It was going to be a very big day.
6:30am, September 21, 2017. School was out for Rosh Hashana. It was unseasonably warm, and I knew I would running after the boys until she handed in the early afternoon, I donned the only stretchy shirt I had left that fit over my pregnant belly.
I snapped a quick picture of proof as I finished drying my hair. Jonathan asked to watch television as William looked at me, eyes wide and cheeks red. “Potty!” I ushered William upstairs to the bathroom and gave Jon permission to watch tv.
“Only one show, Buddy. Too much t.v. will hurt your brain.”
A few minutes later Jonathan appeared in the doorway, looking down and eyes half closed. “I hurt my head”, he mumbled. As I went to him, William bolted off the throne. As I darted back to Will, Jon began to cry. He was burning up.
The day before he had collided with another student at a Fun-Run. Although the bump was minor, I wondered if that had anything to do with it. I grilled him on what happened, if he had jumped off the couch and hit the table, etc. but he couldn’t answer me. He took a step forward and veered to the right like a drunken sailor.
I laid him down, checked his pupils and tried to sit him up. His head was starting to pour sweat. I dashed back to William and threw his clothing on. I frantically texted my husband, which was ridiculous. He couldn’t get any messages for 8 hours at least; he was deployed to the other side of the world. I don’t remember sending the message.
“CALL ME IMMEDIATELY.”
While I called my mother to triage and explained the symptoms, I tried to help Jonathan walk. At this point he was a rag doll and vomiting. I hung up and packed a bag for the ER.
“I think Jonathan has a concussion. I’m headed to the ER”, I typed to Jess.
I put Jonathan onto the couch and ran to gather supplies, snapping a picture for the doctors.
Meanwhile, in God’s timing, my man had forgotten something in his room that he needed. When he entered the room he saw his phone message and called me. I was trying to carry our 60 pound son who was losing consciousness down the stairs as I told him what happened. He hung up and told me to hang on. 20 minutes later his buddy Ryan, who was on his way to work at just the right time, arrived to drive the car so I could keep Jon awake. He sped to the local hospital while I desperately tried to keep Jonathan awake and get water into him. These emergency moments kick me into a fight response that is all too familiar. The adrenaline almost has a taste. The heart races in a quick beat,like a rowing team stroking paddles in unison and propelling the boat on at high speed. I run and bounce on the front of my feet, as if running track. It feels faster and more alert.
We careened into the valet drive, encircled with orange construction fencing. While I unbuckled William and wrestled with the double stroller that hadn’t been opened in years, Ryan carried Jonathan’s limp body through the glass doors. The valets stared at me, pumping with adrenaline and pregnant belly leading. They were quite relieved that I wasn’t the emergency.
Ryan darted out of the doors a moment later. “What’s his birthday?” I shouted the date. “How do you not know your kid’s birthday?” one asked. In a gasp I answered, “He’s not the father.” The two men stopped and looked at each other, eyebrows shooting up. I pushed the double stroller in at full speed.
Quickly, Jonathan was in a room and 4 people asked me repeatedly what he hit his head on. Guilt and frustration consumed me as I said I didn’t know. Every time Jonathan lifted his head, he vomited and collapsed. The nurses tried to cut his shirt off, which sent him into hysterics. It was a fight to secure the neck brace and get vitals. Shortly afterward a CT was called for, forcing me to remain outside. I prayed fervently that Jon would be calm as Ryan, whom he had met once before, stayed with him. William calmed me by waving and flirting with the nurses. He was having the time of his life.
I texted Jess and assured her I should be back home by 3 pm to pick her up. Surely this was just a bad concussion.
At this point I posted to facebook and asked for prayer.
After about 15 minutes, Jonathan returned. I held his hand and tried to calm everyone. Our doctor was prior military, so he knew the correct questions to ask and joked about Murphy’s Law. He left and suddenly three distinguished looking men with white coats entered.
” The CT scan showed massive internal bleeding.”
I panicked. How could he have hit his head that hard?
“We can’t see what caused it. It could be a vein, a tumor- we don’t know. We are flying him to Hopkins in Baltimore. The team will be in the air shortly. He may be in surgery by the time you arrive. I understand that you are military.” He turned to Ryan. “You need to get his father home, immediately.”
I turned to Ryan. “You need to call him. He will worry about me if I tell him.”
Time both stops and speeds up. I repeated the doctor’s words in my head, looking away from everyone’s faces to process. I’ve been given “life changing news” often enough to have practiced processing. I process best by both reading and hearing. I’ve learned to try processing as Jonathan does. It is almost like reading their words in a bubble on a comic strip. I understand why Jonathan looks away from faces when people speak; he “reads” their words. The message was clear- your son may die, and soon.There is nothing you can do to change it. Just hand your son over to us.
Ryan disappeared down the hall, phone in hand. He returned shortly afterward to take William. His lovely wife Allie had brought their three children to the waiting room; they took him for the night. That was a concern- Will wasn’t sleeping through the night and could be a challenge. He adored the time with the older kids and slept, God be praised.
The doctors stared at me. “Where’s your bathroom?” I asked. I had been drinking water to stay calm and was 7 months pregnant, after all. I looked into the mirror. We were back in the hospital mode. I took a deep breath and mentally girded for battle. My children needed me.
I returned and talked to the military doctor. Yes, I know where Hopkins is and how to get there. My other son is a cancer survivor. No, I’m not having contractions. Can I go on the helicopter?
If you have a family member with autism, you can imagine how putting Jonathan, strapped to a stretcher, on a helicopter with strangers and potentially entering surgery without me was terrifying. As Ryan and I ran to the car, I talked too much (to process) and he sped through lights to get me to my son.
Thank God I knew Baltimore. Thank God going to Hopkins was second nature. Thank God we would be battling on familiar ground. All the cancer experiences we had here now made sense. It was preparation for this day. The eternal glimpses of God’s planning comforted me in teh midst of chaos. It was a solid anchor as this new storm pitched my boat.
As we screeched into the Emergency Room circle I ran in, once again frightening people that I was in labor.
“My son arrived by helicopter.” I panted. “His name is Jonathan-”
The guard smiled. “Oh honey, I knew you were coming. Come right here.” She stood and ushered be through the scary, white doors. The Emergency OR room was full of people who were surprisingly calm. Jonathan was on the table, awake and looking at the monitors. “Momma!” he squeaked.
The adrenaline raced. I marched right in and looked for the lead doctor. “Surgery?”
In this moment there is not true fear. It is more of a reactionary caution. I lived in a hospital for 6 months; this had become second nature, in a way. There is some truth in what they say about battle-tested mothers. It allowed me to focus and remain steady in the moment. If I panicked, the doctors wouldn’t be able to focus on Jonatha.
They informed me that he had been calm, done very well and the bleeding hadn’t spread. He was stable and would be taken upstairs as soon as the doctors reviewed him. 8 people asked me if I wanted to sit and asked if I was okay.
“How are you not freaking out?” one darling blonde nurse asked.
“This isn’t my first rodeo. My other son was treated for leukemia and had maintenance here. The nurses looked at each other. “Can we cry then? We are moms too and someone needs to freak out.” God bless nurses. They are some of the best people in the world. They walk through Hell with you and come out smiling.
It became quiet for an hour as Jonathan began to open his eyes and speak. He was fairly calm as we headed into an MRI. By now the adrenaline began to fade. I sat in the waiting room and started to call family members. Ryan remained with me, steady and in contact with Command. Jonathan was nearly done when the good news came: My man was coming home. He would be wheels up as soon as possible- and it is no easy task. Relief flooded my body and soul. Elizabeth squirmed in my belly.
Once stable, we were transferred into the PICU. When I met the new team, the barrage of questions began- in both directions.My adrenaline was high and I was in full hospital mode. The athletic clothing and tennis shoes kept me moving. “Are we NPO for potential surgeries?” I asked the doctor. She blinked. “Are you medical?” “Nope. I’m just a veteran cancer mom. She looked shocked and relieved. We went through the hundreds of medial questions and I tried to lighten the mood with humor. Laughter is my defiance in the face of fear.
Over the next several hours phone calls and texts flew. Jessica was picked up at the airport and was determined to make it to the hospital, somehow. Ryan stayed on the floor and relayed all the information to command. I felt the need to text hundreds of people but couldn’t keep up with all the information. Our wonderful pastor Brent came to the hospital to see what we needed and to see us. Messages poured in. My mother let me know she was about to board a plane.
As the sun began to set, Jonathan started to sleep. Ryan went out for food. He returned with a sandwich for me and the gentle reminders that I needed to eat. Ryan stayed until he was sure that another coworker, after a LONG day, would be picking up my mother room the airport in the middle of the night.
Jonathan was in and out, terrified and desperately clawing the neck brace. He moved gingerly and fought the nurses. I never left his side.
As the sun set, the room became quiet, except for the beeping pumps and rounds of doctors. I met an incredible surgeon- Big Al- Dr. Al Cohen. He is at the top of the field and filled me with confidence. We were told that we would try to keep Jon stable as we watched the blood. If it remained steady, we would test again and then operate. We just remain, monitoring vigilantly. At the slightest wrong movement, we may be thrown into emergency surgery.
Shortly after, as if from a dream, Jess walked into the hospital room. Our early morning text about her visit seemed like years before. Indeed, it was in the part of my life now marked “Before”. We hugged and she immediately went to Jonathan. This was her first time leaving her 4 year old, and yet she came right to the aid of my kiddo. He had been cold and shaking, so when she pulled out the special red sweatshirt she purchased for him, he was thrilled. He wore it constantly for months.
She had a bag with a burrito, changes of clothing and things I needed to stay overnight.
The hours flew and soon it was 10pm. I wedged my pregnant self onto the bed with him and listened to every breath. I prayed. I begged God to spare Jonathan. Jonathan told me Elizabeth would arrive before I was even pregnant; I was scared God might take Jonathan just as he gave me Elizabeth. I pictured attending my child’s funeral pregnant, or with a newborn. I prayed his father would get to see him. I prayed for my husband’s safety. The air in the room almost had a taste to it. I prayed over my son and sang to him, stroking his fluffy blonde hair. All I can say about trusting God in that moment is that I trust my Commander. Through all I have been through, He has been faithful. Keep going. Just press on.
We lived through the night. Not survived- but truly experienced life in all its wonder. It was the start of a new life, a new reality, a new diagnosis, a new story, and the Rosh Hashana- the new year.
It’s been a year and darn it, we’re still living.