Childrens’ Hospital Rotation

The call came in the middle of a busy night
as we worked on a floppy baby with high fever,
a croupy toddler whose breathing squeezed and squeaked,
a pale adolescent transfusing due to leukemia bleeding.

It was an anencephalic baby just born, unexpected, unwanted
in a hospital across town, and she needed a place to die.

Our team of three puzzled how to manage a baby without a brain–
simply put her in a room, swaddled, kept warm but alone?
Hydrate her with a dropper of water to moisten her mouth?
Offer her a taste of milk?

She arrived by ambulance, the somber attendants
leaving quickly, unnerved by her mewing cries.

I took the wrapped bundle and peeled away the layers
to find a plump full term baby, her hands gripping, arms waving
once freed;  just another newborn until I pulled off her stocking cap
and looked into an empty crater — only a brainstem lumped at the base.

Neither textbook pictures nor cruel jokes about frog babies had prepared me
for the wholeness, the holiness of this living, breathing child.

Her forehead quit above the eyebrows with the entire skull missing,
tufts of soft brown hair fringed her perfect ears, around the back of her neck.
Her eyelids puffy, squinting tight, seemingly too big
above a button nose and rosebud pink lips.

She squirmed under my fingers, her muscles strong, breaths coming steady
despite no awareness of light or touch or noise.

Yet she cried in little whimpers, mouth working, seeking,
lips tentatively gripping my fingertip. A bottle warmed,
nipple offered, a tentative suck allowing tiny flow,
then, amazing,  a gurgling swallow.

Returning every two hours, more for me than for her,  I picked her up
to smell the salty sweet scent of amnion still on her skin as she grew dusky.

Her breathing weakened, her muscles loosened, giving up her grip
on a world she would never see or hear or feel to behold
something far more glorious, as I gazed
into her emptiness, waiting to be filled.

12 thoughts on “Childrens’ Hospital Rotation

  1. Ah, Emily, your writing is so wonderfully crafted that I usually read it for content, forgetting that what drew our little group together was mutual support within that craft. No, don’t expect me to point out a weakness; I detect none, but for the writers who may be priviledged to follow me in reading this, I want to point out how you “violated” a rule that too many consider holy.

    I had never seen the word “anencephalic” in my life, which I’m sure doesn’t surprise you. Ordinary writers and ordinary writing teachers would say never use a generally-unknown word without immediately explaining it. But you courageously used it and, within the flow of your narrative, explained the condition the adjective describes with gentle candor. This is a powerful piece; had you pandered to the average reader and taken time to define the word, much of that power would have dissipated. So I commend you for excellent writing and for sharing a heart-rending experience.

    Quite often in writing workshops, especially on songwriting, somebody will preach “stay away from words outside the fifth or seventh or whatever grade level vocabulary. I counter such strictness with the brilliant use of the word “Jambalaya” in a Hank Williams song, indeed, in the TITLE. MAYBE one percent of the American population outside of Louisiana, South Mississippi, and East Texas had ever heard that word before they heard Hank’s song, yet he used it in the context of the story in such a way that, even if you didn’t know EXACTLY what Cajun dish it was, you got the idea. Aren’t we glad Hank hadn’t had an opportunities to learn all the rules!!!


  2. Emily, what a wonderful piece that I missed the first time around. You captured, perfectly, the sanctity of life. Thank you.


  3. What an amazing experience. My sister in law did this critical neonatal care, also. So strong is the will to live.
    YOU are amazing…


  4. Emily
    I am so enjoying your blog–filled with incredible poetry and sights into the heart and the world we live in. So beautiful. I look forward each time I see Barnstorming appear on my email. This piece is so very heart opening. Kathy


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