When Things Go Wrong

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Philippa when well

It was the sound I was listening for when I put my 20-pound two-year-old to bed on the mattress next to me and fell asleep. But at 2:45AM, it came too fast for me to respond; the back of my head was now covered in vomit. This began day three of her sickness. She was so small that I took it very seriously.

I stripped the bed and we took a warm shower. I filled the tub to properly wash my daughter, but she-who-seldom-sleeps closed her eyes in exhaustion. As her arms floated atop the warm water, I began to cry. I was pregnant at the time, and my usual resolve was showing cracks. I pushed away the thoughts that came next: that this is what it must be like to hold a dying baby. Thoughts like that are always worse without sleep. I was officially scared, and part of that fear was that I’d end up without proper treatment in the Guatemalan hospital. I prayed I would find quality care without having to admit her.

Her breath was calm and rhythmic. Reflexive sparks of movement returned when I took her from the water and dressed her for bed.

My Spanish skills are limited. Under pressure, they suck. It’s a fact that is especially embarrassing when you consider the amount of time I’ve spent in Spanish-speaking countries. I can get my children fed and find my way around, but seeking urgent medical attention is beyond my skill set. I wished my husband were with us; his grammar isn’t perfect, but his vocabulary is solid and he has no reservations about speaking with imperfections in order to improve.

I had an appointment with my Spanish tutor in the morning. I arrived early with my daughter asleep in my arms. My tutor spoke no English, but understood some. Because she is a mother, she understood me before I made any verbal attempt. I needed help.

The next several hours were spent navigating the pastel-hued streets of Antigua, traveling back and forth between a pediatrician’s office and a medical laboratory. One eggshell blue façade opened to an already full waiting room. My teacher explained that this doctor was the best in town – the one she used when her own children were young. I trusted her advice. She had seen my linguistic weaknesses. Now, she saw me at my most vulnerable; trying to hold it together while I worried for my baby in an unfamiliar country.

At many doctors offices like these, there are no appointments and no numbers. Your place in line is determined by remembering who was there when you arrived. I thought it would take hours to be seen, but soon recognized an important cultural difference. If a family member is sick, relatives and friends come along to support their loved one. After three brief visits, the room full of tender dark eyes and soothing voices was almost empty. It was our turn.

The moment I met the doctor, I knew that my prayers had been heard. He received us with a kind, confident expression. He was empathetic, gentle, and thorough in his evaluation. He suspected Rotavirus, but I explained that she had been vaccinated. Slowly and clearly, he asked me a few questions about our recent restaurant visits. I was grateful to be able to use some of my rudimentary Spanish; I can talk about food in any language.

I thought I had smelled something that seemed off at the now-suspect restaurant. At the time, I smelled again, dismissed my impression as the overreaction of pregnancy nose. If I have a superpower, it is my sense of smell. I have especially acute powers during the first trimester. No one else could smell anything strange, and everyone was enjoying their plates of beans, rice and vegetables. I figured everything was probably fine; it was a meatless meal, so I didn’t see it as high risk.

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Don’t eat here

I was wrong. Apparently, the restaurant in question is notorious for mixing bad beans with good. Another thing I learned? Rotavirus is notorious for being hyper contagious, especially in children six years or younger. My dear friend and I were traveling with a total of six children—ages 2, 2, 5, 6, 7, and 8. As the days progressed, every one of them began showing more symptoms—diarrhea, vomiting, fever, aches, and fatigue. Both of our husbands were back in the USA; this was entirely up to us.

The doctor wanted to rule out a couple of other possibilities. He asked me to go to a nearby lab for the materials I’d need to collect a sample. I was told that I needed to collect a sample and deliver it to the lab within 30 minutes, between the hours of 8AM and 5PM. My daughter’s episodes mostly occurred outside of those hours.

When my six-year-old puked the next morning at 7:30AM, I rushed her sample to the lab. “Que es esto?” the technician asked brusquely. I tried to explain that the jar contained my daughter’s vomit. I had practiced this sentence a hundred times on my quick walk to the lab. I understood only two things from the technician’s ranted response: she had called me a fool and she had told me to go home.

Had she been an English-speaker and had we been in the USA, I could have controlled the conversation. I could have given the usual impression of organized calm. I could see myself commanding her attention and her help, demanding action in defense of my children. After her humiliating rebuke, I didn’t recognize the woman who left the laboratory. I was defeated. I was helpless. “This is what it feels like,” I thought, as I considered voiceless women all over the world who are unable to demand anything. I was crushed and angry, especially since this belittlement came from another woman, albeit one who seemed incapable of empathy.

My eyes filled with tears in the sunlight. As I blinked to clear my vision, I saw my Guatemalan tutor approaching. I had not expected her, but I was so grateful for her reassuring appearance. I lost all traces of my composure, and tried to explain what had happened. She listened intently, marched into the lab, and became my voice—the voice I recognized and remembered, even though it now spoke a different language. Quickly, phone calls were made. The technician had been humbled. She began to treat me like a mother—a worried, but capable mother. Apparently, only a stool sample could test for what they needed; my morning’s effort was in vain.

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Our tutor and friend

Later that day, we were able to perform the test properly. I had to pay for the test in cash. When the lab clerk told me the price, I completely misunderstood. I was thinking in terms US healthcare costs, and nearly paid 300% more than was asked. I was surprised to learn that this life-saving test cost less than the sandwich we’d had for lunch.

By that afternoon, the test was complete, the other possibilities were ruled out, and the doctor felt safe treating my daughter (and the other five children, whom he’d not examined) for Rotavirus.

To this day, when Philippa sees the little plastic tubes of saline I sometimes use as eye drops, she says, “Remember the medicine I took in Guatemala?” “Oh yes,” I say. “I will never forget the medicine you took in Guatemala.” I will never forget taking the tuk-tuk with a giant box full of Pedialite back to our rented home. I will never forget the kindness of strangers who helped me when I couldn’t advocate for myself or for my children. I will never forget the barf bowls or the endless pots of boiling water we needed for sanitizing.

Most of all, I will never forget what turned out to be a glorious trip—the gardens outside our rented home in Antigua, the perfectly sunny skies, the fuming volcanoes in the distance, the ruined churches we explored, and the Tikal trip with daddy at the end of our six weeks in Antigua.

The Rotavirus days were hell. They really were. But the lasting takeaway for me has been that, even when things go frighteningly wrong, it was a trip worth taking.

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