His room was a shrine to his own memory, a eulogy for a still living, and breathing child. Pictures adorned the the door and the wall, smiling, vibrant, full of life. This boy last week was a healthy, happy, growing, developing two year old child. Colorful children’s crayon scribblings were placed at strategic intervals to liven up the cold, stark hospital room. Get well cards from extended family are also peppered around the walls. Over his crib, lies a recent portrait, the big smile and engaging eyes standing in stark contrast to the current blank stare. His limbs lay motionless, stiff, rigid, spastic, with toes pointed, betraying signs of a brain ravaged by lack of oxygen. He has been having seizures, with eye fluttering, and facial twitching about multiple times per day despite two anticonvulsant medications. This and breathing are the only spontaneous movements he makes. All this, the result of a single grape.
I remember often as a pediatric resident warning parents about unsafe foods. It did cross my mind, “are hot dogs and grapes really that off limits for toddlers? How many really have the food lodged immobile in their windpipe? Is it enough to justify a major health campaign?” Every well child visit was just one of a long list of continuous warnings we provided the parents. “Turn the water heater down or the baby may scald in the bath, never leave them alone in the tub, No cough medicine under 2, No walkers if you have stairs, outlet protectors, child proof cabinets, no balloons under age 3, No trampolines, no bike withou a helmet, booster seats in the car until age eight, Never put kids in the front seat of the car,” the list is endless.
It seems we were the parents instruction manual, with a duty to anticipate every threat from the dangerous world around them and avert every possible tragedy. At times it seemed too much. Is their anything children actually can do without dying? How did my parents ever survive to adulthood without warnings on every toy, without even really using seat belts.
We would have friends over for dinner, and socialize after the meal. A story about the nine month old who just loves balloons and bit one the other day arises in casual conversation. Startled, I launch reflexively into lecture mode and traumatize the poor young mother with a barrage of words. I do this out of concern, out of a desire to help. The mother now knows to be wary about ever sharing such stories with us. I wonder how many other stories I drive underground, doing what I do. I wonder if I am residency is brainwashing me into an overanxious, overbearing killjoy. The child protection policeman, ambushing neighbors at every safety faux pas.
I learn to relax. My youngest daughter, the picky one, loves grapes, hot dogs. She seems okay. I loosen up. I relax. I go along with the trampoline the in-laws get our children. I relent in the interest of sustenance for my beautiful daughter. Children are explorers, little scientists. They are in this world to experience it, to learn and grow, I reason. The most secure animal in the world is the caged lion at the zoo. At what point does our protection hinder our children and stunt their growth?
So now I have lying here in front of me the human cost of relaxing vigilance. This poor mother will likely never, ever be able to forgive herself. This poor child has likely had his entire life stolen away. My heart fills weighed down with lead. Walking becomes more difficult. A lump gathers in my throat. Sorrowfully, I head home, trying to enjoy my children while I have them. I try to leave my work at home.
Dinner is ready and the family already eating as I arrive at my customary late hour from the long hours of the hospital service. My kids run up to me for their customary bear hug. My youngest has a smile that is infectious, big beautiful eyes that can’t help but buoy me up. I sit down and talk with my wife about her and the childrens comings and goings.
My eyes suddenly stop fixed, as my three year old daughter dives into her plate. I stare, lost, confused as memories of my patients room come rushing back. Time and place disapear and I am back at the hospital room, the shrine. The emotions all rush back. My daughter just smiles as she delightfully pops the reddish purple fruit into her mouth. It is, after all, her favorite. She simply loves grapes.