A mother’s harrowing hospital experience

An excerpt from NERVE: Surviving Medical Madness.

“There are moments which mark your life. Moments when you realize nothing will ever be the same and time is divided into two parts, before this and after this.”
— N. Kazan

It was a peaceful, uneventful drive—until it wasn’t. My husband and I flipped to the local news radio station and heard them discussing an extreme weather event just as we looked straight ahead through the windshield at the whirling and tight twisting top in the sky. “Is that a tornado?” we asked in unison.

Although it seemed hundreds of feet away, within seconds, we started to feel the debris hitting our car. The car seemed to be lifting off the ground, and we had no control. Were we going to hit the railing or another car? Or would the wind and rocks hitting the car break the windshield? My husband was at the wheel and did his best to control the car. I knew things were now out of our hands.

This was the same unsettled feeling I had after visiting my son in the hospital for the first time. He had done nothing to put his health at risk. In fact, he had done just the opposite. He sought medical care, and now, nothing seemed to be under control.

The day I arrived at the hospital, I was eager to see Pete and find out what was keeping him from checking out. He had now spent two nights in the hospital. I had imagined he might be sleeping as they told us how sleepy he had been. Or maybe he was texting on his phone, letting his friends know he was fine and would be heading back to New York City soon. I understood Pete would likely be a little annoyed to see me as he had implored me not to come, telling me he was fine when we’d talked just the day before.

“Pete!” I said with excitement as I opened the door to his hospital room. Tubes and more tubes connected him to the bed like he was in the middle of a snake pit. My chest tightened as I stared at all the pouches sitting on top of all the tubes slithering their way into him.

I sat down next to him and tried to make eye contact, but his dark-brown eyes would not connect with mine. He appeared trancelike and not quite tethered to his physical body. He looked much younger than his nineteen years in his hospital gown, his lanky arms sticking out of the gown and lying eerily still.

My mind started to go numb. Later, I wondered whether the doctors were mindful of his age and whether he should have received treatment as a pediatric patient. Legally, a nineteen year-old is an adult, but he was just a skinny teenager and still growing. The American Academy of Pediatrics supports pediatric care even past age twenty-one (Hardin 2017) because a young adult’s physiology is a lot closer to a seventeen-year-old than a seventy- or even twenty-eight-year old. Most experts believe the human brain is still developing until around age twenty-five.

“Pete,” I asked, “what is going on?” There was no response.

Where is everyone? I thought. I stared at the squash-colored paint on the walls, the only thing my mind could fully focus on. Nothing seemed to make sense. I wanted my kid back, but there didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency and little concern on the part of the staff that he was not speaking, communicating, or moving. There was a doctor in the room. He looked like a kid who had just broken Mom’s glass table right before she entered the house.

I grabbed paper and pressed a pen into Pete’s hand, hoping we could communicate. The pen swept across the paper for a moment and then fell from his hand. The doctor in the room told me he had severe acute hyponatremia. I had no idea what that meant and had never heard this medical term. He then added if the hyponatremia corrected too quickly, he could get brain damage or die. He said this to me detached and matter-of-factly, as if he had told me my son’s nose was running. However, I now knew the situation was serious, and we needed to let the doctors do what they needed to do to help him.

I grabbed Pete’s hand, and I held it for a second before he pulled it away. He did not pull away with a lot of energy, but I was happy to see he was in there somewhere. My mind and body—that I had spent years as a yoga teacher trying to find calm in the midst of a storm—were failing me. I feared for my son and his future.

I asked to know what was in all those pouches and why my son couldn’t speak. “Cipro,” the doctor responded, “to treat the pneumonia.” It surprised me to hear Pete was on antibiotics since he’d told them he had just finished a round of Z-Pak for strep throat, which theoretically would have also dealt with bacterial pneumonia. His only symptom before seeking treatment had been pectoral chest pain and a sore throat. His conservatory’s health office had thought it might be pericarditis, an inflammation of the heart sheath. Shouldn’t he have some symptoms of pneumonia to treat? Fever, cough, trouble breathing, congestion…

I began reading up on Cipro after a doctor prescribed the drug for me years ago, and I experienced some bad side effects. I remembered reading articles stating Cipro is an extremely strong antibiotic that doctors should avoid prescribing when other antibiotics would suffice and specifically linking the drug to tendinitis. These articles described how prescribing Cipro for minor bacterial issues is like taking out a fly with a sledgehammer.

“This kid is a percussionist,” I said to the doctor. “He told you this. Why would you put his future at risk with an antibiotic known to harm tendons?”

The doctor dodged the question and said, “He is nineteen and can make his own decisions.” His only symptom when he went to the hospital had been pectoral chest pain. Why did he need an IV antibiotic at all, let alone such a strong one? Confused, I stayed silent.

Laura Buchman is a patient advocate and author of NERVE: Surviving Medical Madness.

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