In Sickness and In Health

My son has the most beautiful blue eyes in the world. But they aren’t quite flawless – they’re uneven; his pupils dilate to different sizes. I would have never noticed it, but as soon as my husband pointed it out, it was obvious. While I still think they’re gorgeous, they’ve caused me more stress than I would have ever expected.

Chris noticed the difference in Sprout’s eyes when he was about three months old. We were eating at a diner with my in-laws at a booth lit by an old-fashioned lamp. At first, we thought it was a trick of the light. Nonetheless, we agreed that we should bring him to the doctor – just in case. After all, uneven pupils can indicate a concussion, right?

Unfortunately, just the call to the nurse was disconcerting. Much to our surprise, they wanted to schedule an appointment immediately. Clearly, this wasn’t a common malady. When we got to the pediatrician, he confirmed that Sprout’s eyes were uneven and recommended making an appointment as soon as possible with a pediatric ophthalmologist.

I couldn’t take time off in the middle of the day after returning from maternity leave, so Chris went to the specialist appointment without me. To dilate the pupils as large as possible, the doctor gave Sprout eye-drops – something I’m sure was enjoyable for everyone. If they were the same size at their maximum dilation, there was no underlying problem. But if they were still different, he would need “more tests,” one of the worst phrases a parent can hear. As his eyes were, in fact, off by several millimeters, off we went to another specialist.

The next stop was the Children’s National Medical Center in downtown D.C. After giving Sprout even stronger eye drops (derived from the active ingredient in cocaine!), the specialist found the exact same result. Based on this test, the doctor said that 85 percent of kids are fine. They just have an inborn quirk. But the other 15 percent? They have a brain tumor or something else pressing on the nerve leading to the eye. Usually, 85% isn’t bad odds. But usually, you aren’t talking about your kid possibly having a brain tumor.

To determine if Sprout had a tumor or not, the doctor would need to conduct an MRI. MRIs require the patient to be perfectly still, which is impossible for even a sleeping infant. So they would also need to put him under anesthesia. Even with national experts caring for him, the thought of anyone putting my baby under made me catch my breath. Not to mention the possibility of the MRI results being unfathomable.

All of it seemed horribly predestined. My pregnancy and his early babyhood had gone easily compared to the horror stories of people I knew. I felt like this was the other shoe dropping.

The earliest appointment was available in about a month. For the first few weeks, I was fine; I simply refused to think about it. Every time the thought of the appointment wandered into my mind, I shoved it out.

But then, the Children’s National Medical Center started an ad campaign at the Metro Center subway stop. My baby’s upcoming test struck me square in the face every single morning. I flinched each time, averting my eyes. Even though the ads were supposed to be comforting, all I could think was, “He could be one of those kids. My baby could have cancer.”

This thought haunted me on the day of the appointment. As we made our way through the winding hallway from the security desk to the check-in to the MRI waiting area, I saw so many sick children. Children with scars on their heads, children in wheelchairs, children with bandages. And those were only the outward signs – the horror that raged through their little bodies was left up to the imagination. I couldn’t help but think of Sprout here for his second, third, fourth, seemingly infinite treatment. As I looked at their parents, many for whom these visits were routine, I saw a future version of myself, resolute but resigned. I’ve been in situations that others would find terrifying, but that hospital is the scariest place I’ve ever been.

In the waiting room, I bounced Sprout, not able to keep still. When they finally called us in, the staff were reassuringly pleasant and professional. The nurse complemented us on our use of cloth diapers, saying how rarely she saw them. The anesthesiologist explained that they usually don’t allow the parents to stay when they put the babies under because they’re too nervous. However, we must have hid our anxiety well, as they called us in a few minutes later. Sprout was restrained with little Velcro straps. I held his tiny hand as they put the mask on, he squirmed and then went still.

Chris and I waited in the cafeteria, hoping food and hot tea would calm our stomachs and minds. We talked about the hospital, about politics, about everything but the answer to the “What if?” question.

When they finally called us back, Sprout was lying on a hospital bed, so still that it was hard to tell if he was breathing or not. I ached to hug him, but couldn’t because we had to wait for him to come out from under the anesthesia. I hadn’t fed him for hours, so my chest was sore. As he started to stir, some of my anxiety faded. I picked him up and cradled him.

While it felt long, the results came back in only a few days. The doctor called Chris directly, informing him that the MRI was clear. I was frustrated to hear the news second-hand – it would have felt more concrete to hear it straight from the doctor- but relief washed over me anyway.

We had our follow-up appointment and final report a few weeks ago. This time, the hospital wasn’t quite so threatening – it offered potential confirmation of health, not illness. Everything checked out normally and the doctor said he was relieved that nothing had changed. In the report, he said Sprout is a “a delightful young man,” which I thought was an amusing way to describe a 9 month old.

Now, I look into Sprout’s blue eyes and see an inquisitive baby looking back at me. But behind that beauty, there’s a lurking fear, a reminder of what might have been. Fortunately, I also know that the fear is no match for our love for him. I know even if he was sick, his eyes would still be beautiful. Because beauty and love always win out over fear.

8 thoughts on “In Sickness and In Health

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  2. I can only guess at the terror you had to keep at bay. I imagine the changed something in you. The relief when you learned he is healthy must have been so sweet. Very glad it turned out well.

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