Sometimes Maybe I Don't Want to Put My Child First

When I learned I had cancer, my daughter was less than 6 days old.

You never know how you'll react to receiving a serious diagnosis until you actually receive one. For instance, pre-diagnosis, I always thought that taking the more natural, holistic approach to cancer sounded like a very viable option. I'd heard many stories of people whose cancer had gone into remission or disappeared as a result of a variety of homeopathic methods and lifestyle changes. And natural is usually better, right?


The day after we brought our newborn daughter home from the hospital, I received a call from my obstetrician. I was holding my baby in my arms when I learned I had cancer.


My doctor told me she would be referring me to an oncologist, but that there'd be no question that I would need chemotherapy, among other things.

"No problem," I said. "Sign me up." I didn't hesitate to agree to the most aggressive, toxic treatment regimen I could get. My life was just getting good. My daughter needed a mom, and I wasn't taking any chances. Bring on the poison. Stat.

It was easy putting my daughter first in that instance, as my decision benefited me as well as my whole family. But I never thought about what I'd do if I ever had to choose between my daughter and someone else, particularly my husband.

He and I recently traveled to New York on business, and took our daughter with us. While in the city, he experienced a sudden health issue. I was in meetings across town at the time, and my husband was with our daughter in Central Park. He had been nursing a bad headache for a few days, but his headache suddenly became blinding, and he became feverish and sick to his stomach at the same time. 

He called our doctor in Nashville, who told him he needed to get to a hospital immediately to rule out viral meningitis. I met my husband and daughter in route, and we ended up taking an ambulance to the closest hospital emergency room.

Walking into that ER -- pushing a baby stroller alongside my husband's stretcher -- was a shock. It was mayhem.

Within the first 60 seconds, I saw and/or heard: A naked person, yelling obscenities. What appeared to be a corpse (or soon-to-be corpse) on a stretcher in a hallway. Crack addicts with DTs. Twitching, toothless meth heads. Someone vomiting. People screaming. Open sores. Bloody bandages. What appeared to be a victim of a gunshot wound. Patients stacked in curtained off areas and lined up in hallways. Coughing. Hacking. Sneezing. Moaning.

It was unlike any hospital ER I had ever seen in film or on television. It seemed like they would never be able to get to all of the existing patients, even if they shut and locked the doors to new arrivals right then. And this is where they were going to find out what was wrong with my husband?

Based on his symptoms, there was concern that he might have viral meningitis or West Nile virus. Either way, it was clear that he might be contagious. Once this was determined, my husband was quarantined (bonus: at least we were out of the melee in triage), and everyone who came near us was suddenly wearing protective masks. Then they started encouraging me to take our daughter and get away from him, to leave.

I don't think I've ever been so torn. I wanted to get my daughter out of that germ-infested hellhole as soon as possible. But I also wanted to be there to comfort my husband, who was in tremendous pain and more than a little frightened about what was going on. We were hundreds of miles from home and help. And I had only limited supplies for the baby. Plus, what was worse -- having her in a small isolated area with her mysteriously ill father, or having her out in the general population of the triage area, where the contamination was so thick in the air you could almost see it?

I did NOT want to leave my husband, bottom line. We had no idea what was wrong with him, and the overworked and harried folks in the ER were not providing me with any reassurance or sense of calm. Plus, there was no cell service anywhere in the ER, and the "public" phone on the wall was broken. I felt totally helpless.

Then, the mother instinct kicked in. My child was crying and hungry and needed a diaper change. I was exposing her to God knows what in that place. And her father could possibly have a contagious disease. Truth be told, it was not wise for him to be around his baby or his fresh-outta-chemo, immuno-compromised wife.

So, I left. I gave my husband a phone and a charger and a kiss and I left. It was the right thing to do, but I sure didn't want to do it. I was scared and knew that no one would be checking in with me for hours. But I had to do it.

In the end, it all worked out. A head CT, sinus cavity MRI, spinal tap, and lots of blood work and other tests later, it seems that my husband was just having a terrible migraine, his first ever. He spent 13 hours in triage before he was finally moved to a non-private room in the wee hours of the morning. He spent the night listening to the farts and curse-ridden mutterings of his roommate, while I sat wide awake in our hotel, watching our baby sleep.

The lessons learned? As parents, we have to be prepared to put our children first, even when we might not want to do so.

Also, always try to travel with help. And a fully-stocked diaper bag.


Images top to bottom: Brooke Kelly Photography; Mark Montgomery

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