The Other Side of Medicine: Big M

It lasted maybe 5 minutes but those minutes stretched in my mind to hours as I sat there listening to our baby cry knowing I was an accomplice in his pain.

I was ecstatic!  My wife and I had waited to have a baby until I was in my last year of residency.  When she told me she was pregnant, I was over the moon.  We later found out it would be a boy and this was icing on the cake.  I had always wanted a boy first.  The pregnancy had the normal ups and downs including morning sickness and enduring a hot summer.  He was finally born in October.  Eek! Cough, cold and flu season! But I wasn’t worried.

We had decided early we were not going to be the parents that would let their baby keep them from doing normal activities.  When he was only a week old, we went to a pumpkin patch with family.  He was a big boy at 9 lbs 2 oz and had quite the appetite.  I’ll lovingly refer to him as Big M. We were up every 2 hours feeding him from the beginning (and this lasted through the 1st year), but we enjoyed it because he was such a wonderful gift. We had all of our friends come by to see him and they were gracious enough to bring us some meals while we adapted.

At about 2 weeks old my wife informed me that she thought Big M felt a little hot.  I felt him and he was warm but it didn’t alarm me.  I quickly forgot about it until the evening when my wife called me into his room concerned.  This time he felt hot.  I got out the thermometer and, knowing the only way to get a true temperature was rectally, I placed the thermometer in his bottom.  Even this small act was hard.  I watched as the numbers on the digital display slowly rose.  I kept hoping for it to slow down as it approached 100 but it kept going.

It finally stopped at 101.5 and the beeping from the thermometer sealed our fate.  I knew what we had to do but I was in denial.  Every fever in a newborn under 3 months is to be taken seriously and requires a thorough workup.  We needed to go to the ER.  I called his doctor to try to find a way out but he confirmed that we needed to go in.

At the ER things went quickly.  They confirmed Big M’s fever with a temperature that was even higher at 102.1 and quickly gave him some Tylenol to try to bring it down.  He was 2 weeks and didn’t realize what was going on but he knew something was wrong judging by the irritability he was displaying and crying that was difficult to console.  This only worsened when they took his blood and placed and IV.  We couldn’t watch as they place a tiny needle into the vein on the back of his hand. He let out a horrendous squeal that chilled us to the core.

My wife had already just about lost it.  She was crying watching him go through this torment.  Being a physician I knew this was all leading up to an even more distressing finale: a spinal tap.  One of the diseases we worry about when a baby has a fever is meningitis. The best way to diagnose it is by placing a needle through the vertebra in the lower spine into the outer space of the neural tube to obtain some fluid.

They wanted me to hold him.  “Are you serious?!” I thought.  There was no way my wife could do it as she was already emotionally drained from the IV placement.  I knew what this entailed and wouldn’t put her through it.  The procedure for doing a spinal tap (or lumbar puncture) in a baby is to lay them on their side and make them flex their spine while making sure they don’t flail or arch their back.  The only way to do this was to have me hold Big M rolled up in a ball.  He would fight back and I would have to restrain him. 

I had done this procedure dozens of times before but I couldn’t look.  This was different.  This was my son.  Tears escaped as I had to fight his tiny wiggling body as the ER doctor completed the procedure.  It lasted maybe 5 minutes but those minutes stretched in my mind to hours as I sat there listening to our baby cry knowing I was an accomplice in his pain.  The doctor completed the procedure and I was allowed to hold him and soothe him as he finally calmed down sniffling into my wet sleeve formed from his tears.  I held him up to my cheek and our tears mixed and ran as I told him I loved him.

He was started on IV antibiotics and was admitted.  We stayed in the hospital a total of 4 days.  Blood and cerebrospinal fluid cultures returned negative.  The final conclusion was that it was a virus but he was sent home on some oral antibiotics to cover for anything else.  You wouldn’t know it happened now.  He is 6 and healthy and energetic (sometimes too much).  

Things are different when you’re on the other side of medicine as a patient or a parent of a child who gets sick.  I couldn’t think straight.  I would have been useless as his doctor. This was flesh and blood. The experience did help me understand the helpless feeling that parents have when caring for their sick child.  I can now empathize and feel I am a better doctor because I have been in their shoes.  These experiences make us who we are.  The good and the bad.  Don’t suppress them.  Use them to empathize and help someone you know going through the same situation. Sometimes you are the only one who truly understands where a person is at or coming from.  

One thought on “The Other Side of Medicine: Big M”

  1. Kara also had a febrile work up as s newborn at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. We left during th LP. There was no way we were going to watch that.

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