Three weeks ago, we had a painful family accident. It was an atypically warm Wisconsin day – nearly forty degrees! – and our dear friends B.J. and Colette were visiting. Genae had to take Milo to an appointment, so the rest of us decided to cart our collective horde of children to Carson Park in Eau Claire. After arriving, the children dispersed with glee to climb and play. I spun Evie Claire, our 6-year-old, on a rotating saucer, and then walked over to push Harvey on a swing. Evie ran off to climb on a six-foot-tall plastic dome.
Thirty seconds later, I heard screaming and Walter was bringing Evie over to me with a concerned look on his face. Evie held both of her hands over her mouth, and I could see blood flowing down her white shirt. As an ER doctor dad, I didn’t know what I would see when Evie dropped her hands, but I was hoping, “Maybe this is minor?” and “Maybe this is just a small cut I can repair at home?”
When Evie made it to me, her hands fell. The first thing I saw was a lot of blood around her mouth. Then I saw two lacerations over her upper lip. It was obvious they needed stitches, but they were not the source of the bleeding. I turned to investigate her mouth.
Evie was crying hysterically when I asked, “Sweetheart, open up your mouth.” As she did so, my heart fell. There was a lot of blood, but it was readily apparent that multiple of her top teeth were missing. One was hanging at an abnormal angle. What I could see of her gum tissue did not look good, and she had large gaping lacerations on the inner surface of her upper lip. Already, her lip was swollen to twice its normal size. I scooped her up, held her crying form in my arms, and B.J. drove us five miles to the ER where I work.
When we arrived at the ER, she was brought immediately back to a room. Genae met us there, and we were both relieved when a doctor walked in who is a precious family friend and who Evie knows well. Evie, covered in blood, was rightly afraid to allow anyone to touch her lip or peer into her mouth, and the examination was difficult. As a father, I worried for my poor little girl. She had sustained the worst pediatric dental trauma I had seen in five years of being an ER doctor. I worried about her having scars and permanent dental injury.
Yet, my ER had all the resources needed to care for her. Our dentist was consulted. A panorex radiograph was obtained so we could see if any teeth were impacted. Ultimately, she was sedated with ketamine, suctioned, had a tooth pulled, and about 10 stitches to repair the inside and outside of her mouth. I sat and held her hand as she was put to sleep under the watchful eyes of two doctors, multiple nurses, a respiratory therapist, and advanced monitoring devices that kept her safe. Four hours later, she left the ER with her blanket, three lost teeth, antibiotics, and blood-covered shirt.
In the moment of an emergency, even ones involving family, I tend to be calm and collected. Afterward, though, the emotions arrive. My protective fatherly instincts swelled. I had a strong desire to shelter all my children from harm. I felt anxiety in my soul. I wanted them to be safe and not do anything that would put them in harms way. I thought about our plans to move across the world to Papua New Guinea, and bristled at the idea of exposing them to risk. Yet, I had two realizations as I contemplated these fears.
First, I was doing everything I could to keep Evie “safe” when this injury occurred. She is our careful child, not a wild hurricane like Harvey. She was in the middle of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, climbing on a piece of children’s playground equipment when she stepped through a hole, fell forward, and somehow smashed her face against a metal bar. She was not doing anything excessively risky. We can’t protect our children from everything – they are in God’s hands and we do our best as parents to ensure their safety, but also allow them to live and have the joy of being a child.
The second realization affected me even more. What would have happened if I was a father in remote Papua New Guinea and my child had severe dental trauma and facial lacerations? What if there was no nearby hospital? What if I had no resources to travel or take my child to one of the few hospitals in the country? What if, after making it to a hospital, that hospital didn’t have adequate medications, imaging, or staff to care for my child?
“What would have happened if I was a father in remote Papua New Guinea and my child had severe dental trauma and facial lacerations?”
What would it be like to take my child home with a mangled mouth, and have her be too terrified to even allow me to peer into it or clean it out? What if her untreated wound became infected, and over the next few days I watched as redness spread around her lips and a foul odor wafted from her mouth? What would it be like to feel helpless – no hospital, no doctors, no resources – as my little girl suffered? What if she developed a fever, and for days I was overwhelmed by anxiety and grief as she became confused and I did everything I could to try to take her somewhere, anywhere, that could help her?
This was not my reality. I rode five miles to an ER with abundant resources to care for my precious girl. How unfair that there are fathers and mothers around the world who are forced to watch their children suffer because there is no medical care available for them. All over the world, kids die from illnesses that could be easily treated or prevented with the right resources. Fathers and mothers hold their dying children, rendered powerless to help them, merely because they were born in a different country with different resources.
The late pioneer of global health, Paul Farmer, would often say to people who talked about the third world, “Look, there are not three worlds. There is one world. You and I are part of that world. And there are people in that world who are suffering in poverty.” Sometimes, it is easy to absolve ourselves of responsibility to our distant neighbors by comfortably placing them in the “third world”, not realizing that within a day or two’s journey we could arrive at their door.
“Look, there are not three worlds. There is one world. You and I are part of that world. And there are people in that world who are suffering in poverty.”Paul Farmer
I wish this accident with Evie never happened. I hate it when my children experience suffering. Yet, I am grateful that in our time of need, there was a place to take her for help – a place that lifted the burden off of my shoulders and had every resource needed to care for her. I cannot imagine being a parent elsewhere, and watching my child suffer from treatable illness just because there was no one there to help them. Through this accident, God gave us an epiphany, and we are more sure than ever why He has called us to serve in a place where medical resources are scarce.
God, I want you to protect my family and my children. I want them to be safe and healthy. But Lord, I want to be your hands and feet to provide medical care to people in Papua New Guinea, who otherwise would not have access to it. Help us to be good neighbors.