Sammy’s surgery (part 2)

Here’s Part One if you need to catch up. 

When we landed in Boise, my sister Becca and her husband Mitch picked us up from the airport and took us directly to the emergency room. They were spending a “night out” in a hotel while my mom watched their kids, and chose to spend it carting me around and staying with me at the hospital until after midnight. It probably wasn’t as romantic as their abandoned night together would have been, but it meant the entire world to me.

When we got to the hospital, it took seven minutes from the time I checked in until Sammy was seen by a doctor. His fever still hovered above 103, he was lethargic and fussy, and the mass seemed to be growing hourly. After a blood draw and an examination, they quickly and efficiently started him on IV antibiotics, alarmed at his incredibly high white blood cell count. He was clearly fighting something very bad in his body, and needed the strongest help with whatever it was. The pediatric ER nurses and doctors seemed more worried than I was, which was frightening, but their calm and fast care made me feel more secure about Sammy’s well-being than I had at any other point in the last few days.

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The doctor ordered an ultrasound of Sammy’s neck, to find out what was happening inside the spreading mass. If it was just a swollen gland, he said, then we would continue the IV for a day or two to kill the bacteria in his body. If it was full of fluid, however, that meant it was infected, he would need surgery, and it would need to be done as soon as possible so the infection wouldn’t get anywhere else in his body or cause the mass  (sorry, so graphic) to burst open on his neck. Sammy was feeling a little better at this point, with antibiotics and Motrin in him, but I felt nauseous with all of the scenarios racing through my brain, and the fact that Sam was still a 5 hour drive away in Washington with Clara.

We took the elevator down to the ultrasound lab, I pinned the crying baby down in my arms for what I had no idea would be the first of many, many times in the next few days, and got some images of the lump. The results were in our ER room before we even got back, and the doctor walked in with a surgeon on the phone. The mass was, indeed, pockets of infection multiplying in his lymph node, and the only way to get him better was to cut open the infected area on his neck, clean it out, insert a drain, and pump antibiotics through his body to try to kill whatever other bacteria was lurking and making him sick in the first place. They scheduled the surgery for first thing in the morning and sent us upstairs to the pediatric floor.

So, ok, to explain better: Whatever was making Sammy sick in the first place, whatever bacteria in his body was causing the upper respiratory illness, his congestion and cough and fever, that bacteria had somehow slipped into his blood stream. Maybe through his gums because he’s been cutting teeth, which leaves an open wound in his mouth? We don’t know HOW it got in there, only that it DID get in there, like some sort of freak mistake in his body. Once the bacteria hit his blood stream, it settled into a lymph node and began building an evil bacteria city in his neck. And once this happens, once bacteria begins to wall itself off from the rest of the body, there is NO way to cure it except to cut it open and dig it out. Normally this isn’t a huge deal. If it happened to you or me, if we had an abscess of infection on our back or arm or something, they would just cut it open right there in the emergency room and send us home with some medicine. But because he is a baby, and especially because it was on his neck, next to his airway and his throat and his tongue and a million other dangerous areas of his body, it was a big deal and required careful and delicate surgery as soon as possible.

I called Sam and we decided to leave Clara in Washington with his parents, who would drive her home to us that weekend. Sam left immediately and drove through mountain snow storms to arrive at the hospital at 5:30 the next morning, just in time for the surgery. The night had not gone well. After the IV from the ER got kinked on our way up to our room, it took five different nurses five different tries to insert another IV. This episode from hell was an hour and a half of Sammy screaming and crying while I cried and held him down, sensing the frustration from the nurses as they worked intensely to find a vein and thread their needle into it. He still has little bruises all over his hands and feet from that night, charcoal shaded traumas from what felt like a nightmare. I know that sounds dramatic! I know it. But it was sad, so sad, and I don’t know how moms and dads with really sick kids handle all this business so constantly. It takes something from you, it really does.

By six that morning we were down in the operating preparation room, meeting lots of different doctors and nurses and holding our baby close before they took him away to surgery. Our wonderful pastor stopped by to give us a hug and pray over the baby. Becca and Mitch brought us coffee. The ENT surgeon was an older man with a kind face and gentle voice, who smiled a lot while he talked to us about the procedure and lightly touched Sammy’s arm before leaving to scrub in. The pediatric anesthesiologist took a long time to talk with us as well, explaining some of the risks involved with putting Sammy under. I had asked a few times if I could please stay with him in the operating room until he fell asleep, so I would be the last person he saw before it all kicked in. But she strongly urged against it. Normally they would never do surgery on someone as sick as he was, she told us. They would send him home for a few weeks and try again when he was well. But this was an emergency and they didn’t have a choice. She told us that his respiratory illness, whatever it was, meant he would for sure have trouble breathing once they started to put him under. It would be an “act now and act fast”  situation that they were very prepared to address, but she emphasized that it would not be something any mom should have to see. This was terrifying to hear and later to imagine in the waiting room, but I trusted her advice and kissed him goodbye before they carried him out.

The surgery itself took less than an hour. Becca and Mitch waited with me and Sam and bought us breakfast from the cafeteria, but we had both been up for over 24 hours at that point and were mostly buzzing on fear and adrenaline. I watched every minute tick by on the oversized clocks in the waiting room, wondering what was happening to my son. Finally, though in reality it had only been an hour, the surgeon came out and knelt beside our chairs, smiling again as he told us that everything had gone well. He found at least two different pockets of infection within the larger mass, cleaned them out, and the drain he’d inserted should help finish the job over the next few days.

“We’ll take his blood again tomorrow morning and make sure his white count has dropped significantly, and then we’ll know for sure if we got everything out.” He shook our hands and said that someone would come get us as soon we could go to Sammy.

When Sam and I got back to the recovery room, the baby was crying and straining to get out of the nurse’s arms. He was so swollen from the trauma of the surgery and all the fluids pumped into him, and his face was sort of scary. Even his eyelids were plump with fluid, the flesh all over his body tight and a faint shade of green. I started crying. The weird thing was that he only wanted his dad. That has never happened since he was born- he’s a mama’s boy through and through. But it was like I was a stranger, he wouldn’t even let me touch him unless he was nursing.



It took us over three hours to get out of recovery with him, rather than the 30 minutes they had guessed. He was still upset, and having a lot of trouble breathing, which required constant observation from several nurses. Then, right when they released him to his room on the Pediatric floor, his DAMN IV CAME OUT AGAIN. The recovery nurses didn’t want to try and get another one in him, because none of them work on babies often enough. So they found a doctor to come in with an ultrasound machine and find a vein, and then it took four adults to hold him down while the doctor slowly inserted the tubing into a vein on his ankle and started the IV again.

It was truly, truly awful. I hope he doesn’t remember one tiny moment of this entire ordeal.

We spent the day in his room, getting his vital signs checked every 30 minutes, trying to keep him still so the IV would stay put, and just generally feeling miserable and exhausted. Sam and I had been awake for over 36 hours at that point and traded the baby back and forth, fighting his thrashing and crying until we were too tired to hold him anymore and passed him off to each other’s weary arms.

But, thanks to the crazy power of social media, several friends stopped by with food and love for us, and we were shocked over and over again at how many people cared about and were worried over our son. It was such a shot of energy whenever someone would text or message and ask how we were and tell us that they were praying for Sammy. From Becca and Mitch freely abandoning their night in a nice hotel room to take me to the hospital and take care of us all weekend, to our neighbors driving all the way from Nampa just to bring Sam lunch, to our friend Marti packing up a homemade dinner for us, to the worried Pelton brothers delivering froyo and hugs, to my friend Heather bringing her entire family all the way to the hospital just to “See if you guys are ok. We heard the word surgery and got in the car,”:

We were humbled and so thankful for our community. It was a reminder of what we belong to, and what a gift we have. Makes me tear up just remembering all of you and your reassurances. Thank you, all our dear friends. We love you so.

Late that night, I tried to lay Sammy down in his crib/cage to go to sleep. He crawled away from me and whaddya know: his *&#*$ (insert a bunch of curse words I don’t want my mother in law to read) IV popped out of his ankle. His incredible nurses did everything they could to save the line, but it was too far out to slide back in. They did not want to put another one in him, his fourth in 24 hours, mostly because every easily accessible vein was already bruised, blown, or had already proved useless, and their next options were not nice ones (his head, the crooks of his elbows, etc. All bad ideas for babies who can move.) They called our surgeon and decided to start him on oral antibiotics and see how he did overnight, and try at all costs to avoid another terrible needle episode.


After a short night of deep, heavy sleep (I’m not being sarcastic, all three of us slept like a coma. We were beyond words tired) they drew his blood and we waited the rest of the morning to see the doctors and hear if we could go home. His white count wasn’t great- still over 24, 000- and the nurses told us not to get our hopes up, because that was really high to send a kid home. But! His surgeon came in that afternoon and checked the wound, changed the dressing, and said that because they really didn’t want to subject him to another IV, we could take him home on the oral antibiotics. We were shocked, elated, and a little worried. His neck wound looked awful and we knew he was still very sick- could we take good enough care of him at home? We were told to keep a close eye on his facial swelling and his fever, and if it went above 100.5 to bring him right back in.

After several early morning visits to the surgeon’s office and getting his drain and stitches removed, Sammy is starting to look like his old self. His neck and cheek are still swollen and the surgery site is red and irritated, but it seems like all of the infection is gone. Thank you JESUS! We seem to be past this nightmare, and I still can’t believe it even happened. This morning he threw a huge fit when I took my phone away from him, and I couldn’t have been happier to hear his angry yelling. Our boy is going to be ok. This was a bizarre emergency, a freak accident, and will probably never happen again. The bacteria cultured from his neck showed up as either staph or strep, and we are 99.9% sure that he had some residual, undiagnosed strep floating around his body and that is what infected him.

Did you know he turned one year old this Wednesday? January 7. The day was quiet. He can’t be around any people or germs until his face is completely healed, and he can’t have any cake or frosting on his wound, so we’ll do a party in a few weeks. But the day also felt  reverent. Like, here we are. At home. With our precious little boy, with his precious heart beating away beneath his pajama top, with two puncture holes in his neck turning slowly to scars which will always remind us to say thank you  for his life, thank you for the healthy blood beating through his body, thank you for the gift of his birth into our family. Happy birthday and thank you, I prayed all day long.

Happy birthday and thank you. 

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2 thoughts on “Sammy’s surgery (part 2)

  1. I’m so glad you followed your instincts. Mom’s do have that “in tune” link with their kids and you do need to always follow it even if you are wrong. Most of the time, almost always, you will be so glad you did; just like with Sammy. Kudos to Sam too for buying you the plane ticket. I know how it feels to have mine in the hospital and I’d give anything to trade them places. God is faithful and we are grateful Sammy is healthy and home where he should be. Hug him tight and love both kids more because of this experience. I’m so happy for your family that everything turned out well. Lovingly. Patti Clark

  2. Thank you so much for sharing your journey. I thank God for His Beauty in you all. thank you. Your family is truly beautiful.

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