Updated: Oct 17, 2017
She stood in the doorway, fidgeting with a sheaf of papers in her hand and looking anywhere but at me. "What's up?" Taking a deep breath she crosses the threshold, coming into my dimly lit office. I keep the lights down on purpose, fluorescent light is harsh. "Oh nothing," she muttered. "I know I should come in here more, but …”
Shrugging as she trails off, her attention flits around the room to the eclectic bric-a-brac decorating the walls. The word “office” is loosely applied here, the space is not very formal. Every available space is decorated with not-so-motivational internet memes, magnetic word games, family pictures and a variety of trinkets which look like they came from a roadside souvenir stand in the Mojave Desert. Difficult subjects often need icebreakers, distraction has its purposes. I nod at the papers clenched in her hand, "What do you have there?" Without preamble she hands them over.
The childish scrawl devours the wide margins of the composition paper. The words desperately try to maintain their axis, but despite the best intent of the dotted guideline they roll up and down across the faded copy. Only the first few words are visible on the top page. With broad strokes it starts out with "My Mommy said," and I smile. I glance above my desk at a little construction paper collage, created by my son with a crayon and some safety scissors. It's a crude ambulance under a night sky, with a stick figure rendition of me driving. In lopsided script it says, "My Mom is my hero." I continue reading and my smile fades.
The similarity ended with the crayon.
The second half of this little boy's sentence reads, "if I don't be good she is going to kill me."
"Why do you have this?”
She shrugs, unsure. The school counselor who made the call just wanted to make sure all the involved agencies had a copy for their reports. Who knows? Maybe if everyone saw his story, he wouldn't get lost, forgotten about.
They got called to the school, where the staff had made the call and they were there to evaluate the little boy and transport him safely to the hospital while Child Protective Services did what they had to do.
Whatever the reason, the story of his short life was handed to her.
Let me share a secret, a key to how we are able to do this job.
We do not always want to know the story, the whole story. The story turns a patient into a person. That hurts, sometimes a lot.
Sometimes too much.
She had read it and it hurt, that’s why she was here. So I read it too, knowing it would hurt. As I flipped through the pages I let her tell me not about a patient, but about the little boy she met. Despite the horror on the pages, he was smiling and cooperative. Obviously he felt safe, with people who cared. The words are difficult to make out in places due to poor copy, but there is enough there.
Knives belong in kitchens, not held to a child’s throat by the person who is supposed to love them most.
Seven-year olds cannot spell “cigarette” correctly, but they can describe what one feels like on their skin.
I finish reading and look at her. She is angry now, but not at the letter in my hand. She is angry at the staff in the ED, who summarily dismissed her as she was trying to impart the significance of her report. They relegated the child to the first open bed and were unconcerned with additional details. Of all the wrong that occurred with this call, that is what provoked anger.
To be disregarded is a terrible thing, especially for someone trying to be a person.
Standing up, I went and closed the door. As I went to hug her my eyes flicked to my son’s note again and tears filled my eyes. I wasn’t alone. When she realized I was crying too she let out a long ragged breath and said, “Thank God. I’m normal.”
There is nothing normal about this, about what we do. There is humor and adventure, pain and suffering, but normal? Our work begins where normalcy ends, shredded by Fate into strips of fear and pain. It hangs like a curtain that we push past on each call, into the unknown where we thrive. Normal is not for us I’m afraid. No, you are not normal.
You are human. We are human.
She apologized for making me cry, that wasn’t her intent. We talked more, laughing as we composed ourselves, body language relaxing, stress relieved.
The letter sits buried on my desk, the faded composition lines visible when I move certain papers. I keep it as a private reminder that we do not live in normal, and that a burden shared is made less.
You do not have to carry it alone.