Essay: Holidays in the ER
Sam was newly 3, and channeling Joe Simpson, the famed mountaineer who disappeared in a fall down a crevasse in Peru. Assumed dead, and with bones broken, Joe came crawling back into basecamp three days later, just hours before his friends were to leave the remote Andes.
It was Thanksgiving and, while visiting my sister Lucy and her small son in Leadville, I showed the movie “Touching the Void” to Sam and my two sons, then 7 and 11. We thought Sam might not get it, but he watched intently, receiving whispered explanations from my other sister, his Aunt Meg.
“He made it!” he shouted at one point, fist pumping.
After that, Sam was Joe.
“Simon! Si-i-imon!” he’d yell from a crawl, invoking the name of Joe’s climbing partner, and the cousins (sharing the role of Simon) would search for him with headlamps, drag him into a pretend tent and cover him up. Teddy, while consenting to use a slightly different version, loved Simon’s words to the third tentmate, Richard, who was so shocked he feared Joe a ghost: Simon barks, “Lift him up, you stupid bastard!”
Simon and Richard had been so certain that Joe was dead, they’d ceremoniously burned his clothes.
Eventually Sam, in character, would ask, “Where are my pants?” then say delightedly, “I’m very mad at you!” The enactments went on all Friday, to the point where Teddy begged us all not to remind Sam of Joe.
Whenever we’d ask Sam, “Are you Sam or Joe?” he was Joe. And he was: wide-eyed and zealous, tiny veins filled with fortitude.
On Saturday, we all came over to our house in Carbondale. The kids set up an actual tent, an early Christmas gift from Aunt Meg, in the living room, and sometimes watched football videos in there and sometimes played Joe. As we handful of adults chatted in the kitchen 20 feet away, in the line of sight, Sam bounded in and out of the little fabric A-frame.
Whack! As he hurled himself through the tent door onto its far side, the wall bowed outward and he smacked his head on a nearby coffee table. He was lifted out wailing, with what looked like a bullet hole in his forehead and blood running down his face.
My husband, Mike, holding Sam and applying pressure to the wound, said, “You’ll be OK, Sam … You’re strong.”
“I’m not strong!” said Sam miserably, teeth chattering.
“I’m not Joe!”
A friend has just spent the day in the ER with her 2-year-old son, one of a boy-girl twin pair, who put a pea up his nose, the story for me occasioning a rush of memories and thoughts. Most children’s accidents happen at home, on weekends or vacations. Biffs and crashes generally ramp up during holidays, perhaps because there is so much going on.
Crowds, distraction, haste, changes in routine, and unfamiliar surroundings are all elements. Little ones may eat mistletoe, poinsettias, small toys or ornaments. Sleds crash. Teddy once, at 4 or 5, walking right beside me, was hit by an errant bike sled ridden by a bigger kid. He was fortunately unhurt, while I learned a lesson about expecting the unexpected.
“A 10-year-old hit me!” he kept saying, in indignation but admiration for the age.
A friend’s son Miles (another twin in a boy-girl pair) as a toddler once ate a glass bulb off the family Christmas tree. For the most part, all parents can do is wait and watch for blood in the stool (they are told to hasten to the ER, though, if a child is drooling excessively, nauseated or in pain, or if s/he has swallowed button batteries or magnets); and Miles was fine and dandy. He later told me with solemn brown eyes, in an apparent recitation, “I’m not going to do that again.”
Most such stories end up well. Teddy as a toddler once ate a dime — I still have the x-ray — but that skimmed through. At eight or nine months, Sam pulled himself up from a crawl to grasp and swallow one of his mother’s favorite opal-and-amethyst hoop earrings off a coffee table. It too reappeared, ready to wear.
Recently, a team of six pediatric health-care professionals in Australia and the UK, seeking some light news in the holiday buildup, each ate a small toy Lego head to study “typical transit times” of ingested objects. Retrieval, according to their Nov, 22 paper in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, took an average 1.7 days, with times varying from one to three days, if you don’t count the researcher who never found his (his colleagues let him off the hook after two weeks). No one reported any complications, and no one seemed to worry about the missing one. The authors wrote, “This will reassure parents, and the authors advocate that no parent should be expected to search through their child’s faeces to prove object retrieval.”
Still, it is a time of year when little ones get overly excited — “Noah cracked his head open! Noah cracked his head open!” came the cry from a group of boys at one preschool holiday party (it fortunately turned out to be a superficial injury) — and we all know they generally charge about. Once at a 4th of July BBQ my husband and I were hosting at a shared cabin, a young office intern from France quietly told a coworker that he was making it his job to watch Teddy, then 2, because he knew how accidents can happen in just such a situation, with plenty of people around yet busy. There was child-proof railing on the deck; but there were also steps, a hillside, a river and a campfire. My gratitude for Baptiste’s perceptiveness, though he was just 19 or 20, has only increased over time.
Back to that Thanksgiving. Lucy (Sam’s mother), Meg and I all went to the ER with weeping Sam, while Mike stayed home with the saucer-eyed bigger boys. (The following summer would bring part deux, a broken collarbone for Sam as he and Teddy played horsey in a rental beach house on a rainy day.)
In the ER were numbing medications and fish tanks to look at, and sitting in Aunt Meg’s lap and being read to, and a surgical bed that motored up and down. Then nine stitches, some inside and some out. Much praised for his bravery, Sam perked up and announced, “I’m Joe.”
Mike says Joe is a state of mind. I can only remind us all to pay attention as best we can to our children and, like the blessed Baptiste, to those of others, and to thank heavens when children and other people bounce—and crawl—back.
Alison Osius is executive editor of Rock and Ice magazine in Carbondale.
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