Friday, March 12, 2010

The Boy And I Put Meningitis In A Headlock

The Boy’s voice on the phone was gravelly and sounded like pain. “Mahhhm, we’re thirty minutes out. Pick me up please at the usual place ok?” Click.

He was on his way home from a crew regatta with all of his rowdy cohorts, male and female, in the big yellow tour bus they usually rent. It was a dodgy notion to allow him to go on this overnighter in the first place. He was sick all week prior with blazing sinus and throat. But if he didn’t go, they may as well not compete. His crew posse is a mind-and-body-linked team and to force an unfamiliar rower into his seat would be a something to do, but not a winning thing to do. The Boy is tough as nails, I thought, he’ll prevail and we’ll attend to the “crud” when he gets back. But what if I was wrong…

It’s not like I haven’t been wrong before.

“Mahhhm? Can I sleep in here with you? I’m burning up and I want to be here in case something bad is happening…”

The Boy was silhouetted in my doorway rocking back and forth so I battled the nightstand lamp to get a load of what was really going on. I knew he was sick for about two weeks, but it seemed like sniffles or allergies; nothing severe enough to keep my naïve Catholic boy from his first days of public high school. Other concerns, like how are we are going to cope with the crime, the fights, the tasings and the outright meanness of public high school, crowded my mind. I pushed him that week to just suck it up. Shove nasal spray up his nose, take Tylenol and soldier on just as I was instructed to do as a kid. Tough being the daughter of a doctor. They just don’t cut you any slack!

The bedside lamp popped on and revealed a wraith of my son. His face was pale and blotchy, he was shivering, and his eyes were as red as Lugosi’s in the classic Dracula movies. I don’t know why it came to me so quickly. It could have been the nightly dinner table exchanges with my doctor father when I was a child about different illnesses he was curing. Or it could have been our beloved Sarah, The Boy’s guardian angel at whom he pointed and called by name as soon as he could speak. I suspect she may have whispered in my ear as I lifted my hand to feel his molten brow. I said:

“Can you make your chin touch your chest?”

He tried. And damn near fell over trying but that chin was going nowhere south. “Stiff…hurts,” he mumbled and slumped onto the bed.

“Let’s go, NOW!”

I threw on jeans and a sweatshirt, bundled him in a blanket, put ice on his forehead and burnt rubber to the first Emergency Room sign we saw, lit like a blood red beacon in the night. As we travelled deserted streets, The Boy felt waves of pain. “My eyes are going to pop out! Mom! Oh God!” I leapt out of the car at the ER, grabbed the first wheelchair I could see, and clean lifted my now half-conscious 165 pound son out of the car. Through the glass automatic doors and right up to the nurse station I talked to every medical-looking person I ran into. I was chanting.

“He’s got meningitis, he’s got meningitis, he’s got meningitis, please see him NOW! NOW! Please!”

And to their credit, they did. They did well even though their swift adherence to hospital protocols was still not fast enough for me. The Boy was placed in isolation on a bed in the ER, they ran an IV, took blood for labs, hooked him up to telemetry, and let me sit with him in the dark. The lights were hurting his eyes. He was in such excruciating pain I tried not to weep for him.

Can’t they do something for his pain? Not yet.

I devised some distractions instead. His heart monitor would beep faster as the pain would advance or we talked, which we both noticed. So I proposed a little experiment.

“Hey, say a really bad word.”

“Mom…stop. Come on.”

“No do it! Let’s see where that monitor will go when you do.”

“Ok. Um. Tits.”

Sure enough, The Boy’s heart beats faster when provoked by the utterance of forbidden words. I took such comfort in his devilish smile, even though it was through red-eyed tears of pain and fear.



“Fuck! God damn this hurts like a bitch!”


After the nurse came rushing in to attend to The Boy’s “rapid heartbeat,” (She was not amused.) the ER doc came in and concurred with my instincts about the possible meningitis. So a spinal tap was required. He would be back in five. We were to keep our fingers crossed that if it was meningitis, it would be viral, not bacterial. The bacterial form kills in 24 hours. But we won’t know if it is either for three days. What?

They assured me they would light The Boy up with cosmic uber-freaky bacteria doom antibiotics either way so if it was bacterial, they’d kill the thing. Viral meningitis is still dangerous but not deadly if managed. I felt a little better, but the Boy only heard “kills in 24” and went still on the bed. After everyone left to prepare for the tap, The Boy said:

“Mom. Can you get up here on the bed with me? Please.”

I pulled aside all the wires and tubes and oxygen delivery things, and snuggled up against his burning body. He turned his head to me, which hurt like hell, and said:

“Mom, if it is my time to go, I am at peace with that ok?”

My earth tipped off its axis. I looked deeply into my son’s chocolate brown eyes, which were swimming in tears, and said:

“Well, I am NOT at peace with that. So no. I say no. No is my answer to that.” And I held him so hard.

No to you, God. You cannot have him yet. You know as well as I do that he is bringing something to this existence that will shine on. You just take me right now and let him alone. Sarah, you have my back here Angel?

“Ok Mom.”

At that point I almost replicated that scene from that Shirley McLaine movie…well, here it is:

But they brought morphine in just in time so I didn’t have to get medieval with them. (They would not share with Mom though, the stingy boogers!)  I held his hands while they pierced and pulled spinal fluid from his back, and we prayed that there were no bacterial beasties in it. A CAT scan filmed his brain and turned up very little, thankfully. And then the antibiotics flowed like green beer on St. Paddy’s Day. As did the morphine, so he slept and the peaceful visage of my saintly son will remain in my heart forever.

I spent 4 days in the hospital with The Boy as his symptoms slowly backed off. It was viral and he suffering only a few side effects such as light sensitivity. The only theory as to how he may have contracted it was linked to the never-ending sinus infection he had been battling all summer. The sinus infection I chose to brush aside as the sniffles.

So the other night, I picked up The Boy at the usual place, and he looked and sounded miserable. I hugged him hard (checking for fever and he had none – hurrah!).  The next morning, I took him directly to the doctor where we opened a can of cosmic uber-freaky bacteria doom antibiotics to whack this bug in the head before it burrowed into his head.

And I could be certain not to be so very wrong again.


  1. My god woman you need a tissue alert on this one!! I'm so glad he's ok!

    Laurens played soccer games on a broken ankle. =/ Tell me I didnt feel like an idiot at the Ortho's office.

  2. HOLY SHIT! There's something about a man-size child needing his mommy that just buckles me at the knees. Thanks for making me tear up at work (and I refuse to watch the movie clip - it's a guaranteed gusher for me)


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