My son Eli awakes with a fever. When you’re a cancer patient, a fever probably means infection, so off to the ER we go. Forget his finals review session that was planned for today.
At the hospital Eli is immediately whisked into an exam room and started on an IV antibiotic. Eventually he is admitted and we move to a room while we wait for the antibiotic to work its magic. While Eli gets a unit of blood, I head to the Ronald McDonald House downstairs for a bite.
Walking back down the hall toward Eli’s room, I spy a cluster of doctors and nurses assembled around his bed and quicken my pace. Eli’s blood pressure has dropped. The docs want to give him fluids to boost it, but the bag of blood is still going in, and they can’t give both blood and fluids through his implanted port at once, so they hold off.
His blood pressure does not bounce back, so they decide to start an IV. They try his arm, but the vein collapses. They try the other arm. Still no good. A painful prick into his right hand and another in his left also fail. They give up on the IV and stop the blood so he can get fluids through his port. The infusion pump won’t work fast enough, so the nurses take turns pushing the saline in by hand. His BP doesn’t budge.
A nurse tries another bolus of fluids, pumping so hard that she has to catch her breath. At 2 a.m. the doctor on the floor calls in a team from the ICU. Eli’s fingers pick constantly at the blankets as the docs tower over him, discussing his condition. They decide he needs to move to intensive care. I search frantically for my shoes, trying not to let my son see my panic. “They just need to watch you more closely,” I tell him. I call my husband, who can’t come because he’s home alone with our 9-year-old daughter.
Eli is rolled downstairs and plugged into even more machines. Nothing seems right with his body. His fever is too high and his heart rate too low. A kidney marker is the highest we’ve ever seen. He starts on a new blood pressure med, but the red numbers show a stubborn 94/50.
Eli is hungry but is not allowed to eat until he stabilizes. He needs both platelets and hemoglobin, but his port is busy with medication. More painful needle sticks. Finally one takes in his foot, and the blood begins to flow in.
His diastolic dips to 43. The medicine isn’t working. Eli is now in septic shock.
A doctor comes by and motions me into the hall. She wastes no time with pleasantries. “Today will be the turning point,” she says. “He will either get substantially better or substantially worse. If things go south, we’ll intubate him, sedate him, flood him with antibiotics and assume control of all his bodily functions. This can happen fast, so I want you to be prepared.”
I usually pepper the doctors with questions, but I am so petrified that I cannot summon a single word.
I walk back into Eli’s room and brush the back of my fingers over his pale cheek. Amid the beeping machines, the blinking monitors and the tattoo of my own turbulent heart, I perch at his bedside. As daylight leaks through the window, I watch and wait.