What you learn when your son dies

May 19, 2006

It was a typical, frantic night at the hospital for this youngintern. Then she walked through the doors of the ED.

It was 12:30 a.m. and I was exhausted, as only an intern can be. My first day on call on the cardiology and C-ICU service had been difficult, and I was eager to get this last patient tucked in, so I could place myself in a horizontal position for a few brief moments.

As I sat reviewing the chart, the sirens blaring outside the windows caught my attention. Whoa, it's busy tonight, I thought. Glad I'm not in the ED.

A nurse interrupted my thoughts. "They want you in the emergency department," she said urgently. I glanced around; my supervising resident was nowhere to be seen. No surprise there, I thought. He'd been MIA all day, leaving me to do all the charting and patient care.

"No," she repeated, "They said to have you come."

"Who are they?" I asked.

"I don't know." She shrugged her shoulders and walked off.

I stomped down the hall to the elevators, seething. I can't take any more, I said to myself. God, I'm so tired. Why can't they just leave me alone? Why do I have to do the resident's work?

The ED was the zoo I expected. Securing the attention of the overworked ward secretaries, I said, "I'm Dr. Meelhuysen, from the cardiology service. What patient did you want me to see?"

Three blank faces stared at me. They all verified that no one had paged anyone from the cardiology service. Overwhelmed by frustration and anger, I turned to leave.

On the way out, I paused in the doorway to the cardiac room. My gaze landed on the still figure on the far gurney. Well, it looks like that guy didn't make it, I thought. My glance then turned to the frenzied activity at the closer gurney. Why are they coding that baby? I wondered. He's dead.

Suddenly, I noticed something-a familiar blue sleeper. No, I thought, it couldn't be. There must have been hundreds of those blue sleepers sold at Mervyns a few months ago when I'd bought one. But it sure did look like the sleeper I'd packed for my brother to dress my son Michael in when he went to bed.

Earlier in the week, my husband had had to leave unexpectedly on a business trip, so I'd asked my brother and his wife if they would watch our 2½-month-old. They had agreed, to my great relief. It was the first time Michael had been cared for by someone other than me or my husband, and I was glad it was close family.

Thoughts raced through my head. Nothing made sense. In a daze, I tried to work my way around the code team, attempting unsuccessfully to sneak peeks at the center of attention. As I wormed my way around the team, I pelted them with questions, trying to figure out how a baby would get to the cardiac resuscitation room. "Where are the other people?" "Was there a bad car accident?" "How did the baby get here?"

No one answered me. Maybe there wasn't a car accident, I reasoned, and was comforted by the thought. Earlier in the evening, my brother and sister-in-law had brought Michael to the hospital for me to see. He had looked perfectly normal, healthy, and happy. The only way this could be my baby, I concluded, was if they had been in a car accident.