When Esmé got so sick at three months old I was still in the middle of the early transition into motherhood. I was still in that state of confusion I think most new moms experience–coming to the realization that this small needy creature is for real, forever. I thought things would “get better”–like the do with most every baby. While I did have inklings that we were different, like listening to other mothers of what looked to me like to hearty babies in our Mommy and Me class worry over weight gain, milestones, and reflux, it hadn’t yet dawned on me how far outside of the range of what is typical that the kind of things we were experiencing with Esmé were.
The day we took her to the ER is the day that I understood how much our situation extended beyond what I heard these other mothers talking about. It was the day that marked my mental transition from being a mother of a newborn to being a mother of a medically fragile baby. Coming so close to losing Esmé clarified everything very quickly. I didn’t care how different she was from other babies. I didn’t care what milestones she would meet or when. I didn’t care how tiny she might be.
I just wanted my child to survive.
It was a radical shift in perspective–one that left me really and truly in shock, enough so that the first time I returned to that hospital a year later I thought I was going to throw up when I walked in the door of the ER. My whole body shook, and I started crying at the reception desk…
In the years since that day it has felt so important to me to make our annual pilgrimage back to the hospital. It has been part of my healing, part of my dealing with the shock of that day, part of celebrating Esmé’s life, and part of being thankful for the people who saved her. It has never been easy to go. But I have never doubted that it was the right thing to do. It is an act of gratitude…a yearly reminder of thanks for the gift that was given to us there. It is also, I think, a way of dealing with my trauma from that day.
This year I delayed our visit. There were a few reasons…Ez had the flu around our typical date. But really I wound up delaying because I wanted to show up with Whoosh in hand so that I could give copies to the people who I thanked in the dedication to the book. Over the last year I’ve been working on Whoosh…trying to relive those memories, put them down on paper so that they can exist somewhere outside of my head–so I can let go of them. I guess you can say I have been processing…and handing off the product of that process to the people who helped inspire it seemed to be an important step.
I decided on Tuesday morning that it was time. My copies of Whoosh had arrived. Ezzy’s nurse cancelled, so I wasn’t planning to work. And there were no therapies until the afternoon. We got into the van and headed out on the 30 minute drive to the hospital where she was treated that day. As usual I wasn’t certain I’d make it all the way there. I felt silly going. I felt nervous. I felt cold and distant.
When we walked through the doors of the ER and saw the same receptionist that we see every time–who recognized us while I was struggling to completed the sentence “Hi, I’m here because four years ago my daughter’s life was saved…” She helped me, saying, “I remember you. You want to see Peggy, right? She’s here today, in triage. I’ll get her.”
A few minutes later Peggy was out in the waiting room hugging us. A few minutes after that Dr. J, the doctor who was on in the ER that day came out. He hadn’t seen Esmé since she left in the ambulance four years ago. He’d never been there when we visited in the past. Tom, the respiratory therapist, wasn’t there, unfortunately–but I did hear news of him and that his son is following in his footsteps. A bit later the charge nurse from that day, Mellanie, came out as well.
I know that it is an effect of having been in shock, but I honestly only remember three faces of the medical personnel from that day: Tom, Peggy, and Mary. I know there were handfuls of other people there, but I couldn’t have picked one of them out of a line up before my subsequent visits. I feel bad about that, of course, but these were the people who I fixed my sights on: the man whose hands kept my daughter breathing for hours, the nurse who treated me so gently, and the nurse whose look promised me she’d get my daughter transported safely. These three people where my lifeline, my connection to a reality that my mind kept trying to escape. And as a result I care them for it in a way that I don’t really have words for…I feel as if I have known them always. I also feel a tremendous debt of gratitude toward all of the other people who were there that day, even if I can’t remember them in the same way I do Tom, Peggy, and Mary, I know how hard each and every one of them–from the receptionist who yelled for the nurse on–worked to help us.
What occurred to me on Tuesday, as we were speaking in the waiting area in the ER, was that the care is reciprocated in a very special way. They all said that no one has forgotten us, or that day. And I can now see how very true it is. Dr. J, Peggy, and Mellaine told me about the ways that they have learned from their experiences with Esmé. For example, because they went through so many crash carts with Esmé–they had to run to other areas of the hospital to get what they needed to keep her alive. They now stock more items in the ER in order to be able to respond to similar situations. They kept saying it with such beautiful honesty, “We learned from Esmé.” and “She helped us save other children’s lives.”
We all were humbled by that day, by the circumstances, by the strength in Esmé’s tiny body, by the courage of everyone involved, by the combination of luck and talent and experience and determination that made this story one where we get to meet in a happy reunion. I have learned so much from that day. It has haunted me all of these years, driven me to become the kind of parent I am to Esmé, to be ready to learn and change with her. But it was only in letting go of that haunting a little bit that I could see that day has also driven others forward…that the memory of it has helped make them stronger, better, more prepared.
Esmé changed them. They let their experience with Esmé change them, and their institution, for the better. What a rare and beautiful thing.
To me, it is exactly that stance of wanting to face it, to be open and vocal about learning from it, to be even better prepared to help the next child who comes through their doors in her mother’s arms, that makes them truly heroic, having jumped to action both when they had to and then again in ways they didn’t have to.
My gratitude is much larger than my words. But my words are the best way I know how to thank them: