Toxic
By Betsey Levy Krause

As we got into the ambulance, the driver said to me, "Don't take offense at the mask, but if you've been exposed to the flu, I don't want to get it." If only it had been the flu. Almost everyone in the emergency room that day was wearing a mask, not just the doctors, nurses and medical assistants. They had her dad put one on as well as the chaplain and each of the paramedics who brought her to the hospital that sad day in September. They covered their mouths, in case.

As Sarah lay on the emergency room table, my uncovered face huddled close to my daughter's sharing my love and comforting her concerns. There I was exposed, as only a mother would be. If there was something to protect against, it was probably too late anyway. Then the doctor told the paramedics to make sure they washed their clothes when they left. Wash their clothes? This was my daughter. What were they talking about?

The scene was surreal, but I didn't miss the fact that I was the only one exposed. At the time, I didn't get it.

From the moment I found I was pregnant I felt a oneness with my daughter. Of course at that time I had no idea she was a daughter. We called her Kelvin; I connected with Kelvin every time she fluttered, every time she kicked. When a woman wants a baby, that baby becomes part of her, even as that daughter to be silently develops. When a woman is pregnant, no matter how alone she is, she never feels alone. Kelvin was part of me in every bite of food I ate and every breath I inhaled. And then she was born and she was part of me in every bite of food she took and every breath she inhaled. Mothers and their children walk in tandem.

We shared food; I nursed her when she was sick. Mothers share intimately with their children. They eat the left behind crusts as their lunch, bandage the bleeding knees and clean up whatever bodily fluids and functions get left where they never should have been in the first place. And when their children are sick, mothers never question their care-giving role. When a child is sick, she once again becomes intimately connected with her mother.

Mothers also share in their children's achievements, as if they are their own. There is no greater joy than for a mother to watch a daughter march for the first time with the school band or get an A on a paper. When a son performs in the school play or on the soccer field, he has no bigger fan. When a child finds her passion, the mother revels in the discovery. So it was with my daughters.

As part of my job, I schedule and participate in CPR refresher classes. Every year we review the use of universal precautions, those procedures health care and first responders use to protect themselves from the blood borne pathogens they may come into contact with through their work. Specifically we review HIV and the hepatitis alphabet of diseases, although the procedure is designed to protect against any of a number of nasty disease causing agents. Universal precautions involve masks and gloves and keeping a barrier between you and possible infectious fluids.

But this was my child. How many times as a mom have I protected myself from my daughter's blood? Have I ever? Have I ever put on a pair of latex gloves to nurse a skinned knee? Can I even remember a time when I guarded my face from inhaling shared air? Instead, I have hugged, held and cuddled my sick daughter to help make her feel just a little bit better. That is what mothers do.

But now the doctors were concerned that everyone in that room had been exposed to something. In dying, my daughter was considered toxic. As she lay on that table, the professionals in the room were considering what they needed to do to protect themselves from her. That notion is still is inconceivable to me; treating my daughter posed a danger to those caring for her. Yesterday, the world was hers as an energetic well-liked honors science student. Today, she was toxic.

At the time, I couldn't process what was happening. The mother in me was rearranging our family's schedule, so that I could be with Sarah in the off chance she was admitted. As the doctors performed life saving procedures on her, I turned to the resident, who first recognized Sarah's condition as being life threatening, and said to her," I suppose we will be here overnight." Mothers cannot imagine their children dying. Sarah never got sick. Sarah was symptomless just hours earlier. Why would I even consider it?

I took Sarah's presence for granted.

But she died that day at the hospital. Two hours after taking her to the emergency room, five hours after she wanted to go to school she died from what the doctors thought at the time to be meningococcal disease. The pathologist later said that was improbable. The doctors treated her for a bacterial infection she did not have, although the professionals at the hospital had no reason to believe otherwise. They treated her perceived toxicity, but lost. And when she died, the doctors, the nurses and the paramedics cried. Everyone cried.

After sharing the news with her younger sister, we went to Sarah's room one last time to say goodbye. This time my husband and I wore masks and gowns. I touched her arm, but Sarah was no longer there. As I was intimately there in her birth, I was in her death. For that I am thankful.

When a woman has children, no matter how alone she is, she never feels alone. Sarah was part of me in every bite of food she took and every breath she inhaled. Now she is part of me in every bite of food I take and every breath I inhale. And although I feel as though a huge part of me has been wrenched from my life's purpose, I will always be her mother. Mothers and their children walk in tandem.

 

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Sarah Krause, 16, died on September 13, 2004 from what are still unknown causes. When we left the hospital that day, her younger sister, father and I were directed to go straight to the pharmacy to get doses of Cipro, the same antibiotic used during the Anthrax scares. We went home, together took our medication and proceeded to Clorox the house.

2004 Betsey Krause