Angels who walk the halls in hospitals

angels in the rafters

I had to have a COVID-19 test on Friday. It really made me contemplate my own mortality and the angels who care for the ill.

In the first 24 hours in which I self-isolated even from my family, I realised a couple of things:

  1. I’m quite boring company, but that won’t come as much of a surprise to most people.
  2. I would hate to be in hospital alone and away from my family.

My thoughts of being potentially abandoned in a hospital ICU (Yes, I am bit of a drama queen) reminded me of a time I was forced to do that to one of my children.

Michael, now 23, was four days old when he was re-admitted to hospital and stayed in the neonatal intensive care for another three weeks.

He was born on the Monday before the Easter weekend in 1997, a sweet little brown-haired baby boy who surprised us all after two redheads.  I think all the gynaecologists in the province were planning to enjoy the long weekend and so were inducing their mothers on the Thursday which is when My wee bairn was waiting in the nursery to be taken through for a little procedure (yes… that one!). As a result, I hardly saw him on that day, and until early the next day, when we were discharged.

I couldn’t believe how good this little boy was being as we introduced him to his big sister and brother: he slept through it all. He just kept on sleeping…all day and I was having to wake him to feed. In fact, when I look back, I realize he was pretty much comatose.

Fortunately, he was not my first child, or he might have died (just remember that when you’re choosing my old age home, Michael!) but I knew something was wrong, so in the middle of the night, we called in our babysitter and did some low-level flying back to the hospital to meet the paediatrician.

He was clearly trying to soothe my postpartum hysteria, as he patiently explained he was going to do a lumbar puncture (spinal tap, for my US readers), but gestured to me that I should wait outside. So, my poor baby had a massive needle inserted 0.5 cm into his back in order to withdraw spinal fluid, and I wasn’t there.

The diagnosis: bacterial meningitis! The funny thing about the types of meningitis is this, the viral kind can’t be cured by drugs (bloody viruses!), but the bacterial kind, while it can be treated with strong antibiotics, it can be fatal, especially for a neonate. Dr Greef’s grave tone informed us that he was ‘pretty sure’ he’d survive, and ‘cautiously optimistic’ there’d be no brain damage. I’d have said, ‘well that’s just swell!’ but the horror was that my tiny baby was suffering from a gargantuan headache caused by inflammation of the meninges, the membranes which protect the brain and spinal cord, so ‘swell’ it was most certainly was, but the irony was too awful to joke about!

Michael was admitted into the neonatal intensive care unit at the clinic and spent the next three weeks there. I spent that time commuting between my children at home, who cried when I left and my newborn in ICU who, when I left did not, because he was so desperately ill. I cried both ways in the car, aware that wherever I was, I was abandoning someone. In fact, if you look at photographs of me at that time, you can barely see my puffy eyes from all the weeping.

One outrageous moment of our time there was the soap opera eGoli‘s casting director asking us to allow him to be used as a prop for an episode. you can guess what my answer was, cheeky thespians! (So sorry, Mikey, you could have been famous.)

When I am think of that little mite, abandoned to an incubator, in an isolation ward each night, I reflect now of how dreadfully lonely and frightening it must be for serious COVID-19 patients, to be attached to machines and surrounded by the starkness of a hospital, and how impossibly sad it is that so many people are dying alone, without their families beside them.

To be fair, the intensive care nursing staff was phenomenal with Baby Michael. I still remember one named Andre, who took it upon himself to call me regularly when he was on duty with running commentaries of how Michael had decorated his incubator, necessitating regular changes, much to Andre’s amusement. I often think of that young man and wish I could thank him again.

We speak a great deal about the courage and dedication of health care workers during this pandemic, and it’s worth pausing to comment on the fact that besides their medical duties, these heroes are deathbed comforters too, as well as motivators and cheerleaders of recovery.

Back in 1997, it was an annus horribilis for us as a family (mind you there was worse to come, if only I had known). We’d been private patients and had not anticipated the need for such expensive, specialist post-natal care. I can remember how upset I felt upon receiving the credit control calls, before we managed to pay off the account. It was made known to us much later, that a similar case had preceded ours, in which the child of an attorney also contracted this hospital bug. His legal team apparently closed down the operating theatre and found the bacterial cause. The clinic settled out of court. We were not so fortunate. (Just as an aside, let me tell you, it is intriguing how the medical profession closes ranks against patients when one asks questions of liability…)

But it didn’t matter. I am eternally grateful that Michael survived, healthy with no lasting damage. When I think of how bland life would be without his droll humour, casting hilarious shade at everyone at the dinner table or his writing talent which entertains millions every day; and let’s not forget he was a fair footballer in his day (having recently retired to semi-sloth at age 23). When we have our midnight chats as the only two night owls in the family, I sometimes reflect on those late nights and how I longed to bring him home, as I pictured his tiny form alone in the hospital.

Of course, when I did finally carry him home triumphantly like Simba in The Lion King, I fed him so much in the next few months that he could have won a baby sumo competition, sporting jowls that would have impressed even Winston Churchill.

Tonight, I pray for COVID-19 patients in their solitary suffering and wish that they will also have an Angel Andre to bring healing to their bodies and spirits, and who will find the time to console their mothers.

Oh, my test was negative btw – I’m too wicked to die just yet.

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