I'll never forget the time, just before his 9th birthday at this time of year, about 12 years ago, my son broke his elbow and required immediate surgery. It was an awful occasion, ranking right up there with some of the worse experiences of my life, although curiously, not among his, to hear him tell it.
That week, I had gone away on a trip to Belarus, accompanying a UN official who was going to investigate the disappearances of some leading opposition figures and a journalist -- Belarus is a dictatorship where people who dissent too much can wind up mysteriously dead or missing and never found, their bodies possibly thrown into one of the murky swamps in this low-lying land-locked country in the middle of Europe.
I had been nervous about going away even for a week, but this was an important trip related to my work, and cases we had been working on for a time, and incredibly, we were also given visas as it was high-profile.
I had left my children in the care of actually four women (and it would take that many at times), my Russian nanny, the children's grandmother, their great aunt, who happened to be visiting, and my aunt.
So on a lovely fall afternoon after school, the three Russian babushki were sitting on a bench in the park, watching my children. Not one, not two, but all three. Prior to going outside, like all Russian babushki, they had wrapped the children up in sweaters, scarves and -- incredibly not just elbow pads but knee pads, not only because they tended to scrape their knees on the concrete in the park, and because helicopter parents in NYC tend to get their kids rigged up like this even for a ride on a bike with training wheels, but because the kids themselves somehow felt this added to their Ninja cred.
So as they watched my overdressed son ride his bicycle around a foot from their feet, suddenly, he -- well, I'll get to that part later, but the afternoon ended at the neighborhood clinic.
The harried and hurried doctor there didn't seem to see anything overtly wrong, my son wasn't seeming to complain of any pain, there was no cuts, so they were told to watch for swelling and come back later, but my nanny wasn't happy. Remember, Russians think that if you drink a glass of cold Coke, you will come down not only with a sore throat, not only with strep throat, but angina, which means heart complications...
The arm just didn't hang right.
So the other babushki went back to their house, my nanny who was staying with the kids took my son home, but watched him like a hawk. After supper, he started to fidget and complain his arm was heavy and aching. It was "like a tooth ache only bigger".
So she picked up him and took him to the hospital emergency-room down the street and -- not knowing hardly any English and unable to reach my aunt on the phone, who also lives nearby, she tried out one word that she thought might get the busy staff's attention.
An alert med student pricked up his ears, wondering why this middle aged women with a whining little kid who didn't seem to have anything seriously wrong with him was reciting the name of the discoverer of the X-ray.
"Rentgen, rentgen!" she cried over and over, gesturing to my son.
The med student was puzzled why she was referencing medical history, and went back to sleep in the back room, or maybe he finally did contact his supervisor, because finally, a doctor emerged, puzzled.
"Rentgen, rentgen!" My Russian nanny cried with increasing urgency.
"Oh, I think she means she wants us to take an x-ray," the doctor concluded, looking at the increasingly pale and suffering child. (Indeed, rentgen happens to be the Russian word for X-ray). He did, and decided that he had to have surgery *right away*.
But this couldn't happen without a parent's signature for permission.
(BTW, this is why it's a good idea to leave a signed letter in your home authorizing any and all emergency medical treatment even if you've left something like this in a school, so it's available.)
Papa couldn't be reached, and now my baby-sitter set about, through a series of Russian speakers to reach the deputy in my office, who finally got the message that night about the emergency, and immediately sent off a fax to the hotel in Minsk, which was about 8 hours ahead in time.
By now, aspirin wasn't doing it, the doctor, consulted again by my other relatives was urging an immediate operation or else my son would not regain the use of his arm. Imagine!
Early in the morning, a hotel employee slash KGB agent brought me the fax, and I winced, noticing it had been written on our human rights organization's stationery -- something I hadn't wanted to stick out with these KGB watchers. So even before I could make out the blurry handwriting, I was fuming, and then suddenly realizing that I had to call a strange doctor, who had volunteered to be called even at 5:00 am. EST.
I wasted no time taking him at his word, and he told me frankly that this wasn't a case of, "Your son won't be able to throw a forward pass and win his college football game unless I do this operation" but more like "your son will not be able to stretch his arm out and will be doomed to a lifetime of disability unless you fax me back your signature so I can cut immediately".
This was Saturday. How fast could I get home? I was supposed to fly out on Tuesday. Was there any way I could get there faster? The doctor said he would try to schedule the surgery as quickly as possible and get back to me. He urged me to send the signature in case he had to move faster, but he was hoping it could wait until I got back.
I spent the day in high agitation. We were supposed to leave for a trip to a provincial city -- for all sorts of reasons I won't elaborate on, this was a must. In fact, the whole reason this official had agreed to make this unpleasant trip trying to go around inquiring about disappeared people and having scared relatives avoid us and KGB agents practically in our laps was for the sake of going to this other city. And without an independent translator (me) he wasn't going.
Somehow, I got through the next few hours and got the news that a) I couldn't get a flight until Sunday afternoon -- it's never easy in these places and b) the doctor felt the surgery could be done very early Monday morning. Now I just had to get through all the hurdles of surviving the next two days without being able to get regular phone contact.
There's a longer story here that involved a hair-rising return from this provincial city, where our pale but alert driver, dubbed "Wrong-way Victor" by my friend at USAID but actually a pretty-good guy, somehow managed to bring his vehicle to a shuddering stop on a pothole-filled highway when he found that...all the wheels of the car had been unscrewed and were falling off.
Deliberately unscrewed, KGB-style, because he himself had checked them and tightened them the night before, knowing we were making an early start and had a long drive. All of us stood smoking at the side of the road, even if we didn't smoke, while Wrong-Way patiently screwed all the wheels back on.
Back we go to Minsk, where I am in a frenzy to try to get to the airport in time for the endless searches and interrogations always involved in any exit from this awful place.
Literally minutes away from the final boarding call, I was still at customs, and this incredible dragon lady had made me take out every single little coin from my purse, and was interrogating me as to how it came to be, that I had coins from Austria, England, Russia -- and Belarus -- on my person.
Answer: because not only did I get them in the cafe during the transit from Vienna, and from the flight attendants on the plane, I got them as strange change in this weird country where even a suitcase full of the local currency -- that helpfully has a rabbit imprinted on it to tell you its worth and is therefore known as "the rabbit" -- doesn't seem to add up to US $100. My change didn't add up to $7.13 most likely, either, but the dragoness was convinced I was dealing on the black market with my "long American dollars" as they are often called. I finally just looked her in the eye, told her my son had to go through an emergency operation and I had to get on that flight, and she could keep my ill-gotten black market loot. I ran to the plane without looking back, the woman sputtering. Literally the door was closing.
The next morning at 5:00 am, bleary and worried, off we went to the specialized joint hospital where the surgery was to be done. I waited the entire day for news, pacing around the block and the ward.
Finally a doctor emerged with one of those worried but puzzled frowns that you learn to fear greatly in the life of a parent. Like, "This isn't supposed to happen, but it did."
It seemed that while the operation had been a success, my son had turned out to be allergic to morphine, which they had given him for pain, and he had stopped breathing -- a side effect of such an allergy.
That's about when my heart stopped.
But not to worry, they got him breathing again and put him on C-Pap. I was immensely relieved, as C-Pap, I knew from past parental tragedy, was nothing like being intubated and put on a ventilator. It was a day at the beach.
Then only about 4 hours later, toward evening, I was told my son could be taken home. I was perturbed, because I felt he should be kept for observation over night, but with drive-by surgery these days in hospitals, and no insurance coverage or beds, their objective is to get the stll-groggy patients out of their sight as quickly as possible.
Coming out of the hospital, crying from the pain of his surgery which was now unadorned with any morphine or anything like morphine, my woozy little son vomited all over the nice clean hospital floor that had just been mopped.
And aspirated his vomit, which was likely the cause of the severe pneumonia he contracted within two days which led to weeks upon weeks of doctor visits trying this or that antibiotic (he's allergic to many of those, too), and struggling to keep him entertained -- in the days before we had the online games. I think we read the Narnia stories frontwards and backwards 8 times, and of course, I told my own sequels to them 100 times as well. Well, one thing we didn't think to do was write 100 word stories, but that didn't seem advisable, with a broken arm, and all.
Needless to say, a jolly time was had by all, the bills were outrageous and not all covered, the school time missed was a disaster, but my son seemed mainly intrigued about what it was going to be like when we got those six long enormous steel pins taken out.
Ok, let's mercifully brush past that episode, which I would like to hope is more horrid for the person watching from the side than the patient, and come back to that earlier bit: how did this happen, when the kid was watched by three babushki and wrapped up in protective clothing and gear like an enchilada?
Answer: he managed to fall on the one little exposed scrap of his elbow skin that was available to dash against the hard pavement when the elbow pad slipped down from his rolled-up sweater sleeve. Imagine!
But...why did this fall happen? Here I was picturing vengeful KGB men in the bushes, and was even working on a conspiracy theory involving a Russian teenager in the building who was rather a bully.
As always, however, the truth was much simpler, and was easily available from not the miscreant himself, who was hazy on the facts, but his sister. She explained matter-of-factly that her bro had spied a big Coke bottle left on the plaza, and had deliberately revved up his bike at full speed to run over the thing and make a satisfying "pop" sound, when the aerodynamics of the situation failed, and he skidded and crashed.
The bottle apparently didn't pop. Just the elbow did.
More than a decade later, my husky and healthy son does pull-ups every day, plays basketball or lifts weights in the gym, rides a bike of course, throws stuff around all the time -- and of course, his mouse-clicking skills and related gaming skills are unaffected. There's hardly a scar.
We count our blessings. Because instead of being a little kid scared with his Mom away and unable to take any kind of morphine or codeine and having to endure the post-surgical period with only Tylenol, and then geting pneumonia that dragged on for weeks due to the inablity to tolerate antibiotics, you could be an adult who could take both before going back to work in a few days. And instead of being an absolutely invisible and silent wife who is never, ever heard from even at times like this when she is probably at least making some chicken soup or fluffing pillows or something, you could be a blogger like me, never afraid to tell a story : )