Fire from the Gods

I like to walk. This campus is vast, covering some 80 or 90 city blocks, so I have endless room. Multi-storied glass walkways connect a dozen medical centers into a citadel. I walk in laps sometimes, other times in a proverbial beeline from my office in one of the oldest buildings, a converted maternity ward, to the distant children’s hospital. Each walk is pleasant in its own way. One carries me down dank, 1930’s-era stairs through the main building to a psychiatric hospital where curly-headed doctors wielding horn-rimmed glasses and bow ties confer in corners. They make me smile because they’re almost tropes of themselves. Another walk takes me through the ultra-modern cancer center, across a parking deck, and into the outpatient clinic where people urgently await treatment that does not meet the threshold of “inpatient”. Ambulatory, we call them, because hey, at least you can walk out of here today.

My favorite is the children’s hospital. It’s my favorite because it is the farthest and because it is the children’s hospital. That building sits as far away from my office as any building can while still a member of the citadel. The children’s hospital is crisp, clean, a polished aluminum gray and shining glass creation. Even dim days are brighter in that building. Maybe it’s because I begin in a stained brick structure old enough to be my grandparent, but the children’s hospital glows.

It shouldn’t. That thought always strikes me. The same “I don’t like your tone, Mister Salesman” nerve crackles awake every time I cross the walkway into that building. Because why should a place full of sick children be full of light? Why should I feel warm in here? The kids don’t. You see them, sometimes, as the nurses or their parents cart them to and fro in wheelchairs or red wagons, wrapped in sweatshirts, clammy, skull-faced despite the hazy July afternoon. You can walk the painted river in the floor tiles or you can follow the signs but they all lead to the same place where children, youngins, that girl who looks barely older than your niece or that boy who will struggle with his Down syndrome for the rest of his life, wait for the pain to stop so they can go outside and play. Children should not be in here. Children should not be sick. The air should not shimmer such a fine dandelion yellow.

Some designer lined the walls with success stories. You should stop and read them sometime. I’ve read them all, probably. This child was born, taken home, and rushed back a week later. That child was premature to the point of unviability. This middle schooler collapsed at a dance. That high school senior coughed up blood at her prom. She is from this hamlet you’ve never heard of and he is from that metropolis we’ve all heard of. They all came here, or were brought here by their parents since they’re children and can’t drive or make such choices, since they’re children and should never be sick at all.

The stories end well. I can’t imagine which committee would approve the placard that ends with “and then she died.” Terrible marketing. The anti-salesman nerve is joined by the anarchist inside me. “Tell the truth,” I think.

I continue walking. The trail continues across another walkway that arches above the sizzling avenue below to pediatric neurosurgery. Go back and consider that term. Brain surgery for children. I won’t indulge in the mental mortification of those words and neither should you. The walkway ends as the departments begin and every time, as when I first cross the walkway into the larger pediatric complex, I think the same thought: the end of the line.

This is my favorite place. It is the farthest spot along the longest trail through the saddest building to the worst thing you can think of. It is my favorite place because it exists. Beyond those doors, people who devoted years or even decades of their life to education and training before they even started a lifetime of work meet a child, talk with parents, and discuss diagnoses and procedures with nurses and administrators. They gift routine, even common treatments for conditions that fill the anxious and unknowing parents with Armageddon. They learn of new problems, new pains, new ways the infinitely complex and malleable human body can falter or adjust. They create and invent and literally sew together ways for the child under their knife and in their care to grow up. They help parents learn how to care for their child and themselves. Sometimes, they share the most horrible news a parent can hear. More often, they’re messengers of life.

I turn around and walk back, less hurried because I’ve reached the end. My office awaits. I get to help with this, a little, supporting what they and others do. I follow the painted trail. A wizened service dog lays on the cool tiles while three children pet him from their red wagon. A father carries his sleeping son to the parking deck while the mother smiles. People wait in the lobby where sunlight touches everything.

It’s not magic – I don’t believe in such things and to call it that steals thunder from the Prometheuses who came before and who are yet to come, those who would steal fire from the gods to give it back to children and their families. It’s better than magic. People built it. It can be learned, shared, improved upon, and learned again. In a generation, some doctor in that building will improve a technique so that what was, today, the calamitous final hope of a desperate child will be smiled upon as arcane and unnecessary.

By the time I’ve reached my desk I’ve changed my mind. It is magic, a kind uniquely human.

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