Helpless Fear

I was at work when my wife called me.  She doesn’t do that often, usually it’s just text messages to see how my day (or night) is going, and checking to make sure I ate (which I don’t do often enough, odd considering I run restaurants for a living).  She sounded surprisingly calm, but Ryan was crying really loud in the background.  She explained that Ryan had been dancing around the living room, then lost his footing and fell on his right arm.  When he stood back up, he was holding his arm funny, and every time she tried to touch it, or if he tried to move it, he screamed.

Ryan was still screaming, the kind with long pauses for breath that tell a parent a child is in excruciating pain.  I told her to take him to the ER, and I’d meet them there.  I also told my wife to take him to the hospital where he was born, not the two public hospitals closest to us.  We’d dealt with those two other hospitals and their chancre mechanics often enough during her dads’s illnesses, that I was willing to have her drive an extra 15 minutes to get better care for Ryan.

I didn’t do anything stupid like speed or drive recklessly, even though I was sorely tempted to; other drivers on the Cross Island and the LIE make my normal commute an exercise in defensive driving anyway, so why beard the lion?  When I got there, I could hear him before I made the two left turns from the elevator into the pediatric ER.  Two other children were crying, but I’ve heard that a man knows the sound of his kid’s cries.  It’s true, and I didn’t even ask the nurse where my son was.

My mother in-law was lying on a gurney, holding him against her chest, with his blankie covering his back.  His hair was wet and matted down with sweat, and little trails of tears ran down his cheeks.  He was holding on to Hami with his left arm, but his right was bent and tight against his torso.  I wish I could say that he saw me, heard me tell him “Omma is here, Appa is here, Hami is here, everything’s okay,” and calmed down.  I did say that, but to no effect.  He kept looking at me, or at my wife, or my mother in-law, and saying “please” between gasps and cries.  A nurse had already given him liquid Tylenol, but it wasn’t working yet.  What really broke my heart, though, was when he started saying, “Appa, we go home now!”

I’m a combat veteran and have been in countless situations that, suffice it to say, left me wondering how I’m still breathing and relatively whole.  I was scared then, but that was always a kind of healthy fear.  This healthy fear raised my adrenaline level and kept me in a state of hyper-alertness through whatever crisis might have been happening.  As much as I tried to reassure my screaming son that everything would be all right, as much as we tried to put on brave faces for him, we were all scared.  This was a helpless fear I’m not used to, one where I’m absolutely powerless to affect the outcome, like shooting back at the enemy.  Here my enemy was whatever was causing Ryan pain, and like anyone else in an emergency room, we had to wait our turn.

There was a kind nurse who gave Ryan a Smurf toy and a Matchbox car from the peds ER’s stash, but that only distracted him for a minute or two.  I took over from my mother in-law, and tried rocking him from side to side like I used to at bedtime, but he was still crying.  Then it was time for x-rays, and I knew this wouldn’t be fun.  The radiologist asked Ryan if he wanted to go into the other room and take pictures, and of course he stopped crying long enough to nod and say yes.

Only one of us was allowed in, and it was me because I was the only one who could hold him down if necessary.  The radiologist had me lie him down on a platform, but allowed him to have his blankie over everything but his arms.  The room was dark, and the platform was metal and cold, so he cried out of fear this time, not pain.  The room was unfamiliar, and no matter how nice the x-ray techs were, they were still strangers to him.  The screaming really started, though, when they made me hold his right elbow flush against the platform, so they could take the x-rays.  Now it was pain.  “No, Appa, please!  I can’t do it!”  No amount of reassuring would do, and I felt like a horrible father for being a party to my son’s suffering.  Four on the injured side, then two on his uninjured left side for good measure, and thank God we were done.

He was tired, and back in the exam room, I was holding him and rocking him while he laid his cheek against my shoulder.  In the center of the ER we saw a doctor and some nurses looking at films of a small elbow, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out whose it was.  I slowly scooted closer but didn’t see what I feared, which was a fracture.  The doctor led me back inside, and told us that Ryan had nursemaid’s elbow, a minor elbow dislocation that is common in small active children, and easily fixed.  He said a nurse would grab Ryan’s elbow with one hand, his wrist in the other, then twist until they felt a pop when everything returned to where it belonged.  Sounded like when I dislocated my shoulder in Ranger School, and that had been neither fun nor painless, so I steeled myself.

They had me sit on the gurney facing the nurse, and Ryan, who’d been about to fall asleep, didn’t like that at all.  Ryan was now on my lap, with my left arm against his belly and right arm over his legs.  A nurse came over, said something soothing either for Ryan or us, I still don’t know which, then did his thing.  Of course, he screamed.  Pain again, big pain, but it was over more quickly than it takes to read this sentence, then the screaming stopped.  The doctor and nurse said we had to stay until Ryan could touch the top of his head with his right arm, which I didn’t think was likely — I mean, the little guy had just dislocated his elbow, you don’t bounce back that quick…

Or maybe you do if you’re two and a half.  Ryan almost immediately started using his right arm to reach for his mother and grandmother.  He even gave the nurse a tentative high-five.  In less than five minutes, with my knees starting to wobble from the adrenaline crash, my little man was jumping around the pediatric ER, high-fiving the staff, looking into other exam rooms, his natural and wonderful curiosity on full display.  “Appa,” he would say, pointing to something, “what’s that for?” They released us less than half an hour later.  It was a deluge outside, but who cared?  My little man was better and wouldn’t have to wear a cast for God knows how long.

If you ask him now, a few days later, why he went to the hospital, he’ll tell you “I had ay-ya [Korean kid-speak for boo-boo] in my arm.  All better now.”

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