The day my sister had a seizure and I was a scared kid

Today is December 15, 2012. Here in the United States, we are mourning yesterday’s horrific and tragic mass shooting at a school in Newtown, Connecticut. Part of the conversation that has started in the immediate wake of this incident is what to tell children – and what not to tell them. There’s an idea that I’ve seen floating around that you have to shield kids from this, that they are too fragile to handle it, or that it’s not the kind of thing they should know.

When I read that kind of thought, I’m taken right back to my young self…forced by circumstance to confront something scary that a kid “shouldn’t have to” confront…

Here’s what happened: Lily and I were home from school. Just a nice afternoon. Mom and Dad were both at work, and we were with our very favorite babysitter. And then Lily had a grand mal seizure (in other words, the big kind). My babysitter, beloved as she was, was not someone who had any advanced medical knowledge, and English was her second language, so I think she was pretty freaked out. I was most likely eight years old at the time – definitely no older than nine – which means Lily was five or six.

I remember running across to the next apartment building to ask our sitter’s friend, another sitter, what to do. I don’t remember what she said, but I know her words triggered a memory: an assignment we had for school was to write down emergency numbers. I ran back to our apartment and called my pediatrician, who was also Lily’s pediatrician. My memory tells me that he instructed me to give Lily a Tylenol when she was able to swallow.

I know I also called my mom and dad, but it would have taken them 30-60 minutes to get home, if I recall correctly. Calling the doctor was a good thing. I’m still not sure why I didn’t call 911. (To be fair, I now know that calling an ambulance isn’t always necessary for Lily during her seizures.)

The babysitter, not knowing what to do, covered Lily with a warm blanket. Lily continued convulsing on the floor of our shared bedroom. Dad came home, and uncovered Lily, telling us that she shouldn’t be restricted or kept warm. (Too much heat may actually trigger Lily’s seizures.) Mom got home. Mom and Dad took Lily to the hospital.

My memory ends there. I’m guessing that the sitter stayed with me until someone else came to watch me – it must have been at least one parent, if not both, with Lily.

What’s funny is that I remember this incident with embarrassment. I felt so horribly frightened. I don’t think what I did was the best response. For some reason, I wrote about this for a personal memory writing assignment in high school, and my teacher left a comment in the margin saying that she thought what I described as the acts of someone who was scared and a bit cowardly was actually responsible. (Ha, and it JUST NOW occurs to me that this assignment may have predated our reading of Lord of the Flies, and that my teacher may have known that I was going to be able to answer the question about the epileptic aura scene. Which is a story I can tell later!)

So…clearly, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about stuff that happens to kids that scares them. I wouldn’t wish this kind of experience on other kids. I know that I weirdly internalized the end of the Cold War and worried that on federal holidays, there were no police or firemen or military on duty and it was the perfect time for our enemies to bomb us, so clearly I also know that sometimes kids shouldn’t be exposed to things they just don’t have the knowledge to process fully. I’d never tell anyone that children are just miniature adults. I do believe there’s a kind of innocence to be preserved in the very young.

But I also think that *some* children need the truth, and that if kids do hear about things that are scary, sometimes, they can handle it. I was very lucky to have parents who could and would have these conversations with me, who could tell me that it was right to call the doctor and to explain (again and again) what it meant when Lily had seizures, and what to do in the future when Lily had a seizure and I was home with her. Sometimes, scary things when we are young can help us to develop healthy response mechanisms.

My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the too many victims of the shooting in Newtown. I hope that the injured recover quickly and fully. I hope that everyone can recover from the trauma, or at least gets the support they need to keep going. I hope that we as a nation can have the many conversations we need to have to prevent further violent acts like this: how we treat guns, how we treat mental illness, what schools are for our children, poverty, and how these factors interact.

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