I was in the clinical phase of paramedic school, doing rotations through the hospitals. Mid-afternoon on my second shift with the pediatric transport team, they – we – were paged to respond to a small community hospital about seventy miles away, to bring a patient back to the children's hospital.
When we arrived she was awake and happy, sitting up, a little blonde girl, maybe seven or eight years old. She was going to Portland for further tests. As stable as she was, we just put a DVD on – it was a pediatric ambulance, after all, with a TV and all – and had a nice quiet ride back. The transport nurse talked to her a bit, I talked with her some, and she happily chattered back. She was curious and happy and totally unfazed by the situation.
She said a dog in the movie was silly; and I told her about how my dog would go to sleep on the foot of my bed and end up next to me on the pillow when I wake up sometimes. On our way into the pediatric ICU we stopped for a second by a window, so she could see the city. She thought that it was pretty neat.
After we dropped her off in the ICU, I went to have lunch and catch up on my paperwork. An hour or so later I walked past the room the little girl was in, and she waved at me. Her dad – who I hadn't even met – said, "Hey, there's your friend!" Apparently she had been talking about me to her parents. Of course I went out and hung out in her room.
She was curious about everything that was going on, so I stayed in her room and explained as the nurses put in a second IV and got her hooked up to a portable monitor. Then I walked with her and her family over to Imaging so they could do a CT scan, to repeat and confirm what they'd seen on her scan at the community hospital.
She wanted to know about the pulse ox – "the light on my finger" – and I told her it was watching how well she was breathing. I was glad that she was old enough to understand an explanation.
She told me about her family, and I showed her a picture of my dog. "That's the dog that sleeps on your pillow, right?" she asked. Exactly, I told her. Smart, cute as a button, and very brave.
Oh, so terribly brave.
* * *
Her parents had taken her into the small community hospital this morning for an outpatient MRI scan. She'd had some headaches over the past few weeks, some episodes of loss of sensation on one side of her body, and over the past day some nausea and vomiting.
The mass in her head was at least 5 centimeters across.
I got mom a box of tissues while the nurse hugged her. Dad was in the scan room with a lead apron on, holding her hand. He never saw the pictures on the screen.
They scheduled neurosurgery for the next morning.
* * *
A couple days later, I wrote about her in an email to a friend: I don't know if I'll follow up next week. I don't know if I want to. She seemed happy to have a friend, and her parents both thanked me, which makes me feel a bit better, for making a kid in a scary situation feel a bit better.
A PICU nurse told me I shouldn't get attached, that you can't do the job if you get attached, which is maybe true for him working twenty-plus years, but not so much for me with this one rotation. We'll see. I was ready to walk away and leave that distance, until I saw that smile and wave and heard "Oh, there's your new friend..."
I did try and follow up, two weeks later.
Tried. She had been discharged, a week after surgery. I quickly found out that being a student meant a brick wall as far as any other information was concerned.
* * *
Six years later, I had mostly forgotten about the little blonde girl.
I had worked as a medic in the city, ran some ugly calls, helped a few people live, watched more people die. I'd gotten my feet wet, and then transferred out to a rural ambulance, working on the mountain. Long transports, sick patients, to be sure, but also lots of down-time. Lots of time to talk.
One night I was talking with my partner, an EMT who was a few years younger than me, and we got on the topic of pediatric patients. And so I told him the story of the little blonde girl, who was so brave, whose fate I never knew. I meant to tell the story as a way of discussing the value – and risk – of making emotional connections with your patients. There's no clear answer, I was going to say. Sometimes it's for the worse, and sometimes it's for the better.
Halfway through, my partner got a strange look on his face, and started grilling me for details. What happened to her exactly? When exactly was it? What was the little town we took her out of?
Of course, I had long since forgotten her name. I told him what details I remembered, and his expression just got stranger. He looked spooked. Are you sure?
He said he had to make a phone call, and stepped out of the ambulance station. About five minutes later, he came back in, and sat down, heavily, in a chair. He looked at me, and looked down, and looked at me again. The silence stretched.
"What?" I finally asked. "What is it?"
"My aunt," he said.
"She knew – I mean – before I told her. I just asked her about when my cousin was sick, when she was little. When she had brain surgery.
"My – what?"
I found that I was holding my breath, and let it out, slowly. "I – I never found out what happened to her ..."
"Oh, god! Oh, shit, oh – she was – it was just blood, it was nothing."
"... Nothing?" I said faintly.
"Yeah, man. A little aneurysm or something, they fixed it and cleared that blood and that was it. She's fine. I saw her a few months ago. She'll be starting high school next year."