Today we took my daughter, Ella, into Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for a series of procedures that doctors hope will help us better understand why she gets sick so frequently. As an adult, you can understand and appreciate what tests like these will reveal; as a child, it pretty much seems like a great excuse to be poked and prodded and made wildly uncomfortable. As it is, Ella has been a great patient; in fact, the nurse that brought her up from the recovery room said, “She’s so sweet, I almost didn’t want to give her back!”
But to be perfectly honest, the day has sucked for her. She hasn’t been able to really eat (and the child is in the midst of a voracious eating phase) for the past 24 hours, and she’ll only get dinner tonight and one snack before she’s deprived of food again. Turns out, two of the three tests she’s having require no food or drink; the third test, sandwiched in between the other two, require her to do nothing but eat and drink. It’s a bizarre world.
And that third test, the one that requires her to eat and drink? It also requires her to have a tiny tube shoved up through her nose and down her throat. It measures stomach acid. And it apparently feels like something is perpetually crawling in her throat. The poor kid wants nothing more than to rip it out violently, but every time her little fingers begin to explore, Rachel and I are there to quash the idea.
So she’s biding her time, I suppose.
Spending time in a children’s hospital is a great way to both become extremely grateful and incredibly sad. Grateful, because you are surrounded by men and women who care for nothing like the health and welfare of children, and go to incredible lengths to make each and every aspect of a child’s visit memorable. To wit: when Ella got into her intake room, there was a purple and yellow superhero cape laying on the chair. The cape also had a massive rhinestone star, smack dab in the middle of the back. Ella’s eyes lit up when she saw it, and she excitedly took it off of me and proudly donned it for herself.
Yeah. You read that right. But what was I supposed to do? You don’t get a free superhero cape everyday.
The staff is also incredibly great at explaining things to kids, and know when a child can handle the particulars of a procedure and when they can’t. The nurse who came in to explain everything to me and Rachel kept watching Ella out of the corner of her eye, noticing that every time the adults went into detail about the procedure, Ella suddenly got very interested. Finally, the nurse turned to Ella and said, “I can see you’re a very smart little girl. So let me just tell you what’s going to happen today, okay?”
Ella smiled and looked at Rachel and I as if to say, See? This lady knows smart when she sees it.
Score one for the nurse.
But phenomenal care and unbelievable service can only mask the reality of the place for so long. I took a walk this afternoon to make a phone call, and I passed by room after room of very sick children. Usually the kids were accompanied by very young and very harried looking parents; moms and dads in desperate need of a shower, a break, and financial windfall. Seeing some of these families gathered around a bed, watching movies or drinking a milkshake, you almost forget that the child is very ill. You almost feel hopeful, because the family is able to stay together.
And then you pass the room where the three month old boy swings, all alone, in a little automatic swing. Not a parent in sight, not a shred of parental evidence in the room. He swings, back and forth, and cries at the top of his lungs until a nurse comes in to soothe him, shushing him as she gently slows the swing down. She picks him up and gently puts his head in the curve of her neck, and he quiets right down, clamping his little mouth against her skin and gnawing away feverishly.
It takes maybe seven seconds to see all of that, but in that moment your stomach falls and your heart breaks and you realize: for all the good that goes on in this place on a daily basis, there’s just as much heartbreak and pain.
Down in the main lobby, two parents try and calm down their teenage son, a large boy in a wheelchair with obvious physical and mental challenges. He thrashes about, upset, screaming, and mother and father do their best to calm him, to help him settle down. Meanwhile, another father walks helplessly up and down the marbled floor as his daughter, her tiny hands bound in pink mittens, screams for some unknown reason. Family after family passes by, each one bearing the burden of sickness, each one feeling as if the weight of the world falls on their shoulders alone.
Not everyone feels overwhelmed when in the presence of that kind of beauty and pain, but I am. I had to step outside and redirect my attention to the passing cars just to keep from crying my eyes out. I so desperately wanted to be able to cure all the pain I saw; to be able to go room to room and give miraculous healing and restoration to each family.
Knowing that I can’t makes it all the worse.
In the end, being here puts Ella’s difficulties in perspective. Like everything else in life, there are always people who have it harder than you; walking past fellow fathers whose children will never be able to know their own name, much less say “I love you, dad” makes me incredibly grateful for my daughter who can hug me and tell me I’m funny. And yet pain has this way of being deeply personal; it may not be worse than someone else’s but it’s yours and it cuts. The only cure for this weird tension, it seems, is to live in it as best you can.
For me and my family, that tension will last for another 20 hours or so. Then, we get to go home and Ella can once again jump on the trampoline and practice riding her bike without training wheels. For other families that share these halls, that tension will go on until a coffin comes to rest at the bottom of a grave, most likely long before the parents think it should.
Tiny troopers, each of them, carrying big people’s burdens with aplomb. May God give them grace to continue on. And may He give the parents grace, as well.