Ben, Self-Portrait #2
You may want to read the first part of this story, The Smell--if you want to find out how I ended up in an examining room at the E.R of the Montreal Children’s Hospital with my three-year-old son, Ben, his father, and a doctor I’d recently dated
“Yeah, the Internet. It’s bringing a lot of people in here these days” he said with more of a Brooklyn accent than I remembered from our date.
I’d just finished explaining the reason for our Emergency Room visit to Jason who will henceforth be known as Dr. J (because as I would later discover, he had changed his mind about quitting his medical residency. His plan was now to finish it, but probably quit medicine eventually to pursue a deeper dream, party DJ.)
I did feel mildly insulted that he saw me more as a neurotic mother than an astonishing self-taught diagnostician.
(“So, Juliet Waters, in one morning you taught yourself enough about medicine to detect your apparently healthy three year old son’s developing brain tumor?”
“Yes, Oprah. Though, honestly, my googling skills and impressive instincts would have led nowhere if it weren’t for Canadian Medicare and the on-line personals at Salon.com”)
But I also felt relief. What mother wouldn’t choose an embarrassing case of cyberchondria over brain tumor related terror?
One of the advantages, however, of talking to a guy you had recently dated and lost interest in, over a doctor you might want to impress with your responsible character, is you can say things like: “Yeah, it’s probably just me being a crazy overprotective mother. But it was weird, the way Ben reacted to this smell. The way he shifted so quickly from this intense anxiety to total calm. It was like he was on acid or something.”
“Hmm…Well, first things first, we should do a medical history” said Dr. J, switching back into doctor mode, which he was surprisingly good at when he put his mind to it. “Any history of neurological problems in the family?”
“Not that I know of” said Ben’s father. “But most of my family is back in Israel, so there could be stuff I don’t know about.”
“My uncle has Parkinson’s” I offered, “but that didn’t start until he was in his 70s. And he had a really strong brain until then. I do have a cousin who had a brain tumor when he was young, which is probably why I’m being so vigilant.”
“You have a cousin who had a brain tumor?” asked Ben’s father, who will from here on be known as E. (The first letter of his name.)
“Yes my cousin, Jocco”
“Jocco? You have a cousin named Jocco?
(Potential single mothers, think about having children with ex-boyfriends you only lived with briefly. It can be a real time waster in the E.R.)
How about epilepsy?” Dr J asked.
We both shook our heads.
“What about your delivery? How was that?”
E. let out what was now becoming his signature sigh. “Oh man, if you let her start talking about that, we’re going to be here for hours.”
I shot him a dirty look. “It was a pretty bad delivery.”
“In what way?” asked Dr J.
For a helpful memory aid I flashed back to our pre-natal course reunion class, where we were all invited to come back and tell our delivery stories. When we entered the class the teacher had drawn a big chart on the blackboard with every intervention, natural and unnatural, that could happen in a delivery: water breaking, labor induction, bad fetal position, episiotomy, forceps, and caesarean. As she called out each intervention those of us to whom it had applied put up our hands and received a checkmark in the appropriate box. “Ohh… kay, Juliet, I think we’ll be saving your story until last” I remember her saying when she noticed that every single box under my name was full.
To complete the story I had to add a few things, like the 9 lb 4 ounce birth weight, and the four hours of pushing with a cheerleading midwife while the doctors were on shift change.
I still remember how the midwife warned me just before they were rolling me into the operating room that when they handed me my baby, I should be really careful not to form any first impressions. But even with his black and blue swollen cone head and a bloody gash on his forehead from the forceps, I was smitten (or to be neuroscientifically accurate, still high on oxytocin, the natural bonding opiate the female brain starts pumping during labor. After twenty-six hours of contractions and four hours of pushing, I must have been totally whacked on that shit.)
Dr. J. wrote down the important details of my heroic story of endurance, love, and hospital negligence and then asked: “Any head injuries as a baby?”
“This will be a shorter story” E promised. And now it was time for my sigh.
“When he was almost a year old, I put Ben in this new stroller, and I guess I hadn’t quite figure out the breaks. And I forgot my purse, which was right in the vestibule, like ten feet way. But while I was reaching for it, somehow Ben managed to propel the stroller off the porch and down the stairs onto the sidewalk.”
“The concrete sidewalk” E added.
“He had a pretty bad contusion on his forehead, but we brought him right in for x-rays and they seemed to think he was fine.
“Did he pass out?
“No.” Suddenly I realized what with the forceps gash, and the stroller skull bashing, Ben’s head had already taken quite the beating in his relatively short life.
I quietly shook my head.
“All right I guess it’s time for me to get to know Ben.” He started with the usual doctor stuff, reflexes, heartbeat, and then he asked him a few questions to test his intellectual development.
“Can you count, Ben?”
I interrupted. “He’s been counting to fifty in three languages since he was two.”
“Three languages?” said E.
“Yeah” I replied, surprised he didn’t know this. “English, French and Hebrew.”
“Hebrew? I don’t speak to him in Hebrew.”
“You must. He’s been teaching me Hebrew for months now. Just last week I asked him the word for eggs and told me it was peers.”
“That’s not the Hebrew word for eggs!”
We both looked at Ben, who giggled.
“We really don’t have any concerns about his intellectual development” I said to Dr. J. Though it suddenly hit me if Ben was already mastering, at the early age of three, the fine art of messing with me, we may have solved the whole smell mystery right there.
To my surprise Dr. J didn’t see it that way. “I should really go right now and see if I can catch the neurology resident before she heads off on rounds” he said, looking at his watch. “But, listen. The important thing to focus on is that he’s obviously really healthy and bright. What you described, though, does kind of sound like a temporal lobe seizure. It’s one of the first things they teach us in med school. So, you were right to bring him in.”
Twenty minutes later, the young, pretty Quebecois neurology resident agreed. She wanted to admit him overnight until they could get an appointment for an EEG the next morning.
“What worries me” she said, “is that this seizure you’ve described has happened three times in the last 24 hours. These could be signals something bigger is about to happen. So I’d be happier if we kept him here until we have a better idea of what’s going on.”
And that’s how I learned, to paraphrase the great Oscar Wilde, that there are times when it does feel like the only thing worse than not being taken seriously is -- being taken seriously.
Next episode: I learn that the only thing worse than an extended stay in the neurology ward of a children’s hospital is pretty much nothing.