Our 2020 Crisis, pt. 1

(Spoiler: It wasn’t COVID)

After a long break, I began to post on this blog again in the spring of 2020 with grand aspirations of writing something new every week, but several things happened to interfere with my plans. I’d like to explain … and then make another effort to start posting regularly again! 

I know COVID derailed many people’s plans for 2020, but the pandemic was actually not the primary stressor in our life that year. It certainly had an impact on us, but it took a backseat to what happened in the middle of June. That day we were hanging out at the park with our six kids and some friends, and our then 9-year-old son Peter and his friend asked if they could ride their bikes in a large pedestrian zone nearby. We gave them permission, and they headed off with our 7-year-old son tagging along. A little while later, the mom of Peter’s friend got a call from an unknown number. It was her son, calling from a stranger’s phone, to say that Peter had fallen off his bike, that he seemed fine, but he needed us. My husband George went to get Peter. I didn’t give the whole thing much thought. I figured Peter had just scraped himself up a bit and was upset about it. I expected George to bring him back shortly, maybe bleeding a little, but basically fine, and we’d clean him up once we got home. 

George was gone a bit longer than I would have expected, but I’m used to him taking more time to do things than anticipated, so it didn’t worry me. When he finally reappeared, he was by himself, pushing Peter’s bike. The first words I remember coming out of his mouth were, “We’re waiting for the ambulance.” I was dumbfounded. I strongly wanted to argue, to say that an ambulance wasn’t necessary. After all, hadn’t Peter just skinned his knees? That was my first impulse, but I managed not to make a fool of myself and simply asked for more information. He said that Peter couldn’t stand up, so they were waiting for an ambulance to come check him out. 

George went back to Peter, and I just waited for news. Even though Peter couldn’t stand up, I still wasn’t thinking in terms of broken bones. I knew the area where he had been riding. It was large and flat with very few obstacles. I couldn’t imagine how he could have gotten a significant injury there. It never occurred to me to go to him, partly because I still didn’t think it was anything serious, and partly because I felt tied down, since I was responsible for the rest of our kids, and the two youngest ones required constant attention. 

After a while, George called to say that the ambulance had come, and they were going to the hospital for x-rays. This was also unexpected. I had assumed that they would administer some sort of first aid on the spot that would make it possible for Peter to come home. It was getting late in the evening, so I packed up our things and gathered our kids, and our friends helped me get everyone home. I went through the motions of the kids’ bedtime routines on my own, and at some point George wrote to say that Peter had broken his femur and needed immediate surgery to place a pin in the bone to stabilize it. Ultimately, he would need a second surgery to install a metal plate that would hold the bone together while it healed. The plate needed to be specially ordered to fit Peter’s bone, and it might take up to a week to arrive.

If I had been dumbfounded before, now I was completely stunned. His femur? How in the world could he have broken the largest and strongest bone in his entire body? But I quickly absorbed the information and moved from stunned to efficient. I notified a recent acquaintance that we would be cancelling a Bible study in the park to which we’d invited her because our son was in the hospital with a broken leg. She wrote back immediately to say that she personally knew the owner of Ukraine’s top chain of private medical clinics and hospitals, and I spent the next few hours going back and forth with her and George to determine if we should transfer Peter there or not. We felt pressure from the medical personnel at the hospital where he was to get the first surgery done as soon as possible, and it was hard to find the the information required to make any major decisions when it was already past most people’s bedtimes, so we decided to keep Peter at the public children’s hospital where the ambulance had taken him, at least for the time being.

The first surgery started around 1:00 am, in order to give Peter’s stomach a chance to empty in preparation for general anesthesia. The anesthesiologist explained to George that their hospital was one of only two in the city to use a new two-tiered approach to anesthesia that involves one drug to render the patient unconscious (general anesthesia) and another to block the pain. The general anesthesia is the much more risky of the two, and by using both in combination, the anesthesiologist can use less general anesthesia, making for a safer surgery. This information was comforting, leading us to believe that maybe Peter was where he was supposed to be.

That first surgery went well, and amazingly, the special-order plate arrived at the hospital just a few hours after Peter was out of surgery. That meant that we were immediately confronted with having to make the decision about whether or not to transfer Peter to the private hospital. It felt like a really tough call. We wanted to get Peter the best care possible to ensure that our most athletic son would have no lingering handicap, but without international health insurance, we weren’t even sure if we could afford the medical bills at the private hospital. Finally, we decided, once again, to keep Peter at the public children’s hospital. Everyone there had been pleasant, and the doctors seemed really competent—plus, they could do the surgery right away, and Peter would not have to go through the trauma of being transferred to a different hospital. He was in significant pain, and the doctors didn’t recommend moving him. 

As they prepared for the second surgery, I wasn’t worried. Our eldest son had snapped both the bones in his forearm in a bicycle accident a few years before, and his surgeries to place pins in the bones and then remove them later had gone very well. I felt like we’d already been through the broken bones plus surgery routine, and this should be a repeat experience. One cool thing about Peter’s surgery was that he would not need a cast afterwards. The special-order metal plate would function like an internal cast!

Peter’s second surgery started in the late morning, a few hours after his first surgery had ended, but as the afternoon began to stretch toward evening, I still hadn’t heard anything. Finally I got a message from my husband saying that Peter was out of surgery, that it had gone well, but that he had lost a lot of blood. 

Immediately I felt the blood drain from my own face. In that moment, I finally understood that the surgery I had considered simple—even routine—had been anything but, and I was numb with the shock of the realization that Peter had been in mortal danger, and I hadn’t even known it. I felt physically faint as the knowledge that we could have been mourning the death of a child set in. It was difficult to comprehend that we had come so close to a tragedy of this magnitude. I didn’t know the proper response, besides overwhelming gratitude to our gracious Heavenly Father for sparing Peter. 

Read part 2 here.

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