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Saving Emma: A Daughter's Life, A Father's Powerlessness To Save It

Ben Jackson: "In the face of real emergency, I was only able to help her by surrendering to those who knew better and trusting in their expertise." (slightly-less-random/Flickr)closemore
Ben Jackson: "In the face of real emergency, I was only able to help her by surrendering to those who knew better and trusting in their expertise." (slightly-less-random/Flickr)

Just a few weeks ago, I watched my daughter stop breathing.

It happened after she awoke from anesthesia for a minor procedure, panicked, and started trying hard to undo the work that had just been done. Fueled by the panic, her not-yet-five-foot-tall body gained Hulk-like strength, requiring six adults to hold her down. Sedating medicine after sedating medicine had no effect, bouncing off of her adrenaline like bullets off the large green hero she was emulating.

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Until, with one last injection of a powerful anesthetic, she switched off. One second, she was there, fighting with all of her strength against six adults. The next, she was gone and turning blue.

Monitors normally showing cheery blue numbers turned red and flashed. Alarms bleated in an SOS Morse code pattern -- dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot. And I was rendered useless, unable to do anything but get out of the way and let the people who knew what they were doing take over.

This is not an easy thing to do. More than anything, I am a caretaker. I pride myself in being competent, even expert, in the execution of my daughter’s medical care. I can diagnose a pneumonia by smell. I can hear the tiniest variation in her lungs that indicate oncoming problems. Blindfolded, I can change a tracheostomy tube faster than most people can say “tracheostomy tube.” And yet, here, in the face of real emergency, I was only able to help her by surrendering to those who knew better and trusting in their expertise.

Ben Jackson: "When I said hello to my child for the first time, it was the Big Bang wrought small. Universes expanded and whole civilizations played out into the ether..." (Liane Metzler/Unsplash)
Ben Jackson: "When I said hello to my child for the first time, it was the Big Bang wrought small. Universes expanded and whole civilizations played out into the ether..." (Liane Metzler/Unsplash)

I found myself standing at the foot of her bed, unsure of how I had arrived there from my seat by its head. Emma's doctor attached a small blue bag to a tube in her neck where her tracheostomy usually is. A nurse I had never before met placed her arm around my shoulders and asked, “Is that your baby?”

The doctor squeezed the bag, and Emma’s chest rose and fell.

“Yes,” I said. “She is my baby.”

I first met Emma in a hospital corridor, in an eerily reminiscent situation. Doctors and nurses surrounded her tiny body on the stretcher while we waited for the elevator to take her from the maternity operating room to the pediatric operating room. A tube protruded from one side of her neck, a giant tumor from the other. A doctor squeezed a small blue bag as alarms screamed.

When I said hello to my child for the first time, it was the Big Bang wrought small. Universes expanded and whole civilizations played out into the ether while I stood helpless at the bedside of this infinite being. I was useless, surrendered to the skill of those who knew better and the will of the universe.

As I watched my daughter die, possibilities collapsed inward. Time, as it is wont to do in moments of extremity, became unglued...

This time, it was the inverse of the same experience. As I watched my daughter die, possibilities collapsed inward. Time, as it is wont to do in moments of extremity, became unglued, and seconds and hours were indistinguishable from one another. Anything that wasn’t the rise and fall of Emma’s chest was gauzy, as though transpiring above a pool in which I languished beneath the roiling surface. I sat aside, surrendered to the same forces that enabled her to live 14 years earlier. With each squeeze of the blue bag, I forced myself to breathe.

The entire episode lasted only seconds — surely not more than a minute. What was very likely a routine event for these skilled medical professionals was over, and Emma was breathing on her own again. The alarms ceased their screaming, and I soon found myself again ensconced in the hard wooden chair beside the bed where my pink daughter slept. I stroked her cheek with a shaking hand and girded to resume the mantle of her care, surrendering again to the needs of my child.

Together, we breathed.

Read More By Ben Jackson:

Ben Jackson Cognoscenti contributor
Ben Jackson is a writer.

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