Wednesday, August 22, 2007
The image is as burned into my mind as was the muffler into the little boy's back. Four years old -- same age as my son at the time -- living in the country, as did we, the boy had run to greet the mailman and had somehow darted in front of the truck and been run over. The mailman -- can you imagine his sense of dread? -- stopped and jumped out, finding the boy pinned under the truck. Its muffler, lined up exactly over the boy, pressed onto his back as if designed to do so: it burned a perfectly-placed rectangle vertically from his buttocks to his shoulders, literally cooking through skin and fat, down to muscle. It looked like tanned leather, like smoked meat; and it smelled like it. When I saw the child in the emergency room, he was lying on his tummy, not wanting to move even a twitch. And he whimpered for his mommy. I'm thankful we didn't have a burn unit; I don't think I could have stood caring for him. It was simply too close to home. As fast as I could, I got to a phone and got him transferred to the regional burn center. Faster still, as soon as the little boy left, I went home to see Danny.
I've gathered from the writings of others -- doctors, nurses, cops, firefighters, social workers -- that it's universal: the overwhelming desire, after caring for or being involved in some way with a sick or injured child, or one in danger, or mistreated, to be home with one's own child and hug him. Just hug the kid, whether he or she knows why or not.
It didn't bother me every time, taking care of kids who reminded me of my son. In fact, having a child made me much better able to do it, to get down to where they were and relate to them. Getting a frightened child to calm down; being able to soothe and cajole and manage a local anesthetic to clean and suture a cut was always a source of great pleasure. Meeting a kid in my office, trying in some acceptable way to explain a hernia, for example, ("See this little bump here? I know it doesn't hurt now, but when you get to be a big boy, the bump can start to hurt, so we're going to make it go away so it won't hurt when you grow up. Your mommy will bring you to a nice place with some nurses who really like kids like you, and it'll only take a few minutes, and we'll put a pretty bandaid on it -- maybe one with Snoopy on it, unless you like a different one. You be sure you bring your blankie or your favorite toy, will you?") was a pleasant little victory.
It's the hurt ones, the dangerously ill ones; those got to me because I was a dad, and it could be hard. I've said before that I could never be a pediatric surgeon because they keep the operating rooms too damn hot. But that's not the real reason. This is. Taking care of some kids requires overcoming a physical barrier, a nearly-irresistible desire to be somewhere else. At home, mostly. I don't know how pediatrician-parents do it.