At Children's Hospital, the universal word of need is "Mama." Babies and small children cry it out constantly when uncomfortable. They yell it in anger when they feel cooped up or hungry or tired. They whine it in fear when anyone in scrubs approaches their bedside. At first it is jarring to hear the word howled so often, but after the first day I get used to it and start to screen out all the plaintive "Mama" calls around me.
Little A's room contains six beds and sits directly across from the nurses' station. Due to constant chatter of doctors, nurses, and parents at the desk outside our door, and the monitor alarms and beeps, plus sounds generated from six children and at least one parent per child at all times, our room remains cacophonous at least twenty hours a day. It is so loud that even with earplugs in, I can make out television dialog and distinct conversations in the room around me when I try to sleep. And poor Little A doesn't have earplugs, and is a naturally light sleeper, so the situation is even worse for her. She never sleeps before 11:30 or so each night, even though she is ready to drop by 8 p.m. Rather than getting her usual 14-15 hours of sleep each day, Little A is getting something closer to 8 hours. The combination of drugs, forced insomnia, and illness gets her so amped up that sometimes she bashes her head repeatedly against the metal bars of her crib.
The children crying and monitor noises I don't resent. But I grow more and more annoyed with the parents around us. At least half of them seem to be confused about where they are. This isn't a hotel, I keep muttering under my breath. This isn't about you and your entertainment. The annoying parents blare Nightline or telenovelas past midnight on their children's bedside TVs. Since the oldest child in the room is all of four, it seems to me that the TVs ought to all be turned off by nine or ten p.m. Unfortunately no nurse seems willing to tell the noisy parents this. Even when the TVs go off, some parents have loud, joking conversations with each other or on their telephones at 2 a.m.
The worst noise offenders also seem to be the people with the least-sick children, which only fuels my anger. The child with RSV a few beds down has coughing jags so severe that his mother keeps hitting the call button for nurse assistance as his choking sounds fill the room. Through my curtain I hear the doctors say that his lungs are getting worse. His fever is not going away, either. When that boy's mother speaks on the phone, it is practically in whispers. But the beds around that child and mine are a revolving door of not-nearly-as-sick children. It is the parents whose children only stay a night or two in the hospital who have the energy to shout into the phone about their recent travails, or to complain repeatedly about not having their hair dryer after they take a shower.
To be released home, Little A has to be fever-free and be able to breathe room air without her oxygen saturation falling below 90 percent for twenty-four hours in a row. Her fever breaks the first night, but it takes four days before we can get her off the supplemental oxygen for good. The nurses keep turning it down to try to wean her off, but after an hour or two of doing well, her saturation falls into the eighties, and then we have to turn the oxygen up again and start over. Each time this happens we reset our time table in the hospital by at least another 24 hours, which is frustrating. At the same time, the idea of taking her home before she is ready to go without oxygen scares the hell out of me. I want to be able to sleep at home, not sit in a chair by her bed watching her breathing out of fear. So until she is obviously more healed, it really is best for her to be in the hospital.
Finally by Thursday Little A's oxygen saturation stabilizes. She still needs to get through a night without any problems, but we are optimistic she'll go home the next day. I am ecstatic, but also have my hands full with Big A now. She has returned from her aunt's home in Sonoma after four days and is acting out. DH spends the first night home with her, but has such a difficult time that we decide I should go home for what will hopefully be Little A's last night in the hospital. DH stays with Little A while I try to reassure Big A that she hasn't been abandoned by us, and that her sister really is getting better and will be home soon. I give her a toy from the hospital gift shop, tell her she's a brave girl, and let her sleep in my bed. Normally she'd be in heaven, but she is pretty freaked out.
Big A is always the type of child who needs structure and routine, and the past few weeks have turned her world upside down: first Christmas recess from preschool mucked with things in a nice but chaotic way, and now this. And let's face it -- she's four, but she's not stupid. Big A may not understand the intricacies of calling 911 or being in the hospital, but she is not entirely buying the upbeat explanations she receives from DH and me about what's happening. She is scared and needs reassurance.
The next morning we awake to a howling rainstorm. It is the perfect sort of day to sleep in, but I have to hurry us out of the house early. Big A doesn't want to leave me, and is upset that I'm going back to the hospital and leaving her at preschool. She melts down over getting dressed, over breakfast, over not being able watch her favorite cartoon. I promise that today I will pick her up myself at 4 p.m. just like usual. Then I call DH at the hospital to verify that Little A did fine without oxygen for the night, which means she'll be discharged today. Hurray!
Unfortunately the power goes out at home during the rainstorm, and I worry how we'll be able to give the required breathing treatments every four hours if I can't plug in Little A's nebulizer. But just as I'm freaking out over that, the lights come back. It takes nearly 40 minutes to get to the hospital instead of the usual ten because the highway conditions are so poor in the storm. But it all fades away when I walk into the hospital and see Big A bouncing around in her crib, thrilled to see me. This time, I let the "Mama, mama, mama!" in, and bask in it.
So now we've been home for four days, and so far, so good. The funny thing is that because of her age, the whole experience seems to have been less traumatic for Little A than it was for the family! The rest of us definitely need a vacation from Christmas Vacation at this point.