Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Losing my cool

Here's some good news: Caleb's abdominal x-ray yesterday was clear, meaning that there are no more staples in his intestines. Which implies that there were at one point staples in his intestines. Which is true, because last Sunday he ate a bunch of them in an episode my sister now refers to as "Staplegate."

You know what's scary? Having your toddler smile at you and show you a mouth full of shiny and silver and very sharp staples.

You know what's scarier? Completely freaking out about it.

Which I promptly did. I could only imagine horrible consequences to what happened, but didn't want to imagine that any of those things could happen to my baby. Somewhere between those conflicting impulses, my brain short-circuited. (Ask the older boys. They will probably confirm lots of yelling and perhaps some crying on my part.) My husband, from out of town of course, had to ask the right questions and gather the right information and tell me to take our son to the emergency room.

Which I should have known. I used to be an ICU nurse. I used to thrive on emergencies.

I worked in an ICU with inconceivably ill patients, patients on ventilators and continuous dialysis and with EEG machines and invasive heart monitors and sometimes invasive brain monitors. I managed emergencies daily. Several times a day, even. The mantra of any good ICU nurse is, "What is the worst thing that could happen to my patient today, and how will I respond?" That's how I thought. That's how I handled crises that verged on tragedy.

And tragedy was commonplace. Cardiac arrest. Patients who just stopped breathing. Or pulled out their life-saving breathing tubes. Or bled out. Or had near-fatal seizures. Those things were, sadly, routine. Once I had to take down a psychotic patient who was attempting to stab me with a syringe full of his HIV-positive blood. Another time I had to confront a patient's mother who shot up meth at her son's bedside, right in front of me. And so on and so forth.

Through it all I learned to be cool. Quiet. Deliberate. I was an adrenaline junkie, but I was very controlled. And I was good at it. Because I let my imagination run wild and was prepared for the worst possible scenario at any given moment.

But now I have lost my cool. I cannot be a mother the same way I was an ICU nurse. "What's the worst thing that could happen?" This is a question I cannot allow myself, as a mother. The worst is unthinkable. But it is a question that is always roiling beneath the surface. I wake up in the night and wonder if the baby is breathing. When the kids go outside to play I hope nobody gets abducted. When they ride in someone else's car, I fear a fatal car accident. (It's a bit humbling to admit these terrifying instincts. Please tell me I'm not alone.)

But I cannot allow these doubts to become conscious thoughts. Not the least because I do not want to overparent and raise my children in a paranoid bubble. But also because I've become superstitious: if I give words to those thoughts, they might come true. I might actually make them happen by thinking them. I know that's irrational. But I still think it.

So when Caleb ate staples (and the x-ray at the ER proved that he did), the ICU nurse in me knew what to worry about: GI bleed. Bowel perforation. Sepsis. But the mother in me could not think those things. I was stuck between knowing and absolutely not wanting to know, and I panicked.

All is well now. Caleb's good. I figured out where he got the staples and have addressed that (let's just say an older brother thinks the stapler is really interesting). And after a glorious week of examining dirty diapers and worrying about his every hiccup or whine, I'm fine. I'm thinking I need to work on my emergency protocol, but still: we're all okay.

So, if anyone wants to nominate me for Mother of the Year now, that'd be great. Just don't all speak up at once. That would just be embarrassing.


  1. I tried swallowing staples once... a makeshift gastric bypass of sorts ;-)

    Glad everything is okay, I can't imagine your anguish.

  2. I feel your pain. I am an ICU nurse as well but as a mom...those instincts are torn away.

  3. you're not alone. still a respiratory therapist and a mom. two different jobs, don't ever expect the same reaction from me when i'm in one or the other.

  4. Hello, I am a researcher on a medical tv special for TLC about kids who swallow unusual objects (and parents like you who have to figure out what to do!). I'd like to talk to you about your experience. Please email when you have a moment: oneill_ruth@yahoo.com


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