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Thoughts that Break the Heart

By Paula Stern
11/10/2009, 12:00 AM
Sunday, November 8, 2009

Yesterday afternoon, Elie didn't feel like eating much...a sure sign he's sick. He took a nap in the afternoon and when he woke up, he was hot, miserable, glassy-eyed.

What now?

When he was officially inducted to the Israeli army, his national health insurance policy was automatically canceled. He was now the responsibility of the State - for all health care, everything, anything. Israel would pay. They have an entire medical system within the army - doctors, nurses, emergency centers, rehabilitation. All there...but he was home for the weekend. What now?

He clearly didn't have the energy to travel more than three hours, taking multiple buses to get to the Golan. His fever was raging, his head pounding, his throat aching. He called his commanding officer and got the name of the army's nearest clinic in Jerusalem. He explained that they were open in the evening so that soldiers wouldn't claim to be sick to get out of a day in the army. We had all night to get there, but we already knew that there would be a long wait.

This is a first in a journey for which I had hoped there would be no more firsts. In more than 2 years, Elie has never needed to get this type of emergency medical care, never tried even once to pretend to be sick...now, really sick, he needed to go to a doctor.

Within 15 minutes we were out the door, but he was wilting before my eyes, getting weaker and weaker. It was a terribly frightening drive...more terrifying in some ways than going to war because while he was near Gaza, it was my imagination working, and reality was a phone call away. There was no reality here other than a very high fever which wasn't coming down despite Advil and Tylenol and a strong young man who could barely stand.

We got to the place and I saw a parent walking in with his son. Okay, that was the first worry. Parents were allowed to be with their children; girlfriends, everyone. A bit of relief as we walked in. Elie got a number and sat down, slumped back and closed his eyes. He was bundled in a sweatshirt and a fleece jacket he uses in the cold and snow of the Golan Heights...and he was still cold.

We were 20 numbers away from being called when I gave up and went to the nurse. Can't you see he's really sick? Other than one other soldier who was also sitting quietly looking miserable...none of the others were in nearly as bad condition as Elie was and I was amazed at how fast he had deteriorated. What was happening?

It seems the older I get, the less calm I can be in a medical emergency and, for years now, there's been no need to be calm at all. Elie or his older sister or middle brother have been trained by the ambulance squad. They have taken dozens of hours of training. I hold hands; they administer, check, whatever. With a look of an eye, they warn me to not scare the child. I remain silent. I hold hands while they put in the bandage or check the injury.

There was no one there last night to get in between me and the medical emergency, no one to explain that while taking numbers and standing in line may work in a bakery, it was a stupid way to handle a medical clinic. I gave up. I couldn't sit there and watch Elie another minute. I went to the nurse and told her Elie couldn't wait.

"Look at him," I told her. "He needs to see a doctor now."

She must have heard, must have seen. She told me to go to the nurse and I got Elie to comply. At the nurse's station, Elie sat down and put his head on the table as the nurse gathered equipment and finished with the previous patient.

Elie started flexing his hands. "Elie, why are you doing that?" I asked him.

"I can't feel my hands." Okay, that's enough to panic any mother. Why are his hands numb????

I told the nurse - she seemed much less panicked than I was, but she took his blood pressure and his pulse (BP low, pulse high).

Elie told me he needed to lie down. I knew that already. The nurse told us to go into the hall and see the doctor. What word don't you understand? I wanted to scream.

"He's going to fall on the floor," I told her. "He needs a place to lie down NOW."

I guess it finally got through - she pointed to the beds across the room and told me she would get the doctor. Salvation, I thought to myself. Well, I was wrong.

I helped Elie to get across the room. He more slid onto the bed than anything else. I helped him straighten out a bit. He started fumbling to close his fleece jacket because he was still freezing. I took over and closed it while he touched his lips.

"What's the matter, Elie?"

"My lips are numb," he answered. Okay, what little was left of my heart fractured even more. Perhaps the scariest moment for me was when I took his hand before the doctor came in...and he held mine. That is so not Elie. He'll give me a kiss upon parting, accept one when he comes home.

He's not the little boy who comes over for a hug any more. Each hug or kiss is a treasure I must claim and yet, he held my hand for a few minutes till the doctor walked in and that was so frightening because it meant somewhere inside of him, he was scared too. I was about as close to frantic as I could be when the doctor walked in.

"What's the problem?" he asked.

"He has a high fever and he can't feel his fingers or his lips," I said none too calmly.

"Who are you?" he asked.

I looked at him for a second and thought about all the things I'd like to say...like, what difference does it make, you idiot...but I was so good. With as much authority as I could muster, I answered, "I'm his mother."

That apparently isn't as impressive as I would have liked it to be. He turned to Elie and asked him some questions. He checked Elie's breathing and came up with the brilliant idea that it was a virus and to cure it - lemon tea. That's all. He didn't need to check his throat, his ears. He listened to his breathing, he checked his stomach because Elie said it was hurting, and told me to give him tea...with lemon! He stressed the lemon.

I was thinking along the lines of asking to see his medical license or suggesting another alternate location for the lemons, but restrained myself, "Don't you want to run any tests?" I asked, quite proud that I had sounded so calm and reasonable.

"Gevarti [roughly My lady...but not nearly as poetic], what tests would you like me to run?"

Okay, now I'm not appreciating this so much...and finally realized he was about as close to useless as could be. I just wanted him to make my baby all better, but of course, was smart enough not to say that.

He concluded with excusing Elie from the army for three days, giving us papers to indicate Elie's blood pressure etc, and dismissed us. I looked at Elie and asked how he was doing. He could feel his hands and lips again and said he was "okay." Of course, he'd been saying that all along.

I told him we could get him a wheelchair to get him back to the car. He absolutely refused. He was, he insisted with what little strength he had, okay.

I helped him back to the car, watched him sleep on the way home. He put his legs up on to the dashboard. He was smarter than the doctor, wanting to encourage his blood flow to pump blood back to his hands.

We got to the house. He was so weak. I helped him up to the living room and let him lie down on the couch. He slept with a cold towel on his head for an hour until the fever went down enough for him to eat something and take Advil. At some point, he asked for his telephone to send a message to his commanding officer. He held the phone till he got the response, then put it down and closed his eyes again.

Another hour passed before he was feeling well enough to go upstairs to his bedroom. He felt cooler - the Advil had finally kicked in. I set an alarm, woke in the middle of the night, around 4:00 a.m., went to check on him, and though he was much cooler, I woke him up anyway and gave him Tylenol.

This morning, and all day, I've brought him cups and cups of tea - with mint and sugar the way he likes it, not lemon! He's had toast several times, some water, some apple juice. He's not in pain, he's fine. He's smiled each time, thanked me for giving him whatever. He's had no fever for the last few hours, has gotten up and gone to the bathroom on his own.

He is, in short, my Elie.

And since I titled this post "thoughts that break the heart" - I'll confess that of all the thoughts that came to me last night and today, the one that finally broke my heart had nothing to do with Elie at all.

Someone sent a tweet (Twitter people understand that one) about Gilad Shalit and it hit me. Who takes care of Gilad when he's sick? What agony does his mother feel, knowing that over the last three years, Gilad has been alone through each illness? What would I have done if Elie had been this sick in the Golan? The answer is easy - I'd have gotten into my car and driven up there. I'd have pulled him home, begged him home, anything, everything.

In all the time Elie has been in the army, he's had sniffles and colds, but never anything like this high fever. Never so weak he could barely move, that he couldn't feel his fingers or his lips. I know now, from my brother-in-law the doctor and NOT the army doctor...that this isn't nearly as unexpected or as frightening as I thought it to be.

But does Gilad know that? Elie has had medical training and yet seemed surprised that he couldn't feel his lips, his hands. Does Gilad know not to be scared? Who was there to hold his hand as he lay weakly on the bed...does he even have a bed? The thoughts are useless...the ability to imagine endless, the heart broken for a mother who cannot hold her son's hand.

My son is upstairs in his room, with a cup of tea made by his mother. At his worst, I was there to hold his hand and be with him. Throughout the day, I checked on him. He never felt alone, he was never alone.

There are so many crimes that Hamas has committed. Today, I discovered another.
May Gilad know that in her heart, his mother and all the mother's of Israel are with him, reaching out with love to hold him. May he come home soon.