Photo: Levi sitting in our van at about the time of the incident described in this article.
I've been thinking a great deal about trauma lately. I'm not completely sure why, but the topic has been invading my thoughts for weeks. As I've read and thought more and more about it, I've started to recall several traumatic stories from my personal life...events that changed me in both positive and negative ways forever. Over a three-week period, I want to share these stories with my readers in the hope that something I write will help them deal with their own traumas. Keep in mind, these are stories I have rarely told anyone.
This second story truly terrified me. It occurred about seven years ago when my youngest son, Levi, was only two years old. Beth (my wife) and I were sitting on our living-room couch with Levi, who was suffering from the flu or some other seasonal ailment. His temperature had spiked, and Beth was leaning back deeply in the couch, holding Levi in her lap and against her chest, and caressing his hair. I was scrunched down beside the two of them at eye-level with Levi. At one horrifying point, as I was gently assuring Levi that everything would be OK, his eyes suddenly rolled back in his head, and he began to convulse violently. Not wasting a second, I grabbed him in my arms, and ran to our van. I leapt into the driver's seat, tore out of the driveway, and began racing down the road, en route for the hospital, using every ounce of police high-speed driver's training I had received years earlier. I was driving with my right hand only and holding a shuddering two-year-old in my left arm, his head leaning on my chest. Neither of us was wearing a seatbelt, even though my speed reached 90+ mph.
About 40 seconds into our reckless journey, as I was approaching a major highway intersection with a stoplight and moderate traffic, I felt and heard Levi take a deep breath and then exhale every ounce of air in his tiny lungs. Then nothing. No noise, no continued breathing, no convulsing. And then his body went limp in my arm, and his head flopped forward...lifeless.
I'll admit, I almost panicked. There I was in the middle of the highway, at least two miles from the hospital, in traffic, and my son was no longer breathing. Fortunately, at that point, I realized something that I can only describe as miraculous: at this intersection--poised less than 50 yards from my car--was a city firehouse, and I could tell that the firefighters and rescue personnel were on station. Braving oncoming traffic, I laid on my horn and whipped into the firehouse parking lot with total abandon, unconcerned about colliding with another vehicle. Indeed, I'm not sure I even checked for oncoming traffic. I was in a zone.
As we approached the front of the firehouse, I noticed about a dozen firefighters and EMTs rushing from the building. They had apparently heard my horn and knew an emergency of some sort was afoot. Before I could exit my vehicle, an EMT grabbed Levi from my arms and instinctively sprinted to the nearest ambulance. He jumped into the back of the ambulance with Levi and another EMT and closed the door. I dropped to my knees, crying out to God to save my boy.
I'm sure that less than a minute or two passed before one of the EMTs emerged from the ambulance with her status report, but I felt like I had been given time enough to finish a marathon or watch an entire Major League baseball game. Fortunately, her news brought time back into perspective, and the relief that washed over me is something I wish to feel again. And I cried in relief and thanksgiving knowing that Levi was alive...breathing and conscious.
We later learned that Levi had suffered from a severe febrile seizure, which is a violent reaction to increased body temperature in children. The emergency room physician said that the seizure was actually a good thing, as it had "reset" Levi's system and allowed his temperature to decrease. Within a few hours of the incident, Levi was back to normal, clueless about what had transpired.
But I've never forgotten that day and what it taught me. Life is such a fleeting thing for each of us. We are here one day and only a distant memory the next. Riding with Levi that day taught me how important my family is to me and how critical it is to spend as much time as possible with those you love. Never take the people in your life for granted. Neither they nor you are promised even one more second on this earth. So, make every second count!
Note: Soon after this incident, I wrote a poem about it, which became part of the thesis project for my Master of Fine Arts degree in 2015. I tear up every time I read this poem.
Riding with Levi
Pupils hidden, only whites
visible, a convolution of sound
as your mouth foams and body
shakes like a San-Andreas night.
I grab your violent body, rush
in waves to an ambulance
that is only a minivan, gray
and white-walled in memories.
Left arm filled with your lifelessness,
right hand grasping the wheel,
we ride together, shaken on lined asphalt,
cracked tectonic chasms, road fissures.
I feel you take your last breath,
exhale only when I hug tight
your fragile frame. Wash of cold
across each fiber of muscle strung
between my shoulders and neck,
down to the tingling of my fingers.
I cannot feel my soul, even as yours
soars in beautiful ascent.