My Sister Listened as My Daughter's Heart Stopped Beating. Then She Saved My Son.


My sister Sadie was the rare 5-year-old who knew she wanted to be a doctor. That or “a bag lady.” (She thought the term referred to ladies who collect handbags.) The doctor dream stuck, and for most of my childhood my sister would “practice” her medicine on me when I was sick. She would gingerly lay washcloths on my fevered forehead, bring me whatever I needed (which usually involved unicorns), pat my arm, smooth the sheets, perform various ministrations, the purpose of which only she knew. Sadie was a caring child.

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She grew into a caring adult and indeed became a doctor. She now comforts, soothes and saves the lives of strangers in the emergency room. Then she rushes home to be a loving, engaged mother and wife. Her handbags are more functional than fashionable. That was certainly true of the one she brought when she dropped everything to fly across the world and be with us after serious trauma during the birth of our daughter, Elouisa.

My sister’s presence in the hospital immediately calmed me, even without the washcloths. Sadie helped us understand the updates on Elouisa’s condition with the expertise of a doctor but delivered news gently, with the heart of family. She was there in the room with us when we learned the results of the test that would decide my daughter’s fate. We wanted her there to be sure we understood. But translation was unnecessary, and the results were devastatingly clear – our wondrous baby girl was not to live.

Shortly after receiving this most awful news and offering any organs our girl had for donation, we went into a small room off the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where my daughter had spent her four days. We were able to hold Elouisa as her various machines were unplugged. I held her close as we saw her face for the first time without tubes or tape and rocked her gently as her breathing and then her heart slowed.

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Rather than be interrupted by nurses or doctors, my husband volunteered my sister to listen to our daughter’s heart and pronounce our baby dead.  I’ll never forget the look in Sadie’s eyes as they met mine and she told me Elouisa’s heart had stopped beating. I always imagine it must be strange for doctors when family members become patients. My sister has seen people die before. But never her tiny, beautiful niece. She was so calm and graceful in that moment.

My sister remained calm and graceful a few days later. At 3:00 a.m., just twelve hours after the memorial service for our daughter, our 2-year-old son’s cold suddenly became much worse, and he started having a seizure. My sister immediately shouted that someone needed to call an ambulance. She attended to him. Had she not reacted so quickly, had she not known what to do, it could have been worse for him.

My son had a second seizure in my arms the following morning, which was terrifying. It also meant that we ended up spending another few days in the hospital to make sure he was well. He was and is. It was hard being back in a hospital, even a different hospital. I found myself hoping that if I turned the right corner, I could find our daughter again.

My sister kept extending her trip, finding colleagues to cover her shifts and asking her husband to look after their children just one day, two days, three days more. She was the one who told me I needed to leave the hospital and sleep at home one night, who assured me our son would be fine. Relationships with siblings change as you create your own lives and families and become parents. You see more clearly than ever who you and they are in the choices you make, rather than simply living the choices of your parents. It’s a sometimes shocking intimacy.

In her loving care during my family’s most difficult and dramatic days, my sister was her essence. Sadie is now armed with the expertise and skills of a doctor, but her spirit is just as purely loving as it was when she was a 5-year-old offering toy unicorns. I’ve never been more grateful to her or more in awe. IMG_0047


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