Guest Opinion: Careful what you wish for: An AVH holiday
February 25, 2004
The week started off with a cough and a complaint. The cough issued from my 2-year-old son Nathaniel, who was coming down with a cold. The complaint I directed at my husband, who called from New York City to query whether he should take in a nice dinner or a Broadway play.
“You don’t appreciate how lucky you are just to stay in a hotel,” I complained, having canceled my own evening plans to care for our son. “You don’t have to cook any meals. You have uninterrupted access to cable television and you don’t have to sing ‘Peep Peep! Here Comes Thomas the Train!’ all day.”
As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Two days later, my son was admitted to Aspen Valley Hospital and I was granted a vacation from cooking, a hospital room with cable TV, and a reprieve from planes, trains and automobiles.
Nathaniel had contracted Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), a highly contagious and common virus that can live on surfaces for up to six hours. RSV is the leading cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in young children and each year infects more than 4 million children under the age of 4. Of those, 90,000 end up in hospitals. In older children, the virus causes coldlike symptoms, but in children under 4 (especially in infants), it’s more serious.
The flu scare has come and gone, but February is the peak month for RSV. Aspen Valley Pediatrics’ Dr. Madeleine Simonet says they might see as many as 250 cases in a typical season, with symptoms ranging from wheezing to rapid breathing to severe coughing. Since October, AVH has treated 24 children with the virus.
On Tuesday, Nathaniel had a cough. By Thursday evening he had a high fever, shallow and rapid breathing, and oxygen saturation readings so low the AVH nurse thought her machine was broken. He was placed in a plastic tent, where he lay in a rain forestlike atmosphere of oxygen and humidity for the next three days. Nathaniel was less put out by the tent than he was by the state of his big toe. Taped to it was a lighted sensor measuring heart rate and oxygen levels. The toe glowed like E.T.’s finger, and every time Nathaniel caught sight of it, he wailed “Mummy, Take it away! Take red toe away!”
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While Nathaniel fixated on his toe, I fixated with Scrooge-like suspicion on the anticipated hospital bill. I remembered paying $10 per Advil at the Grand Junction hospital where Nathaniel was born, and I played “The Price is Right” with every proffered gift from the kind AVH nurses. Would a box of crayons set me back $10, $20 or $40? Had I just eaten the most expensive orange Popsicle in the Western Hemisphere? At this rarefied altitude, and in Aspen, how much would I pay for the oxygen, the tent, the bed, the medications and the little stuffed tiger that Nathaniel lobbed out of his bed at every opportunity?
The nurses sensed my anxiety and sent the head nutritionist from the cafeteria to assure me that I wouldn’t pay ski-area rates for the food. “Actually,” she said, “when a minor is admitted, the parent’s meals are free. We figure you have enough to worry about.”
She was right, of course, and one look at my bubble boy put my paranoia in perspective. On Friday, my husband caught the first plane home from New York, and I was grateful to no longer be the only parent on call.
As Nathaniel improved, a new problem presented itself: His escalating fascination with the bedside “Call Nurse” button. At each shift change, we repeated our profuse apologies for the little prankster who kept unintentionally summoning the staff to our room. The nurses wised up and began checking in via the intercom. When we tired of these disembodied voices, we wised up as well and taped a washcloth over the button.
Over the course of three days, Nathaniel slowly emerged from the pall of illness, and I compiled a short list of hospital secret spots for future visits. The next time I wish for a vacation, however, I intend to be much more specific:
AVH Secret Spot 1: The free cafeteria coffee from 7 to 8 a.m.
I learned about the free coffee the first morning I stumbled out of our darkened room and mentioned to a nurse that I hadn’t slept in three days. I heard the words “free” and “gourmet coffee” and directions to the cafeteria, where I chose the largest Styrofoam cup available (apparently funnels are frowned upon) and proceeded to empty the cafeteria thermos.
AVH Secret Spot 2: The video collection
After pilfering every People magazine from every waiting room, we were clued in to the donated video collection in the Patient Care Unit. I was unimpressed by the small wire rack holding a smattering of Disney and Pokemon tapes until on day three I noticed the enormous bureau beside it. Too little too late for me, but a generous donation, indeed.
AVH Secret Spot 3: The patient snack closet
Within moments of our admittance, the nurses appeared with apple juice and an orange Popsicle for Nathaniel. That’s one speedy cafeteria, I thought. I later learned these treats came from a nearby room with everything from refrigerated yogurts to cans of Campbell’s soup. The stash is free to patients and a godsend for those who snack away their stress. All it lacks is a good chocolate supply.
On Sunday morning, Nathaniel had improved enough to warrant release from the tent and the hospital. But after three days of royal treatment from the nurses, multiple grilled cheese sandwiches and unlimited access to Winnie the Pooh videos, Nathaniel was disinclined to leave. He fell into a sound sleep as we discussed release instructions with the doctor, thus stranding us for the afternoon. When he finally awoke, we hurriedly prepared him to go, but after three days in bed he wobbled on his feet and ricocheted off furniture like a drunk.
Back at home, friends universally commented on how terrifying an ordeal it must have been. Actually, fear never crossed my mind. Whether it was a lack of sleep or the gentle hospital care, I’d felt from the start that Nathaniel was in good hands. We’re still dreading the bill, but ultimately the sense of security was worth it, whatever the cost may be.
Allison Johnson lives in Carbondale and, when Nathaniel isn’t climbing in her office chair, works as a writer.