What stands out is just how small she looked in that bed.
Her chest rhythmically moved up and down. There was a kind of comforting peace about her composition. A calmness. And there was silence. No one really had much to say. What could be said?
On one side of the bed stood a few people, family and friends, just watching her. Watching the machines. Watching the lines. Watching. No one could really look away. How could you look away?
On the other side of the bed stood Ethan. He’d been there for the last four days. That’s all he could do. Be there. There was a ruffled bed in the corner of the room for him and his girlfriend. But he couldn’t sleep. How could he sleep?
Other friends and family lined the wall. We were all there. But that’s all we could do. All we could do was just be there.
Powerless. That much was clear. No one had the power to bring life back to this girl. All we could do is stand there and look at her beautiful face.
The Pediatric Intensive Care Unit is a place of mixed emotions. Here at the Ronald McDonald Hospital in Chicago they really had the placed decked out. The floor had footprints of the various McDonald’s characters. Each wing had a name: Grimace wing, Hamburglar wing, and so on. Zoey was in the Birdie wing.
Her room was fish themed. Fish on the ceiling tiles, fish on the walls, paintings of fish hanging around the room. Ronald McDonald was even falling through the ceiling over the nursing station (which also had an artificial aquarium that was part of their desk). The whole place seemed happy. The whole place seemed to be like a children’s museum. But this was no museum. This was a hospital. People weren’t happy. They were sad, and rightfully so.
A friend, not necessarily a close friend, but a friend. We went to the same high school. We played football together during the summers. We’ve celebrated Thanksgiving together with our group of friends. In fact, I was just at his house a couple weeks ago.
Ethan recently had his first child with his girlfriend. I had recently met her just a couple weeks ago. I hadn’t heard that Ethan had recently had a daughter. When I saw them they were both clearly happy. I was happy for them and their new family.
Ethan and a mutual friend recently started a company. Things were looking up for them. A new family. A promising successful company.
But things changed.
“Have you heard what happened?” Ethan asked as we all just looked at little baby Zoey.
“Umm…just a little bit. I don’t know the whole story.” I responded, not knowing how much I actually knew of the story.
“She had a urinary tract infection. And apparently when you’re this young you really don’t have much of an immune system. You’re body is very weak, and you don’t really show any symtoms when things are wrong. Apparently the infection got to her brain and caused meningitis and caused her brain to swell.”
“It just happened so fast. We laid her to bed…and well…it just all happened so fast. So fast. When we came back to check on her a few minutes later she was blue. She wasn’t breathing. I jumped into the car with her and we rushed to the nearest hospital as fast as I possibly could.”
At this point we had begun to walk outside of the room. Someone began asking if anyone had eaten anything recently, and they wanted to start making dinner plans. I don’t think anyone had eaten anything but vending machine food and fast food that various friends and family had brought with them when they came to visit.
Another one of my friends picked up where Ethan had left off.
“Apparently he was going like as fast as he could to get there. But when he did the doctors were apathetic and lethargic” My friend Norman said.
Ethan came back. “Yeah, so I was driving as fast as I could. Like 90 miles an hour, weaving in and out of traffic just to get there.”
Later when he talked about this part of the story further, he explained that people gave him angry looks and a even a few middle fingers. He didn’t care. His child’s life was on the line.
“I’ve learned over the course of my life that when you see something like that, you really just don’t know what their day has been like.” His mother said.
“When I got there the doctors were really of no help. I should have known better than to go to that hospital. The only reason you go to that hospital is if you’re dead.” He continued. “They were really of no help. It was so frustrating. I now realize what the benefit are of living next to a good hospital. You think about living in a good school district. You don’t think about living near a good hospital.”
By the time they got the baby to Ronald McDonald Hospital things were looking pretty grim. Her brain had been without oxygen for too long, and she at best would have some severe brain damage.
Eventually all the family and friends had been gathered up and decided that we were all going to go to a local Mexican restaurant. I rode with my friend Norman, Ethan, and Ethan’s mother. On the way out to the parking garage Ethan asked about Sarah and my baby that is due soon.
“I heard that she recently had a baby shower back home.”
“Yeah, she did.” I responded.
“Did you get a baby monitor?”
“No…I mean we have a one bedroom apartment and–“
“I’ll get one for you guys. Believe me, you never know. It’s important.” He interjected.
We then talked in the car a bit about how he had researched whether or not there were baby monitors that kept track of breathing or temperature or even heart rate. But nothing like that really exists.
“You would think that would exist, right? I mean, how does that not exist. A monitor that sends a message to your phone or something anytime something isn’t right, or the baby doesn’t move for a number of seconds or minutes. How does that not exist?” He exclaimed, with an almost bitter tone in his voice. “I want to look into that. That needs to be made.”
We talked more about the car ride to the hospital. I he talked I wondered to myself what my instinct would be, would I think to drive the baby to the hospital as quickly as I could, or would I call 911? I don’t really know. I instinct would probably be to do what he did. I don’t know, though.
When we got to the restaurant there were a lot of us. Probably 20 or more. There were a lot of people from both sides of the family, half the table was family of Ethan’s girlfriend, and the other were friends and family of Ethan. By this time the mood had really lightened up a bit. Actually, as soon as anyone stepped foot out of the hospital room the mood really did seem to lighten up quite a bit.
There was laughter. There were normal conversations. If I didn’t know better it almost seemed like a happy family get together. Like a celebration. But the reality was far from that. For me I was vividly reminded of this fact as one of the only other families in the entire restaurant sat behind us with their crying newborn baby.
Really? Are you kidding me? A newborn baby crying right now?
The food was good. The meal took a long time. But I think it actually might have been good for Ethan and his girlfriend. It wasn’t to make them feel like nothing was wrong, but to take a step back and take a few breaths. Lunch didn’t change reality, it just made reality a bit more manageable.
As we were starting to get ready to leave, a family sang Happy Birthday to a kid at another table. What different days for these two families. What very different days.
We eventually made it back to the hospital. There were more people here by this point, family members of Ethan’s girlfriend. Now a total of three kids were running around, vying for everyone’s attention. Although the mood wasn’t heavy, it wasn’t jovial either. No one was really that interested in paying them any attention. They tried their best, though.
My friend Norman and I just stood around and talked with each other for a while. Various family members went into the hospital room and stayed with little Zoey. Norman and I gave time for the family to spend time together as long as they wanted. We talked about various things about what it must be like for Ethan. We also talked about other aspects of life. We talked about the NFL season starting up soon. We talked about our families. We just talked for a while.
Eventually Ethan came back out and hung with us in the hallway. His face looked a bit heavy for a few minutes, but then he loosened up a bit. Some of his family came to say goodbye for the day and gave him hugs. Eventually his mother came out and we all stood around chatting for a bit. After a while the discussion changed over to talking about my son that will soon be born. Ethan was the one asking the questions, and so I felt no problem answering them. But I still wondered what it must be like for him. I mean just to know that your hopes and dreams for your daughter have all been shattered. What was he thinking about the kids running around the waiting room? What was he thinking as he talked to me about my son?
“All the organs are now healthy except her brain. We can communicate with an RC Rover many planets away but we can’t do anything about her brain! Really!? Surely this can be fixed!” He said not quite in defeat, but close. And of course in simple frustration of the situation.
Oh wow! He still has a glimmer of hope that this will somehow get better. I thought.
I don’t know what I would think. A situation like this would have to be simply unbelievable. Hope would be one of the only things keeping me going at that point most likely. I can’t blame him at all.
It’s true though. Norman and I had talked about it earlier. We can land a rocket ship with people in it on the moon in 1969 but we still can’t do practically anything about the brain once its been damaged.
“They’re just cells, right. I can scratch you. I can take away cells from you. But skin cells come back. But take away brain cells, and they can never be replaced. Strange.” Norman ranted.
Eventually we went back into the hospital room with Ethan. Just a few family members were there by this time. The mood was not as tense as it had been earlier, but there is no denying the sense of heaviness that just overcomes you as you see a cute little girl with tubes and wires hooked up to her.
The hardest part about it perhaps is that everything looks normal. All the monitors show normal numbers. Regular heart beat. Great blood pressure. Perfect oxygen saturation. Everything seems perfectly normal. But its not, and you know that even if you try to not believe it. You know that that cute little girl you’re starting will never open her eyes again.
Norman had been in the room earlier when the doctor told them that because the baby’s head is so soft and big, the brain technically will never quite be brain dead. She’ll just remain in this same condition, however. It’s just a matter of how long they’ll let her stay in this condition. Eventually she’ll have to come off the reliance of machines.
Norman told me that he definitely teared up during that time. I mean, how could you not I suppose. That is heavy. That would be so hard to hear and accept.
It was clear to me that they are not ready to think about that step yet. I know that it will come in time, and when that time comes it will be very hard. The reality of the tragedy of the situation will really set in then. There will be no smiles then. No laughter like there was around the lunch table. There will only be intense sadness for a life lost too soon.
As I reflect on this day I am glad I was able to just be there for a friend. I was not there to tell him that everything was going to be ok. Or that all he needed to do was just have more hope that everything could work out. Or that this was all just meant to be. That’s not why I was there, and it would have been wrong of me to say such things. Mostly because they’re just not true. But I was there just to be there. To show him that people do care. Life and tragedy isn’t meant to be done alone. We need each other. Even if we don’t know each other like brothers, a hug can go a long way in the midst of grief. Closing my mouth and just being ready to listen is how to really care for someone in the midst of a hard time. I hope I accomplished that today for Ethan.
It does touch home for a number of reasons. The last time I stepped foot in an ICU was for an accident that my father was in just about two and a half years ago. A lot of the emotions I felt then came surfacing as I walked into the PICU. The fact that my wife and I are soon to have a son made this all mean a little bit more for me. I realize the fragility of an infant’s life. Also, the fact that the baby’s name was Zoey is personal as well. If we were going to have a baby girl, we were going to name our daughter Zoe. Zoe (or Zoey) means “life” in Greek. And although her life will be very short on this earth, she did bring together family and friends to experience the realities of what life entails. There are hardships. There are tragedies. Life is more than just about ourselves. And it is when we live life together that it becomes meaningful. I only met her today, but Zoey brought a group of over 20 people together for an entire day to grieve, mourn, and even laugh at times with one another.
Although a true story I have out of respect of anonymity changed the names of nearly everyone in this story.