Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Reflections from a Wednesday: False alarms and Fragility

Negmaron monument, Haiti

Zachary, safe in arms after a false alarm

For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are

On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from the star

Like tears from the star
On and on the rain will say

How fragile we are. . . how fragile we are

-Sting "Fragile"

“Mommy! Mommy!” I heard a little voice screaming from upstairs. I looked toward the basement door, which I had left cracked before going down to deal with a load of laundry. Frantic feet were pattering above my head, and I knew it could mean only one thing—Zachary was now awake. “Mom-maaaay!!” The urgency in his voice was growing. I knew he’d made the drowsy trek into my bedroom upon opening his little eyes, and was alarmed to find I wasn’t there. I did my best to quickly shovel the damp clothes from the washer into the dryer before he completely melted down.

Harry had taken Isaiah for a haircut, and Zachary, who had fallen asleep in the car on the drive home from school, had stayed behind with me. I scooped him from his car seat, quietly laid him down on his bed, and tip-toed away; hoping this would give me a moment to do a few things, and most importantly, nothing for a few minutes. Not even twenty minutes later, he awoke, very much alarmed that there were no signs of his mom or any other life in the house.

After scurrying up from the basement, I opened the door to find Zachary standing in the hallway, visibly shaking from crying so hard. His entire face was covered with snot and tears, and the minute he saw me he almost fell down from trying to get to me.

“Here I am, bud!” I spoke softly, “Mommy was right downstairs. Here I am, baby.”
His heart was pounding hard against my chest, and every few moments he would tremble while trying to catch his breath. I carefully looked at his face and realized that this was not just a dramatic toddler moment. He was truly terrified. My 3 year old son thought, if only for 90 seconds, that his mother was gone.

“M-m-mom-meeeee-hee-heee,” he whimpered repeatedly as I continued to do my best to reassure him. Over and over, I told him not to worry.

“Mommy’s not going anywhere, baby. Mommy would never leave you, okay?” It was a false alarm, Zachary. Mommy is here.

Finally, his heart rate and anxiety level returned to normal. Before you knew it, he was comfortably entrenched in the Nickelodeon channel and his lovey (a now ratty and super scary quilted blanket)--much calmer now. Fifteen minutes later, Isaiah burst into the door, tongue blue from the lollipop his dad rewarded him with for sitting still, and with another unopened one in his hand.
“For you, Zachy!” Isaiah announced presenting the candy to his recently traumatized little brother like a bouquet of fresh flowers. Zachary squealed, stripped the wrapping off, and closed his eyes with glee upon burying the lollipop in his little mouth. “Luwwy-paah!” he giggled with nothing but a stick poking from his lips. Life was good again. It was a false alarm. Mommy and Daddy are here.

I have thought about that day several times over the last week. I sometimes imagine this nightmare where Zachary or Isaiah was crying out for me or Harry in escalating terror . . . .and we are nowhere to be found. They open and close doors, holler down hallways, and even wander out the front door, all the while shrieking, "Mom-maaaayyy! Dad-daaaaay!!!" But to no avail. Then I shudder at the thought, and feel relieved. . . . realizing that I am here and they can find me. And Daddy. Whew.

A little over a week ago, a massive earthquake hit Haiti, rattling nearly every standing structure in the capital and its surrounding provinces to bits. Over 100,000 people lost their lives, and thousands and thousands more were left with life-threatening injuries. The images are horrible; the reality of it so disturbing to put your mind around that you cover your eyes with your hands, turn the channel, but then turn back while peering between your fingers. I can't believe this is happening in the world right now, I keep gasping. I squeeze my eyes tight and pray as hard as I can. Lord, have mercy. . . . please.

Before I know it, I'm back on the news channel again. . . . . . staring. . . aghast. Oh Lord. A youngish man is sitting on a pile of rubble crying--hard. In his hand, he is tightly gripping a frayed, wallet-sized photo of a woman. He is child-like in his every action, eventually crumbling into tired sobs. In Kreyol, he expresses that his wife is buried somewhere under the ruins. And he can't find her after 5 whole days. Oh my gosh. They dig with tiny picks, often in the dark, until finally, a shrill voice can be heard faintly amidst the piles of concrete. 3 1/2 hours later, everyone pitches in to pull this man's wife out of what surely she thought was her grave. What a resilient people. I clap my hands and wipe away tears. At least one happy ending. At least one false alarm. Then the camera pans across to the street. . . .people are everywhere. . . .roaming, screaming, lost, broken. Please, Lord. . .have mercy. . .I unsquench my eyes, and that's when I see it. This fleeting image of a little boy walking alone in the corner of the camera angle. Covered with dust, looking exhausted. . . .and surely no more than four years old. His eyes were empty, and his mouth was open and crying-- but I couldn't hear his voice. He had probably screamed for his mother so many times that he'd lost his tiny voice. The sun was setting. It would soon be pitch dark all around him. Suddenly, I felt sick. This is really happening.

I pictured Zachary--frantic and afraid. . . after only 90 seconds out of my sight in broad daylight. A false alarm. Mommy is here. Thank God. That little child stepped over rocks, debris, people. . . all alone. He looked terrified. Oh, that precious little boy. . . and the hundreds of thousands of children like him. . .wishing for false alarms, scared of the dark shadows that no grown up is there to explain away. I've been getting these chilling visions of lonely armies of toddlers and school-aged children. . . . aimlessly wandering. . . crying and shaking. . . .each of them lifting rocks, craning tired necks behind trees, hysterically yelling without sound, "Maman! Papa!" but met with no reply. No Mommy or Daddy to emerge in 90 seconds, or 90 hours, or even 90 days. . . . No false alarm. Maman et papa ne sont pas ici.

Then, like many people, I start crying. . . .anxiously jumping online or texting to make some kind of donation to somebody somewhere in Haiti. . . .only to find myself peeking through fingers again a few hours later, hoping that it was all just a false alarm. But it's not. It's real. It's really happening.

Okay, I am not sure about you, but sometimes I feel like a helpless voyeur. Shouldn't I be doing something? I think I will start with the following pledge:

1. I will do something not nothing.
2. I will force myself to know and remain aware of the suffering of other human beings
3. I will pray for the survivors and their families, and for the relief workers in Haiti.
4. I will not let myself forget this is happening.
5. I will not let myself forget this is happening.
6. I will not let myself forget this is happening.
7. I will appreciate my life more every single day.
8. I will be kind.
9. I will recognize how fragile we are.

I told one of my med students, Antoinette, just the other day that I struggle with the parallels of the world. . . .how there are people sleeping under bridges across the street from Grady, and people sleeping under piles of sheetrock in Haiti, and people sleeping under 600 thread count down comforters right here in Atlanta all at the same time. How do you even reconcile that? Look, I'm not trying to get all preachy-preachy here. I mean, it's not like I was the one left out there in the very center of the darkest part of the night all alone with 200+ critical patients like another Grady doctor, Sanjay Gupta, was. But if we believe that we are all connected, which I do, then our collective gestures great and small, amount to something mighty, right? Kind of like when the little "Who" in the Dr. Seuss book "Horton Hears a Who" finally did his part, it changed everything. His one voice made all the difference. So every person counts.

"A person's a person, no matter how small." ~ Dr. Seuss

It's hard to know where to start. I wish it were as simple as the Nickelodeon channel and a lollipop. . .but this time it's not. My best guess is that it begins with knowing. . .and acknowledging. . .and, well, seeing. . . . then, doing my part, whatever that is. I'm still not even sure what "my part" is exactly. . . .but what I do know is this: The more I force myself not to turn the channel away from those motherless children, away from those Grady patients right in front of me or away from those parallel lives existing in far corners of the world or sometimes just across the examining table. . .the closer I get to finding out.

Parallels. . . .

School kids in Haiti

School kids in Atlanta

"Lest we forget how fragile we are. . . . . ."

Sting singing "Fragile"


  1. Okay, you and your family have got to stop making me cry!! This was beautifully written. I, too, consciously make myself remember that unspeakable suffering is happening right now in Haiti. Too many mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and babies have disappeared under the rubble in Haiti. I am vowing not to let them disappear from the busy-ness and distraction of my daily life. I'm keeping them close in my prayers and thoughts.

  2. That was beautiful & moving, KD. All of the images really break my heart.
    Now, I'm stealing this picture of my little Zachy...
    Love you.


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