Flashback week, part 1.

I wanted to save this until later (i.e. a hopefully-larger readership), but I looked over it this afternoon and simply couldn't help but post it. It's one of my favorite stories from my ER days. Enjoy!


—–
Safe Haven

"Hi, I'd like to leave my baby here."

I
looked up, slightly annoyed that the patient chart I was writing on now had
a mark in the wrong place.
Ugh, what now? I thought as I slid the triage
window open.

"I'd
like to leave my baby here."

Oh,
dammit. It's going to be one of
those days.

Okay,
that wasn't really my first thought. Actually, that may be only one of a few
times that I simply… didn't have any thoughts at all. (Have you ever stood up
from under a desk and cracked the back of your head, and for a few seconds your
brain is empty?) I do, however, remember asking her to repeat her request two
more times.

I
can't even begin to imagine what my face looked like.

"Uh—okay.
If you could just have a seat in the waiting room, someone will be out to speak
with you shortly…" I trailed off. I was already sliding from the chair,
my posterior leading the way towards the nearest person who knew what the
hell they were doing.

I
half-ran, half-stumbled over to the charge nurse, trying to look as composed as
an eighteen year-old could under the circumstances.

Christy
wasn't buying any of it. She, however, had been doing this job long enough that
her response actually
was "Oh dammit. It's going to be one of those
days."

Young
and naive as I was, I had never heard of the Safe Haven law. For anyone in the
dark, the Safe Haven Law (or variants thereof) is the popular nickname for a
set of rules allowing new mothers to abandon their infants without fear of
criminal action. Offered as a better alternative to killing or discarding their
newborns, mothers are able to leave their children with police officers,
firefighters, paramedics, or hospital employees.

Christy
took a moment (thank God) to calm me down, seeing the bewildered look in my
eyes.

"Look,
I'll explain all this later, but she came to you first so you might as well do
it. We can take the kid, but we're only allowed to ask her three things: how
old the baby is, if there are any known medical problems, and if he or she has
a name. That's it."

I
nodded dumbly, wondering why on Earth I was earning my pay here instead of at
Subway or the campus mail room like most of my friends.

I
spun and walked out into the waiting room, seeing the woman appear directly in
front of me as the doors hissed open. She looked happy, which I thought was
strange at the time. She was smiling at her child, cooing and stroking the
baby's head with all the love a mother should have. I slid wordlessly into the
seat next to her, the cheap vinyl and wood creaking under my weight.

"Okay,
well… we can of course care for your baby here, and there's a few things that
we need to ask that you don't have to answer if you don't, uh, want to."

Several
stuttering minutes later, I found out that the baby was a three day old female,
had no medical problems or complications during her pregnancy, and that she had
no name.

I
informed the mother that we were essentially done, and that she was free to
leave whenever she wished. I still can't believe she handed her baby to me, a
messy-haired kid in purple scrubs and a too-baggy Emergency Department t-shirt
who could barely grow anything resembling facial hair (
isn't there some
maternal instinct that would scream "Don't ever hand your newborn over to
this guy"?)

I
turned slowly, not wanting to wake the baby up. I felt a tap on my shoulder,
and the mother fished out a small envelope from her purse. There was nothing
written on the outside, but it was creased and worn like it had been carried in
a pocket for several months.

"Can
you make sure this goes with her? It's for her… for later." I
nodded—slowly, silently, I took the envelope and slid it into my pocket.

The
two of us went back into the Emergency Department, the mother's face following
us through the tiny wire-enforced glass window as the doors
whooshed
closed.

Our
Emergency Department, being located so close to a dedicated children's
hospital, does not usually handle neonatal or pediatric cases (most people in
the area know that sick children go to the other hospital). However, since the
woman had come to us, it was our job to check the baby out and then transfer
her to the children's facility.

I'm
not much of a stage performer, but that day I knew what it was like to have
everyone in a particular venue looking just at
you.  Unfortunately
for my burning ears and rapidly flushing cheeks, the room we use for the
occasional child or neonate is at the very back of the department—meaning I
would have to carry this warm wrapped bundle through the entire ward,
bypassing every room and staff member along the way. Even the patients craning
their necks from their beds knew that an infant was out of place here.

Christy
wisely decided to walk with me. She deflected the questioning stares and the
whispers of "what's he doing with a baby?" with a curt shake of her
head, a barely noticeable gesture that told all who saw it that now was not the
time to approach the three of us.

By
the time we reached room 25, we had amassed a small following. Some had a
purpose, like an attending physician and a social worker. Some didn't, like
those who were simply curious at this newfound oddity.

As I
laid the baby on the worn sheets of the stretcher, I gave a paltry report
encompassing the three things that I knew. It was a brief moment of pride, that
I was the only one who could tell the doctor about the baby; it was dashed
against the rocks seconds later, when everyone in the room now knew as much as I did.

It
turns out the baby was perfectly okay, just as mom had said. The attending was
satisfied with the health of the child and made arrangements to have Jane Doe 4
(we already had a few as-yet nameless car and motorcycle crash victims come
through since 7am) brought to Children's by the staff.

As I
was leaving, I had almost made it out of the room when a voice boomed inside my
head:
the letter! I found the social worker, who was wearing the face of
a woman who has seen this happen too many times. She took the letter and my
explanation of what it was, and walked off to complete her paperwork.

I
still wonder what the letter said.

Was
it like in the movies, where Mom writes a letter that Daughter finds when she's
X years old and has all but written her mom off, and now she breaks down and
realizes Mom loved her all along? Was it a letter saying "you don't know me,
but I'm your mother. And in a safety deposit box at a bank in Albuquerque under
the name Clementine Phillips, you'll find $10 million. It's for you. I love
you. Signed, Mom."

What
really makes me wonder is what words a mother could find to express these sort
of feelings to a daughter. Granted, I'm a guy and I don't possess a maternal
instinct of any sort. But simply hearing my mother talk about her children, and
how much she cares, and what she would do for them if asked… I can only speculate.

How
could one even find the words to write a letter like that? Does "I'm sorry
you'll never know me" even cut it?

No
wonder it looks like she carried it around with her for a while.

But
hey… the Emergency Department is better than a dumpster. And we deliver mail, too.

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Alex Capece

Washington, D.C. Firefighter and Paramedic

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