat from battling whatever bug he picked up?
In fact, the doc was 99 percent sure our soon-to-be third grader would be fine in a day or two. But because he was not 100 percent sure his small patient had nothing medically to fear, his mom and dad faced a hard choice wrought with conflict.
To absolutely rule out meningitis, an often fatal inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, a spinal tap must be performed. And, of course, any procedure that involves invasion of the spinal canal filled with nerves carries risk. Doctors performing a spinal tap are working with a very small area between vertebrae to get to the cord and fluid. Any misstep or misjudgment could have serious ramifications, and infection from the procedure is another worry.
So there we were, unexpectedly forced to weigh something as scary as a spinal tap with a potentially fatal condition that could kill our son if left untreated. To make matters worse, time was not on our side. We had to make a decision fast that we and he could live with - or do nothing.
When there's even a 1 percent chance that your child could suffer a life-threatening fate if you do nothing, the choice is clear - wrenching, but clear. After frantic cell-phone calls for second and third and fourth opinions, my youngest child was prepped for the spinal tap.
I resolved to stay with him throughout, watching nervously as ER nurses began administering a strong narcotic pain medication followed by a sedative that impairs short-term memory so at least my son wouldn't remember the experience. But his mom will never forget the extreme apprehension she had as her drowsy child sat hunched over on the ER gurney with his legs on the side, resting his head on a pillow placed on a stainless steel tray as nurses restrained him from any move that could prove disastrous.
Normally, I'd be the one outside the ER screen saying tell me when it's all over. But this night that place was reserved for my husband and young daughter to pace restlessly. Besides, I couldn't leave. Not when the needle was pushed gingerly through my son's spine, not when he moaned quietly in pain, not when tiny drops of spinal fluid slowly filled the waiting test tubes.
I could crumple later after the relieved doc returned with news that my son did not have meningitis and after my groggy child was safely back home tucked in bed. But in the dimmed lights of the ER unit, where a precious boy lay half awake as machines kept track of his progress, I would hold firm to the only thing that mattered in the whole world - He was going to be OK.
Funny how life's turns can clarify what truly counts.