A Sick Child
Ben and I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to help the extraordinary Wendt Center when Father Wendt had christened our son Quinn soon after he had had heart surgery at Children’s Hospital 18 years ago.
When we were trying to decide who would go first, I announced that I would because whenever Ben talks about Quinn he makes me cry. So I figured I’d have a better chance of getting through this if I went first.
We were asked to speak about our experiences with a sick child because of The Children’s Grief Center project. And though we have had a chronically sick child and one who is severely learning disabled as well, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about my own experiences as a sick child. Because it puts, for me, the whole idea of healing into a different perspective.
When I was 10 years old, we were living in Tokyo, Japan when my father, then a colonel in the army working for General MacArthur, was sent to the front lines in Korea. I was terribly upset by this and became seriously ill. I could not hold down food and would regurgitate anything I was given, even water. Shortly after he left, I was put into the Tokyo General Hospital where they were treating the seriously wounded soldiers from Korea.
Because the hospital was badly under staffed, the doctor in charge of the pediatric ward, a hateful human being named Major Koppel, decided it would be better if no parents would be allowed to visit their sick children. The theory being that when the parents left, the children cried and it was too disruptive.
You can imagine how horrible this was for all of us but more so for the long term chronically ill children like me. I had been placed on an IV because I could not retain food.
What I didn’t know was, that my mother had joined the Gray Ladies and put on a uniform everyday trying to infiltrate the ward. I also didn’t know that she had gone to Mrs. MacArthur and begged her to let her see me. To no avail. What I did know, because I read the Stars and Stripes every day, was that my father’s regiment, the renowned Buffalos, (he was the renowned Buffalo Bill) were in the very thick of the war and many of them were being killed.
What I also knew was that the only children allowed to see their parents were children who were dying like my best friend Mikey who died of leukemia in the bed next to me with his parents at his side.
I decided to die. I don’t know how I did it but my appendix ruptured, and they had to do an emergency exploratory. I nearly died and they called my father in from the front lines and he came to the hospital and I miraculously recovered. Only to get sick again after he returned to Korea.
At one point, Major Koppel’s horrible little daughter Peggy had to have an eye operation and needed to be confined to a dark room for 10 days. They didn’t want her to have to be alone so they put me in there with her so that I was unable to read for ten days. And what was worse, Peggy’s horrible mother came to see her every day.
Nearly 10 months later, I was transferred to Brook General Hospital in Fort Sam Houston, Texas by hospital plane. My mother, brother, sister and I were strapped down in litters three across and five high, filled with dying and seriously wounded soldiers, and flown to Texas. Many of the soldiers died while we were on the plane. My sister Donna, then 8 years old, went around lighting cigarettes for the wounded who couldn’t light their own.
(In an amazing coincidence – recently at a Buffalo reunion of Korean veterans, to honor my father who died eight weeks ago, she recounted the story of the plane ride. One of the vets came up to her afterwards and said, “You lit my cigarette.”)
There is a happy ending here. Several months later at Brook General, my mother ran into Major Koppel, who had been transferred back from Tokyo, in the hallway.
“I hope you drop dead,” she said. And he did. The next day.
I tell this story because I have been a grieving, sick child, alone so I know what it’s like not to have love and nurturing and support in those circumstances.
Which brings me to my son Quinn, who was born 18 and a half years ago with a hole in his heart. When he was less than two months old, he went into heart failure and was admitted to Children’s Hospital where, for six weeks, we waited for them to decide when or whether he would be able to survive heart surgery.
As you can imagine, those six weeks were torment for many reasons. To have your own child sick and possibly dying, and in this case my first and only child, was unthinkable.
Secondly, being there, made me relive my own experience as a sick child in Tokyo.
But also, the day after Quinn went into heart failure, Ben went on trial in court for libel in a celebrated case which he will tell you about. So he was in court all day every day until the day Quinn had heart surgery and the verdict of guilty came down.
Needless to say, I lived at the hospital. I slept there and spent every day there. The only time I left him was to go out to dinner at night with Ben, after he had come from the courthouse and spent several hours with Quinn. Occasionally, I would go home to get some clean clothes. But I never left unless Quinn was with someone who loved him. He was never alone for one minute. And yes, my mother came to the hospital every day.
But we were the lucky ones. I was on a leave of absence from the Post. I only had one child. I had financial security. I lived in Washington. I had a husband, a mother and father, a nanny, and a housekeeper for support. I was, in fact, unique. All over the cardiology ward were seriously ill children who were alone in their rooms most of the time. Children whose mothers might have been single, or who had other children at home to take care of, or who had full time jobs, or who didn’t live in the immediate area or who had no money or who had no family support. It broke my heart to see these children. The nurses were wonderful. They would gather the lonely ones around their desk and rock them or take turns holding them. But there weren’t enough of them. My mother would hold them when she came, or my friends. I would, when Ben was there in the mornings before he went to trial and in the evenings, go around and hold the children. But it was never enough. And all I could think of during those times was what I had gone through as a lonely sick child in a strange hospital in Tokyo.
The night before Quinn’s surgery was the most difficult night of my life. I had been nursing him but he was not supposed to be fed after midnight. Every time I held him, he would try to nurse and cry in these rasping wheezing little breaths when I would be forced to push him away. Finally, I had to stop holding him because it was too agonizing for both of us.
As we handed him over to the heart surgeon that next morning, I collapsed on the floor in exhausted tears. Ben said the one thing he could have said that made me feel better. He said, “Look at it this way. He will never have to go to war.”
During the surgery, we were surrounded by friends and family which was of enormous comfort. And when he came out of it and we saw him in the intensive care unit, though it was a shock to see that tiny little body with so many tubes coming out of it, we knew he was going to make it.
Ben had to return to court, immediately after the surgery, to hear the guilty verdict, and when he returned, the doctors insisted that we go home that night and get some rest. There was no place to sleep at the hospital and they insisted he was doing fine. So we did.
Unbelievably, that night, after my having a good cathartic cry in the shower, we had a dinner party for everyone who had been involved in the law suit. I know it sounds strange but it was the best thing we could have done. Not only were we comforted by our close friends, but we were able to do something to get out of ourselves, to try and cheer up everyone else.
Quinn was out of the hospital a week later and we went on our scheduled vacation to Long Island soon afterwards.
He has had a long struggle with many other illnesses and learning disabilities. And he is currently at a boarding school for dyslexic boys in Buffalo. But he is the most valiant person I know. He is courageous and kind, loving and funny, optimistic and determined. He has earned the Gow School Browning award for two years in a row. It is awarded to the boy with the most true grit. He said to me a few weeks ago when he was home for a school break: “You know, Mom, I really love my life.”
He wouldn’t be where he is today without the tremendous support of so many wonderful people, family and friends, doctors and therapists.
And that is why what you are doing at the Wendt Center is so important.
Copyright 1999 by Sally Quinn. All rights reserved.