Waiting for medical test results is itself a stress test. I play mental games, especially the one where I won’t let myself check the time even though I’m also cheating by checking the time. I keep busy with small tasks. Mostly I try to smother dread by piling on layer after layer of positive thoughts.
This is what I was doing the day we took our firstborn baby for an upper GI. Benjamin was a bright-eyed delight, so enthralling to his new parents that we’d watch him sleep while commenting like giddy sportscasters at his every facial expression. But as weeks went by, we realized he was sick and getting sicker. He’d nurse contentedly but the milk didn’t stay down. Sometimes immediately, sometimes not for almost an hour, he’d struggle as if in pain until he vomited the milk back up in forceful plumes. By the time he was two and a half months old he was nursing almost continually, desperate to keep something in his stomach.
Doctors, nurses, friends who were parents, and our own parents all said he was fine. We were told we were overreacting as first-time parents tend to do. We were assured that he was allergic to breastmilk or that he wasn’t being burped correctly or that he needed rice cereal to settle his stomach. We were told he had reflux or colic. The usual refrain was, “He’ll grow out of it.”
Being me, I researched every possibility for our baby’s symptoms. One that stood out was pyloric stenosis. This is a narrowing of the pylorus, the lower part of the stomach through which food passes to enter the small intestine. The opening continues to narrow as the disease progresses, eventually preventing the baby from getting any nutrition at all. Our doctor said that diagnosis was unlikely with a “big, strapping boy” like ours, and not to worry. My mother, an RN, showed me pictures of babies diagnosed with the disease. They looked like famine victims, not at all like my baby.
By the time he was four months old Benjamin’s weight had stalled. The doctor said if we insisted, he could schedule an upper GI, but he was sure the baby was just fine. I ordered John Gofman’s Radiation and Human Health from the library and was horrified to read that the earlier a child is exposed to x-rays, the greater his lifetime risk of cancer. That didn’t make the decision easier.
I also read more about pyloric stenosis. Like some kind of Biblical plague, it’s most likely to occur in firstborn male babies. It also runs in families. I remembered hearing that the first son in my father’s family had died in infancy. (My grandmother blamed herself and refused to nurse her subsequent children. The formula she used caused my poor father to have eczema so severe that the doctor ordered her to spare his skin the pressure of being picked up, that instead he should have his arms tied to his crib all day so he couldn’t scratch. I’d like to reach through time and throttle that doctor.)
After putting it off for a few days, my husband and I were sure we saw desperation in our nearly five month old son’s eyes. We took him for the test. Then we waited. And waited.
Finally the doctor called with the results. He told us to take our baby directly to the hospital for emergency surgery. Benjamin had the blocked digestive tract indicative of advanced pyloric stenosis.
When we got there our baby was deemed so severely dehydrated that it was too dangerous to take him to surgery right away. After many attempts to insert an IV, each second a screaming misery for our child, Benjamin ended up with a line running into his head. Worse, I wasn’t allowed to nurse him in case surgery was scheduled soon, so he screamed with hunger as well. Hours passed and the surgeon didn’t show up to examine him or talk to us.
I was frantic, knowing that my baby had been starving and yet I wasn’t able to feed him. One nurse assured me that the glucose drip was as good for the baby as mother’s milk. Another nurse, seeing that we were holding him rather than letting him wail in the crib, told us “I don’t have much use for pick-me-up-shut-me-up kids.” That explained the largely ignored toddler in the next crib who cried mournfully, so traumatized that he barely paused his crying when we tried talking to him and playing with him.
Hours dragged by and the surgeon still hadn’t arrived. I went to the nurses’ desk and said as politely as I could that if the surgeon didn’t speak to us in the next half hour I would nurse my inconsolable baby on the way to another hospital.
That did it. A sleepy-voiced surgeon roused himself to call, saying with annoyance that he’d operate in the morning. And he did. The stenosis was repaired and our baby faced a few more days of hospitalization to recover.
My husband and I, first time parents at 22 and 24 years old, were so focused on our baby’s health that we were barely aware of our own stress. We’d decided to live on one salary. Our budget had space for homemade meals and quiet pleasures like taking a walk. It didn’t have space for my husband to take off more than the day before and day of our baby’s surgery. It didn’t have space for parking fees in the hospital lot. It didn’t have space for meals in the hospital cafeteria.
I stayed at the hospital with Benjamin as he recovered. Nurses snuck me cans of apple juice and crackers. They brought me pillows so I could lie back in the chair holding my baby. They looked at my bedraggled state and hinted that I could go home to shower. I was still not allowed to nurse until my baby had healed, a source of misery for both of us. And I suffered over every procedure I could hear being performed on crying children up and down the halls. Every beeping monitor and rattling cart jangled at what was left of my nerves.
Plenty of people offered to help. I was entrenched in such moment-to-moment care that had no idea what help I needed. My husband was there every spare hour, other than that no one came.
Then one afternoon my husband’s Aunt Grace showed up. Despite our affection for her we rarely got to see her. She was and still is a private person who is a busy volunteer and active grandmother. Just seeing her familiar face was a blessed relief. She said she wasn’t going to stay long, she just wanted to hold the baby for a bit to give me a break. I hadn’t imagined such a break, but passing him over let me take what felt like the first deep breath in a long while.
Then she gave me a white bag. When I smelled it I realized I’d been hungry for days. Ravenous, actually. I pulled out a warm foil-wrapped sandwich with deep gratitude. As I unwrapped it my hope flagged. I’d been a whole food vegetarian for years, yet here was a white roll with roast beef and mayonnaise — a trifecta of What Laura Doesn’t Eat.
I didn’t want to seem unappreciative. Maybe I could wrap it back in the foil and pretend I’d eat it later. I looked at her holding my baby on her shoulder, her cheek against his cheek. She looked back with such deep kindness that I bit into that sandwich, wiped the goo from my lips, and took another bite.
I could practically feel every cell in my body embrace those nutrients. Never before or since have I eaten something so powerful. That sandwich tasted like love.
Life is full of tests that have no assured results. A big one is how to help someone in crisis. If you’re not sure what to do, take it from Aunt Grace. Show up. Hold whoever needs holding. And bring a sandwich.