When I was six years old, I had my tonsils out. My parents had given me a teddy bear nearly half my size to keep me company during the procedure. The doctor and nurses pretended that Jon-Jon, as I’d named him, would also be having his tonsils removed. A nurse tucked him into a hospital gown and cap, and as the anesthesiologist put me under, Jon-Jon was cuddled against me. They moved him away during the operation, but returned him before I awoke. I remember being happy he was okay. We ate lots of ice cream.
I wouldn’t go back to the hospital until 1990, when I was 20 and in labor. The movement toward women having ownership of their birth experience hadn’t reached Lancaster yet – the hospital’s procedure involved starting a woman in the labor room, moving her to the birth room, then moving her to the recovery room and the nurses were very much boss. My own shift into taking charge of my self-esteem also hadn’t yet occurred. I believed the people who thought I was an idiot for getting pregnant at 19. I had no idea how to assert myself. Labor hurt. They gave me an epidural, which eased the pain, but slowed down my ability to push. After Chelsea, perfect little creature, had emerged, the anesthesiologist shot me full of painkillers. “You’re my favorite doctor,” I told him. When we arrived home, I noted how huge the world was and how small my new baby. I hugged her tight to me.
We’d return to the hospital six months later after moving to Long Beach. Chelsea woke us with a horrible and continuous cough, so we bundled her into Bobby’s convertible 1967 Skylark – seriously bundled her as the top didn’t work, so we had to ride with it down – and raced to the ER. The hospital we landed at directed us via ambulance to another hospital, the one where our insurance would work, and within an hour, our baby’s barking seal noises were identified as “the croup” and she was admitted. Chelsea spent a week there, sleeping underneath an oxygen tent, an IV in her tiny wrist. I stayed the entire time, occasionally ducking out to the fire exit for fresh air and an unimpeded view of the sky. When the nurses first attempted the IV, they booted me out of the room. I paced the hall, listening to my baby scream in pain as the nurses failed to hit the vein. They raised their voices to better gossip with each other and that’s when motherly rage swept over me for the first time. I demanded they stop. I demanded to see the doctor. I demanded they not touch my baby again. The head nurse showed up, talked me down. She asked if I would allow her to try, just once, to do the IV. If it didn’t work, she’d get the doctor immediately. I gave her permission, but stayed in the room. She poked the needle into Chelsea’s arm, right spot, first time. We moved on.
My second child’s birth, in 1994, was at the UCI birth center, not a hospital – I’d found some confidence and a friend who introduced me to her midwife. Visits to the birth center reenforced that what I wanted mattered. Life, as it does, ignored my plans – we were in Lancaster when my water broke 16 days early. Bobby navigated the two-hour freeway drive while I clenched my hands in the passenger seat and tried to not scare Chelsea, wide-eyed in the back, with my groans. At the birth center, they ushered me into a warm tub, then set Bobby and I up in a bed with Chelsea in a room nearby. A group of students peered in, on tour. At some point, one of the midwives gently suggested I focus my energy “inward” as a younger woman down the hall was alarmed by my wailing. From water breakage to Kaylee’s birth was about four hours. We stayed the night, then high on postpartum adrenaline, charged out into the world the next morning. The rush lasted through dinner that night – we took our 24-hour old baby out for Thai food. The waiter laughed and said she looked like Tweety Bird, all big-eyed and bald and darling.
We would again rush from Lancaster when Kaylee was four months old. We’d moved back to the desert and in with Bobby’s mom, who did not believe in running the air conditioning, even when it was 100 degrees – or more – outside. Over the course of a week, K had been increasingly fussy, nursing less, looking unwell. When our pediatrician saw her, she ordered blood tests, then called to tell us, “You need to take her to Children’s Hospital in L.A. right away.” The heat had caused my infant to sweat so profusely that she’d become severely dehydrated. I have a photo of K that I took before we left, still all eyes but even more so on her shrunken frame – she’d dropped from 12 lbs. to nine in just 72 hours. By her second day in the hospital, an IV had plumped her back up and she’d started nursing again. I stayed at her side, wincing at the coughing children in the ward, worried we’d leave with tuberculosis. Her full stay in the hospital lasted six days. When we returned to Bobby’s mother’s house, the air conditioner was on.
In 1995, I gave birth to Nick in the same hospital where Chelsea had been born. Time had changed some things – fewer room transfers – and not others – the nurses were still condescending. I’d arrived already dilated to 10 centimeters, a mere hour after contractions had started. Barely a moment existed between one wave of pain and the next. My obstetrician broke my water and boom! there was Nick. He looked like a little old man, like his grandpa, exactly. We stayed the night, argued with the nurses about breastfeeding, took him home the next day.
His week-long stay wouldn’t come until he was 11 years old, after several weeks of feeling generally unwell and having to pee constantly culminated in a night of vomiting. At the time, I had no idea what was wrong, had pondered he might have a UTI, but with three kids someone had to be bleeding or something broken for me to believe it was serious. Nick had already been to the ER twice for staples and stitches, and this spate of lethargy didn’t rise to that level – so I thought. The reality was much worse and dropped on me by an urgent care nurse who smelled his breath and said, “Oh, he’s got diabetes,” as if she were remarking on something negligible. Her tone would have been appropriate if she’d been telling me I had something in my teeth. Life thus changed and Nick desperately ill, the next move was to airlift him to UCSF’s medical center. I accompanied him on the plane, a speedy red deal the size of an ambulance but sleek and cool. I was so troubled that Nick could enjoy neither this Hot Wheels of a plane nor the amazing view – my mind finding small things to worry about because the large concern was far too big. Once he was well enough to eat, I would leave the hospital only to buy better food for us down on Irving Street, then rush back. A week was long enough to get Nick back to health and to absorb a crash course in Type 1 diabetes, but not nearly long enough to understand the impact this disease would have. That would take – is still taking.
The years before and after this were punctuated with ER runs, notably the aforementioned stitches and staples, plus a series of visits when Kaylee was 10 and suffering from a mysterious stomach ailment that ended up with her on morphine at one point. Nick’s diabetes continues to necessitate occasional emergency care as recently as Christmas break.
But the next week of actual hospitalization would involve Bobby and a lung infection. Before we knew it was a lung infection, the doctors kept telling us cancer. Cancer, cancer, cancer. He was still on a gurney in the overcrowded ER hallway when the first doctor broke the news. After the doctor walked away, Bobby and I spilled out 20 years of apologies and explanations and I-love-yous to each other because we didn’t know what would happen. Three days and many tests later, another doctor who’d tossed the cancer verdict in Bobby’s direction looked up from his chart, puzzled. Not cancer, he said. Relief competed with frustration they’d put us through so much worry, but mostly the release from anxiety carried the day. Still, he’d been quite sick, dropping 20 lbs. in a month – the infection had nearly wiped him out – so further stay was necessary. I spent days at the side of his bed, bringing him food and an iPod full of music and books. St. Joe’s was undergoing construction at the time, so nights were full of clanging and banging in addition to the constant beeps and alarms. The nurses spoke kindly to us, however, and friends and family stepped up to help out – we were loved very much during this spring of 2010. (Bobby has been healthy since, but still refuses to go to the doctor when I tell him to.)
I have spent less time in hospitals than some.
I am grateful the hospital stays have coincided with the times we’ve had Medi-Cal or health insurance. I am grateful we’ve had access to decent doctors and well-trained staff. I am grateful, ever grateful, that all of the hospitals stays have ended with everyone leaving alive and whole.