Book excerpt time! This is about a return visit to the hospital:
A few months after the reunion, I took Gabriel back to Swedish Medical Center again for a follow-up appointment, a kidney ultrasound. The result was that his kidneys looked normal, but they were very small, under the 5th percentile. The nephrologist said that we needed to steer him towards a mostly vegetarian diet as he got older as plant-based proteins were easier on the kidneys. This was more than a little frustrating as our current struggle was to get Gabriel’s weight up, and his dietitians were pushing us to give him lots of meat and dairy. His favorite food was full-fat Greek yogurt.
After the appointment, we went to the snack bar in the hospital so I could buy a sandwich and Gabriel could eat some berry-milk-cereal mush. While I stood in line, three familiar chimes came over the public address system, followed by an announcement: “Neonatal code blue, fifth southwest.”
My hand clamped down on the handle of the stroller with a force that made its plastic joints audibly pop as the past folded on top of the present. I bent forward to look in the stroller, and Gabriel was there, happily looking around at things in the snack bar. I stayed bent forward for a while, not really wanting to stand straight up, hoping that being bent would lessen the tension in my chest. It didn’t. I swallowed hard, twice, then noticing a woman behind me who appeared to be confused whether I was going to move forward in the line. I motioned for her to go ahead of me. When I got up to the sandwich case, I tried to make a choice, but the arrayed choices looked flat and all the same, like wallpaper. I mumbled some gibberish for a while before grabbing one at random and paying for it.
Gabriel and I went back to a table. I took him out of the stroller and held him in my lap, willing myself to hold him gently. “Eat!” he said brightly, and enthusiastically tapped his mouth with his thumb and forefinger, a sign-language sign the therapists had taught us. I envied his cheerfulness. I reached to get his plastic bin with the mush. But before I opened the bin, I reached for my cell phone, and sent a text to Miri: “Appt ok. Intercom just said neonatal code blue 5th sw. Freaking out. Please call to tell me I am not crazy person. I love you!”
Gabriel ate his mush, then I ate my sandwich. As we were getting up, I noticed a smell coming from his diaper, and went to find a bathroom with a changing table. The enclosed room gave me a chance to let my jaw chatter for a minute or two in private where strangers would not see it. The diaper change made me remember how excited we used to be with baby poop back in the NICU. I washed my hands, splashing a little water on my face, which did help calm me down a little bit.
I opened the door of the bathroom, and stepped out to find Dr. W. He still had his beard and his mild Southern accent, and he looked like he had developed some skin irritation on his scalp, as large parts of it were peeling. He immediately recognized us and we chatted a little while about Gabriel’s progress, and about the kidney ultrasound.
“How have you been?” I asked.
“We’re really, really busy right now. The NICU got really full over the holidays,” he said.
“I heard that neonatal code blue in fifth southwest over the PA a few minutes ago,” I said.
“That would be someone like Gabriel pulling the cord,” he said with a smile.
“Yes, but on fifth southwest?” I asked.
“That would be antepartum, not labor and delivery,” he said.
“I remember that,” I said.
“That would be a woman giving birth suddenly, before they could get her to labor and delivery, which would be pretty rare,” Dr. W said.
Gabriel never was a code blue. He did need immediate resuscitation when he was born, but the team was there in advance, so they did not have to call in a code. Today, what the code meant was that one of Dr. W’s colleagues in sixth south, where the NICU is, needed to drop everything and run with several nurses to the antepartum wing in fifth southwest to try to save an unresponsive newborn preemie. Miri spent nine days there.
I said to Gabriel, “This is one of the doctors who took care of you when you were really, really little.”
The doctor bent over to talk to Gabriel, and held his hands a few inches apart. “You were about this big.” He reached down to take Gabriel’s hand.
Two years ago, I sat in this hospital before our son was born and wished some older person could come pick me up, take me somewhere else and tell me it would be all right, but the only person who could do that was a nameless baby who I thought might never speak.
Gabriel looked at the doctor’s hand. His mouth narrowed and his eyebrows went down a little as he put on his “serious” face for this man he did not recognize.
“Hey, take care of your Dad, ‘cause he needs it,” the doctor said. I wonder if that is what he says to everyone, or if he picked up on the panic I was trying to swallow down.
Gabriel nodded, and the doctor left. I pushed the stroller a little ways, stopped it, and unbuckled my son. I picked him up and held him, pushing my right hand against his back so I could feel him breathe, and so the pressure would stop my hand from shaking. I took several deep breaths of my own. He calmly rested his head on my shoulder, and I whispered in to his ear, “Take care of your Dad.”