I’m working yet another holiday on Labor and Delivery, but it’s mercifully slow. I chat with a doctor friend about our kids’ summer plans.
The moment of calm is shattered when my 15 year-old son calls, sobbing. “Mom, I need you. Something is really wrong.”
Hand off my pager, fly down the back stairs and drive the fifteen minutes home like I’m in an end-of-the-world movie.
Call home to my daughter, his twin sister. “Feed the dog, feed the bunny. Grab a pillow and your brother’s medicine. How is he?”
“He looks bad, Mom. You need to hurry.”
Call my son, “Don’t eat or drink anything, Honey. I’m almost there.”
I’m not sure what’s going on yet, but every medical cell in my body is screaming he needs surgery. I know I need to tell the surgical team when he last ate, so they can put him to sleep safely.
Run in the house, examine my son. I’m an OB/GYN, so my patients are all female. I can only think of two things this could be, both surgical emergencies. The smart kids in med school could recite ten causes for every problem, but two is all I’ve got: a hernia with twisted bowel (strangulated hernia) or more likely, a twisted testicle (testicular torsion). Twisted bowel can die and cause a life-threatening infection, a twisted testicle can die and damage fertility. I don’t want my son twisted at all.
I hustle everyone into the car. Drive back to the ER. My daughter is sitting in the back seat, her brother’s head on a pillow on her lap. She’s terrified of everything medical, but she’s stroking his hair and cooing to him, saying it will be ok.
I flash back to the two of them at age four, racing to a children’s hospital in a different city. My daughter has a high fever, rapid heartbeat and is dangerously limp. I look in the rear view mirror and see my son reach across the divide between two matching car seats to hold his sister’s hand. He tells her, with a lisp, “It’s ok, Sista. The doctors will take good care of you. You’re gonna be ok.” He was right then. I pray she will be right now.
Arrive in the ER parking lot. My son leans on me to walk. He’s taller than me now, but twig skinny, so I can support most of his weight. A hospital employee rushes out to rescue us with a wheelchair.
Registration, triage, brought back to a room, ultrasound. My son is curled up on the bed, knees to his chest in pain. He looks like a comma, like he did in all those ultrasounds I had in early pregnancy. I remember thinking then, “Is he ok in there? Will he make it?” I think that now.
I am shamelessly wearing my hospital fleece and badge. I know professional privilege isn’t fair, but I work it. As a doctor, I know my story will be believed, tests will be ordered faster, pain medicines will arrive sooner, without a side dish of skeptical eye rolls. I care about fairness in society, but today all I want is my boy safe and not in pain. So today I don’t care. If I were a firefighter and my kids were in a burning house, you better believe I’d call the back line to the fire station.
A thought starts to terrorize me. I can’t remember if a testicular torsion is caused by a mass (in my field, ovarian torsion always is). Will this be the moment everything in my life breaks and the doctor tells me my son has cancer? I try to remember back twenty years to my Urology rotation in medical school. My neurons all misfire and I can’t think. He has to be too young, right? Lance Armstrong was in his twenties when he had testicular cancer. I never once think to check Google on my phone.
The emergency room doctor comes in, examines my son and motions to me to talk outside. He tells me this is classic testicular torsion. There is no blood flow and he needs surgery as soon as possible. The good news is no mass, so no cancer. I stop holding my breath. The worst won’t happen today.
He tells me the surgeon I need doesn’t cover emergencies at our hospital on a holiday. “I can order you an ambulance to go to downtown, but if it were my kid, I’d drive. You’ll save yourself an hour.” Bless you, Colleague, for the insider info.
They let my son keep his IV (Privilege, I love you) and we are back in the car. I hear myself telling a thousand patient family members, “Drive safely. It won’t help anyone if you get in a wreck.” Still, I can’t ease my foot off the gas as we race downtown.
The next emergency room is swamped. The receptionist looks oddly at my son’s hospital gown. The skeptical eye roll appears. Then he reads an electronic message. “Oh, we are expecting you.”
Back in another ER room, a nurse hooks up IV fluids. Two Urology residents arrive. They are good with my son – kind and funny. The sixth year resident says, “The surgeon is here – the OR is ready.” Good – we’ve almost made it. The second year resident says, “I need to write a history and physical first.” I look him in the eye and say, “This is what you are going to write…”
Our caravan snakes through eerily quiet hallways – there’s almost no one on the surgical floor. We stop outside the operating room for the “huddle”, the same safety check I do every day with my patients.
The surgeon appears. I know her from consults and lectures and she recognizes me. She is calm, confident and crazy talented. She’s the exact person I need to be standing on the other side of the gurney today.
We tick off each box on the checklist – name, birthday, procedure, no allergies, no family history of anesthesia complications. Last ate Cheerios and milk at 10 am. I have every answer ready.
I raise up on my tiptoes to lean over the side rail and kiss my son’s forehead before they wheel him away.
I’m left standing on the wrong side of the operating room door, in the empty hallway.
It’s 5:15 pm.
After surgery, the surgeon walks towards me down the long corridor. She’s smiling. She tells me it’s rare to get into surgery within the six hour window when a testicle can be saved, but we made it. A thousand muscles in my body relax.
I ask if I can be in the recovery room when my son wakes up. The nurse brings me back. He is sleeping so peacefully. My son looks like he did on those nights when I stood in the doorway of his nursery, after a late night delivery, and watched his easy, even breathing and inhaled his sleeping baby smell.
He wakes up and smiles at me. The nurse comes over. “Do you need anything?”
“Can you tell the doctors thank you for taking care of me on a holiday?”
There are so many things I don’t do well as a mom. I miss choir concerts and tennis matches, I can’t get my kids to eat any vegetables, I struggle with patience. I even think sometimes I’m not the right mom for my son. His autism and receptive language delay shove me past my parenting limits.
Still,in a twist of fate, there are a few days in a lifetime when the thing I do really well – recognize and respond quickly to surgical emergencies – is the most important mom skill of all..
K M Walker is an OB/GYN, author, lover of radically original characters (in fiction and life), Creole speaker, Portuguese wine drinker and is obsessed with twins. Find her (bring coffee or wine or don’t bother) on FB at KMWalkerAuthor, @KMWalkerAuthor and at KMWalkerAuthor.com.