The dull pain in her thigh was a reminder. It would always be so, and the memory of that grilling at the hospital would never leave the child’s memory portion of her brain. Today, the hospital memory came back for another go-round of trauma and an adult understanding of those who eagerly look for things that aren’t there.
In the hospital emergency room, a woman stands over her. The air smells of familiar antiseptics that assail the little girl’s nostrils. Looking too large for any human head, the woman’s face, surrounded by a rough halo of curly hair, comes within inches of her nose. Anger and authority are written all over her face. The social worker wants to have her way and the evidence she seeks.
It doesn’t matter that the surgeon is waiting to perform emergency surgery; she will have her admission of guilt. They’re about to wheel the gurney to the operating room elevator, and she needs to get her evidence now. The social worker requires an entry of responsibility in her notes, and time is short.
“Tell me,” she insists in a breath smelling of cigarettes and coffee. The noxious odors are unpleasant and alien to the little girl.
The light hurts the girl’s eyes as the lamp flashes behind the woman’s moving head. The green-tiled room is hot, and her leg is throbbing with pain. Her parents are outside, her father holding back the tears he so wants to free.
“They hurt you, didn’t they,” the woman continues with an increased intensity bordering on command as the medical staff rushes to prepare for the emergency surgery.
“They burned you, and that’s how you got that wound! Didn’t your parents burn you?” The grilling continues in blatant disregard of the surgical sheets, the pole for the IV, and the scurrying staff rushing to hold the elevator.
“Tell me what they did to you!” It was a command, almost a scream, in a tone the girl had never heard. But the woman fails to recognize the six-year-old’s absence of fear of anyone or anything.
A child, a frail young tiger in a family of stoics, who challenges herself in feats other children avoid, knows she is right. The thought strengthens her resolve to respond to this agitated woman. And the words of her sister come to her.
Her older sister had said, “You remember when mommy and daddy were making believe they were fighting? Only three years old, and you picked up a coat hanger and ran at daddy yelling, ‘You stop! You can’t hurt my mommy.”
Now, she would stand up again, but this time she is three years older, and the young tiger is more robust than before.
“They didn’t hurt me! They did what the doctor told them to do, and they took me home. They didn’t hurt me!” She screws up her face in defiance. Small for her age, she nevertheless feels suited to the task.
Frustrated, the woman turns to the staff in the room. “I know they hurt her. I know she’s a victim of child abuse, but she won’t admit it because she’s afraid.” The comment implores others to pitch in on her interrogation, but all stare at her in poorly contained disbelief, casting their eyes downward. The only notice is the shuffling of feet and turning away as though busy with tasks.
A surgeon speaks in whispers to the girl’s parents in one corner. “We don’t know if we can save the leg. The decision to amputate, high up near the hip, won’t be made until we get in there and see what we can do. It’s a chance, but I wanted to prepare you in case we have to amputate.”
The father stares off at his daughter who is talking to an overwrought, red-faced woman. Pulling her handkerchief from her pocket, the mother permits herself one low sob. Stoicism has always been her escape, and it has permeated her other children, but not this one, the last and smallest of her brood. The child she never wanted and tried to abort faces a life of disability. Was this the mother’s punishment?
The charity clinic obstetricians told her she would have twins, unthinkable in a family already in dire need of money to survive. “Do you want to keep this pregnancy,” he asked with some hesitation. How could she tell him she didn’t want this child?
Unable to say the words, a slow head movement indicated she didn’t want the pregnancy to continue. The physician provides an injection to cause a miscarriage. Her husband would never know, and it would appear natural. But this one baby tiger refuses, hangs on to life and is born.
Good health didn’t follow. The child had already managed to survive two episodes of pneumonia, one two years ago. She was the sickly child in the family. Would she survive this?
“If you have to amputate,” the mother asks as she finds her voice. “Will she have an artificial leg?”
“No,” the surgeon responds with a note of resignation. “It will be too high up for that.”
“How will she get around?” Even the thought brought an involuntary shiver to her spine.
Looking at the mother as he shoves his hands into his pocket, his answer is anything but reassuring. “She’ll always have to use crutches and a wheelchair.”
The staff is whirling around the room now, seeming to rush, and there’s the faint clinking sounds of metal-on-metal as trays clash. In the distance, an elevator hums and jars to a stop as the massive door slides open widely. There are two main stops for this service elevator with a door in front and back; the operating room and the morgue.
Out of the corner of her eye, the mother sees the nurses in white outfits standing, changing their weight from one foot to the other. An air of impatience pervades the room.
The vision of her little girl and her nearly impossible task of mounting the house front steps of the house and then the flight of stairs to the second-floor cold-water flat is almost too much, but the mother maintains her calm appearance. She doesn’t want to frighten her daughter, who might have a disability. Crippled. The word is unthinkable. It sounds like a pebble in a tin can in her mind as she hears it.
The surgical team propels the gurney with sheets flying toward the waiting elevator giving little regard for the children’s services woman. Somehow, they know she wishes to file a criminal complaint against the little girl’s parents.
The child knows where she is going; her prior illness has acquainted her with hospital procedures. But she doesn’t know they might have to amputate her leg, the reason her father has tears running down his rugged face now.
A nurse moves the parents quickly to a waiting room where one window affords a view of the elevator, and they watch as the table disappears into the elevator car, and the door shuts abruptly with a thud. It is a sound that carries with it a sense of something ominous.
“Promise you’ll wake me when it’s over,” the girl asks a nurse.
“We will,” the woman responds. How does she even know to ask that question?
In the emergency room, the social worker seethes with anger. An elderly physician, who knows the family and has reviewed the girl’s chart, approaches the woman. The deep lines in his forehead appear deeper as he prepares to speak to her.
“Your zeal is admirable,” he begins, “but the intern who saw them initially told them to go home and apply hot compresses, as hot as she could bear. She only had a sizable puffy swelling on her leg. He didn’t know she had a torn vein in her leg.
“They followed his instructions and applied the hot compresses until the swelling continued to grow into something that frightened them. Then they brought their daughter back to the hospital. There was no child abuse. They love that little girl, and you wanted to brand them abusers? I think you need to go home and think that over.”
The physician turns and walks away, sighing, leaving the woman looking around as the rest of the staff drifts off.
Years later, there would be charges against the social worker from the emergency room for filing false complaints of child abuse. She would be found guilty of abuse of her authority and leave her job. No one knew where she went, but there was a rumor of suicide.
The little girl’s protests in support of her parents would be vindicated, but she would never know as she closed the buckles on her new pair of skates.•
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
P. A. Farrell is a freelance writer/psychologist, author of self-help books, writes for multiple Medium publications, has a Substack (https://drfarrell22.substack.com/), a website (drfarrell.net), a Twitter account (@drpatfarrell) and has been an associate editor for trade journals (PW) and a newspaper syndicate. Previously, she has had extensive experience in the field of mental health, working in psychiatric research, community mental health, psychiatric inpatient units, and has taught at the doctoral level at two universities. She also served as a psychiatric consultant for Disability determinations and has worked as a proctor for medical students at NJ Rutgers Medical School.