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One Call AwayAnswering Life's Challenges With Unshakable Faith
By Brenda Warner Jennifer Schuchmann
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Brenda Warner
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLife-Changing Call
The call came in half an hour before quitting time. I was twenty-two and the lowest-ranking marine in my office. It was my job to answer the phone.
I picked up the receiver. "Lance Corporal Meoni."
"Sweetheart," said my husband. Immediately I knew something was wrong. Though Neil was at home taking care of our four-month-old son, Zack, he rarely called the office, preferring that I call him during a break. "Zack's breathing funny."
"What do you mean, Zack's breathing funny?"
"I don't know. He's just not breathing right."
"Put him on the phone." It sounds like a silly thing to say, but Neil knew what I meant. He held up the receiver to Zack's face, and I listened closely to his breathing. I heard gurgling, so I knew he was getting air.
"Do you hear it?" Neil asked.
"Yeah, it doesn't sound right. What do you think?"
"I think you should come home."
I hung up the phone and walked around the corner to talk to the staff sergeant. With his permission, I packed up my stuff and headed to the car. After his brain surgery several years earlier, Neil had suffered from seizures that left him unable to drive or work. Though the seizures were under control by now, he still had a few months to go before getting his driver's license back. Each day I took our only car to work while Neil stayed home with Zack.
* * *
Neil sat in the glider, holding Zack swaddled in a blue comforter. The baby wasn't crying, and everything looked normal.
"Let me see him," I said. Neil pulled back the comforter, and I looked at Zack's chest. It didn't look like it was moving.
"We've got to go!" I scooped Zack up in the comforter and ran for the car. Neil got there first, opened the passenger door, and got in so I could put Zack in his arms. I got in the driver's side, backed out of the parking spot, and peeled down the road. There was an emergency clinic just around the block.
* * *
"My baby's having trouble breathing," I told the nurse behind the desk. She took a look at him and immediately ushered us to a separate waiting room.
"Wait here. I'll be back to get you in a minute." Then she snatched Zack out of my arms and took him to a treatment room.
There was a flurry of activity in the room behind us. I heard someone call for the doctor, and then a voice said, "This child isn't breathing."
I looked up at Neil, and he stared back with a blank expression. I wasn't panicking, but I could feel the denial setting in. This isn't happening. They've got a different child. Not my child.
The room felt cold and antiseptic. We stood there, not speaking, just listening to the sounds from the other side of the wall. Then I prayed. Oh, God, please help me. Please help me. What's going on? God, please make him okay. After what seemed like hours but was probably only a few minutes, the doctor came in. "We're sending him to Portsmouth Naval Hospital."
"What do you mean you're sending him?"
"We're sending him in an ambulance."
"Can we go with him?"
"No, I'm sorry. You'll have to follow in your own car."
* * *
The ambulance left the medical office as we got into the car. The driver turned on his siren and pulled into traffic, and I pulled in behind him. I can't believe my baby's in that ambulance.
While I focused on staying with the ambulance, Neil sat stone quiet. The whole experience was surreal. Just that morning, my perfect, healthy, chubby baby had smiled at me when I kissed him good-bye. Now his life was in danger. I needed to remain calm for my son, so I did the only thing I knew to do—I prayed. But words failed me. All I could say was, "Oh God, oh God, oh my God!"
I was not the crier in our relationship. But even if I had been, I knew now wasn't the time. I needed to focus on getting to the hospital and getting Zack the help he needed. Neil had always been more emotional than I, but his seizure medications made it worse. It didn't surprise me when he started crying right there in the car.
We followed the ambulance into the emergency entrance but quickly realized no parking was available there. I circled back to look for parking in the lot, but all the spaces were full. I need a parking place now!
"Just park!" Neil had apparently run out of tears and now, out of patience.
But I was a rule follower, a marine. I couldn't just leave our car anywhere. I needed order, especially during a crisis. Eventually I found a space, and Neil and I bolted out of the car and sprinted to the hospital entrance.
We entered through the glass doors and rushed up to the desk. "Our son was just brought in," I said, trying to catch my breath. "The baby. We need to see him."
"You'll have to wait over there." The woman behind the desk pointed to the waiting room without even looking at us.
"Can't we see him now?"
"I'm sorry. You'll have to wait."
I couldn't believe it! Frustrated, I turned toward the seating area. People filled the room. All of them were waiting to be seen, but they didn't even look sick. They looked like they had a cold or needed a Band-Aid. I wanted to scream, "People! My child is in there, and he's not breathing!"
I managed to hold myself together. Neil and I sat down in the hard plastic chairs and stared silently at the white-brick walls. I lowered my eyes so I didn't have to look at the people who didn't look sick. Half-empty cups and last month's magazines were strewn across plastic end tables. The room smelled like coffee and air freshener. I thought about my mom and dad and desperately wanted to call them, but I decided to wait until I had more information.
In a crisis, I always wanted to take action, to be the strong one. But now I couldn't do anything, so I sat motionless in the chair, my muscles tense, my mind worrying.
Eventually a clerk with a clipboard appeared. We followed her to a small room with more plastic chairs. "Have a seat," she said. "I need to get some information from you."
I wanted her to hurry up so I could see Zack, but the woman was so deliberate with her movements, she seemed to move in slow motion. She clicked her pen and poised it above the clipboard. "Names?"
"Brenda and Neil Meoni," I said. "Our baby is Zack."
"How old are you?"
Neil answered, "I'm twenty-three."
All I could think was, Why does this matter? Who cares how old we are?
We gave it.
"How old is Zack?"
"Any health problems?"
"No! He's perfectly healthy. He just stopped breathing."
I knew she needed this information so they could treat Zack. I knew that. But I was worried they wouldn't treat him until we finished. So I spit out short answers as fast as I could.
"Can you tell me what happened?" she asked.
"I was at work when it happened." I glanced at Neil. "He can give you the details."
"I was giving him a bath, and he just started breathing funny."
"Can you tell me more?"
"I was giving him a bath, and when I took him out of the tub, he started breathing funny."
"What do you mean? What did he sound like?"
"I don't know. It just didn't sound right. It was kind of like a gurgle." Neil squirmed in his chair. I could tell it was hard for him to put what happened into words.
"Did he change colors?"
"Uh, no, he didn't change colors."
"He didn't get blue in the face or anywhere else?"
"So what did you do next?"
Neil walked her through it detail by detail, explaining how he had taken Zack into his room, how he'd worried about Zack's breathing, and how he'd diapered him and wrapped him in the comforter before calling me.
As he talked, all I could think was, Hurry up. Please hurry up. Although I convinced myself they had to be working on Zack, I felt as if every question prevented me from seeing my sick baby boy.
When she finished, the clerk told us to follow her to a private treatment room where we could wait. Over the next hour, nurses and doctors came in and out of the room, each asking the same question. "Can you tell me what happened?"
Each time he was asked, Neil told them the same thing: "He just started breathing funny."
"Do these people not talk to each other?" I asked Neil when we were alone. "Hasn't anybody put this information in the records by now?"
He didn't answer, and I knew he couldn't. I was just frustrated and impatient with the lack of progress.
Between visits by the medical staff, I paced the small room, my mind frantically searching for answers to what was wrong. No one had given us any indication of what was happening. We were left to imagine the worst.
Finally, another doctor came in, but this time he started out by giving us information. "We're not sure what's causing it, but Zack's brain is swelling at a pretty fast rate," he said. "Can you tell me what happened?"
Are you kidding me? Again?
Once again, Neil repeated the story. "He was in the tub, and when I got him out, he just started breathing funny."
"We're not sure what's wrong, so we'll have to run a few tests to determine what's causing his brain to swell. There's a small possibility it's meningitis, but we won't know for sure unless we do a spinal tap."
The doctor explained that this involved sticking a needle into Zack's spinal cord, removing fluid, and testing it for meningitis. "There are some risks with this procedure, but they're minimal. In rare cases there can be bleeding or an infection. I'll need your permission before we can proceed."
They're going to stick a needle in Zack's spine? In my baby's spine?
"If it will help Zack, do it. Please just do it," I said. "When can we see him?"
"You can see him when I'm done."
Neil and I sat quietly in the plastic chairs and waited. There were no windows in the room, and I had lost track of time. A nurse finally came in and said, "They did the spinal tap, and Zack did great. Now we just need to wait for the test results to see if it's meningitis. That could take a couple of hours. Zack is stable, and we're going to move him to the pediatric ward. You can wait for him there."
* * *
The pediatric ward reminded me of my squad bay at boot camp on Parris Island. It was one long, beige-colored room with at least twenty beds lined up in bays along the perimeter. But most of the beds here didn't look like regular beds; they looked like metal cages. There was an occasional hospital bed for an older child, but the toddlers and babies were kept in metal cribs. Some even had metal tops to keep active toddlers from escaping.
"They're not going to put Zack in one of these, are they?" I whispered to Neil.
A group of nurses and other medical professionals moved in and out of the nurses' station in the center of the room. A nurse with dark-brown hair looked up and smiled. She grabbed a clipboard and approached us.
"Are you the Meonis?" she asked, looking down at her clipboard.
"Yes," I said.
"They just called up to say Zack will be here soon. I'll show you where his bed is."
She led us to a bay on the right side of the room. Two plastic chairs faced an empty metal crib. Folded against the wall was a beige metal lamp attached to a long metal arm. A monochrome monitor waited to be hooked up. The tiled floors and beige walls made the room feel sterile. The smell of rubbing alcohol lingered in the air. "You can sit here and wait," she said. "It won't be long."
But I didn't sit. I wanted to see what was going on. Despite the size of the ward and the number of people in it, everything was quiet and calm. Nobody screamed in pain. Nurses didn't have to hurry to get to anybody. Parents held small children in their arms and swayed back and forth. A little boy wearing faded hospital pajamas and breathing into a nebulizer lay in the bed next to us. It's going to be okay, I reassured myself. If they send kids here who only need an inhaler, how bad could it be for Zack?
Neil sat down on the hard chair and buried his head in his hands. "I can't believe this happened."
I wanted to comfort him, but I wasn't sure how. He seemed confused. I sat down in the chair next to him as he repeated to himself, "How does this happen? How does this happen?"
One of the differences between Neil and me was our faith in God. My relationship with Jesus gave me strength. But Neil didn't have that kind of relationship. He had grown up in a Catholic family, but he rarely went to church anymore. At the most desperate times in my life—like now—I could turn to my faith, but Neil couldn't.
I stared at the empty metal crib and whispered my prayers. "What's going on? Please help us, God. Give us strength. Heal Zachary."
An orderly came in and rolled away the metal crib. That gave me hope. They're putting Zack into a real bed. But minutes later, the orderly brought the crib back with Zack inside, and my hope turned to fear. I understood why they needed to put him in the crib, but compared to his sweet blue and white crib in our apartment, this looked like a torture device, complete with tubes and wires.
As they rolled him into place, I heard Zack making a sound he'd never made before. It was like a horrible moan that came from somewhere deep inside.
I immediately went over to him, but there were so many medical people working around his bed, I couldn't get close enough to touch him. One nurse was hanging a bag of IV fluid. Another nurse had unscrewed his oxygen line from the tank and was plugging it into the wall. Yet another was checking his vital signs, while a fourth stood at the end of his crib, recording numbers. "BP? Pulse? Oxygen?"
Zack was wearing only a diaper. He'd never looked so small and frail. His head looked too big, much larger than it had at the clinic just a few hours earlier. A red light attached to his toe reported oxygen levels, and his mattress was elevated so his head was higher than his feet.
He continued to make that horrible moaning sound, and every part of my body strained to stop his pain and comfort him. I'd never felt so helpless. Several of the nurses finished and left his bedside, so I moved in closer to get a better look at my dark-haired little boy. I reached through the metal slats and rubbed his foot. There was no response. Just more of those hideous moans.
One of the nurses remained. Her name tag read, "Remi." She lowered the metal slats on one side of the bed. "You'll be able to see him better this way," she said. "You can touch him, but you can't pick him up. He's too fragile."
Zack's visceral groaning continued. Neil remained seated. I leaned over Zack's bed and rubbed his face and kissed him.
Remi asked me to take a step back so she could change one of his tubes. As I waited, I caught a glimpse through the window. Outside I saw the overpass, where two highways merged together, and watched as cars and trucks zoomed by without slowing down.
I wanted to scream, "Stop! Everybody just stop! Something is terribly wrong with my son!" My world was spinning out of control, and I needed help. So I turned to the only One I knew who could take care of things. I prayed out loud, not caring who heard me. "God, you've got to step in here. He's so sick!"
Then I heard Remi's voice. "He's starting again."
I turned back to see Zack's right pinkie finger beginning to shake, and then I watched as his face began to twitch. Nurses who had left his bedside came running.
Excerpted from One Call Away by Brenda Warner Jennifer Schuchmann Copyright © 2011 by Brenda Warner. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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