Leaning on Caduceus

When your baby's sick, you don't want a mere doctor, you want the magic wand of Hermes

On the morning after the election, as I drove Ben to the hospital, the radio news described a world of uncertainty: Had Bush won Florida, or had Gore? How long would a recount take? Who, exactly, was the president-elect of the United States?

The overcast sky was dithering, too, not yet decided whether the incoming cold front would blow in a flash flood or a clear, cold afternoon. My black tote bag bulged with clothes for either eventuality: three changes, both for Ben and for me, plus diapers, plus towels for cleaning the messes he was likely to make. I expected to spend hours in the waiting room of the pediatric gastroenterology clinic. Ben's general practitioner and I had made nearly a dozen petitioning phone calls before we were granted even a "work-in" appointment. I expected the clinic to be packed, Calcutta-style, with dull-eyed children racked by wasting diseases.

Besides the clothes, I packed Pedialyte, the electrolyte elixir that pediatricians almost always recommend you give a vomiting, diarrheic child. It's designed to prevent dehydration, and because Ben had been sick for so long, I imagined that I could see him shriveling before my eyes. Over two and a half weeks, he'd lost around three pounds -- a lot for a 22-pound two-year-old, so much that his size four diapers were now hopelessly baggy. On Tuesday, after voting, I'd taken him to buy size threes, and while on the Kroger baby aisle, I defensively loaded my cart with almost every Pedialyte product on the shelves, anything to keep him from checking into the hospital for an extended stay.

Scott Gilbert

The hospital's underground garage was full. Searching for a space, I ranted: What evil genius designed the Texas Medical Center? Why is this complex impossible to navigate, impossible to park in, just plain impossible, period? Don't sick people suffer enough already? Through it all, Ben sat placid in his car seat, as peaceful as a meditating Buddha. Two-year-olds are not supposed to be placid. I took deep breaths.

I found a valet parker and lugged Ben, my purse and the overstuffed tote bag inside the hospital. The receptionist gave me directions to the wrong floor of the wrong building. As I wandered the maze of hallways and elevators, Ben wrapped his skinny arms around my neck and rested his head on my shoulder. It was too much. I felt too weak to rant.

At one elevator stop, a nurse pushed in a preteen girl in a wheelchair.

"What's he got?" the girl asked, looking at Ben.

"I don't know," I said.

"I've got sickle cell."

"Ooof," I said: the sound you make after a punch to the gut.

"You know sickle cell?"

"It hurts a lot, doesn't it?"

"Yeah," she said, almost proud. "They're going to take out my spleen, but not if I run away first."

The elevator stopped. I carried Ben out. I was holding him tight.


My husband, a research scientist, works in a different part of the Texas Medical Center. Paul writes computer programs that piece together snippets of the human genome. When people ask what he does, he replies that he and his colleagues are "decoding the book of life." He says this in a tone of mock grandeur, but it's not entirely a joke. He believes that life can be decoded, that the universe behaves rationally and will yield its secrets to anyone clever enough to ask the right questions and interpret the data.

I believe that too, mostly, and from the outside, our appointment with the clinic looked entirely rational. Our general practitioner recommended that Ben see a specialist -- a pediatric gastroenterologist, she emphasized, not one who treats adults. Pediatric G.I., she said, "is a whole other world," and obviously I needed a guide familiar with its strange geography, someone who could assess Ben's symptoms, fit them into the arcane framework of the field and form a hypothesis. I needed a scientist.

But what I sought, secretly, was an oracle, or maybe a wizard or a god. I didn't want a pretty good guess, or a working approach, or a wait-and-see attitude. I wanted the Truth, please, with a side order of Infallible Treatment.


When I finally found the clinic, its receptionist handed me a clipboard with a questionnaire and directed us to take a seat in a bright-colored waiting room. I was relieved not to find hordes of dull-eyed starvelings. I counted only three other families. My kid looked the sickest of the bunch.

Ben settled into my lap, limp and unusually still. I offered the Pedialyte; he refused. But he accepted a toy bulldozer and clutched it grimly. His eyes were fixed on a wall.

I watched the room's TV. On the little screen, Bush was explaining that Gore had conceded, then retracted his concession. Bush, Cheney and their sleep-deprived wives sat around a dining room table. There was food, but nobody seemed to eat. They were waiting.


After only a half hour, a nurse called Ben's name and whisked us into the clinic's inner sanctum. I stripped him naked to be weighed, and the nurse held a thermometer under his arm. On a normal day, he'd have fought these insults to his toddler sovereignty. Today he submitted without protest.

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