In the summer of 1996 my son Jason was in a fire mishap. This is the story as I recalled it for my book Count It All Joy.

Wednesday, May 6th 1998

I will make today an “orange float” kind of day. The sun is warming the top of my head quite nicely as I walk about the garden, looking for little bundles of Joy. I see little black ants scooting across the soil, looking for today’s pickings. A big, fat, black beetle is crawling up the downspout of the eavestrough from the garage. As I bend over to dig out the weeds, I wonder where the beetle is going. “Is that a mommy beetle or a daddy beetle?” I say to myself.

This little corner of the world that my good friend lets me toil in has been such a blessing. I like to watch the changing colours of the season. Green brings forth renewal, rebirth and hope. The brown days are reminders that all life must end and sleep for a while.

The second time I was hospitalized for depression was in May 1995. A very kind nurse told me I should take up a hobby. I remember crying inconsolably, and saying, “I have no interest in anything. I don’t want to do crafts, read, join a group or play any games. Why don’t you see the pain I am in? Can’t you feel the sadness? Quit telling me to become a part of life. I just want to curl up into a ball and sleep for a very long time. I don’t want to feel anything anymore.”

They wouldn’t let me sleep, though. They told me I must prepare for discharge soon. Oh, great! Now I can take my sadness home and let my illness interfere with my sons’ quest for peace and happiness.

On a Friday morning, in the middle of a school day, Brandon and Jason rode to the hospital with their grandfather to pick me up and take me home. As I sat in the car with the boys sitting as close to me as possible and each of them holding my hand, all I could think of is, “Who is going to be the mother? How can I possibly accomplish the normal day-to-day care my sons require when I can’t stop crying?” I really did not want to go home that day and be the parent. I just wanted to be the little girl and have someone else make all the decisions.

The summer passed, and somehow we managed to get through the fall. A hobby! What activity should I become interested in that would help me occupy time? I am not able to take care of sick kids right now. I can’t be around too many people. Being alone with nothing to do only causes me more anxiety.

Maybe I should plant a garden. With that thought, I started to look at plants of all kinds, everywhere I went. I was collecting ideas.

Where will I get the plants? Where will I plant them? Should I plant from seed or go with garden-ready plants? Do they need lots of sun or will they thrive in the shade? My mind was becoming alive with new thoughts.

Thursday, May 7th, 1998

The thoughts about gardening would stay with me for one whole year before I was well enough to plant a small garden in the spring of 1996. I was somewhat reluctant to get started as I was sure all my plants would die. I needed to do something with my time besides sleep and worry. So I began working the soil and planted a few seeds at the end of May.

The hot days of June were spent at my sister’s home in Atlanta, Georgia. The boys and I were very busy visiting family and touring the southern states for the entire month.

Upon my return, I was thrilled to see my seeds had sprouted into tiny little plants. I took care of the small patch of earth with great pride, and a teeny bit of Joy spilled into my dark days. It wasn’t long before I felt I was ready to try my hand at planting perennials and herbs. I had the desire, but how was I going to shop for the plants? How much could I afford to buy? Where should I go to buy them? Thinking these thoughts would tire me for the whole day.

I made several attempts to shop at our local greenhouse. I remember getting dressed, driving there in my car and walking into the warm fragrant garden centre. I would begin my tour with smile on my face and a fierce determination to make a selection. Within minutes, though, I would feel the familiar spine-tingling, gut-wrenching fear. My mind would turn thoughts and ideas over and over as I walked up and down the aisle. I could not make a choice. I would go home empty-handed. Sometime I was so upset by the outing that I would have to take a long nap.

Friday, May 8th, 1998

Not to be a quitter so early in the game, I decided I would write a letter to the greenhouse staff and ask them to choose a few plants that liked to live in the shade. I described my illness to them in a wobbly handwritten script. A nice young gal tenderly chose some plants for me and called to let me know I could come to pick them up. I will never forget that day as long as I live.

I drove myself to the greenhouse and felt the bubbles of excitement as I looked at the bountiful supply of perennials that were chosen just for me. The plant expert carefully explained the type of plant and where to plant it, and gave me lots of tips on being a happy gardener.

By the time I left for home, my car was full of a lovely assortment of nature’s best and my mind was being challenged with new information. I wasn’t sure I was up to the job of planting and caring for these precious plants. I drove home slowly so none of my containers of Joy would spill over.

When I arrived home, I called for my mom to come and see the surprise I had in my car. She was in the backyard preparing a summer hot dog roast for our family. Mom came to the car and helped me bring the plants to the backyard. I don’t recall who was the happier of the two of us.

Yes, the happiness was too good to be true. Within minutes, the pleasure had evaporated, and pain and agony were once again a part of my life.

While we were busy with the plants, Jason had sneaked into the tool shed. He poured a small amount of gasoline from my father’s red container of lawnmower fuel into a small tin can. He walked over to the fire pit and poured the liquid on the flames. What happened next, no one really knows. My mom and I were in the front yard when we heard a piercing scream. We stopped in our tracks and looked up. We heard it again, this time louder. “Oh my God,” I shouted, “That’s Jason.” We both ran to the back yard. There he was, running around in circles and screaming.

I looked at him in horror. I did not know what to say or do. Jason had removed his burning shirt, and Norman, our neighbor, had jumped over the fence and was stomping on Jason’s shirt. Jason was screaming, “Mom, my life just flashed before my eyes. Oh, Mom, it hurts. Help, help.”

I was in shock. My mom was frantic and shouting, “What happened? Oh, my God. Help him.” By this time, Brandon and my father had come outside. Everyone was yelling and searching for answers. I ran into the house and grabbed my purse and shouted, “Let’s go. I’ll drive him to the hospital.”

Jason came into the house crying, and I took another look at him. Still, two years later, the terror I saw in his eyes remains etched in my mind. I realized this was a serious burn and I could not drive him to the hospital. I yelled, “Someone call 911.”

I don’t remember who made the call. Within minutes the ambulance and fire truck had arrived. Jason was in the front room, still crying, “It hurts, it hurts. Please put me to sleep.” The paramedics immediately went to him and tried to calm him down. They made a brief assessment, started an intravenous line and lifted him onto a stretcher. I asked if I could go with them and entered the back of the ambulance, sitting on the bench beside my son. The trip to the hospital was a blur.

When we arrived at emergency the doctor took the report from the paramedics, briefly examined Jason’s face and told me Jason would need to be intubated immediately. The doctor knew I was a registered nurse and spoke in the medical language I was very familiar with. He explained that the burn would cause Jason’s tissues to swell with fluid and that his airway would start to swell within minutes. So an artificial airway have to be inserted down his throat, and he would have to receive oxygen manually with a bagger. The only thought I had was to make sure Jason would not feel any more pain or trauma. My mind flashed backed to the days of leukemia, chemotherapy and needles to his hip and spine. I immediately requested that Jason receive morphine and sedation.

There was a blur of medical staff working around him. Within minutes, my little boy was asleep and the airway was put down the back of his throat. “Will I ever see his eyes open again?” I thought. My heart was breaking. I stood there in shock and watched Jason’s skin begin to fill with fluid. My family was there by this time and no one really know what to say, so we just waited.

It was determined that, because of the extent of Jason’s burns, he would have to be transported to the University Hospital’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. The pediatric transport team was called and arrived within an hour. The team was comprised of a specially trained PICU nurses, a respiratory therapist and a pediatrician. The doctor made his assessment of Jason and informed me that the next 48 hours were critical. Jason had significant burns to his torso, hands and face, and the body’s response to the trauma is to bring extra fluid to the site. In addition, the dead skin cells release toxins to the blood system. The extra fluid and toxins in the blood can potentially enter the lungs and cause respiratory distress. Added to this concern was the fear that the fire itself, with the gasoline and heat exposure to his mouth, trachea and lungs, had caused considerable trauma.

Jason was transported by ambulance to the hospital with the PICU team. This time I was not allowed to ride with my son. My friend drove me and we followed the ambulance to the hospital. I really don’t remember the thoughts I had at that time.

My family and I waited outside the intensive care unit while the specialists took care of my son. It seemed like forever before they let me in to see him. To enter the isolation room, we had to wear a gown and mask, and wash our hands. I had done this routine many times as the nurse. Now I was the mother. When I entered the room, Jason’s face, torso and hands were wrapped in dressings. He was hooked up to several monitors and a ventilator was supplying oxygen and artificial respirations to his lungs.

Oh, my gosh, this can’t be happening. I was once again in the hospital, at my son’s bedside praying for his life.

Jason spent two weeks in PICU in a medical induced coma and lying in bed on a ventilator. For two weeks, I couldn’t talk to him or look into his eyes. I was only able to sit in his room for 10 minutes at time. Rocking in the chair with my yellow isolation gown on, I would look at my son lying on the bed and the fear of him dying would bring tears to my eyes; I would have to leave the isolation room and return to the parent’s room. There was a cot there for parents to sleep at night, I spent most of the time lying on this cot. I was too sad to do anything else.

The pediatric intensivist was having a hard time extubating Jason from the ventilator. And this was a huge concern for me. This specialist told me he did not think Jason would survive. The pediatrician who came by to see Jason everyday told me Jason would live. I hung onto his words.

Finally the day came when Jason was weaned of the ventilator and was going to be transferred to the burn unit. When Jason woke up, he looked at me and the first words he said were, “Mom, I had a voice say Jason go back it’s not your time.” I was taken aback, not sure how to reply and the words that came from me were “Jason that was God.”

Those times spent at the hospital as the mother are days I don’t care to recall. Let’s just leave it at this: Jason, Brandon and I survived the experience.


copyright Sheila Ethier 2015