The four-year-old, Kristina, comes down the stairs crying, looking for me. She’s scared. She finds me in the kitchen. The seven-year-old, Rebecca has followed her, wearing a malicious grin. Kristina has been tortured again by her sisters, Rebecca, and the ten-year-old, Sophia. Kristina tells me about the sound she heard in the wall, a bump or something innocuous. A normal sound a house makes. But her sisters have told her it’s a ghost. She is freaking out.
I am supposed to comfort her, so I say, “Don’t worry, it is just the ghost of Rebecca’s finger, coming back to haunt her.” Rebecca looks at me, opens her right hand, palm up, three and a half fingers and a thumb extended. She looks down at the nub of her half-index finger, then back up at me. Her smile becomes sardonic and she says to me “You’re an asshole. You know that?” Kristina and I laugh, and I say “Yeah, I know. Quit torturing your little sister.”
Nothing prepares you for the stuff you face as a parent, the pain your children will have to endure like every other human being; the scars they will carry. The pain you can’t take away or bare for them. When Sophia was two she was running and she fell and hit her head just above her left eyebrow on the leg of a chair. It split open. We took her to the ER. The young doctor had me hold Sophia still while she put the stitches in. Sophia was too small for the head restraints. The doctor thought I could hold her down. I’m a big guy. Sophia was a freakishly strong child. I did my best to hold her. The doctor had planned on four or five stitches. The doctor and I were both sweating and tired after she finally got the second stitch in. She looked at me, “I think two will probably do it.” I agreed. A nurse slapped a bandage over the stitches and my wife and I took Sophia out of the ER and to Dairy Queen where she ran around and almost fell again.
Then, when Rebecca was four-and-a-half, we were at a family reunion. It was in south east Nebraska on a farm of one of my wife’s relatives. The small barn had been cleaned and tables, chairs and food were set up in and around it. I was sitting outside talking with one of my wife’s cousins when someone came running out to tell me Rebecca had stuck her finger in a fan and cut it off. Nothing had ever prepared me for this. Everything they say about adrenaline and PTSD and memory is true. When I shut my eyes, I relive all of this. Forgive me if I skip over some of the details.
I held Rebecca close to me, both of us covered in blood, a cousin’s husband took a lot of back roads at well over a hundred miles-per-hour to get us to the hospital. He called 911 on his cell to politely inform law enforcement what was going on and to please stay the hell out of the way. They did. My wife, Jeannie, was in the back seat of the extended cab truck with a cup of ice and the finger.
When we got to the hospital, they took the rag off. The finger was still attached, but mangled. Jeannie and I looked down at the cup. We thought that the finger had been in it. Why had someone handed her the cup of ice? From the local hospital, Jeannie and Rebecca took an ambulance to Omaha. The rest of the family and I followed. We were now a caravan.
The doctor in Omaha said he had reattached fingers before, but it had been a while. He had a young daughter and he said it was worth trying to reattach, but it would take a specialist. He started calling around to Kansas City and Mayo, up in Minnesota. I found one of the cousins who had some Benadryl in her purse. I took a handful to settle my nerves. My life had never been easy, but when it came to the really hard stuff, I always lucked out. When I really think about it, I have to admit I have lived a charmed life. Knowing that, I knew that Rebecca’s finger would be reattached, and everything would be alright. I was not prepared for any other option. Mayo called back. Arrangements were made for Jeannie and Rebecca to fly up there. My mother-in-law and I would drive six hours to join them. We got there about four the next morning. By that time, I had been up for almost twenty-four hours. The Benadryl had not made me drowsy.
The finger was reattached. Things were looking good. I took my mother-in-law to the airport to fly home so she could help my mother and my sister-in-law take care of the other kids. Rebecca was not happy. She was only given ice chips and jello. She was not allowed to move. She had to use a bedpan. She was not happy, and she didn’t hide it. Rebecca was small for her age and pretty skinny, but she was a ballsy kid. “I’m going to starve to death in here” she would yell. Then, when we tried to put her on the bedpan, she would point to the back corner of the room, a spot she couldn’t even see behind her bed but somehow knew was the bathroom, “There’s a bathroom right there. You could just pick me up and carry me in there instead of making me pee in this stupid, flat helmet.” This was in the middle of the pediatric ICU at Mayo Clinic. A pretty serious place, full of very sick kids. And there was my kid, trying to have her finger grow back together because she had stuck it into the back of a fan after being told to stay away from the fan. “I hate it here. This hospital is ugly. All the people who work here are stupid and the doctors are ugly.” I wanted to beat her ass to be perfectly honest. But I knew it was a struggle for her. She was tired, she was scared, she was uncomfortable, she was hungry, and she couldn’t get up and move around.
As things settled and we all calmed down, Jeannie and I learned that the fan was a big, industrial box fan like you see in workshops. There was no back on it and it was belt driven. Rebecca had tried to touch the belt and her finger was mangled between the belt and pulley. She hadn’t simply stuck it in the blade for a clean cut. The hand was now elevated, the finger extended. A pin that ran through the finger stuck out of the end. The bone, tendons and arteries had all been reattached in the surgery. But veins are too small, they have to grow back on their own over time. Arteries carry blood to the finger, but the veins can’t carry it away yet. So, every two hours or so a nurse would come in with a little styrofoam container, like fishing worms come in. There would be a leach in it. The leach would be placed on the finger to suck out the blood. The leach would sit there, until it had drained the blood, and then fall off. As long as the leach stayed on for twenty minutes or so, things were fine.
The day after the surgery was mine and Jeannie’s anniversary. Rebecca was calm, things were looking fine. We had made it through the first twenty-four hours which was a big deal. Jeannie and I left the hospital to eat at a restaurant across the street. As we were finishing dessert, my cell phone rang. We had to get back. When we got back, the doctors were going over everything. The surgeon conferred with one of the attending physicians on the unit. Rebecca’s kidney functions had shown some problems earlier that morning, so the attending had prescribed something for that. That medication had affected the blood flow to the finger. The leaches were not attaching any more. The surgeon said we would give it six hours. He said if things did not improve by then, the finger would have to come off. He was not willing to risk Rebecca’s kidneys and other internal organs to save a finger. My heart sank, I felt like that charm in my life had run out or it did not extend to my kids. I was not prepared for this. We make such a big deal about having healthy babies with ten little fingers and ten little toes. Now, one of those little fingers was going to be lost, on my watch.
I stepped out of Rebecca’s room. I looked in the little room next to hers. A mother sat with her child. Her child was hooked up to machines. Her child did not yell and scream and demand things like my child. I looked two rooms down at the little, fat yellow kid. The nurses took turns carrying him around the unit or pulling him in a wagon. He laughed when the nurses played with him. He was at home. There were no parents in sight. My wife and I wondered about him, but the nurses couldn’t tell us anything about him because of HIPPA, it was really none of our business anyway. Some of our relatives we had told about the little guy assumed that maybe he had been abandoned to Health and Human Services somewhere by people who couldn’t care for him. I imagined that maybe he had parents who loved him very much. Maybe he was from Georgia or Arizona, or anyplace far away. Maybe this was the only hospital that could care for him and his parents were at home, working their jobs that provided the insurance that paid for him to be here. Maybe they were taking care of his siblings. It was obvious the kid had been here a long time and I got the feeling he would be here the rest of his life. Maybe his parents loved their son very much and spent every waking hour thinking about him and missing him, and at the same time, waiting for him to die in the arms of a stranger. Would he even know his parents? I bet they would gladly sacrifice his right index finger to be able to take him home and love him.
The leaches never attached again. It was Tuesday night. The accident had happened on Sunday afternoon, the surgery early Monday morning. Rebecca had not been allowed to eat because of the possibility she would have to go back into surgery. Wednesday morning, she was wheeled back into the OR. She woke up with a huge pink and purple cast that went all the way from above the elbow to bellow the hand, enveloping it in a huge bulb of plaster. The doctor said it was not necessary to expose the wound to clean it. The main thing was keeping it completely protected. Rebecca ate a huge plate of spaghetti on a regular children’s unit.
When a digit is removed, it is a pretty simple procedure. We could have been sent home when she was done that Wednesday. But the doctors and staff knew that we were tired. It was a ten hour drive all the way back to our home in central Nebraska. They let us stay another night and discharged her on Thursday morning. She thought the cast was cool. She kept talking about her “broken” finger. We wondered how she would react in a couple of weeks when the cast came off and she realized the finger was gone. Turns out, that was what she thought a “broken finger” was, “broken off.”
Nothing prepares you for your kid getting hurt, losing part of her body. Nothing prepares you for finding yourself in a place filled with people so much worse off than yourself or your kid that you feel embarrassed to be there, embarrassed that you think your own situation is so bad. My wife and I walked out of the Mayo Clinic with our kid’s right arm in a cast, hiding the nub of a little finger that’s now a ghost. Behind us, still in the hospital were people who had been there before we had gotten there. Their children still hooked up to machines. The kids, all alone in the place waiting to die while being loved by strangers were still in there too. I bet they were all glad to see us go.
Rebecca was happy again, glad to move around, eat everything in sight and glad to be able to pee and poop on a toilet again. My life was still charmed, and it had extended to my children. I just had to get a little perspective to realize it.
Nothing prepares you for the first time your daughter sticks the nub of her missing finger up her nose or in her ear like a magic trick. Nothing prepares you for the fact that one day you will make a joke about your daughter’s missing finger. And, when you make that joke and your seven-year-old daughter calls you an “asshole,” you will laugh, because, trust me, nothing if funnier than hearing a little kid cuss. And, nothing makes a father prouder than hearing his child use bad language in the proper context.