Friday, February 01, 2008

A hero and a miracle

Rarely will I air personal matters on this site, but I feel I must make an exception because the past week and a half have been quite remarkable for me and my family. I never really felt that I had witnessed a true miracle until now. And so I feel I owe it to others to share what we experienced.

Last Monday I awoke and found my son running a fever of 103.7. He'd been around other kids with runny noses and typical cold symptoms, and children are notorious for running fever with the simplest of infections so I though nothing of it. We basically treated him with Motrin and Tylenol to control the fever and he seemed to do okay with it. But 48 hours later he spiked a temperature of 104. Kids shouldn't run fever that high for more than a few days, so we decided to take him in. The ER doc suspected a urinary infection and gave him an antibiotic and told us to follow up with his pediatrician that same day. My wife called me about 30 minutes before his appointment and told me that his fever was now 104.9, and that's when I knew something was terribly wrong. A few hours later I found myself in the ER holding my son, who had become incredibly pale, lethargic and barely responsive. My boy was like a rag doll. He was very sick and I knew that he was on the verge of coding at any moment. I remember holding him in my arms, waiting for the ER staff to set up IVs and medications. I remembered how he used to smile and laugh. How he liked to wrestle with stuffed animals. Now there he was, his eyes nearly rolled back in his head. My boy had drifted off somewhere and I wasn't sure if he was going to come back. So I did the only thing I knew to do...I prayed. I couldn't bare the thought of losing my boy and I begged God not to allow it to happen. I whispered in my son's ear, telling him that he was supposed to bury me, not vice versa. When the ER doc told me that the lumbar puncture confirmed the diagnosis of bacterial meningitis, my fears grew deeper. Even today, 20-30% of children suffering from this will die, and more than 50% emerge with significant neurologic impairment. This is a catastrophic disease. The odds were stacked against my boy.

And as I was waiting for them to give IV medicines, my son woke up. I've never seen anything like it in all my years of medicine. One moment my son was lethargic and floppy, the very next he was alert, looking around the room. He focused on me and despite his weakened body was able to force the subtlest of smiles as if to say "I'm back, daddy". It was the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. The ER nurse beside me could only shake his head. What's even more amazing is that this occured before any treatment had been given. All that had been done to this point is the lumbar puncture. Some research has shown that LP leads to clinical improvement, but this has only been shown in certain cases of viral meningitis, not bacterial. Some will say that his fever finally came down, but he hadn't been given anything for fever in over four hours and, in fact, was due to be given something when this happened. His last and only dose of antibiotics was over 8 hours before. There simply isn't a medical or scientific explanation for the sudden and dramatic change in my son's condition.

We were subsequently transferred to the nearest urban children's hospital where he continued to slowly improve. Then one night I noticed that he was favoring his right hip. He was holding it close to his body and refused to move it, and would cry if I so much as touched it. I knew what this meant. A common complication of meningitis is infection elsewhere, including the joints. This is called septic arthritis and can devastate a joint. He was taken to surgery the following morning for surgical aspiration of the joint. Prior research data shows that my son likely had a septic joint, the only question was how bad was the damage going to be. Once again, the odds were stacked against him. While sitting in the surgery waiting area I had visions of one day explaining to my son why his brother is able to run and play football while he couldn't. I had visions of him struggling with chronic pain and a limp. Then the surgeon came in and said the sample was essentially normal. There was no evidence of septic arthritis and that his pain was likely a transient inflammatory process that would resolve spontaneously. Again, we were overwhelmed with relief. But that would only be a temporary feeling.

While in post-op recovery, I noticed his foot was twitching. My stomach flipped a bit, but I thought perhaps this was a muscle spasm from the anesthesia wearing off. But within minutes, his entire leg and then the entire left side of his body was doing the same. My son was having a seizure, another common complication from meningitis. I stood by and watched as the treatment team tried this medicine, then that, without results. Soon the medication had him snowed under, and yet the seizure continued. Things became very serious. I watched as the medication failed and I knew that they were running out of options. Soon it had been an hour, an eternity when it comes to seizures, and they were finally able to abort the process and end the seizure. Now we were left with another question...what else was going on? Again, the data was infavorable. Research shows that seizures that occur after 72 hours of treatment, and are prolonged and difficult to control usually imply a catastrophic vascular incident like a stroke, a clot or bleeding in the brain. The seizure was over, and my son was in a deep drug-induced sleep, leaving us wondering how different he would be when he woke. Was our son ever going to be the same?

They did a CT and an EEG and discovered normal findings. There was no evidence of any major cerebral damage and no evidence of seizure activity. Once again, our boy had beaten the odds. Since then, he has gradually returned to his old self, rowdy and flirty. He has the nurses gah-gah over him and as I type this he snores peacefully after a few hours of playing with his teddy bear and his balloons. He'll be in the hospital for about another week as they make sure no further problems develop. He is still at risk for long-term complications like deafness, mental disability and behavioral problems. He is hardly out of the woods, but the daylight is certainly visible. Looking back, I realize that the past week has brought some of the worst and some of the best moments of my life. I am blessed in more ways than I can imagine and I can't stop thanking God for those blessings. In this hospital, I am surrounded by parents who are experiencing similar moments, some worse and some better. My heart and my prayers go out to all of them. I have never been in a place of such sadness and despair.

I am a man of science, which means that I am awed by the things that science can't explain. Despite all we know, there is still so much that we can't decipher. I truly believe that my family experienced one or more of those moments this week. Some will call it karma. Some will call it luck. Some will call it modern medicine. Not me. I call it a true miracle from God. There were dozens and dozens of people praying for our boy, some we hadn't spoken to in years. I thank you all for your prayers. I believe they were answered. They were certainly felt by us.

Over the next few weeks we will attempt to slowly return to normality. But the impact has been profound. I saw God working in our lives these few days and I felt His comfort. I've achieved a new level of respect and empathy for parents who must cope with sick children. And I've discovered a new hero in my life.

And to think, just a week before I was stressed and worried about selling our house and preparing for our upcoming move to Texas. How ridiculously trivial! How shameful. The perspective I now have is a wonderful feeling, knowing that no matter what happens in our lives as long as I can hug my wife and kids, and see those wonderful smiles, there is nothing else that matters. I can't hug and kiss my kids enough. God has blessed me beyond description and that's what this crazy world is all about.


Kristina said...

Dr. Thank you for sharing your pain, struggle, and good news with us. We are praying for your son and your family.

Mike said...

Thanks for sharing this. I can't even imagine...

I'll pray right now for your boy.

The Loop Garoo Kid said...


I have some experiences to share w/ you privately. If you wish, foward your e-mail address to Snake Hunters @ He has generously agreed to foward it to me.

If not, all the best.

John Washburn said...


I'd love to hear your story


Doctor John,

Thank you for this heart-warming
story. The Negatives of War and
ugly politics is enervating. Your
young son, the struggle & recovery has brightened my day. reb