Fear and courage on Fathers Day

Terry Garlock's picture

My thoughts turned to fear and courage on Fathers Day as I held my 6-year-old daughter, Kristen, in her room in Children’s Hospital at Scottish Rites in Atlanta.

There is a special fear you only know when you become a dad or a mom. We think we know just before our first child comes, but we don’t. Not yet.

Before our child comes home, I think we’re in love with the idea, through our fantasies of life with our own kid. But when the child comes home then slowly, over a little time, the magic of real love binds so tight that one day you realize you love your child far, far more than your own life.

That brings with it a special brand of fear. The kind of fear that flashes through your body in a nanosecond when you hear your child cry for help. The kind of fear that forms a steel fist to smash through your chest in an instant and squeeze your heart down to the size of a pea when you think something bad is happening to your kid.

I felt the fist recently.

The week after school was out I drove my two girls to Pensacola, Fla., to visit grandma while my wife, Julie, was working in Philadelphia. When I stopped at a store, Kristen didn’t move to come with me, so I opened her door. Her head was flopped to the side, she was staring blankly ahead and her body limp. The steel fist got me when Kristen didn’t respond to my voice or touch.

I had her at the Sacred Heart hospital emergency room in five minutes and a pediatric emergency team was working on her in two more minutes. They recognized the signs of seizures and immediately applied medication and sedation.

Watching your little tyke inert with an unknown threat and all kinds of tubes attached is hard, but when the EEG lady told me she had to attach about 30 electrodes to Kristen’s head to take a 20-minute reading, I had to laugh and ask her if she was bringing an army to help her.

She brushed me off and said she’d been doing this for 20 years. So of course Kristen roused out of her semi-consciousness to kick her butt, and the technician had to come back later — with an army of two assistants. They didn’t believe me when I told them Kristen is strong and determined.

Julie flew in from Philadelphia while they were doing CAT scans and X-rays, EEG and MRI, all negative. Kristen was admitted for observation. She seemed to be coming out of it and I thought we would check her out the next day and keep a close eye on her while following up with specialists.

But the fist wasn’t done with me. Kristen started having more seizures, and to suppress them she was heavily sedated in intensive care with a continuous EEG hookup for a week to record seizure activity.

When the seizures finally stopped, she started having bouts of fever. The docs think she has viral encephalitis, though the specific strain is not known, causing temporary inflammation in her brain, likely contracted from a mosquito bite.

Boy, did I feel like a schmuck. We live in The Heritage subdivision, with West Kedron Pond directly in back of our house, likely home to a few billion mosquitoes.

I called the Fayette County Health Department to inquire about treating or spraying for mosquitoes. Richard Fehr, Director of Environmental Health, said they had no budget for spraying but that only kills 1 percent of the mosquito population anyway.

But listen up. Richard called me back several times to let me know he was talking to Robert Kurbes, head of their small Peachtree City satellite office. Robert called me while I was in Pensacola to report they had tested a number of spots at both East and West Kedron Ponds, found no mosquito larvae, but did find and treat a smaller area of stagnant water and a boat with stagnant water, both with mosquito larvae present.

I don’t expect their action will slay the mosquito population, but just imagine if our government at all levels worked the way Mr. Fehr and Mr. Kurbes responded. Whether or not they are also dads who know the squeezing steel fist themselves, a little applause is in order.

Late last week Julie and Kristen were transferred by air ambulance to Children’s Hospital in Atlanta while I drove home.

On Sunday, as her fever returned, Kristen cried a little bit. Not the wailing and pleading to go home one might expect, just quiet tears dropping, and when I asked her if she felt bad, Kristen pointed to the note board in her room where the nurses write their names, where Kristen had written her own Fathers Day card to me, “I love you, Terry.” She calls me Terry when she is teasing me. Now she could tell me just by pointing to what she had written, and I thought of her courage.

I held her for a while and thought this was the first time I had seen her cry for three weeks while Julie and I have traded off shifts to be with her 24/7. Kristen has endured it all with impatient tolerance, kicking a few butts along the way when she had different ideas than the nurses doing what the doctors ordered.

The same day I saw her cry for the first time, I also heard her say to visitors, “I’m very sick.”

Six-year-olds shouldn’t have to bear something so serious for so long. I learned long ago that courage isn’t the absence of fear; courage is doing what has to be done while you are scared. I can’t think of a finer example of that than how Kristen has faced each test, each needle stick, each dose of foul-tasting medicine, each day again in a hospital bed, not knowing what is wrong or when she can go home.

We hope to conquer her fevers so we can take her home soon for outpatient treatment. When she is recovered, when I hear that tiny and polite voice ask, “Can I ride my bike in the driveway, Dad?” that will be Fathers Day for me.

[Terry L. Garlock of Peachtree City, Ga., is a certified financial planner and investment advisor. His email is tgarlock@mindspring.com.]

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