As she was getting out of the car, my two year old grabbed onto the open car door with one hand, put her other hand in mine, and let her feet swing out beneath her. She pumped her legs a little, swinging back and forth, giggling and pleased. I gripped her hand more tightly and told her to let go. She trusted that I would guide her feet safely to the ground. She released her hand from the car door. She fell right out of my grip. The thud of her skull crashing into the concrete made me want to vomit. She started screaming immediately. I rushed her inside and applied ice to her head. Within minutes, she’d lost consciousness. I decided to take her to the hospital. On our way back to the car, she roused, told me she was going to throw up and then did. Her eyes fluttered shut again. I gently pushed her forehead upright and begged her to stay awake. I knew then that she had a concussion, and this was her second one in four months. I knew what this could mean. Suddenly, I could hardly breathe. I started crying. I was so afraid. There was no way I could drive. I called 911. It took me at least a minute to describe what had happened through the weeping and trying to inhale enough air to fuel my voice.
The paramedics called an air ambulance en route to our place. We had to go to a trauma center, given her age and history of head trauma, and we don’t have one here. I tried to tell myself that this is just procedure, that she’ll be fine. But she threw up twice before the paramedics got here, never quite rousing, and I couldn’t help but compare this to her first concussion. She was worse now.
Once the paramedics arrived, her condition wasn’t giving them much to be relieved about – she kept throwing up, kept going in and out of consciousness, and they couldn’t find a vein to start an IV, which can mean shock, but can also mean internal bleeding. She screamed at every IV insertion attempt, but passed out in between. There was a lot of blood. She kept puking.
It was my fault. If I had just had a better grip, or had gotten her out of the car in a different way, we’d be watching TV and getting ready for bed.
They put me in the front of the helicopter with the pilot. I hated not being with her. I sat very still, feeling like my insides were clawing to get to her. My mind kept trying to make me think the worst thought: if she dies, it’ll be my fault. I had to stop feeling anything, had to stop thoughts from forming. The sun was setting and the horizon was a breathtaking ribbon of color. I looked over my left shoulder to see it. Panic would rise up through my belly every few seconds, and I’d focus on those colors, forcing the fear back down. The thought that this could be the last sunset of your life nearly cracked my fragile hold on the moment, but I re-focused on the skyline, swept a few tears from my eyes and went numb again.
The pilot would occasionally turn on the audio feed to the paramedics who were with you, and cut it off again quickly, but I heard: “I can’t get an IV in,” “there’s blood everywhere,” “I don’t like her status at all.” I wanted to yell “cut the fucking feed before I explode!” but in case these were some of your last minutes, I also dreaded the moment the pilot cut the feed. Just before landing, the pilot switched on the feed to the paramedics and left it on. They’d gotten an IV in. They still didn’t like her vital signs. One of them said, “We cannot get this girl to CT quick enough,”
And I could hear Tima screaming, “Owie, owie, owie,” I was still numb, but it registered. As long as she was in pain, and knew it, she was still with me.
I grabbed our stuff and ran after her, the doctor who met us at the roof top said to me, “We need to get her into CT right away, we’re concerned about her status. The ER exam room was full of at least five residents and three other doctors. Someone said, “The neurosurgeon is ready, if we need him.” I thought I might puke. They ripped off her clothes and put a neck brace on her. She was unconscious again. She puked again. They pushed her out within what felt like a minute, and took her to the scan room. I followed, numb, blank, in shock.
I was still in shock when the doctor looked up at me from the computer with surprise and walked over. She said, “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, but it’s clear, there’s no skull fracture, no bleed. We won’t be sending her into surgery. She’s just got a very bad concussion.” Somehow, despite the worries of the paramedics, the worried ER doctors, the neurosurgeon at the ready, there would be no brain surgery, and likely no permanent brain damage. Nothing but observation. I thought I would be so relieved that I’d break down, but I just nodded, and said “thank you, thank you.”
As we were walking to the Pediatric ICU, where we’d stay for the night, it sunk in that she wasn’t going to die. The knot in my belly began to unravel itself. The relief I felt was so acute, I felt my knees buckle, and had to steady myself on the wall. I told myself to pick up each leg and move it forward, alternating legs. The muscle memory of how to walk returned quickly, mercifully, before the orderly even noticed I’d stopped for a moment.
Once we were settled, and she’d stopped throwing up (finally), I got a chance to breathe, and check my phone. Word had spread quick. Three friends had offered to come be with us, but for a reason I couldn’t explain then, I didn’t want anyone else there. The Universe, after taking some time, deemed my error not so egregious, so decided to let her stay with me. Death had crossed the divide and handed her back to me. It was sacred time, and I wanted to be only with her, free of anyone else’s presence, free to relax into the cosmic forgiveness. I told everyone I was fine, that we were in good hands, and declined their kind offers.
Around midnight, a nurse made up a pull out bed for me next to my girl’s bed. I got in, pulled up the covers, and slipped your hand into mine. We slept, not well (the nurses did hourly status checks), but some. Around 4:30am, Tima woke up. I asked her, “do you want me to come cuddle with you?” and she whispered, “yes.” I really knew she was ok then.
I crawled in her bed, carefully moving all the tubes stuck in and to her. I pulled her into my chest and belly. There she was, essentially right where she started nearly three years ago. Breathing, alive, hurt, but not broken. Just her and me from the beginning until this very moment.
I suddenly felt the weight of the choice to have her on my own. There is no other adult who was required to be there, no other mandatory parent to rub her back while I went to the bathroom, to grab my water bottle for me, to clean the puke smudged on her cheeks. There’s no other parent who was with me when it happened, who can tell me that I won’t always be this on edge, that I won’t forever feel this afraid of her bonking her head on something else. There is no one who had to stand with me as horrifyingly close to the knowledge that seeing her grow into adulthood is not guaranteed.
It didn’t make feel panicky, it didn’t make me want to ask anyone to come to the hospital after all. It’s just that my responsibility to my daughter felt so very heavy. In the dawning hours of a new day, as the light began to trickle into the room, I thought, just let her stay with me forever.
As the days and weeks have passed, I have hardly relaxed. When she sleeps, I can relax a little. She can’t get a concussion while she sleeps. Dropping her off at school every weekday has been hard, not having her in my eyesight at all times is scary. We’ve stopped going to the park, stopped riding her scooter, I make her walk when she wants to run. I’m so vigilant that parenting isn’t as fun anymore. I doubt my protectiveness and worry are keeping her safe. I don’t know how to keep her safe. I don’t know how to be at ease again. Looking back on that day, it was probably twenty or thirty minutes from head impact to helicopter, a twelve minute flight to the trauma center, and a few minutes before the clear CT scan came back. Thirty or forty minutes I spent in terror. Seems like such a short time, but I am traumatized. We see a pediatric neurologist next week. Hopefully, this will help both of us. Hopefully, we can start having some more fun. Hopefully, this story will turn into “Remember that time you bonked your head and got us a free ride on a helicopter?” I want that to be the story.