No More Tears In Heaven

(Editor’s note: I wrote this post very shortly after the incident happened, which was in late March. I haven’t been able to publish it until today. I’m still making sense of what happened. I’m sure I never will completely.) A few months back I noticed a cord with a plastic pull hanging in our garage, associated in some way with the garage door apparatus. I speculated aloud as to what its function was, and my husband, who was standing nearby informed me that shortly after we had moved in he and my son were in the garage together. My son, who was eleven at the time, had seen the cord, which is only easily in reach when the garage door is in the “up” position, had pulled the cord, which disconnected the door from the automatic lifting device and subsequently caused it to come crashing down on its tracks. Luckily no one was standing under it, because they surely would have been crushed (had the “someone” been one of our two small dogs) or sustained a serious injury (had the “someone” been a person, like my child or husband).

Not in a fond way I was reminded of the time several years prior when my husband had related, several months after the event, the story of his successful execution of the Heimlich maneuver on the same son mentioned above. A true carnivore, my son, who had barely enough teeth to masticate meat at the time, had placed an enormous piece of flank steak in his mouth and choked while trying to swallow it. No one in my family seems to understand why discussing this incident inflames me, since in their assessment, everything turned out fine. And in their estimation, telling me about it in a more timely fashion would not have changed the ultimately positive outcome.

In the life of any person there are certainly many such incidents. Near misses. Almost calamities. Flirting with disaster, thank you, Molly Hatchet. As parents the hairs on our arms stand up as we allow ourselves a brief contemplation of “what if?”, and we smile and offer a silent prayer of thanks as that tiny package containing half of our DNA and all of our hearts runs off towards the next adventure.

At least, that’s how it usually happens. In a way so incredibly tragic that I am just now able to start to comprehend it, it didn’t happen that way for a friend of mine here. At a birthday party over the weekend her son, who was only five years old, drowned in a pool-full of kids, surrounded by several attentive adults.

How did it happen? None of us really understands it. I was only there to drop off my son, who was spending the night with the older son of my friends, who were hosting the party for their younger son. I got into a conversation with a couple of other parents from our school. We have recently staged something of a “bloodless coupe” and placed four new board members, all parents, which has energized the community quite a bit. We were having a spirited discussion about curriculum when I heard my friend Erica screaming for someone to call an ambulance.

It was all so unreal. One second I was talking to friends, and the next I was sprinting after my friend Chuck, who was hurtling over chairs and benches on his way to the pool deck. Even then in my mind I was thinking that at worse someone had fallen and cracked their head on the pool deck. But when we got to the side of the pool we found an unresponsive little boy with blue lips surrounded by frantic adults.

Someone had started CPR, but for better or worse, the crowd parted for Chuck and me. Somehow my brain went to that place that it’s supposed to go to when you’re trained to deal with emergencies. Airway. Breathing. Compressions. A-B-C. I rolled him to his side and cleared his mouth of vomit. I probed under his mandible for a carotid pulse, and felt nothing. Chuck started compressions, and I started mouth-to-mouth, pinching his nose and blowing into his mouth until I saw his chest rise. I had never actually done CPR on a human, and I remember when I got certified that mouth-to-mouth is controversial, since unconscious people almost always vomit, but it seemed like I had to try. In a fully-stocked veterinary clinic I would have placed an endotracheal tube and hooked the patient up to an oxygen machine, but clearly I couldn’t do that, so I did what at the time seemed like the next best thing.

I don’t know how long we tried to revive him on the pool deck, but it probably wasn’t long before someone made the decision that we needed to take him to the hospital, because waiting for the ambulance would cost us precious time. Here in San Miguel even if the ambulance does come it is likely not staffed by trained EMT’s, like ambulances are back home. So really all you’re getting is a fast ride to the hospital with sirens. My friend Erica, who lives in a tiny town six hours from here, told me that once a cyclist got hit by a car in front of her house, and when she called the ambulance, she was told she’d have to bring them gas money before they’d come.

So I think that ultimately the decision to drive him to the hospital was the right one, because we were only a short distance away. Chuck and I raced from the pool to the first car we saw with a driver, Chuck carrying his body and me cradling his head. We laid him on the floor of the back seat and started CPR again, and continued until we pulled into the emergency bay at the hospital.

For some reason it never occurred to me that we wouldn’t get him back. Even as I was repeatedly checking for a pulse and not getting one, I thought his color was improving. And I wanted so badly for him to live! To come back to us and resume his ridiculously short life! To come back to his mother, who cherished him beyond measure. But after only about ten minutes in the ER our friend Ricardo, who is an MD here in town and had met us at the hospital, came out to tell us that he was gone.

It was so overwhelmingly impossible to believe this news. I remember in vet school our Emergency Medicine professor showed us a study that someone did comparing people’s perceptions of how often comatose people are revived in the ER, versus the reality. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but suffice it to say that TV hospital dramas have skewed our beliefs far towards the positive side, but the reality is that most of these cases don’t make it. And I don’t know whether his chances would have been any better in an American ER or even an ER in a bigger Mexican city. I don’t even know how long he was under the water, but surely it couldn’t have been long. How did it happen so fast?

I spent some time over the next couple of days wondering if there was more I could have done, or something I should have done differently. I asked myself why I felt that I needed to be one of the ones working to save him. After all, I’m a dog doctor, not a people doctor. I remembered another story from vet school, this time about a couple of doctors from the vet teaching hospital where I went to school who were on a plane headed to a conference when that Hollywood-moment occurred and the flight attendant asked over the intercom if there was a doctor on the plane. My vet friends related that they waited a minute, looking anxiously around them until, seeing no call buttons go on, rang theirs. When the flight attendant arrived and they told her that they were veterinarians, uproarious laughter ensued from the seats around them. Some asshole even yelled out, “Hey, we’ll let you know if he needs his nails clipped!” to chorus of even more laughter.

So yeah, we vets have some insecurities about what you think of our abilities. I can’t really even say what made me lay my hands on this boy, except that I felt that I had to. And honestly I don’t know if it was even possible to save him at that point. Sadly, we’ll never know. But I think I did the right thing by trying.

Death. So final. So many questions left unanswered. So much pain. Why did this happen? Surely, I’ll never be able to answer that. This little boy’s poor mother is lost. She’ll never hold his hand as they cross the street together again. She’ll never struggle over homework with him. She’ll never anguish with him because a girl turned him down for a date, or hold a grandchild in her arms.

The community is reeling, surely as it would be after the tragic loss of any child, but this little boy was heartbreakingly beautiful in a way that even those who met him only once and briefly were touched by him. Everyone remembered meeting him, and remembered his dazzling smile. We’ll never see him grow up, never know what he would have become.

A few days ago I watched sunset from the roof of a house in the beautiful and slightly funky beach town of Zihuatanejo, where we are spending a week. It was one of those fiery orange ball sunsets, oozing into the Pacific Ocean like a popsicle melting on a on cement in mid-August. Realizing simultaneously the beauty of this sunset and that my camera was downstairs, I mentally calculated whether I could make it down and back in time to get my phone and photograph the sunset. I decided that I would rather just enjoy the sunset, and wait until another day to get a picture. But, of course, there was no other sunset quite like that one on any of the other days that we were there.

Ultimately I guess tragedies remind us to watch more sunsets through our eyes instead of through our viewfinders. To be kinder, and to judge each other less, or at least less harshly. To say “I love you” more. To say, “you’re beautiful”, or “you make me smile” to each other more. To live in the moment, and to do things today rather than tomorrow. Because none of us has a guarantee on tomorrow. Life is a gift and a wonder and you’d better squeeze everything you can out of today. Because tomorrow it could all be over, for any one of us.