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The Sunday EssayOctober 29, 2023

The Sunday Essay: An ode to healthcare workers


He’s so little. He’s just so little. We’re trusting strangers with his life.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Images by So-Young Cho.

To a surgeon called George

To an anesthesiologist who played Peppa Pig on his phone

To a nurse who went in search of orange jelly 

To all the doctors and nurses and surgeons who looked after my boys, who look after our children, who look after us all. Day after night. Again and again.  

How do we ever thank you enough? 

My son screams. The nurse rubs his back, and mine. Peppa Pig goes to the beach. My son screams. Peppa Pig builds a sandcastle. My son screams. Peppa Pig eats a watermelon and paddles in a wave. My son screams. Then, suddenly, he goes floppy and closes his eyes. Eyelashes brushing his cheek. His weight dragging on my arms, like wet sand. The anesthesiologist takes back his phone and turns off Peppa Pig. The nurse helps position my son on the bed and leads me out of the brightly-lit room. 

At the swinging doors the surgeon touches my arm. “You did well, Mum,” he says. He closes the door and I start to cry. 

Outside, sun streams down but it’s icy cold. The spring Northerly blustery. I think of my son. Of how small he felt in my arms. Of sand slipping through my fingers. Such a tiny body. Breakable. 

I am trusting the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, the nurses, with his life. 

Two children. Two trips to hospital. Two operations. All in the space of two weeks. 

It’s a Sunday in September. Afternoon. A Northerly is blowing. The day has been warm, then cold, then warm again. The wind is relentless.  

“Don’t touch that,” I hear my partner say to our oldest son. They’re outside on the deck, out of my line of sight. The Northerly rattles the windows, bringing the smell of the sea and the compost heap. Of seaweed and warm, sweet things going bad. “Don’t touch that,” my partner says again. “It’s very sharp.”

The sound of a door banging. Of movement. 

A scream. 

“Dad,” says a small, frightened voice. “Dad, I touched it.”

Rushing upstairs. A bloodied towel. A white-faced seven-year-old. Swearing. A grey-faced dad. Swearing.

The younger brother, four years old and playing noisily with his trucks and digger, waves out the bedroom window as his dad and brother drive off, hastily, to A&E. He turns, cheerfully, back to me and smiles. “Mum, what’s for dinner?”

My partner messages a photo from A&E. The seven-year-old is fully bandaged and sucking on an ice-block, smiling. Off to Hutt Hospital Plastics Unit, says the next message. The emoji is not a smiling one.  

Home at midnight. Tired and bloodied. McDonald’s chips and frozen lemonade. Packaging remnants well buried in the recycling, under the Weet-Bix box and political fliers, so the fast-asleep four-year-old will never know.

Back to Hutt Hospital the next day for an operation. Lemonade ice-blocks relieve the stress of fasting and of finding a park. The seven-year-old eats them with his good hand and swings his feet against the straight-backed waiting room chair. 

The surgeon plays Ninjago on a screen above the bed as he puts my son to sleep. “The gas mask stage is horrible,” my partner tells me over the phone as he wanders the hospital grounds while the operation takes place. He’s crying. 

“He’s so little,” he says. “He’s just so little. We’re trusting strangers with his life.”

An hour later and all is fine. A well-stitched hand. Awake and nauseous. Asleep. Awake and nauseous. A long wait in recovery. A long car ride home.

We return to the hospital a week later for a check-up. The hospital map is a rabbit warren. I phone the Plastics Unit. A nurse stays on the phone as we drive in, directs me to the correct entrance, and says which lines to follow along the seemingly expanding hospital corridors. 

A short wait. The surgeon who performed the operation meets us. He’s young and cheerful. 

“This looks good,” he says. He cuts off the huge bandage. He turns over my son’s hand. The scar is surprisingly small. A tiny line of neat, black stitches. Disappointing. My son looks forlorn, as if he’s lost something precious.  

“Can I play soccer now?” he asks the surgeon. 

“Give it another week.”

In the car he sobs. He wants to play soccer. He wants the big bandage back. He wants a lemonade ice-block. He wants to watch Ninjago. He’s seven. 

We buy frozen lemonade and agree not to tell his brother. 

“Do you want to go home?” I ask, “or back to school?”

“Back to school,” he says after a small pause. But his tone is decisive. He looks at his finger, covered only in a plaster now. “The surgeon said I could. It’s only a cut, after all.”

I watch him disappear down the path. His one-handed wave. He doesn’t look back.

A week later.

All is not right with my four-year-old. A trip to the GP. An ultrasound. An appointment at Wellington Regional Children’s Hospital. 

We arrive early and the doctor is waiting for us. The four-year-old cries because he wants to play with the fire truck in the waiting room. The doctor gives him a bigger fire truck. The consultation takes less than ten minutes, and a surgeon books us in for an operation. We leave. My son cries, so I produce a lunchbox from my bag. He wants Weet-Bix. He wants a big fire truck. The woman beside the counter at the cafe gives him a cup of milk.

A nurse phones me twice before the operation. Both calls are followed with emails. Instructions for fasting, instructions for what to expect. I’m talked through the procedure. The nurse asks questions about my son: his interests, his favourite toy. I can hear her typing in the background. 

We arrive at the hospital before it’s light. There’s three children ahead of us on the surgical list. 

“I’m hungry,” says the four-year-old. He stamps his foot, kicks off his shoe and throws it on the floor. The nurse comes over quietly. “I’ll get him an ice-block,” she whispers. He sucks his ice-block noisily. 

I watch a baby return from recovery. The tiny body an island on the vast, white hospital bed. 

“Mum,” says the four-year-old. He’s seen the baby, too. He looks like he’s about to cry. 

We read the selection of Alfie books we brought in anticipation of the wait. Alfie goes to Bernard’s birthday party and helps out. Alfie’s roof leaks and he helps out. Alfie makes a vegetable garden, grows carrots and helps a goat. Alfie is very helpful. Annoyingly helpful, we both decide. He’s also very good and patient. He doesn’t throw things. We both want to throw things. 

We play trucks and diggers. We look at the crane outside the window. The clock ticks painfully slowly, inching forward. Tick, tick. 

There’s two children ahead of us, then one. We play with our hospital chair, extending the footrest, lowering the backrest. The four-year-old pretends to eat my foot. He bites my shoelaces. He’s a lion. He’s a cat. He’s hungry. He’s bored. 

We meet the surgeon. He draws an arrow on my son to show the side for the surgery. My son is not impressed. 

“I’m hungry,” he says.

“I’m George,” replies the doctor.

The anesthesiologist briefs me on the options available to put my son to sleep. I ask him what he would choose if it was his son. He tells me. 

Back to the waiting room. My son is “HANGRY” now. He stomps his foot. “Give me FOOD!” he yells. “I want a hotdog. I want Weet-Bix! I want a carrot!”

The nurse comes over. “Shall I phone the play-based specialist?” she asks, calmly. 

“Yes please,” I manage to say. I feel like I’m in a dream. I wonder if she also has Willy Wonka on one of her many phone extensions. I wonder what she’d think of me if I asked. 

A lady appears at the doorway with a basket of toys. “What do you like?” she asks my son. She disappears and returns with more vehicles of an earth-moving nature. Then she kneels on the floor and plays with him. Other kids join in. Soon it’s a messy hive of toys and children. The nurses move around the mess, dodging balls. They don’t seem phased by the chaos of it, or the noise. 

Time passes, faster now. I read a few pages of the Listener. I feel, briefly, like a real adult. Then, suddenly, it’s our turn. 

We follow the nurse. Another room. Another list of questions. I put on a yellow gown, a hairnet, coverings over my shoes. 

Outside, sun streams down but it’s icy cold. The spring Northerly blustery. I think of my son. Of how small he felt in my arms. Of sand slipping through my fingers. Such a tiny body. Breakable.  

I march up and down the same street, faster and faster. Time inches forward. 

I think of my son. Of those long, endless eyelashes, flat against his cheek. His small body, an island on the vast, white hospital bed. 

Thirty minutes. One hour. 

A phone call. It’s George. “It went well,” he says. Noises in the background, movement. “You can come and meet him in recovery.”

The four-year-old is in a high-back hospital bed, a nurse beside him. He’s awake. Then asleep. Then awake. 

He screams. 

“Are you sore?” asks another nurse.

“No,” says my son, “I want this out!”

He’s talking about the IV line. There’s some discussion. A phone call. They take it out. He screams some more. Then he opens his eyes and sees it’s gone. He looks around, wide-eyed. 

“I’m hungry,” he says.

We leave as it’s getting dark. My son runs ahead of me to operate the lift. He runs out the sliding doors of the Children’s Hospital and into the gathering night. Dad is waiting by the car. 

The four-year-old runs, he skips, he climbs the concrete fence. He picks a kowhai flower and scrunches it up in his hand.   

“Dad!” he yells excitedly. He waves the soft toy he’s been given. “Dad! I had three ice-blocks and red jelly and orange jelly and an ice-cream and I got this!”

He skips, he hops, he jumps. 

“I just had the best day of my life!”

To a surgeon called George

To an anesthesiologist who played Peppa Pig on his phone

To a nurse who went in search of orange jelly 

To all the doctors and nurses and surgeons who looked after my boys, who look after our children, who look after us all. Day after night. Again and again.  

How do we ever thank you enough? 

The answer is simple. We can’t. 

Keep going!