New Doctor Award: PICU Mom, MD

February 10, 2012

The author, a first-year doctor, learns about patient care when a car accident kills her husband, sends her to the ICU and her infant daughter to the PICU. Read her story of love and loss.

Key Points

Yet I am struck by the realization that the most meaningful part of my medical training did not occur during those 3 years but shortly thereafter, when I suddenly found myself not as part of a medical team but as a mother living at her daughter's bedside in a pediatric intensive care unit (PICU).

Only 3 months out of training and 2 months into a new job at a rural community practice, my husband and I were enjoying my lighter schedule with more lucrative pay, settling into a beautiful new home and new community, and looking forward to my taking the pediatric board certification exam when, in one instant, my whole world was shattered.

When people started asking, "What's it like to be on the other side?" I began making mental notes, hoping one day I would find the words to share with them, because at that time, in the depth of my grief, words were too difficult to find. Now, more than a year since the accident and having experienced much physical and emotional healing, I hope I can impart a little wisdom from this unspeakable tragedy.

IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE

It was a beautiful fall day. My family had traveled to Cincinnati to visit friends, and it was at the first intersection as we were leaving one of their homes that our car was struck. I have no recollection of the accident and very few memories of the following 3 days, but after that I awoke to this horrid nightmare that I could hardly believe was my life.

Upon arriving in the trauma bay, repeatedly complaining of abdominal pain, I was quickly whisked to computed tomography (CT) where a head-to-pelvis scan revealed multiple small subdural bleeds, a fractured sternum, a left pneumothorax, a ruptured diaphragm, and a lacerated spleen. While I lay in one intensive care unit with friends and family quickly congregating, my daughter was being admitted to another.

Summer was exactly 22 months old that day. She was a bright, beautiful, curious little girl who rarely sat still, had a rapidly growing vocabulary, and loved more than anything to run, jump, and chase her daddy around our new big backyard. I am told she was eerily quiet at the scene, strapped in her car seat with a blank stare and giant tears rolling down her cheeks but no audible cries.

Somehow she was pulled from the remnants of our car while still in her car seat and transported to the nearest children's hospital, where she was found to have rapidly progressing right-sided weakness. Imaging of her neck revealed she had suffered a C2 fracture, with underlying spinal cord edema. As her weakness progressed, she developed near-complete right-sided paralysis from her neck down.

Her orthopedic surgeon told me later that her dens had cracked completely off the vertebral ring and that he uses her imaging studies to show residents what a quadriplegic or fatal injury looks like, although hers was not. Three days following her admission, Summer had surgery to wire C1 and C2 together, place bone graft in the area to fuse the vertebrae, and be placed in a halo brace. Due to diaphragm paralysis resulting in an inability to wean from the ventilator, she was intubated for 17 days.

Summer spent just more than 3 weeks in the PICU and a fourth week on the neurosurgery floor before moving onto the rehabilitation unit, where she would stay for another month. After 6 days in my own hospital bed, I spent the next 47 by hers before we went home together the day before Thanksgiving. Summer was in a halo brace and not yet walking on her own, but she was so happy to be home.