Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Children's Hospital

Last week a group of us volunteered a day at the children's hospital to facilitate their Pizza, Pajamas, and Painting Pet Rocks Party. I admit I was a little worried about how I'd react, but at least it's a world I now know well. I felt a little motherly toward the other volunteers: they hadn't done anything like this before. We changed into our jammies in the visitors' bathroom. There's little that could make you feel more vulnerable than walking around a lobby in your PJs. Try it if you doubt me. In the children's play room we set up the tables for paint, and the kids wandered in, some in their PJs, some pulling IV units behind them.

"That would make a good javelin" I said to one of the boys, after he complained about his IV tree, and he lit up. Turns out he had watched the Olympics, and found the field sports very cool indeed. He happily sat down and addressed his subject, a round smooth stone soon to become a caterpillar. More kids came in and we painted layers, let the stones dry while we played floor-bowling with an indoor foam rubber ball (no throwing indoors!) and some toy milk jugs. My javelin friend showed me his online world, a video game site called Urban something, where he lived out one of those virtual reality roles with any number of people (I hope it was monitored). The rest of the ladies caught on and found games to play with the rest of the kids so they wouldn't be stuck at the table watching their rocks dry for 20 minutes.

A new kid walked in after we had gotten most of the rocks painted. He was short and heavy, with a face like a middle aged man, mustache and all. His head had been shaved and you could see an irregularly shaped dent in his skull about the width of a plum. I guess the other ladies were thrown off by the mustache, because they didn't say anything to him. So I took him under my wing and made sure he got his rock painted. He favored making it into a black widow spider. So I figured that made him about 12. Let's call him "Will."

None of us asked what the kids were there for. This wasn't about that kind of thing. This was about pet rocks. Our team leader brought everything we needed, including two sizes of googly eyes. Will and I picked four for the spider (eight wouldn't have fit). I showed him how to practice his hourglass shape before he painted it on the spider's back, and then how to paint the glue on the back of the eye with a dry brush. We were done fast enough that some of the first kids who'd come in were still working on theirs, which was good, because Will had to go back to his room for treatment. I made sure to paint his initials on his spider's belly so he could come back to claim it. We stuck around till the pizza showed up, and then changed and headed home.

In the car, the youngest of us, she was probably in her early 20s, started to cry. We knew that any or all of the kids could have had very little wrong with them, a flu, a broken arm, a minor operation. I think it was the IV trees that got to her. Because for the most part, except for Will, you couldn't have picked any of the kids out as sickly. I wondered for a second what she would have made of Jesse, with his PICC line leashed to his tree. He was the one who first considered using it as a javelin.

I had to avoid looking at her, because I would have made it worse.


  1. There is so much here. So much.

    Isn't it interesting when we make a choice not to ask "why're you here?" but to let it just be "about painting pet rocks."

    There is a false or illusory "closeness" that comes with the questions. And a very real sympatico that comes with the painting.

  2. A lot of people who've never really confronted tragedy mistake one intimacy for the other. The person who is sick/suffering wants you to get to know them without that elephant over their shoulder, because that's, on some level who they want to be again. The person who has never had an elephant can't stop himself from thinking about it. Of course as we get old and cranky, we can't wait to compare illnesses.

    There was another editor at work who used to try to ask me about Jesse (after I lost him) because she believed I 'needed to talk.' She meant well, but I found it irritating. I made her come with me to Godiva and spend 7 bucks on a milkshake & she still couldn't make me spill.

  3. Oh god save me from comparing illnesses. It is one of the shortest fuses I have with my mother. (Back when my MIL was alive I was younger and more patient).

    Oh. See how it just creeps in??? So subtle.

    I want a milkshake. No spilling. Only slurping.

  4. I think sometimes comparing is what we do to say, 'we have this is common. we are in the same tribe.' (although, come to think of it, i have met some who see sharing/comparing as some sort of competition: my kids are brighter; my job is better; my wounds are deeper...)

    but mostly, when someone starts to share a commonality, i take it as an attempt to bond. and i assume they have a need that maybe i can fill, if only for the few minutes we're standing in the check-out line...

    i hated peds. thankfully, the only times i had to work there was during my rotations in lpn and nursing school...

    i felt helpless in peds. and i don't do helpless. it wasn't as much the idea of these babies passing on as it was intractable pain some were forced to endure, and the confusion and fear in their eyes.

    oh, and the odd parent who shouldn't be allowed near a child (now don't give her too much of that morphine; i don't want an addict on my hands...teddy wet his bed again. i don't care if he doesn't want a catheter, put one in anyway.) jesus h. christ.

    sorry. i get so many memories jumping in at once.

    sick and dying children want what all of us want - unconditional love. and like us, they want to be seen. and heard. and needed. to not be invisible. to LEARN.

    people who ignore/dismiss children miss sooo much. sometimes, i wish i'd had the courage to work peds.

    i mostly wanted to say how wonderful you are for giving your time to these children. and to thank you.


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