Sunday, December 19, 2010

"I'm Dreaming of a Wet Diaper"

Alex at two, three months after he got out of the hospital. He still had a feeding tube.

The toughest, but most miraculous Christmas in my life, was 1997. That was the year we spent in the ICU at the Barnes-Jewish Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. My grandson, Alex, was just eighteen months old when he contracted e-coli. Apparently, someone at daycare did not wash their hands after changing a dirty diaper and they touched something that Alex put in his mouth. It started with diarrhea (and they allowed him at daycare even though he was sick), then bloody diarrhea which is when his father took him to the hospital. When his kidneys failed, they transferred him to St. Louis. E-coli causes the red blood cells to break down. Part of the reason it’s so often fatal is that when the kidneys fail, hemo-dialysis can’t be used. They have to use peritoneal dialysis which is much less effective. The peritoneum is the membrane that surrounds the abdominal cavity. It holds our organs together, and it’s the most permeable membrane in the body. They fill the abdomen with fluid that draws the toxins out of the cells of peritoneum. Again, it’s not nearly as effective as running the blood through a machine.

I went down to St. Louis as soon as I heard Alex’s kidneys had failed and came back to Chicago when the doctor said he was improving. When I called my daughter, Christine the next day, the toxins had gone to his brain, and he was in a vegetative state. I went back down there, even though she told me not to. I didn’t realize it, but I woke up in the waiting room just about the time he seized and coded. The kids came and re-woke me when they took him downstairs for another CT scan. Christine burst into tears and said, “I’m so glad you came back, Mommy. I didn’t know he was that sick.” I did, but I couldn’t tell her that on the phone. I was a medic in the Navy, after all. I worked surgical ICU when I was stationed in the San Francisco Bay Area. I had cried all the way down there on the train and in the taxi, but pulled myself together before I went upstairs to see them. This was December twenty-second.

They kept Alex in a medically-induced coma and on a respirator, and they replaced all of his plasma twice that week. Being a night person, I sat by his bed late into the night softly singing songs like “All I Want for Christmas is a Wet Diaper,” and “I’m Dreaming of a Wet Diaper.” The kids took turns sleeping in his room at the hospital and staying at the Ronald McDonald House. A TV news crew filmed them trimming the tree at the House. The reporter asked Christine which decorations she liked best and she said, “The angels because they’re watching over the children in the hospital. The doctors are took my son off the respirator this morning and he’s breathing on his own.”

Her sound bite made the news, of course. He was “himself” when he woke up. The doctors were worried he might have sustained brain damage. If he did, it didn’t affect his intelligence. Alex is a candidate for Mensa—although his sense of humor is rather skewed. But he called me the other morning with a story idea. It was a good one, so I told him to write it up and I’d help him polish it.

He gave us five cc’s (one teaspoon) of urine that Christmas Day. That was his entire output from December seventeenth through sometime in March. But we had our Christmas Miracle. I got my wet diaper.

Alex now.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

“Home” is Where the Sea-Bag Is

Over on the MuseItUp Publishing Blog, some of the authors are talking about their most memorable Christmases. I’m a brand new Muse author, and I did not sign up early enough to participate over there, but as I read my fellow authors’ memories, several of mine keep popping up. Interestingly, they are not Christmases that I spent at “home” with my family. At least, I didn’t think I was “home.” Maybe I was, after all.

When I was twenty, I joined the Navy. My first Christmas away from home, was the year Tim (now my ex) gave me my engagement ring. It wasn’t quite the surprise he thought it would be. We got engaged in August, but we had to wait until we had overlapping leaves in November before I met his parents. When I did, we ordered our rings together from the wholesale company where his father worked. His mother told me how his father had given her ring to her, and Tim tried the same thing. To make matters worse, she wrote and told me the rings were in, so I was expecting it. I’m afraid his surprise fell flat.

But, we were in San Francisco, so we celebrated at our favorite Chinese restaurant, Sam Wo. Edsel Ford Fong presided over the second floor. Eddie would insult people, seat complete strangers together, bully people into eating with chopsticks, and was a local celebrity who has been featured in books such as Armistad Maupin’s Tales of the City. There was a crazy guy who hung out there around the same time. He later told TV guide he learned to speak Cantonese so he could cuss at Eddy in his own language. His name was Robin Williams. That Christmas Eve, 1971. It was slow that night, and when I showed him my ring, Eddy pulled out a couple his photo albums and shared them with us. He sat with us that night and really made us feel special. We weren’t “home” for Christmas, but it was magical to be in one of the most beautiful cities on Earth with my brand-new fiancé and my sparkling new ring.

Christmas of 1974, we were stationed in Hawaii. Home by then was Dubuque, as both of my parents had died and my childhood home in Chicago no longer existed. My neighbors Debbie, Chris and I put the word out on two submarines and one surface ship (target!) that we were making supper and anyone who couldn’t get home was welcome at our house. We ended up with about thirty or forty sailors and a Marine (?). We had two turkeys, a ham and all the trimmings from three families’ worth of handed-down recipes. Tim had just returned from a West Pac (Western Pacific cruise). Elizabeth was one, and we’d just realized I was “probably” pregnant again, so in a way Christine was there, too. We confirmed it in early January.

It was a warm feeling to share our holiday with so many other people who were “stuck” in Hawaii like us. But when I look back, I realize how much of a family we all were. The Navy might tell you they don’t issue a family in your sea-bag, but in a way they really do. The sense of “camaraderie” in the military goes way beyond friendship, or teamwork, or esprit-de-corps. We took care of each other. Tim had duty when I went into labor with Elizabeth, so a neighbor drove me to the hospital. I had already pulled him off the Boat twice that night for false alarms. At that point, I just wanted “something for pain,” and Phyllis’s light was on because her baby was teething. When Debbie was due, her husband was at sea. We had it all worked out. When Debbie went into labor, she’d pound on Chris’s wall, and Chris would pound on mine. Chris’s son, Alan, and Elizabeth were both toddlers. One of us would drive Debbie to the hospital while the other watched the driver’s baby. So, again—just because we weren’t in Dubuque for Christmas, we were home. I just didn’t realize it at the time.

If you're in the military on active duty or you're a military wife stationed far from "home," know that you have the love and support of everyone who came in you or your spouse's foot-locker or sea-bag, as well of all of us back here.

And I hope anyone reading this—whatever holiday you celebrate—you will be among people who love and support you. Wherever they are, you are “home.”