Updated: May 20
A childhood injury upended by coronavirus
A couple of weeks ago, while we were hiking on a secluded trail near our home, my son fell and cut his leg. We had stopped to eat a snack and drink some water, when he couldn’t resist the urge to climb a nearby tree. He was only a few feet up when he slipped and fell, snagging his left shin on an errant tree branch as he tumbled down.
I heard him cry, and saw him hanging onto a higher branch with shaking arms, unable to pull himself up and unhook his leg from the branch. I ran over, disentangled him, and then, in that way that every parent fears, surveyed the damage: in the center of his right lower leg was a flap-like laceration, seven or eight centimeters long. The mother in me had known from his cry that the injury was a bad one; the ER doctor in me knew why: the cut was deep enough to require stitches.
I held him as he cried. Blood ran into his sock while I tried to figure out what to do next: how to bandage the leg, how to get off the mountain, where to get stitches.
Next to me, his sister was rummaging through her school backpack. She had taken library books out of it before we left home so she could use it to carry her jacket and snacks. Now, standing on the hillside, she produced the most random, but necessary thing: the menstruation kit that the school nurse had given girls during the annual maturation talk we had attended just before schools closed.
“Will this work?” she asked, holding up a small sanitary pad.
“Yes,” I said, relieved, then peeled the sticker off, wrapped the soft, absorbent side around her brother’s leg, and stuck it back to itself. Field dressing in place, we limped the half mile back to the car.
On the way down the mountain I tried to plan out what came next. Many of my physician friends would not think twice about performing minor procedures, like sutures, on their own kids. I have previously sewn up neighbors, and my own dad, at home. But in a crisis, I have always preferred to be my kids’ mother, not their doctor. I want to be the adult providing comfort, not the one wielding scary-looking medical instruments.
But that day felt different. In the middle of a pandemic, if I was capable of sewing up my own son, it seemed like the right thing to do.
So when we got back to the house, I swallowed my discomfort and inventoried my stash of medical supplies. Then I took my son aside and explained the plan. He is cheerful, sunny kid, but not happy about anything having to do with needles. Like most five-year olds, he is also capable of putting up a pretty big fight.
In a separate room, I spoke to my daughter and our babysitter and lined out their roles. Together, we boiled water to sterilize the instruments, and set clean towels and supplies on the kitchen table. Then we wrapped my screaming, scared son in a sheet, leaving his injured leg exposed.
As I held him in my arms, he cried out for his grandparents. So we called them, explained what was happening, and over the phone, they became part of the home surgery. We put the phone on the table and laid my son down next to it. His sister brought a pillow for his head. Then she laid her body across his chest, holding and angling an iPad so that he could watch his favorite show and talk to his grandparents at the same time.
The babysitter then leaned over my son’s hips, and managed to mostly hold both legs still while I injected the lidocaine. There is a way to inject lidocaine slowly, so it does not hurt so much. But in this case, I judged the trauma of being held down to be worse than the brief, intense pain of quick injection, and pushed the lidocaine in fast. My son kicked, screamed more, and in a few seconds it was over. The laceration was numb.
I carried him to the kitchen counter and had him dangle his foot into the sink while it filled. He scrubbed his hands, and then helped me wash out his own cut—fascinated that he could touch his leg and it would not hurt.
The rest of the process was easy—at least for him. I rinsed his leg and carried him back to the table. His sister climbed up next to him, put her arm around him, and together they watched the iPad while I put ten stitches in his leg.
But it was hard for me. I kept thinking about “The Use of Force,” a William Carlos Williams story about a physician who has to overpower a child in order to treat her—knowing that I had just done the same thing to my own kid. And I wondered what the world had come to that I was putting stitches in my son’s leg on an ordinary Wednesday morning.
He perked up quickly when we were done. I gave him lots of hugs, and his sister baked him a cake. “Good job at being the doctor and the mom,” our babysitter offered, but I felt more sad than proud, a sadness that continued into the rest of the afternoon. I am proud of, and grateful for, my training. But I did not like having to serve both roles—or that my daughter had to double as a nurse, and that the injured party was both my patient and my son.
I spent the rest of the day thinking that the kitchen table suturing felt like both a comment on our times and a harbinger of what might be to come. I was sad because I had operated on my own kid, but even more because it was something I would never have considered without a pandemic just outside the door. And despite the success many places have had with flattening the curve, I worried that coronavirus would bring me more opportunities like this, before it was done. Putting stitches in my son’s leg was a snapshot of daily life that marked just how much has been changed in past months—even as it suggested what might still lie ahead.
Later that night, after dinner, my kids and I sat together on the couch. There is a way we do this, sometimes—me in the middle, one child on either side, our feet on the coffee table, staring out at the room in front of us—that allows us to be close, and talk more freely, than if we were looking directly into each other’s eyes. I told them how proud I was of them for the way they handled the events of the morning. I told my son that he was brave. I told my daughter she was brave, too.
“Sure, Mom,” they say together, and “you bet,” or “no problem,” but their tone belies the nonchalance of their words. The day seems to have sobered them, if also left them proud. All three of us seem relieved it is over.
After a few minutes, they get up from the couch to brush their teeth and start getting ready for bed, but I stay a little longer. My own part of the country has started to open up a bit, rolling back stay at home orders and allowing small gatherings. The mother in me hopes there will be a few fun activities my kids can participate in, this summer. The doctor in me is concerned things are not over, yet.
I wrestle with this combination of hope and foreboding for a bit. Then I get up, run bath water, and start the before-bed routine. I adjust my shoulders and try to square myself to whatever the future will bring.