Salvation in a Bright Yellow LEGO

Salvation in a Bright Yellow LEGO

Dr. Mercy Hylton talks about how a tiny, yellow lego piece gave her the hope she needed to revive her spirit in these uncertain times.

*First published on LinkedIn.*

Which parent hasn’t experienced the agony of unguardedly stepping barefooted onto a hard plastic corner of their child’s LEGO block, followed by uttering curse words and angry admonishments to their children to pick up their toys? A LEGO block recently brought me to tears, not in physical pain, but in relief and gratitude for God’s grace in the face of the despair growing within me.

 Over the "Year of COVID-19", our pediatric ER’s patient volume declined with fewer typical respiratory and sports-related complaints. However, the acuity, complexity, and anxiety levels of visits rose with more child abuse, skyrocketing psychiatric complaints, more psychosomatic symptoms, and out-of-control chronic illnesses. I witnessed pediatrician colleagues being furloughed from jobs due to decreasing patient volumes and our most seasoned pediatric emergency nurses being stretched so thin that one after another they leave to find greener pastures, all the while watching many in our pediatric patient population suffer like never before. As human resources were tightened and other resources disappeared, there was growing resentment at the ceaseless, if always unspoken, the mantra of “do more with less.”  Pediatric care has long been unfairly undervalued by the business of health care. A recent string of sad patient cases over the last few months, as well as a loss in my own family, had fanned my building ember of grief and hopelessness.

The ember burst into a flame with the distinct shrill ring of an incoming EMS call which interrupted a typical morning in our Pediatric ER. Despite the sound of sirens in the background and the sharp crackles of the speakerphone, we heard the words loud and clear. 

“En route with a newborn delivered minutes ago at home in cardiac arrest.” 

Instantly, everything else around us blurred into the background. Our small team’s focus crystalized on saving the tiny life barreling toward us with blazing lights and blaring sirens: calling for backup help from other units, readying our resuscitation room, assigning team member duties, and mentally reviewing our plan before the patient arrived. Nervous energy and anticipation were crackling like electricity in the room and adjacent hallway where, as is typical for newborn codes, twenty or so health professionals stood ready. For a moment, as we waited, I selfishly thought, “Why is this happening? Why on my shift? I cannot handle any more sorrow.”

The baby arrived in the arms of a medic, was laid on the infant warmer and CPR was immediately resumed.  It was soon noted that the baby’s fragile skin was sloughing off during chest compressions. The condition of the baby’s skin, among other things, told us that the baby had likely died in the womb sometime before the perfectly formed tiny body ever made it to us, even though based on the estimated gestational age, it was likely that baby showers had been given, names chosen, and a nursery readied. The fervent resuscitation attempts were soon tempered by acknowledgment of the inevitable conclusion. 

A nurse held the tiny, swaddled baby in her arms with a maternal tenderness which, for a brief moment, brought to my mind Michelangelo’s beautifully heart-wrenching Pietà. I glanced around for a moment and noted that almost everyone in the resuscitation room was a woman, and most of them mothers: the physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, EMS crew, social worker, and chaplain. My voice cracked as I thanked everyone who had run to aid another mother’s baby. All of us were now grieving with our unknown sister, having been taken to a different part of the hospital, who had lost her baby.  

As I walked out of the resuscitation room I saw one of my sweet nurses who was pregnant at the same gestational age. We held each other and sobbed. This one hit too hard, too close.

The next morning, with the exhaustion that comes after a long shoulder-shaking cry and with spending far more time at the hospital than at home for many days, I hurried to complete the EHR charts of some of the dozens of patients whom I saw the day before. 

Mid-morning my salvation arrived: in the form of a tiny, bumble-bee yellow LEGO piece.

This tiny piece of yellow plastic was tightly wedged in a nostril of the beautiful toddler who had apparently placed it there for safe-keeping: easily visible, tantalizingly close, yet beyond the reach of the mother’s fingers. I asked my questions about past medical history, in order to complete the computerized charting which would take me at least twice as long to complete as the entire patient encounter including the procedure. 

“Any medical problems?”

“Sickle Cell Disease.”

“Any prior surgeries?”

“None yet. But she is getting a bone marrow transplant next month. Her brother is a match,” the mother said, pointing to the preschooler awkwardly stretched out on the armless hospital chair, sleeping soundly through all the chaos.

Silence for several moments. Then the unexpected sight and sound of my tears. 

My Heavenly Father knew and answered. Before I had asked. Before I had even known what I needed. A cure for a much too common, painful, and deadly disease. A reprieve for at least one mother from the trauma and sorrow of watching her child suffer from a previously incurable scourge. A salve to my hopelessness and despair.  

I asked the child’s mother if we could pray together, and she said yes. We put our hands on this squirming, crying toddler and we prayed out loud that God in His power, glory, and mercy would please heal this child of sickle cell disease, keep her and her brother safe from all harm, bless the young boy who will be unknowingly giving his sister the gift of health and renewed life, and bless and strengthen the team who is doing this amazing work. The mother responded after each phrase loud enough to be heard above the ruckus in the small room: Amen! Praise God!

Easter and Mother’s Day each arrived a little early for me this year. As a physician, I strive to prevent, cure and ease the suffering of my patients. As a mother I relate to the anxiety and sorrow of parents as they hold their child: whether as the child’s broken body is lowered dead off across over two thousand years ago, or in current times as they bring their sick, injured, or dying child to the hospital. After a year of bearing witness to so much sorrow, My Heavenly Father knew that a tiny piece of yellow plastic wedged in the nose of a rambunctious toddler, and the hope wrapped around it, is what was needed to renew my weary spirit for a little while longer. 

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