A year goes by and I begin to forget all of the implications of his disorder. A year TO.THE.DAY. February 26. I should always expect that slap back into reality. Because I know he is always one metabolic episode away from hyperammonemia (elevated levels of ammonia that can cause brain damage), hospitalization, coma and even death. Just the slightest inconsistency and Coulby can be thrown into a cyclonic downward metabolic spiral.
But it is so easy to slip into that comfort zone. That state of loosening up just a little because Coulby has been doing so well and staying so metabolically stable. The initial days following hospitalizations are always the most tense and those in which I am most hyper-sensitive to everything Coulby is doing, saying, eating...anything. When he gets back to baseline I feel myself relax just a little. And the more time that goes by without issue, the more I relax and the easier it is to suppress the horrors of his disorder. How could we have a normal family life if we were always lying in wait for the next illness? The next metabolic instability? The next hospitalization? So I allow myself to live just a little. For Coulby and for my own sanity. And then...BAM! Back to the hospital.
This time it came on suddenly. Coulby went to school on Thursday morning, had a good day, ate his lunch with no issues, did not complain of not feeling well. Came home and spent that evening running around with Caroline shrieking and playing. Nothing unusual. But he did not want to eat his chicken nuggets. First indicator that something might be wrong. He had been scarfing those things down, drenched in ranch dressing, for the last week or so. He actually started crying after the plate was put in front of him, almost as if it pained him to think of eating anything. Second indicator. We decided it was easier to just let Coulby drink milk that night to meet his protein needs. That is when he started holding his stomach. Third indicator. He said he had a little stomachache. Nothing came of it and he drank his milk and went to bed.
Coulby woke up crying not long after he had gone to bed. We found him sitting in his bed where he had been rudely awoken by the earlier stomachache and thrown up. Aside from crying, Coulby seemed to have recovered without issue, which is always a good thing with his disorder. He was alert and responsive. His eyes were clear and not glassy. I stripped the bed while my husband took Coulby into the bathroom to get him washed off. Coulby spent the night in the bed with my husband, who said he woke up whimpering and then throwing up about every hour. It is detrimental to Coulby's metabolic stability if he loses too much fluid and/or calories. He was vomiting so much that we were not able to replenish what he was losing, and by morning we were packing him up to take him to Hopkins for an inevitable admission.
I drove, well above the speed limit and in a daze, my instincts on overdrive, to get Coulby to the hospital. Getting through Baltimore city traffic is always tough, and then I practically had to drive to the top of the parking deck to get a parking spot. A very narrow parking spot at that. It was like trying to squeeze into a pair of jeans that are one size too small! Imagine trying to get my stuff out of the car PLUS Coulby, who at that point was in bad shape and needing to be carried. All 45+ pounds of him! It took some fancy maneuvering, let me tell you. And if it had not been such a crisis situation, I might have actually found it comical. But I made it through the hospital to the ER and got enough of a workout to last the next month.
Hopkins is notorious for dragging their feet when we bring Coulby to the ER. You would think that a child who requires immediate care with the risk of elevated ammonia and brain damage would have a specific, individual protocol. But they follow a standardized protocol and it usually takes too long to get Coulby into a room, to get an IV in him, get bloodwork and to get fluids and medicine running into the IV. This time I was surprised that they got him into a room so quickly, but the events following negated their speed in doing so. (Elaboration to come.)
I knew that Coulby was fading fast and that his ammonia must be elevated, I just did not know by how much. He was not responding to anything I said and his eyes took on a glassy look. He started getting lethargic. Despite this, if any of the hospital staff touched him or he heard any of the familiar noises only a hospital can boast, he became very agitated. Aggressive in a way that I had never, ever witnessed him before. He was kicking, flailing, scratching, pinching and biting. He drew blood scratching the nurse (a small victory for him for all of the times he had been pinned down and poked and prodded by nurses), and I restrained him with my arms and legs and tried soothing him by talking to him. He bit down on my arm with the full force of his jaw. If I had not been able to pull my arm away, he would have broken skin. It was startling to have him bite me. So upsetting because I knew it was not like Coulby at all and because when I talked to him, he looked right at me with no recognition in his eyes. Do you know how heartbreaking it is to have your own child look at you and not know who you are? It is devastating. Frightening beyond all comprehension. One of the worst things I have ever experienced in my life, and something I hope to never have to experience again. Something I will never forget no matter how much time passes or how hard I try. I felt the tears welling up in my eyes and could not help crying about it. But only for a moment. A brief moment. Because I could not focus on my emotions right then. They were secondary to getting Coulby the care he so desperately needed.
The series of events in the ER had a snowball effect. The ER does not stock the correct formula of fluids that Coulby needs to flush out the toxins, hydrate him and replenish calories. So they had to start by using what they had. His ammonia came back at 317!! 317! Normal is 0-32, for those of you who are not familiar. Ammonia is toxic. 317 is startling. Scary. Threatening. It is crucial to get ammunol running into the IV to bring that number down into normal range. The doc wrote a script for the ammunol, but made the biggest error in judgment by listening to the pharmacy and changing the script as they told her it needed to be filled. We have learned the hard way to NEVER trust the pharmacy. Check. Double check. TRIPLE check everything! Guess each doctor has to learn this in his own time as well. But Coulby always suffers at the expense of these errors.
So the ammunol was FINALLY delivered and started hours after arriving in the ER, but was stopped only after 15 minutes of being administered. Coulby was still sound asleep and I knew he had to have that ammunol. The doctor explained to me that the ammunol administered was too concentrated and that it should have been filled in a 1L container to administer the proper ratio. Human error. Inexcusable. We are dealing with Coulby's brain! So the wait was on for the new 1L container of ammunol. Each minute seemed like an hour. And then it arrived! That glass bottle of liquid gold! The nurse brought it into the room and prepared to hang it and then it happened. The icing on the cake. I watched in horror as she lost her grip on the GLASS bottle with Coulby's lifeline. It fell out of her hands in slow motion and shattered on the floor into a million pieces. If I could have screamed I would have. I looked at the floor with the ammunol my baby so needed to be running into his veins and just stared. The smell hit me. Everyone calls it "stinky meds." It is said to smell like rotten egg with a bitter sweet scent mixed in. I am immune. I smell it on Coulby every day. When he sweats. When he has sipped from my cup. On his clothes. It is his scent. I kind of like it, actually.
My eyes welled up again. Not so much because I was sad, but because after everything that had happened that day, this was the last thing I could handle. I wanted to cry in frustration. Then I felt the anger boiling up inside of me. I said nothing. I sat there in utter shock and kept my mouth shut. Until the doctor strolled into the room. Coulby's dietitian, always in his corner, just happened to come in then as well. And I laid it out. I went off. I let all of the anger and frustration and fear and hurt come out. Goodbye to nice me. It takes a lot to make me mean. To get me mad enough to release it all. But it was too much. Too much had gone wrong. Too much time had passed between our arrival and the medicine being started. Too many people were more than willing to gamble with my son's mental capacity. And someone had to take responsibility for it all. The doctor stared at me, speechless. When I felt a little better, I left Coulby guarded by his dietitian, one of the only people at Hopkins that I would ever trust with my son. I took some deep breaths, called my hubby, who always fights beside me, and vented.
We spent the whole day in the ER. Coulby slept the entire day away. He would occasionally wake, whimpering if anyone touched him, but I use the term "wake" very loosely. His eyes did not open. He did not respond to my voice. He just whimpered. It was scary. Seeing him lying there, hooked up to the IV and looking so small in the hospital bed, completely out of it. I had not heard Coulby's voice since 8:30 Friday morning. I had not seen his eyes open with recognition since we had arrived at Hopkins.
It was literally 8:30 p.m. before Coulby was transferred to the PCRU (the floor on which he has always been treated during hyperammonemic episodes). Nothing really woke him or caused him to stir. I watched him a lot that night. I missed hearing his voice. I missed the noise of my rough and tumble little boy. I missed seeing the life in his eyes. And then, some time in the wee hours of the morning, Coulby stirred and sat up. His eyes were still mostly closed, but he was aware of his surroundings, although confused by them. He responded to my voice! And when he finally opened his eyes, he recognized me! And the first thing he said to me in almost 12 hours was, "I need to go potty!"
Coulby's recovery started at that point. He started talking a little more and asking questions. A whole day of his life was completely wiped out of his memory. I wish I could erase some of the horrors of the ER from my mind. They will haunt me forever, perhaps faded, but never erased.
Mentioning any of the other disappointments or discrepancies of Coulby's hospital stay and care would really serve no purpose other than to convey my lack of trust in the inner workings of the medical world. Most important is that he recovered from an ammonia of 317 with all Coulbyisms intact; a spirit unbroken by all that most deem unfair for a child to have to experience. Final ammonia prior to discharge, after spending just shy of 4 full days in the hospital, was 33!!
So we settle back in to our life at home, walking on ice for the first several days to make sure Coulby improves his protein and caloric intake each day. The thought is always in the back of our minds: what if he ends up right back at Hopkins? It is stressful, but not as much so as being in the confines of the hospital. When the dust settles and each day seems more and more normal, it is inevitable that I will slip into the comforts of our daily routine. I will let myself relax and live just a little. If I can remind myself to keep the memories of this hospitalization fresh, maybe, just maybe, it will not be such a slap when Coulby has another metabolic episode. Hopefully it will be another good year (although I hope even longer) before I feel that sting on my face.