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To the Mom on the Other Side of the Hospital Curtain

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My son was 2, and I was six months pregnant with my second.

They say infancy GERD usually goes away in a year, and in some cases it can take two years. But his GERD was still in full force, and he was not getting better as predicted. In search of answers the doctor had decided it was time for an upper G.I. endoscopy and biopsy.

The events that transpired in the OR recovery room that day had the most profound impact on me. It was unexpected, and I was unprepared for it. But it changed my life and how I approach my children’s chronic disorder and life’s day-to-day challenges.

It was an oddly quiet day in the pediatric procedural rooms. There was a little girl having some procedure done to her heart, my husband and I and another mother two beds down from us reading alone. As the day went on, the little girl finished her treatment and went home. We were left alone with the woman also waiting for her child. Her little boy was done first, and the nurses pushed his bed into the empty slot beside her chair. You could tell she was scared, and she was trying hard to be brave. She quietly held his hand while he woke up.

It was right about this point my stress, anxiety and nervousness were peaking. My son had never had anesthetics, and we didn’t know how he would respond. It was also terrible to see him with all the tubes and IVs. He was scared, confused and miserable. I was also sleep deprived, pregnant and sick myself with a toddler in pain who didn’t sleep and who I couldn’t help. It made me emotionally and physically exhausted. It just didn’t seem fair for my little guy to go through so much. I was feeling alone and scared and frankly a little bit sorry for myself. We knew the doctors had eliminated anything life-threatening and scary, but they still didn’t know what was wrong with my son. I was frustrated and emotionally raw.

And then I saw a man in the hallway leaning against the wall next to the door. From where the woman was sitting, she couldn’t see the him, but I had a clear view. He was clearly a doctor still in his scrubs and surgical hat. He was bent over with his hands on his knees and was taking slow and deliberate deep breaths. He looked like somebody who had just run a marathon and was trying not to throw up. I watched him with silent curiosity, not realizing he was preparing to come into recovery and speak to the mother next to me.

Whatever speech he’d rehearsed to give to her, he never got the chance to deliver it. She took one look at him and knew. As soon as they made eye contact, you could hear the air exit her lungs. The silent sound of her breath being taken away is something I will never forget.

She collapsed on top of her son and kept saying, “No, no, no, no, God no.” As the doctor reached up and pulled the dividing curtain closed he said, “I’m so sorry. We tried so hard.” The partition of the curtain did nothing. We could hear everything. It was this oddly intimate moment. We were witnessing the most horrifically personal moment in somebody’s life, and yet the curtain created a complete and total separation. We were strangers, and this news was not meant for our ears, yet here we were. We were hearing it.

The doctor, the woman and the little boy sat in their little cubicle silent for what felt like forever but was probably just a few minutes. The doctor said, “Don’t worry, we’re not going to give up on him. We’re gonna keep trying. We’re going to look for other ways.” The woman just cried.

Now the little boy spoke. He spoke with sincerity, and with the most genuine intent he tried to comfort his mother. His little words and soft, sweet voice hit my body like something I can’t even describe. He calmly said, “Don’t worry, Mommy, it’s really going to be OK. I’m not afraid to die.”

At this point I was glad the curtain was closed because I lost it. I did my best to not make any sound while I cried. But my pregnant hormonal self just couldn’t help it. She lost it too, and I could hear muffled quiet sobs over her little boy repeatedly telling her not to be scared.

The doctor gave her post-op instructions. He was loving and reassuring. Then he left. He returned to his original spot in the hallway. But this time he sat with his back against the wall and his knees up to his chest. And he cried.

So, to the mother on the other side of the curtain. I’m so, so, so sorry. Please know I think of you almost every day. Please know you gave me one of the greatest gifts I could ever be given, and that’s the gift of perspective.

I’m so sorry my life lesson had to come at your expense. I feel guilty about that. Please know I pray for you and your little boy, and I fantasize that the doctor did find another way. I pray your beautiful little boy is in remission and healthy. Please know every time I find myself frustrated and awake in the middle of the night and wonder how I’m going to get through my day, I think of your sweet child. I become suddenly grateful that I at least have my boys alive to wake me up. My frustration melts away, and I feel grateful to have them in my arms. You turned my perspective from sadness to joy in an instant. You taught me what real fortune is and showed me I have an abundance of it.

To the mom other side of the curtain, whoever you are, thank you. You changed me, and I am eternally grateful.

A version of this post originally appeared on Raising Dystonia.

Originally published: March 18, 2015
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