September 11, 2001. Houston, Texas.
As I make my way down the stairs to the hotel lobby, I have no idea that this day is already making history.
I am in a bit of a rush, trying to make it in time to the hospital. My daughter, Brookney, is at Hermann Memorial Hospital where, beneath her scalp and placed over her brain’s left hemisphere, is a grid of 120 electrodes. The wires from the electrodes are fed out through the incision in her scalp, and are bound together in a long, narrow cotton wrap that snakes its way to an EEG machine to record her brain wavelengths. She has been hooked up to this EEG for five consecutive days. It has been monitoring her brain twenty-four hours a day. She has epilepsy, and the EEG is used to help locate where her seizures originate. By reducing her dosage of medicine, and thus lowering her seizure threshold, she has given the doctors five seizures to study. The results are good: they have located the seizure focal point, allowing for a surgery that will involve the removal of a small portion of her left hemisphere, eliminating or greatly reducing her seizure activity. Her surgery will be performed on September 13th.
As I pass through the breakfast area of the hotel, I immediately sense an eerie feeling as everyone in the room is staring at the television. I look up at the TV and notice one of the Twin Towers is bellowing with smoke. The network anchor people seem speculative as they mention a possible airplane that hit the building. And then, the scene that was so completely horrifying, a jet airliner quickly approaches the second Tower, knifing into it, then immediately bursting into a ball of fire as an explosion of debris erupts out the other side of the building.
The doctors make their rounds to speak to patients and parents in the mornings. My wife and I took turns sleeping in Brookney’s hospital room and the hotel. I am in a rush simply because I want to be able to catch the doctor and see what new information he might have. As I leave the hotel and drive to the hospital, two questions occupy my mind for the doctor: With the turmoil our country has immediately been thrown into, will the surgery go on? (We had waited over a year to get to this point.) And, if so, how will you be able to focus?
The events of 9/11 consumed the entire hospital that day. Doctors, nurses, patients, parents, janitors, cafeteria workers, and security personnel hardly budged from the TVs. While my wife and I were no exception, we were in disbelief that it was all happening so close to our daughter’s surgical date. It was a surgery that could positively alter the course of her life forever. For seven years she had been battling seizures. Sometimes up to fifteen in a day. We had our share of 9-1-1 calls to the house, and of seizures lasting over ten minutes. We had gone through nine different medicines, none of them controlling her condition. Her chance of growing out of the seizures was 2%. Her chance of the epilepsy being controlled by medication was 5%. The surgery was her last great hope, and two commercial airliners had just spoiled the day.
When that thought occurred to me–about how my life was now interrupted, about how my plans were just detoured–it didn’t take long for the questioning of selfishness to arise. I asked myself, Is this right for me to feel cheated that my daughter’s surgery might be postponed or difficult to perform now that the Twin Towers had collapsed? From birthday parties to funerals, every single planned event across America was affected. Perhaps it was time I put our daughter’s situation into perspective. While, yes, her surgery was crucial, it was not life threatening. New York City’s problem was.
Though Houston was sunny that day, it was so very, very dark. But nothing like NYC. I had stayed there several times for business trips, and loved the city passionately. I was 1900 miles away from the towers, and I had felt them fall. I cried for them and I cried for Brookney. The future was uncertain in both directions. What I needed more than anything was hope.
It came in the form of the most profound and simplistic statement I have ever heard, much of which was due to its connection to the circumstances of that day. It was, literally, garbage.
When our doctor entered the hospital room that morning, he mentioned that the surgery was still on schedule, regardless of the state of the union. My reply to that was to the point, “But are you going to be able to give Brookney your complete attention, with no distractions?” I didn’t mean to cast doubt on our doctor, and under normal circumstances the question would never have surfaced, but the circumstances were not normal. He understood my reason for concern and gave the reply that I shall never forget. He said, “This morning my wife asked me to take out the trash, and I did.”
“Huh?” I responded.
“The trash,” he repeated, “I always take out the trash. It’s just part of my regular duties. It’s one of my duties to the world. A small one for sure, but one that if left neglected can have a disrupting effect on everyday living. Operating on children with epilepsy is another one of my duties. I know that I can’t stop skyscrapers from falling down, but I can help improve the lives of children.”
Not in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined that a highly respected pediatric epileptologist would convince me that the reason I should feel comfortable with him performing brain surgery on my daughter, two days after 9/11, was because on September 11th he took his trash out to the curb.
By way of his explanation, not only had he offered me profound insight, but more importantly, hope.
Copyright Ros Hill 2014