On April 22, 2013, my 16-year-old son, TJ, underwent heart surgery to repair a newly-diagnosed heart defect. He woke up from that surgery with an abundance of medical problems. At that time doctors were unable to diagnose him, so my husband and I made the decision to transfer him to a higher level of care hospital. On May 10, 2013, TJ was flown to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and admitted to the PICU at St. Mary’s Hospital.
I had been told that Mayo was one of the world’s best hospitals. Upon arrival, I had hope that doctors would quickly figure out what was wrong with my son, fix him, and send him home so we could get back to our lives. But that is not what happened.
One of the first doctors I met was Dr. Steele. She is a pediatric intensivist at St. Mary’s Hospital. Initially I did not like her, and every time I saw her coming, I wanted to run. She said things like, “Your son is very sick, and his lungs have taken a beating.” “We think he may have had a brainstem stroke.” “He may never get off a vent.” Her words felt cold and harsh. Most times after speaking with her, I felt like she had just punched me in the gut. I wanted to throw up. “Doesn’t she care how much this is hurting me?” I thought. I wanted her to tell me that my son was going to be okay and that he was going to go to college, get married, and have children like I had planned. But she didn’t tell me that. No matter how hard I tried to get her to tell me that everything was going to be okay, she just wouldn’t say it.
After a couple of months in the PICU with many ups and downs, TJ started to improve. During evening rounds, I walked into TJ’s room and found Dr. Steele throwing a ball back and forth with him. She was laughing, and I could tell she was delighted to see his progress. My heart started warming up to her just a little.
One evening I had questions for her that I didn’t want TJ to hear. She took me into another room and spent quite a bit of time explaining to me what had happened to him. By this time I had started accepting TJ’s brain injury, and I was beginning to handle bad news a little better. I could now talk more openly without getting defensive. I appreciated her spending so much time with me and teaching me about my son’s medical condition.
Over time I could tell that she was genuinely sad about what had happened to TJ. When she learned he had been a drummer, in an effort to bring him some quality of life, she had her husband come in and play his guitar for him. My heart warmed up to her a little bit more.
Finally, after two and a half months, TJ had improved enough to be discharged from PICU and transferred to the rehab floor. The medical staff told me that in order for him to be discharged, I had to change his trach three times, clean the trach, and learn how to suction it. I absolutely did not want to learn. I had never wanted to be a nurse in my life. I had watched TJ have three respiratory failures, and I was terrified of his trach. I wanted them to fix him and get him back to the way he was. So, I half-heartedly tried to learn. When the nurses noticed my lackluster efforts, Dr. Steele showed up and had a talk with me: “You need to learn. You have it a lot easier than some of the other parents around here do. They’ve got babies with trachs and the trachs are tiny.” After that I decided I didn’t like her anymore.
Soon after eventually learning all of my tasks, TJ was finally discharged to rehab. When we were leaving, Dr. Steele said, “TJ, I don’t want to see you again until you walk through that door.” I made a mental note and was determined that when he was up and walking again, we would come back to the PICU and show her how much he had improved.
However, we did not stay in rehab long. TJ became very ill, and we were sent back into the hospital. After two more months of bouncing around the hospital with many peaks and valleys, we finally made it to rehab and stayed in rehab. TJ began to improve greatly. He was walking with a walker, so toward the end of our three-week stint in rehab, TJ and I, along with his physical therapist, trekked down the hall to the PICU. When TJ walked through the door, we saw Dr. Steele standing on the opposite side of the room. Upon seeing him, her jaw dropped to the floor. She came straight to us and exclaimed, “I’m so happy for you!” There was much joy and excitement. And I began to really like her again.
A couple of days before TJ was discharged from rehab to home, Dr. Steele was sitting at a desk outside of TJ’s room. I was excited to see her sitting there, and I went out to talk to her.
“You used to make me so mad,” I said with a grin.
“Why? What did I do?” she asked.
“You told me the truth and I didn’t like it! Many times I would ask you a question, and when I didn’t like your answer, I would walk away muttering, ‘She don’t know everything.’”
She laughed and jumped off her chair and hugged me.
And from that day forward, she became my most favorite doctor ever.