The ER Conundrum: Life, Death, & Inconvenience


Last Saturday, Stump was stung by a bee. It was a hot afternoon and Stump was splashing in his pool. One moment, a honeybee was hovering just a bit above his head, and the next thing I knew, Stump was wiping at his face, crying, “Sting me!” I lifted him from the pool and Kellie pulled the tiny brown stinger from his forehead.

Stump has been stung before, and I knew enough to worry. I brought him inside for a dose of Benedryl and sat him in front of the TV, so that I could watch him. I knew that swelling on its own was not a sign of anaphylaxis, but still it was alarming to watch his face transform. The swelling spread from his forehead to his eye. Though the left side of his face was normal, the right side was unrecognizable.

And then he started coughing. It was a little cough, one that I wouldn’t have thought anything of on a different day, but it was undeniably regular. Every twenty seconds or so as he watched Handy Manny—cough, cough.

If you google “signs of anaphylaxis”, “difficulty breathing” is the first thing on the list. If you continue this investigation, you’ll discover that coughing counts as difficulty breathing.

It was the kind of situation I’ve found myself in too many times since having kids: I’ve got a problem that might be urgent—a fever that spikes at 106, say, or an asthma attack in the middle of the night. It’s probably okay, though—my child is responsive and his color looks fine. But what if I’m wrong? What if it’s not okay?

In this case, Stump didn’t start coughing until fifteen minutes after the sting and true anaphylaxis usually happens immediately. It seemed like the most likely scenario was that Stump would continue to cough until the Benedryl kicked in. We could probably stay home. But if I were to follow the internet’s guidance, I’d bring him in just to be safe.

The closest ER is an eight-minute drive from my house, and I know what to expect there, especially on a full-moon Saturday evening. The waiting room would be packed with a wild assortment of people: people coughing behind medical masks, people taking up a bench all snuggled in blankets, people with one sock off and an elevated foot, people crying on their cell phones, people moaning, people just sitting quietly with magazines and waiting.

And so, faced with a probably-ok-but-scary situation, I always picture the ER and think, Really? Do I really need to go there? Now?

Because first of all, the ER feels like its own risk, the opposite of what a body in crisis needs. When my child is sick I don’t want to bring him to a room full of suffering strangers, to make him wait for hours past his bedtime, to take off his clothes and have a new doctor press a cold stethoscope against his chest.

But also, I can’t deny that I just plain don’t feel like dealing. Sometimes I’d rather keep my own vigil; I’d rather worry from the comfort of my couch.

And this time I would have. I would have tracked Stump’s cough until it eased and then I would have continued on with our evening. Except then he started moving a tongue in a circle on the inside of his mouth as if trying to ease an itch. When I asked him about it, he looked me in the eye and said, “bye-bye.”

The nurse at the check-in desk had close-cropped hair and a nose ring. She took out her stethoscope and listened to Stump’s breathing across the counter. “He sounds clear,” she said. She examined his tongue. “We’ll get you seen,” she promised. “If anything changes, you come and tell me right away.”

But nothing changed, except that Stump’s Benedryl-induced stupor wore off the moment I set him down in the ER waiting area. He ran through the aisles of patients and climbed up on the windowsill to examine the statue of Mary in the twilight. “Go there?” he asked. He pointed to the bike rack outside and said “Playground?” But there is no playground at the ER. These are some of the ways that Stump passed the time:

  • Ran to the end of the ER corridor.
  • Discovered that the main lobby of the hospital was accessible to us, and totally empty. Experimented with echoes.
  • Pressed the buttons on the water fountain until the whole front of his shirt was soaked through.
  • Chose a bag of chocolate chip cookies from the vending machine, ripped it open down the middle, and then insisted on carrying the “whole bag!” with him at all times.
  • Went outside for a change of scenery, yelled “hi” at the woman trying to talk on her phone, successfully broke free from me to stomp on the landscaped beds.
  • Returned to the empty lobby and took off his sandals. Discovered that soles of feet were now black from stomping on dirt. Washed feet in bathroom sink.

one-eyedWIt was ten by then, and Stump was getting tired. This didn’t mean that he was slowing down; it meant that he was hitting me. Stump is not the kind of kid who is capable of getting sleepy in an ER. Stump does not get sleepy until everything is quiet and all the lights are out. We had waited two hours, but when I looked around I realized that all of the people sitting in the waiting room were the same people I’d seen at our arrival. As far as I could tell, no one had seen a doctor yet.

I’m embarrassed now to admit this, but: I wondered if I was allowed to leave. Like, once you checked your kid into the ER, was it easy to check him out? Would I be accused of child neglect? Would I be judged? Because it was well past bedtime, and though Stump’s eye looked awful I was pretty damn sure he was going to be okay.

And so, I hovered near the check-in desk, trying to gauge my options. The same short-haired nurse who had listened to Stump’s lungs was still there, and a woman with black hair and bright pink lipstick had joined her. An older woman leaned into their space and asked for information. “Do you know how much longer it’s going to be?”

The short-haired nurse shook her head. “I can’t tell you that,” she said, annoyed. “Some people are waiting six hours and I’ve got ambulances coming with new patients. If you want to leave that’s up to you.”

When she left, I approached them sheepishly. “I know you can’t advise me,” I whispered to the nurse who wore lipstick. “But we’ve been here two hours, and he’s tired, and I’m thinking he’s probably not going to go into shock at this point, so—“

“Oh honey,” she interrupted. “You’re so sweet. He looks great. I think you’re fine.” I understood that she meant this as a compliment, but I felt a little stupid for having waited so long. She tapped the short-haired nurse on the shoulder. “These guys should go home, dontcha think?” she asked.

The short-haired woman looked up from her computer. “Well, he sounded clear when you came in and I’ve been watching him run around the last two hours.”

“Okay,” I said. The other nurse had already handed me a waiver and I was signing it.

The short-haired nurse spoke again. “But officially I’d recommend you wait for the triage nurse to see you. She can assess the situation.”

“Oh,” I said, looking back and forth between the two women, and then back down at the waiver.

“I’m just giving my professional opinion,” she said. And then, I swear, she winked at me. “If you want to go home, I totally get it.”

I bolted out of there into the warm night air, clutching Stump at my side. The moon was rising; it was orange. Stump pointed at it and said “The moon! The moon!” By the time I had navigated out of the hospital campus and turned onto the main road, he had fallen asleep.

When I laid him on the bed, above the covers, both eyes closed, his breathing steady, measured, normal, you might not have guessed that anything was ever wrong.


Leaving Colorado Part 5: Homecoming

Leaving Walla Walla  Photo from
Leaving Walla Walla
Photo from

The last leg of our journey should have been easy. After two long days of solo driving, the trip from Walla Walla to Olympia—five hours on a good day—was a route I’d traveled at least a dozen times before. The distance was finite, reasonable—there would be no pushing on another hundred miles while the baby screamed. I wasn’t searching for the next hotel, I was aiming straight for home. It was waiting for us. It would be there.

And so we spent a lazy morning with our Walla Walla friends: eating breakfast, lingering over coffee, playing on the playground. I told myself that the late start would serve us all, that my children would be compliant passengers after their car-free morning. Maybe—I dared to think it—we would make it all the way there without stopping.

I loaded the kids in their seats and the dogs in their spots for our final departure at one, just as the sun was reaching its highest point in the sky. It was September, and the morning had been cool enough, and so I hadn’t thought about my broken air conditioning, or how it feels to drive through shade-less Walla Walla. And before we’d even past the city limits, just as the baby had fallen asleep, I noted orange cones down the middle of the road, and an endless backup of cars. Our black Honda, crawling along on the asphalt, became an oven. Thirty minutes later, when the traffic finally cleared, we had traveled less than five miles.

The four-year-old whined that he was “sweaty”.

The baby, who should have slept a full three hours, woke up and added his voice to the chorus of cranky.

The dogs panted, and shifted, and acted generally good-natured because that is what dogs are good for.

I drove for an hour and then stopped for Slurpees. Sugar cheered both of my children. I assumed that the worst was behind us.


We were about halfway there when I started winding up the mountain road, and passed a sign that said Caution: Loose Gravel. I’d seen these signs before on bigger highways and wondered why they even bothered with the warning. The roads were always fine, it seemed to me, just an extra chip of gravel here and there. My bigger problem was the sun, which was no longer hot, but was blindingly bright when it cut through the shade of the mountain. I wore sunglasses and pulled down the visor, but the brightness still shocked me at every turn.

And then I hit the gravel. The brightness filled with thin white dust and now I really could not see. I slowed the car to twenty miles an hour. I could see about five feet in front of me, but not beyond. It was like driving in a blizzard. A sunny September blizzard. My four-year-old complained that he was bored, and that he wanted a snack. “I can’t see right now!” I told him, my voice tight with fear. “No, I said I want a snack!” he protested. I kept telling myself to just keep driving, to stay slow, to keep looking those five feet ahead. I kept telling myself we were safe even though it seemed we were in danger. The baby cried weakly and then quit, like he didn’t want to commit.

The dust blizzard continued for longer than I ever would have imagined. Occasionally, I’d drive through some shade and see just a little bit better and think: this isn’t so bad, and then the sun would blast out my vision once more. I kept thinking: how much of this road did they pave, as I rounded another mountain turn. Two miles? Five miles? Twenty? In the end, it felt like twenty though it can’t have been much more than five.

Dinner break at the top of the mountain.
Dinner break at the top of the mountain.

It was nearly ten at night when we finally arrived in Olympia. Both of my kids were awake. After the dust blizzard and a stop for dinner, the baby had cried for nearly an hour, slept for twenty minutes, and then woke up to resume his screaming. Now, as the car pulled to a stop, he took a staggered breath and quieted.

As I parked the car, my phone rang. It was an old friend. “You home yet?” she asked. “You need anything?”

“I could use a beer,” I told her.

Within ten minutes she delivered. She brought another friend and together they passed around the baby and chatted up the four-year-old as I wandered from room to room with my open beer. In a daze, I laid out suitcases, fed dogs, put sheets on the bed, engaged in the chores of home. Because that’s where I was.

There was something empty about it. The place seemed to echo. We’d abandoned it all summer after all. But still, it was comforting.

Home is the place with the scratches in the floors, the smell you recognize, where even an unmade bed, an empty refrigerator bring ease. Home is the place where your friends come to deliver you a beer just because you need one.

Leaving Colorado Part 3: Long Stretch of Nothing

Image Credit: Doug Kerr
Image Credit: Doug Kerr

I should have stayed in Brigham City. From what I saw, it was a friendly little place. I sat with my kids at a Panda Express watching my baby throw noodles on the floor while my four-year-old reclined on the booth. It was six p.m. and we’d been on the road since four in the morning. I had traveled 450 miles with two kids and two dogs. A rational mom would have called it a day.

But I didn’t want to spend the night in Utah. This was an ungrateful attitude considering the events of earlier that morning, but Utah had always ranked high on my list of Places that Gays Should Avoid. It was kind of a silly fear, I reasoned with myself. It’s not like I was wearing a t-shirt that said “DYKE”. Without my partner at my side, I looked like any other run-down parent. But I couldn’t get past my uneasiness.

I should buy this hat to wear when I'm traveling.  source:
I should buy this hat to wear when I’m traveling.

Besides, the sun was still high and Idaho was only sixty miles away. Driving on was a commitment though; from the TripAdvisor map, it looked like we’d have to drive deep into Idaho before finding a sure place to spend the night. I bought myself an iced tea and loaded everyone back into the Honda. The dogs, who up until this point had reliably ignored the snack box, had finished the last of my chips and left the car smelling like a fart.

By the time we reached the freeway, the baby was already crying. A summer of long car trips had trained me to recognize the cry of no return. He wasn’t tired, he wasn’t hungry, he was pissed. The nearest listed motel was in Burley. I watched the road signs, translating miles into minutes: 120 minutes of crying, 112 minutes of crying. I prayed for a better option.


As we approached Snowville, the last town in Utah, the baby still screamed and my fuel tank had fallen to E. Though the road had been quiet, the gas station was full of travelers. Just a few feet beyond was the town’s one motel, set behind a lot full of dying weeds. I nearly cried with relief when the clerk told me she had a room. The baby, red-faced, snotty, teary, nuzzled into my shoulder as I paid.

The moment we settled into the room, fear kicked in. Who did I think I was anyhow, traveling alone with two young kids? What if someone climbed in through the window while we slept? What if the motel owner was a psycho and let himself in with a key? What if my fear kept me up all night and tomorrow I’d fall asleep at the wheel? What if I never made it out of Utah?

But then I remembered: the dogs. Until now, I had seen them as two more beings who took up room, requiring care and food and space. But now they were protectors who would bark like crazy the moment they sensed a hand on the other side of the doorknob. Oh how I loved them for that.

I slept soundly for six hours, which was all I really needed. When I woke up, I poured warm tap water over two green tea bags in a Styrofoam cup and let the dogs out to pee in the brisk morning air. Then I loaded my tribe into the car, and left Utah, kind Utah, behind me. There was just enough light in the sky to make out the shape of the mountains, and also the glow of a few remaining stars.