By Deborah Simmons Harris
Josh’s heart rate climbed in competition with Nick’s temperature as
he struggled to breathe through the bloody, greenish secretions
fighting to occlude his trach tube. I dripped sterile saline
solution into the bloody, occluded stoma in an effort to loosen the
sticky ooze, then suctioned again, giving Josh a couple of gulps of
air before I sterilized my hands again to draw a tepid bath for
Not meningitis, I prayed again, this time actually begging God in
the fraction of a moment I had to internally verbalize my fear
before gently prodding Nick from his bed and into the bathroom. Nick
had meningitis as a baby; we had already escaped its menacing grip
I had to get Nick’s temperature down. I had to get Josh’s heart rate
down. I had to get Josh’s oxygen saturation levels up. I had to get
my spirits up.
It was too much for my weary body and soul. My husband Victor was
somewhere near Falluja, Iraq. As a field officer CWO4 and platoon
commander summoned to active duty from the ranks of the USMC
Reserve, he traveled hundreds of miles each week by bird, as he
called the rickety helicopters he traveled in; those he first come
to know as a grunt in Viet Nam. Much of the time, though, he
traveled by convoy, subject every second to the beguiling wares of
roadside bombs. My heart ached almost as much as my flu-ridden
muscles to hear from him, to know that he was safe, hating the
uncertainty that is the constant companion of the Marine Corps
spouse. I needed him here now as two of our three boys waged their
own battles with a virulent enemy.
Should I call 911? It was too cold to transport the boys to the
emergency department myself and I was too sick. I couldn’t even get
them ready to go. The significant nursing shortage in the Midwest
meant there was no home care nurse that winter to help me. Family
members were afraid to come into the house, shunning the grasp of
such a debilitating illness on their own households.
Trudging through gauze pads, once sterile cotton applicators,
sopping blue chux pads, rendered so by the thick formula that had
leaked from the gastrostomy feeding tube, and soiled diapers
discarded hurriedly on the floor throughout the night – the fallout
from Josh’s relentless cares – I staggered to the phone to ring the
specialist on-call. It was about three o’clock in the morning. I
hadn’t stopped moving in hours, not long enough to really feel my
groping sense of panic, nor the dropping temperatures in the house.
Squinting at the faint LED digits of the thermostat, the numbers
confirmed more fears. The furnace had gone out.
Guiltily thinking this was all part of a wicked curse, at best, my
more reverent side chastised such cynicism. Nevertheless, I just
wanted to experience the comfortable place self-pity took me, about
the only thing left to count on now. For crying out loud, I was
screaming inside, we can’t even get to the hospital.
I couldn’t leave the house with Jon, our middle son, still asleep,
not yet ravaged by the horrible symptoms that defined the rest of
us. I was not certain if there was something wrong with the gas
main. I couldn’t find the pilot light. Still awaiting a call-back
from the sleepy and perhaps aggravated physician I had just paged,
this time the crisis call was to the gas company.
Despite my own fever, I began to shiver from the cold creeping into
the house. I gathered Nick from the tub, desperate in my relief to
find his temperature down to about 104 degrees. Josh was beginning
to breathe a little better, thanks to the hefty dose of prednisone I
had been taught to give him in such an emergency. The doctor called
back to affirm a plan of a few more doses and waiting until morning
to travel to the hospital, especially given the situation with the
furnace. The gas man came, a tall, broad-shouldered fellow with a
scowl on his well-lined face, probably from the irritation of having
to actually answer to an emergency while he was on-call.