Monday, January 16, 2012

The Boy with the Blank Face

I waited almost a week to write about this, because it was just too hard. And this isn't the entire story--I'll do the second half tomorrow--but know that Eli is going to be fine, so don't be alarmed by where the post ends.

Last Tuesday, I was on my way to Eli 10.5s school to pick him up. I always go early and hang out for an hour or so at a burger place by his school. As I was pulling into the parking lot of the burger place, my phone rang.

It was Gloria. "The school just called and someone needs to go pick up Eli," she said.

"What happened?" I asked.

"He was in PE class, playing slow-pitch softball, and he got hit in the head."

"Shit," I said (I actually did not say "shit". I said much worse, repeatedly).

It's only about two minutes from the burger place to Eli's school, so I was there quickly. I went to the infirmary and he was lying down on a bed.

"Hi, buddy," I said, walking over to him.

"Dad," he said weakly as I put my hand around his.

The nurse was talking, but I don't think I heard a word she said.

"How are you feeling, little man?" I asked.

He paused for a few seconds before answering. "I'm really dizzy and my stomach hurts," he said. Nothing he said sounded normal--it was like he was talking from the bottom of a well.

"Do you remember what happened?"

Again, a long pause. "I was pitching a softball to Caroline"--Caroline weighs 110 and can bench-press Eli--from about 10 feet away, and she hit a line drive that hit me right here." He gestured toward his left ear, then moved his hand toward the front of his face. "I can't hear out of my left ear right now."

"Okay," I said. "We're going to get you to a doctor. Can you stand up?"

"Not very well," he said.

I put my arm around him and he took tiny, shuffling steps. I held onto him, almost carrying him, because he was so unsteady. It took a few minutes, but we reached a bench just outside the school, and he sat there while I pulled the car around.

"Dad, can you help with the seatbelt?" he said when I got him in the car. I did, and then we headed for home, because Gloria was on the phone setting up a doctor's appointment, and home was on the way. I looked in the rear-view mirror when we hit a stop light.

My boy, the funniest, warmest, most enthusiastic boy, had no expression on his face. He wasn't there.

We got home and Gloria said that the doctor recommended we go to Dell Children's Hospital, which was about 20 minutes away. She gave Eli a pair of sunglasses that he could wear, and off we went.

The people at the Children's Hospital couldn't have been better. Eli didn't wait one second after we arrived--they took him into a room immediately. We sat there, scared. Eli's face was still blank.

"On a scale of one to ten, how much does your head hurt?" the nurse asked him.

"Ten," Eli said slowly.

"And your stomach?" she asked.

"Ten," he said. She gave him some Zofran to help with the nausea. The little room was quite comfortable, really, so he laid back on the bed, propped up at about a thirty degree angle, and we made small talk, trying to comfort him.

When the doctor came in, it didn't take her long to reach a diagnosis. "We're going to give him a CT scan, but he definitely has a concussion," she said.

"I can't go to my hockey tournament this weekend, can I?" he asked.

"No, sweetie, you won't be playing hockey this weekend," she said.

Eli squeezed his eyes together and one tear ran down his cheek. "I'm so sorry, little man," I said, "but the most important thing now is to help you get healthy again. You're going to play a ton of hockey when you're well."

"I know, but my team really needs me," he said. He was right--they do. He's the one who's always positive, the one the kids always gather around, the one who makes them believe in themselves. They did need him, but they were going to have to do without him now.

"I know they do, and I'm sorry," I said. "But the only thing that matters right now is helping you get well."

A nurse came in and put a bracelet on him. "FALL RISK," it said.

"I should just put that on a T-shirt," I said. He smiled, even giggled a little. I think I breathed for the first time in two hours.

The CT scan was normal, so no additional complications, and the doctor explained the treatment protocol. No bright lights. No loud noises. No exercise. No video games. No reading. No homework. No "active" television. If we dimmed the television and turned down the volume, he could watch something like the Sprout channel, which is for pre-schoolers. "Looks like lots of Franklin, Max and Ruby, and Caillou for you," I said.

He smiled. "That doesn't sound so bad," he said.

The doctor explained that with what had been discovered in the last few years, they believed that near-complete brain rest for 48 hours greatly speeded the healing process. "Anything that makes your head hurt, stop doing it immediately," she said. She was awesome--very warm and kind, but stern when she was talking about his care.

"How's your head now?" she asked.

"It's an eight," he said.


"Five," he said.

"That's good," she said. "Improvement is good." She cleared us to go home, and they brought a wheelchair to take Eli out to the car. While we were waiting, I sat across from him and took his hands. "We're going to get through this the way we get through everything else," I said. "Together."

He squeezed my hands. "I know," he said.

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