Nov 04, 2013 0 Share

Hard Knocks


The author's son on a gurney in the ER.
Photo by Julie van der Poel

There are certain phone calls you never forget. Those are the calls that elicit such an emotional response that the memory is forever fresh in your mind. You are able to distinctly recall where you were, what you were looking at, and even the sounds and smells in the room. I have received three such phone calls from Cameron’s phone. The first one was the summer when Cameron was 15 and he went on his bike to explore the National Mall while I was at work. A nasty storm blew in, and I repeatedly tried calling Cameron to check on his whereabouts. When my phone finally rang, I was relieved to see Cameron’s number on the screen, and answered, “Hi Cam!”

The reply was, “Actually, this is Officer Smith with the US Park Police.”

I was awash with panic before I was able to process that Cameron was fine, but had been caught in the storm and the police were evacuating the Mall. They wanted to make sure someone knew where Cameron was.

The second call I will never forget happened last summer at the precise time Cameron always called to say he was leaving work. Again, “Hi Cam!”

… and “Mrs. van der Poel, this is Ms. Johnson. Cameron has been [assaulted] at work by another employee.”

I shared this event in my “Eyes Wide Open" column, but the memory of that experience is as fresh as if it happened yesterday.

Speaking of yesterday, this brings me to the third phone call from Cameron I’m sure to never forget. An hour before deadline for this column, I was sitting at my PC trying to think of something new to share. I was wishing for a compelling topic beyond my current obsession with trying to find a postsecondary program for Cameron. I took a break, and decided to push the deadline. My phone rang at exactly Cameron’s start time for work. I’m so used to these phone calls, I often don’t answer, and (most of the time) I later listen to the voicemail that Cameron has arrived safely. Because my phone was in my hand when it rang, I answered as soon as it started to ring. “Hi Cam!”

“Mom, I’ve been in a bit of an accident.”

Cameron was riding his bike on the sidewalk of a busy street, and came to an intersection. Cars from the busy street were turning left into the side street, and cars from the side street were turning right onto the busy street. There’s no light at this intersection so it is a bit tricky at rush hour. There was a line of cars on the side street, and the first car in line had pulled through the crosswalk. Cameron started to cross behind the first car, but the second car in line began to move forward as the first car moved forward. Cameron was caught between the two cars. The driver of the second car said he never saw Cameron.

This happened less than a mile from home, and my husband jumped in the car as soon as Cameron gave us the location. I kept talking to Cameron and could tell he was rattled, but not terribly injured. To keep him focused and distract him from his growing anxiety, I told him to call work and let them know what happened, and to call me when his stepdad arrived. Cameron called me back within three minutes.

The entire time this was happening, my inner demons were reminding me of Cameron’s driver readiness screening I wrote about in my last column. When the driving instructor asked me if Cameron could safely to cross the road alone, I was shocked and incredulous. But as the reality of this incident began to settle, I couldn’t help but ask if we had just been lucky that a much more serious accident hadn’t happened sooner. Was Cameron really not capable of processing everything that one needs to process in order to navigate traffic? Of course, I didn’t want to blame Cameron for the accident, but I needed to know if he was safe.

Cameron rode to the hospital in an ambulance. I arrived at the ER, and the first point of contact for the hospital was with someone filling out paperwork at her desk. I said, “Excuse me. My son was hit by a car and brought by ambulance. How can I find him?”

She gestured to the man at her desk and said, “This is the patient. You’ll have to wait.”

I stood there for 45 seconds and said, “I’m sorry, but can I go back to the nurses’ station and ask for my son?”

She turned to the triage nurse and (clearly annoyed) asked her to help me, and the triage nurse muttered that a lot of people had been brought by ambulance, as if Cameron would be difficult to find. Luckily, that was the beginning and end of poor treatment. When I finally found Cameron, he was being triaged by another nurse, in a private room, and the nurse was very compassionate. The nurse asked about existing medical conditions, raising his eyebrows as he offered, “Autism?” It probably shouldn’t make me happy that people immediately label Cameron as having autism, but in this case I felt somewhat relieved.

Cameron was doing a self-assessment of his injuries to his left foot and right leg. He predicted that he would need surgery or they would have to “cut these things off.” The nurse and I assured him that nothing would need to be cut off. Later, while we were waiting in the hall for X-ray, I started to think that what Cameron was referring to being cut off might be the bandages he had received in the ambulance. Surely he didn’t think his injuries warranted amputation! So I asked him if he meant the bandages, and he said no, he meant his leg and his foot. I asked why he thought they would need to be cut off, and he said because they might be broken. I explained that when bones are broken, they heal. There’s no cutting off of arms and legs. To which Cameron said, “So I guess it’s just a crazy idea of mine that they’ll cut off my hand if these warts don’t go away.”

The X-rays showed a small break on the top of his left foot. His left leg and knee were badly bruised and swollen, but nothing time won’t heal. Cameron apologized for forcing me to miss the movie my husband and I were going to see. He was worried that I had wasted my money by pre-purchasing the tickets. I assured him that I had gotten a refund. Cameron lamented that he had “ruined everything” because he had volunteered for a pet adoption event that he would now not be able to attend. I assured him that it was not his fault and that everyone understands that accidents happen and plans must change.

The police officers that responded to the accident also came to the ER. They inquired after Cameron’s well-being and gave me a card with a case number. I couldn’t stop myself from asking them if they felt Cameron was at fault in the accident. From what I’ve been able to gather, the driver of the second car was looking left to turn right, and apparently never considered the crosswalk in his actions. Cameron admitted that he was worried about being on time, so in his effort to hurry, he probably opted for speed over caution. I can see this accident happening to anyone—both from the driver perspective and the bike rider. This could have happened to anyone, regardless of the neurological processing abilities. But it didn’t happen to just anyone. It happened to my son. And as much as I’d like to be able to, I’ll never be able to see the world from his eyes and truly understand what he understands … and what he doesn’t understand. But I just can’t see myself clipping his wings in the interest of protecting him. I guess instead of managing Cameron’s every move, I’ll have to devote my energy to managing this knot in the pit of my stomach. And by the way, I don’t think I’ll find myself wishing for compelling column topics ever again.