There is a certain shade of blue I know very well. All too well. It’s an icy blue. It’s cold. I’ve seen it many times in my career. The first time I saw it was fulfilling a pathology requirement in medical school. And I’ve seen it over and over in the Emergency Department. And it’s a color I hate.
It’s always associated with purple lips and cold skin, like you might see on somebody’s grandparents in the funeral home.
It’s the blue of death.
Zane, June 5, 2013, is a day I will never forget. You were that shade of blue. Your lips were purple. Your flesh had the feel of death. You did not breathe. I could not find your heartbeat.
We had decided to take a family getaway from Bere to the big city of Moundou, visiting James and Sarah Appel, and their children Miriam and Noah. Miriam’s twin, Adam, died a year and a half ago from malaria. I remember holding him as he died, turning that awful shade of blue.
Along with us were Mommy, Lyol, Gamma, Wendy and Cherise. Wendy and Gary lost their own little boy to malaria too.
You had woken up happy and eaten a good breakfast. You played and slept on the way to Moundou.
Then, about 11am, while shopping in a hardware store, you became even sleepier. And you started vomiting. And you vomited repeatedly. And you felt hot.
By 1pm, we had IV quinine pumping through your veins, that poisonous medicine that is so effective at curing malaria.
And still, you wouldn’t wake up.
For hours, I sat by your side and watched you, baffled how you got so sick, so fast. Your breathing was rapid, in the 80s; your heart rate was high, in the 180s. And you slept.
Was it sleeping, or being unconscious?
Just before 5pm, less than six hours after you gave us your very first sign of being sick, less than the time it takes to fly across the Atlantic, I noticed your little, tiny twitches. It didn’t look like malaria seizures. It jumped around. A twitch in this finger. A twitch in that leg. Almost like the twitches when you fall asleep.
And then the twitches started to progress.
James came home. Mommy came home.
And then you started vomiting some more.
We got a blood sugar. It was 298. You weren’t hypoglycemic. You were stressed.
We got a hemoglobin. It was 9. Low for a child, but not critical. You were anemic.
And then you seized.
You started crying inconsolably. I held you. I talked to you. I told you it would be ok. I told you I was sorry. I hoped and prayed you understood how much you were loved.
You stopped crying. Your eyes rolled up in the back of your head. Your entire body shook and jerked violently.
It may have been one minute, it may have been ten minutes. It felt like all 712 days since your birth passed before my eyes. The 712 days since I first held you, a swaddled, sleeping bundle with little dots on your nose. And it felt like your entire future, created long ago in my mind to usurp my own future, was being actively and cruelly cut down to mere moments.
You turned blue. That evil blue.
Your lips turned purple.
You stopped breathing.
I couldn’t find your heart rate.
And I broke. I begged you to come back.
Zane, your Daddy had no idea what to do. I had lost you. I, who pride myself on never getting worked up in a crisis. I froze, broken, shattered to pieces. It felt like my heart had been strewn around the world, a million pieces that would never be fit back together.
All that played through my head was James telling me the morning his son died, ‘Adam just seized, stopped breathing and died.’ And only yesterday would have been the eighth birthday of Caleb Roberts, had he not died from the same disease. June 10 will be the fourth anniversary of his death.
But I wasn’t ready to give up on you, Zane. I did the only thing I could think of.
I gave up on me. And I gave you up.
While you were blue, I gave you up. You are no longer my son. I relinquished any and all rights I have concerning you.
In that moment, I told God that you were His. I could not fix you. I had done everything perfectly, and you were dying, if not already dead. I could not protect my own son. And I could not handle losing a son to death. So I gave you to God. I told God that if He was going to take care of His son, He’d better start doing something.
The next moment, your jaw started to unclench. You started to grind your teeth. Saliva started coming out of your mouth, frothing it’s way to freedom in a marginal sign of life.
And you finally breathed.
And the blue, that awful hard pale blue of death, started to fade from your face, slowly to be replaced by a softer pink. The purple in your lips gave way to a rosier sign of life.
You became a more beautiful version of yourself than you had ever been. More precious still. I stroked your long, light, perfectly-disheveled hair. I touched your nose. I reminisced about what your eyes would look like behind those lids. I found once again your lone freckle on your chest. I opened your mouth to stare at your crooked tooth. I rediscovered how magnificently created you are.
Figuring you had had a febrile seizure and wanting to prevent any further damage, we dumped ice water on you and gave you several Tylenol suppositories. We gave you normal saline to correct any possible hyponatremia.
By the time we finally got around to taking a temperature, you were still over 104 degrees, despite everything.
Very slowly, over the next several hours, your breathing got better and your fever abated. Finally, around 3am, roughly 16 hours since you had last spoken, you opened your eyes and asked cautiously for your Mommy.
Probably your last memory had been in a car during the morning. Now you were awakening in the middle of the night in a strange house with Mommy and me hovering over you, staring.
Mommy and I eagerly started grilling you on members of your family, body parts, anything that could help us know your brain still worked. You responded appropriately, and we prayed a prayer of praise that you had come through unscathed.
And you ate for the first time in almost 24 hours.
After that, you were so tired, you just fell asleep again.
And we prayed that the next six days of treatment might go better than the first six hours.
Zane, malaria and seizures are common together. I see them all the time in pediatrics. And I’ve seen that only about half of those cases, those children leave the hospital breathing through non-purple lips. In the last four years, the Adventist missionary community in Tchad has lost Caleb, Adam, Minnie and numerous local Tchadians near and dear to us, all on account of malaria. This is why we treat malaria so aggressively. Zane, don’t be the next to succumb to this infuriating disease which would be rapidly eradicated, should it be endemic in America in 2013.
When you’re older, don’t ask me why I brought you here. Don’t ask me what I would do if I knew I was bringing my son into a place where he would be staring down 50/50 odds of survival. I won’t know how to answer that. Am I selfish?
There’s a certain community of missionaries that have lost family members while serving in the mission field. I do not want to join that community. And all those who have lost loved ones while in the mission field… they don’t want to have their numbers added to either.
I caught a glimpse of the pain a parent experiences losing a child. I thought I had lost you, Zane. But I can never lose you again.
You are no longer mine to lose, although I love you more than I ever have.
You have a better Daddy now.