Five Lessons on Having a Child in Hospital

There is an old saying that you can't pour from an empty cup, but I was shocked at how quickly my ability to support my son was compromised. Something as basic as not eating properly, or sleeping a full night, hell, even something as small as not having open access to hot drinks, add up fast; which I learned to my cost once we moved to the children's ward.

This week has officially reduced my background level of "tired", to a new low of "barely functional".

On Saturday, while I was on a little mama date, with my friend at a local food show, my son rode down a hill on his bike, ran out of talent, grabbed a handful of front brake and turned himself into a human cannonball.

I'm reliably informed that nobody thought anything of the fall - my son himself was sure that he would be fine if only he were allowed to have a drink of orange juice - but my husband very wisely decided to go and have him checked out anyway.

By the time they reached the Urgent Care Centre, my son wasn't quite so sure that all was right with the world.

By the time I spoke to my husband, he had revised his position again, and was wailing; but the story I was told, made heavy use of the words "suspected", "broken", and "fine".

So, as the mother who isn't prone to panicking over suspected anythings, I carried on mooching round the food show with my friend, before catching a bus to engage my first born in some casual teasing.

Lesson The First: Use an appropriate level or urgency when telling your life partner that there has been an accident.

By the time I arrived at the Urgent Care Centre, I was greeted by a very pale and quite boy, who was waiting for an ambulance ride. Apparently, there was now less suspicion and more certainty: my son had broken his femur.

Now, I want to preface the rest of this story by saying that my son is my utter hero for the way in which he dealt with his first hospital visit. He's a pretty independent and stoical child, as these things go, but his composure and strength over these few days was breath-taking.

That said, he is also a six year old boy, who had broken the biggest bone in his body.

Lesson Two: Seeing your child on drugs is scary.

The ambulance that arrived to blue light my son to hospital, also heralded his first experience in hard drugs.

First up, ketamine, which quickly turned his pupils to yoyos, and his attitude to something approaching the habitually drunken uncle, who sits in the corner of family weddings, and occasionally pipes up with a few choice nuggets of Anglo-Saxon, before retreating back into an internal monologue.

Having arrived at hospital, the doctors cracked open the morphine, just to ratchet up the party. I'm glad they did, because the things that needed to be done to my son, were best done with a side order of oblivion.

I stood by his bed, talking a constant stream of drivel just so that he would hear my voice, while his leg was put into traction. He, in response, would close his eyes and drift off, only to come round a few seconds later in a full scale panic, kicking and thrashing about, until I was able to talk him down again.

It is singularly terrifying to be caught between the maternal drive to comfort your child, while knowing that they are out of reach of both your words, and of reason.

Lesson Three: Self-care is vital

There is an old saying that you can't pour from an empty cup, but I was shocked at how quickly my ability to support my son was compromised. Something as basic as not eating properly, or sleeping a full night, hell, even something as small as not having open access to hot drinks, add up fast; which I learned to my cost once we moved to the children's ward.

Admittedly things weren't helped by the fact that I had accidentally sent my wallet home with my husband, or that my son wouldn't let me out of his site for even a moment, or that we were living in rooms with no access to daylight, but I see these as marginal influences against the endless emotional onslaught of looking after an acutely sick child, in a room full of other acutely ill children, all fighting their own battles against pain, and fear.

It took me a while to grasp it, but the reality is that I did my child no favours by running myself into the ground. There was no value to me being the martyr who didn't take breaks to eat, drink or read a chapter of my book. And despite everything my ego wanted to believe, my son was just fine while I was away.

Lesson Four: Responsibility is daunting

In the few days we were guests of our local hospital, I felt like I was on one long episode of Mastermind. For your specialist round, you have chosen Your Offspring's Lifelong Ability To Walk, your time starts ... NOW. The questions came at me hard and fast, and I was against the clock. I felt very young, very ill prepared, and I found myself looking around for someone to adult; a more adulty adult than me, someone with quiet wisdom, who wasn't motivated by a singlular desire to throw ANY-DAMN-THING at the situation that would a) stop my child hurting and b) not leave him with any long term consequences.

Perhaps in some ways, the rapid pace of the decision making was a blessing, because it stopped me from endless agonising; and being the less squeamish of our partnership, I was definitely the right choice to be with my son. Still, there is still that seed of doubt; a small voice that says "This is for real. This matters. If you get this wrong, you will have to live with this forever. You will have to account for your actions". That isn't a world that I am used to living in, where I dwell, there is usually the chance of a do-over.

Lesson Five: You are enough

While I was mired in self doubt about what the hell I was doing, I received some wise words from a friend who has far more experience than I do, when it comes to supporting a child in hospital:

Stay strong and don't let him see you cry. All he knows is that you are a rock, he needs you to steady his nerves, do anything you can. Do explain to him what is going on, honesty will help later on. Ask him if he has any questions for you, not just the surgeons. He will be able to communicate much better with you than any others.

Which was exactly what I needed to hear, but found nigh on impossible to do. I tried really hard to pretend I wasn't upset, but it turns out that I'm not that good an actor, so all I was left with, was honesty.

Things came to a head when I walked with my son into surgery, and he got very upset at having to remove his treasured pounamu.

In reality, I think that for both of us it was simply an excuse to vent the tension of the previous 24 hours, because we went from "fine" to floods of tears so fast I was left wondering how the hell things had escalated so quickly. He was crying, and I was crying and I could. not. stop.

Instead, I opened my heart to him and said "I'm upset that you are upset, my son. I know that you are going to be fine having this surgery, but it makes me super sad to see you cry like this." Which I don't see as a raging success on the "being a rock" front, but it was pretty much all I had in me to say, at that point.

My friend was right about knowing my child, and communication, though.

When one of the nurses confused my son with her "on a scale of one to ten" pain ratings, I helped him translate it by using my hands.

When my son was feeling low and wallowing in self pity, I helped him find the motivation to pick himself up with the threat of having to be under the care of a particularly "bossy nurse" for another night.

When he was using strange words to describe how his tummy felt, I advocated for him to the nurses until they got an ultrasound, and realised he had over 300ml of pee in his bladder, and a ton of bruising stopping it coming out.

And when we were alone, his body held against mine, and I heard him quietly whisper "I love you mum", I knew that all the millions of ways that I beat myself up as a parent counted for nothing, because my presence, my support, and my love, were all my son needed from me.

I wanted to write this as a way of capturing the feelings and thoughts of my first time as a helpless bystander. There are several mums (and dads) I know who could, I'm sure, add a lot of other thoughts to my rookie experiences. I just want to say to each of you, that you are truly superheroes. Being a hospital parent is un-fucking-believably hard, and you guys rock it like it ain't no thing. Now, more than ever, I am in awe of you all.