Friday, October 22, 2010
Hot burn the baby
This is not the same version I wrote for BabyCenter. The accident happened four years ago this month. Warning: high word count and high drama.
On a not-so-ordinary Autumn afternoon, my baby girl, not yet walking but intent on discovering life above floor level, pulled a scalding-hot mug of herbal tea onto herself while my back was turned.
Looking back to that day, I should have seen disaster coming. It hovered above our home like a large, ungainly bird.
It was lunch time. With Esther, then four, watching a video, I plopped Isla, 11-months, into her high chair, and started putting dishes in the dishwasher. Isla stood up, leaned forward against the tray of her high chair, which wasn’t latched correctly, and dove like a skydiver, tray and all, to the wooden floor below. First came the colossal clatter, then came the bloated silence every mother recognizes, then came the wailing.
Esther, the ever-vigilant big sister, reached her first. “Isla, No, Isla,” she screamed, pulling her little sister into her lap. Isla was unharmed, just frightened. I knelt down and held them both until they calmed down. While down there on the floor, I couldn’t help noticing how dirt and dog hair clung to the numerous spots where something sticky had been spilled who knows how long ago.
Once calm was restored, I resumed my frantic flight patterns around the kitchen. I gave Esther a tuna sandwich and Isla, back in her high chair, ate yogurt. While reaching for a tea towel in the bottom of our corner cupboard, I yanked open the sticky wooden door directly into my right eye.
“Jesus!” I shrieked, tears welling up in my eyes.
I shrank to the floor, frustration, pain and anger pouring out of my throat in pathetic sobs. Once again, Esther came running. She squatted down and put her arms around my neck.
“I’m okay Honey,” I lied. “I just need some ice.” There is something simultaneously heartwarming and embarrassing about being consoled by your own child.
Esther went back to her video, followed by Isla, and I stood at the sink applying ice to my bruised eye-brow bone. As I looked out the window, I pushed the thought of bad things happening in threes to the back of my mind and switched on the electric kettle. Once the water had boiled, I poured myself a mega-mug of peppermint tea.
“You’re a spaz," I remember thinking, "Why can’t you just slow down, relax, and be with your children?”
Normally a black- tea -with- milk drinker, who has a tendency to forget things, my tea is almost invariably luke warm. Not that day. While I had been waiting for the water to boil, Esther called in from the living room for a glass of orange juice. I poured it and left it on the counter.
I carried my tea into the living room, placed it on the edge of the coffee table and sat down, cross legged, on the floor right next to it. I have no recollection of where Isla was at that moment. Most likely she was standing at the edge of the couch trying to get her big sister’s attention away from the TV screen. But she could have been right there next to the coffee table. I’ll never know.
Just as my rear end hit the carpet, Esther’s voice called out,
“Where’s my orange juice?”
Ever dutiful, to the point of being robotic, I switched gears, stood up and walked back into the kitchen to get the forgotten glass of juice.
In an instant, the time it took for me take 20 steps back into the kitchen, our home became the set for a medical drama.
The moment Isla’s cries reached my ears, I realized what I had done. Time slowed. I searched my mind for a rewind button and I bargained with an invisible power for a do-over. I pushed my way through a thick fog of disbelief to where my baby girl sat, screaming, in a puddle of hot liquid.
I picked her up, carried her to the kitchen sink and struggled to splash cold water on her wounds. I set her down on the floor and gingerly peeled her one-piece pajamas off her.
Melting skin rolled down her torso in thin sheets.
Afraid to touch her, I paced the floor like Jemima Puddle Duck, chanting, “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do,” while Esther, strangely calm now, stood by and quietly watched her mother and baby sister come undone.
Calling 911 wasn’t my first instinct. Calling 911 meant relying on other people. Calling 911 meant telling the world that I had put my baby in danger and lost control. I called 911, only after getting a busy signal, three times running, from the pediatrician’s office.
Within minutes of making that call, a local woman from First Response stepped into my kitchen. (I am in awe of these people.)
Another female first responder arrived moments later and asked where Esther was. I never noticed her leaving the house. They found her in the garden, picking cherry tomatoes as bright red and smooth as Isla’s new layer of raw skin, in the cool October afternoon. When they brought her back inside, she tried to give the tomatoes to Isla.
Leaving our sleepy village in an ambulance, I watched the blur of green and orange leaves out the back window and assessed my crime, again and again. Each time the verdict, “guilty,” was delivered, I cried.
The emergency technician and the first responder, both mothers, read my mind.
“It’s not your fault, Mom,” they said. “Focus on your baby. She needs you.”
Isla’s pain was immeasurable. Her cries quieted each time the ambulance driver sounded the siren. In the midst of suffering, her curiosity remained. The women in the ambulance with me shared stories of their own domestic crimes as parents: swallowed bottles of Advil, hot irons, broken glass.
In the ER, the nurses scrambled to get an I.V. line into Isla’s tiny veins and administer Morphine while I stood back in the corner, useless and guilty. The sight of me, the sound of my voice, agitated her. I imagined everyone in the room was wondering what kind of mother could do this to her child.
When the morphine finally hit her bloodstream, her crying stopped and her blue eyes took on the glazed softness of chemical bliss. She held tight to one of the E.R. nurse’s fingers and looked calmly into her face. The nurse, who later told me she was pregnant, had tears in her eyes.
When the Medevac helicopter came to take her to a burn center, one of the onboard doctors approached me:
“I’m a mother,” she said. “I want you to know that this exact thing happened to my son, except it was coffee. These things happen. ” Then she flew away with my baby, leaving me on the ground.
I had originally thought I was going. They told me I couldn't fly with them because of weight limits.
I watched and wept as that big strange bird lifted off into the darkening sky. The sound of whirring propeller blades bouncing off the surrounding mountains was the exact same sound an unborn baby’s tiny beating heart makes when heard through a Doppler instrument.
While waiting for my husband, Ian, in the E.R. family room, an elderly hospital ambassador came in to check on me. She told me her son had set himself on fire with a road flare while his little sister looked on. He was 11 at the time. She had been in the house, oblivious to what he and his little sister were doing.
Just three hours from the time I poured that boiling water into the mug, four different women, all total strangers, had shared their maternal shortcomings with me. Their words, their confidence, the fact that they had survived these nightmares and still carried on with their heads held high, gave me a twinge of hope.
On the way to Boston life felt fragile. I was sure we were going to sail off the road into the dark river that snaked alongside us. Part of me wanted to. Ian drove too fast and I imagined he was angry and disappointed with me. I still don’t know if he might have been.
The accident played over and over in my head. I worried about Esther, who had stayed behind with my sister. I remembered, to my horror that at one point, upon seeing Isla’s melting skin, I said, “she’s going to die, she’s going to die.” I told Ian this and saw his mouth turn down.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I was scared,” I cried over and over again. Ian held my hand, firmly. in his. It started to rain.
My breasts ached by the time we reached the hospital. We found Isla meticulously wrapped in white bandages, sleeping peacefully in a stainless steel crib. The original 101 Dalmations played quietly on the television. I hate that movie. Everyone calls each other idiots.
Isla woke up and whimpered. I struggled with the tangle of wires and I.V. lines and held her, sheepishly, to my breast. She nursed weakly, dozing off every few minutes. We stayed like that, in a rocking chair, for most of the night while the lights of downtown Boston shone through the rain-splattered window.
I was wearing sweat pants and an old, balding pair of Birkenstock clogs that don’t normally leave the house. Tomato seeds were stuck to the shoulder of my shirt.
The next 20 days were a blur of changing prognoses and excrutiating dressing changes. At first the doctors seemed to think Isla’s wounds were not too deep to heal on their own. As time passed, it became clear that she would need skin-graft surgery. Initially, I cried during each dressing change. Gradually I became the poster girl for stoicism, more coach than mother.
When Isla’s wounds hadn’t healed almost two weeks later, she had skin-graft surgery. I held her relaxed, little body in my arms in pre-OP as the oral morphine kicked in. In the O.R., I held her foot and watched the anesthesiologist put the mask over her sweet face. “Kiss her goodbye. We’ll take good care of her,” the anesthesiologist said as the nurses shooed me out the door. In the hallway, I held my big sister as three weeks worth of tears flowed from my eyes.
Today, Isla, my baby, wears my flaws like a badge on her chest. I am confronted with them every day, when I help her out of her clothes and see her scar, which forms a perfect map of Africa. I look at the proud new layer of flesh-colored skin and scar tissue and feel the bumpy skin on her thigh, the site where the skin for her graft was taken from, and I see an fragile, imperfect world. I also see an amazing display of modern technology. There was a time, before Shriners hospitals and other burn centers were founded, when a child might not have survived this severe a burn.
And I know this accident, and this scar, won't define her. She's far too strong for that. But it will always be with her. Always. And it stays with me too. I'm trying to be as strong as my girl. Every day.