The second level of Shriner’s Hospital was the inpatient floor, where children from all over the world came to call home while they were being evaluated or treated for various physical disabilities. Between the ages of seven and twelve, I stayed there overnight more times than I can count.
The memories bring up a lot of mixed feelings. Sure, there was the time Santa Claus visited my hospital room on Christmas and brought me a stocking full of toys; but then there were the needles, the endless blood draws, the morphine drips and painful incisions. Sure, there was the arts and crafts room, with colorful activities to keep our hands busy; but then there were the excruciating screams echoing through the halls at night.
I remember the day I first found the hospital library — a tiny room filled with messy stacks of books, overflowing bookshelves, and the strong smell of stale paperbacks. There were no windows, and the overhead florescent light was almost never on until I got there and flipped the switch. A little handwritten sign on the wall said “Feel free to take a book, and return it when you’re done.”
I felt like I had stumbled upon a magical, secret garden; this small library quickly became my favorite place in the whole hospital. The books I discovered allowed me to get lost in the exciting lives of other, more “normal” children. The Babysitters Club, Goosebumps, and Sweet Valley High were my drugs of choice to keep me going through countless days and nights spent preparing for, or in recovery from surgery. They got me through painful physical therapy, cast and brace fittings, and the monotony of days and weeks spent primarily indoors.
It is because of the hospital library that I learned to read, well above my grade level, from a very young age. It’s how I discovered that writing can have the power to transform the reader into something, someone, somewhere, else.
Because I didn’t have much of a social life at the time, being cooped up in the hospital all day, the characters in my books became my best friends. I would spend hours telling my mom all about Claudia, Mary Anne, Stacey, Kristy, and Dawn, and how they came together to form the Babysitters Club. Claudia was the eccentric artist who loved to hide candy in her room; Kristy was athletic and business savvy; Mary Anne was sweet, smart, and shy; Dawn was the cool California girl; and Stacey was the stylish one from NYC, who had diabetes and—like me—had spent some time in a hospital.
Obviously, Stacey was my favorite.
My mom listened attentively, asking me questions about the girls and getting lost in my fantasy world right along with me. My mom was always there. Even when the hospital suggested she go home, saying they would take good care of me, she put her foot down and insisted on staying right by my side. It was a big, big deal. Most kids’ parents left at night to go home and sleep; but not my mom. No, my mom slept on a rock hard reclining chair beside my hospital bed every single night I was there.
It couldn’t have been very comfortable, but I wouldn’t have known it because she never complained. She was simply existing as I was — rolling with the punches, doing what we had to do to get through it all.
Sometimes now I hear parents of young children with Perthes ask what they can do to help their children… my answer is, be there. Take care of their daily needs beyond what the nurses can provide, and stay positive by helping them continue to engage in the things they enjoy.