As a child growing up in Jamaica, of course I knew about Bustamante Children’s Hospital or “Busta” or “Children’s” as almost everyone refers to it. I am also here to say I have no memory of ever stepping foot inside its gates until late October 2009, and not as a child, but as an adult. As a parent. I had been someone’s mother for barely three days with my first child and neck deep in waters of an experience I was emotionally unprepared to manage. I was slapped in the face by my taken for granted privilege of being able to afford private healthcare in Jamaica.
My son was born by emergency c-section in the middle of the night on Heroes’ weekend 2009. Before the sun came up the next day, he had to be transferred from Nuttall Memorial Hospital as he required medical intervention they were unable to provide. I was informed that my option was Bustamante Children’s Hospital, as the nursery at the University Hospital did not have space. Little did I know that neither did the nursery at Children’s – but they took him anyway. Still under anesthetic from the surgery, I watched as the team of paramedics carried him away in a portable incubator at almost 2am. My sister got in the ambulance with her new nephew and just like that, they were gone.
When my mother came to see me the next morning, I still cannot process the image of the experience she described to me. There was no space in the nursery when they arrived. My son spent his first night in the borrowed incubator with my sister at his side, on a ward full of children. She has never been able to describe to me what that night was like for her, but the look on her face and her glassy eyes said more than she would ever be able to. My best friend took up the watch in the morning to relieve my sister. By then word had spread amongst friends and family about his condition and the calls and messages were non-stop. A space in the nursery opened up and he was moved. A restricted area, accessible to staff and parents only, cut off the flow of information and panic set in. In the meantime, my best friend having been evicted from the nursery, relocated from his bedside to mine and my father dutifully and gratefully returned the incubator borrowed from Nuttal the night before.
A great friend, a doctor, went to see him in the Special Care Nursery. She tried her best to smile and put on a cheerful disposition, and I appreciate it to this day. She held her camera close to her chest and asked me if I wanted to see him, could I manage to look at what she had to show me. I won’t share those pictures with you, but I look at them often. They are a heavy, poignant reminder to be grateful.
Fast forward from the wee hours of Sunday morning to Tuesday morning – my doctor tells me to get up and walk, if I can get up and walk I can go to my son. So I got up and walked and was released later that morning. On my way to the car, my father asked me if I was ready. I replied I haven’t seen my son for more than 5 mins since he was born. I never even got to touch him before he was whisked away. I was ready.
I have never been more wrong in my entire life.
After an impatient moment with a gruff security guard, I got out of the car and asked for directions to the nursery. The longest walk of my life. I got to the door and identified myself, went to the nurse’s desk and asked to see my son. Even the pictures couldn’t have prepared me for the vision of this tiny person with more gauze, tubes, tape and beeping monitors than I could imagine. As I stared at him, a nurse walked by and put her hand on my shoulder and whispered “don’t let him see you cry”. Any steel resolve I had at that point simply dissolved and I looked away from him and blinked through tears and I was stunned by the sight of the room. Bassinets and cribs everywhere filled with babies. Some unattended, some with parents standing by, some being attended by nurses. It hit me how young so many mothers were in the room. So many children in need of attention. Having grown up with a private pediatrician with multiple doctors in the practice, this scene was completely foreign to me. I’ve heard about it, but had no appreciation till I walked through the corridors and stood right there in the middle of it.
I turned back to my son and noticed his hands and feet seemed to be discoloured and I called over the nurse who had just reached out to me. She looked at him and immediately called for the doctor in the room. The doctor came over and after one look whispered to the nurse to clear the room. She ordered everyone out but I stood there, stunned into motionless silence. She held my hand and told me I had to go outside. I mouthed no, but she held my hand and led me outside. My sister held me up at the small window outside the doors. I watched as they bagged him and moved him to a spot closer to the nurse’s desk and turned on a set of warming lights. They reattached all his tubes and IVs and after what seemed like an eternity, she came to the door and said he was stable and I need to go home and rest. She was telling me to leave. Of course, I wouldn’t budge and it took a concerted effort from her, my sister, parents in the hallway and a sympathetic porter who brought me a wheelchair to get me back to the car.
I can’t say I can recount the next few hours to you, but the phone rang around 6pm. I recognised her voice. She said to me that due to his condition they may need to put him on a ventilator. There were none available. I’m pretty sure my heart stopped. She told me not to panic as space had become available at UWI and they were preparing to move him as we spoke. “We can’t provide what he needs here so meet the ambulance there, he’s going to be ok.” The onslaught of emotion at that moment is something I relive every time I see an initiative supporting the Bustamante Children’s Hospital. My son came home one week after that phone call. He’s a happy, healthy, smart and loving 4 year old today. Never will I forget their efforts that made the joy in my life possible. Not every mother with a newborn in need has the resources I had available to me, both in people and finances, in my experience. The experience made me acutely aware of the ungratefulness of privilege.
This year’s staging falls in with my mum’s 60th birthday, so to celebrate we are supporting the cause and celebrating their contribution to our lives – my son, her grandson. Special Thanks to my friends Lesley and Martin Miller who held my hand that night he was born and who went with me to the staging of Shaggy and Friends a mere 2 months later. It was a great show, and I’m sure this staging will be even better – but for me, it’s not about the show. It is about an institution that is taken for granted by many privileged enough to have options for their children’s medical needs. It is about an institution that is deserving of my time, support and gratitude for what they do for so many of Jamaica’s children with the resources available to them. The task before them is by no means simple, nor is it easy – but at 2am on October 18, 2009, they saved a little boy’s life. My little boy. My gratitude alone will never repay that debt – but we can all support their ongoing efforts so that no child in need ever has to go without care.
All my love, a grateful mother.