Sunday, June 20, 2004

Same Day (Part II)

Miracle on Nipomo Avenue
It was August 18, 1987, and Amy was a little less than two months shy of her third birthday. Call it stupidity; call it naivete. What ever it was, in retrospect I have a hard time believing that we could have even allowed the circumstances of this story to exist in the first place — but they did.

It was a weeknight early evening. We had just finished dinner, and we'd all dispersed to different parts of the house to different activities. Shawn, who was five years old at the time, went to his room to play his new Sesame Street record on the little record player he'd gotten for his birthday several months earlier.

Michelle had just put Amy in the bathtub when the phone rang, so she got up to answer it. Amy was fine playing by herself for a few moments, she thought. She had done it before. Just to be safe however, Michelle called to Shawn to come keep an eye on his sister while she went to answer the phone in the kitchen.

I was piddling around in my studio on the backside of the house. I needed to get something from our bedroom, at the end of the hallway, adjacent to the bathroom.

As I walked down the hallway, I heard the gleeful splashes of my little girl playing in the tub. I peeked my head around the corner and just as Shawn was beginning to play the Sesame Street record to entertain his sister.

I freaked.

This is where I need to explain the layout of the bathroom. The house was a tiny; 1200 square-feet, two-bedroom, one bath tract-style home. The bathroom was probably 12 feet wide, by 8 feet deep. Clockwise from the doorway was the toilet in the near left corner, the enclosed shower in the far left corner, the tub in the far right-corner, and the vanity in the near right-corner. It was a small bathroom and a tight fit. The left side of the vanity butted up directly to the foot of the tub.

Shawn had come in and set his little record player up on the vanity and plugged it into the wall socket in the far right-corner. My immediate thought was obviously of what could happen if the record player somehow fell into the tub.

I harshly (and probably, unjustifiably) scolded Shawn for creating this potentially disastrous hazard. I told him that his sister could be electrocuted if anything that was plugged in touched the water, and that he should never, never do anything like this again.

I'm sure the stunned look on his face was in reaction to the tone of my scolding more than any comprehension of what I was talking about. "I just wanted to play Amy a song," he whimpered. I hugged him and said, "I know, didn't know it was dangerous. It's okay."

So I unplugged the record player and placed it in his arms and asked him to could go someplace else to play for now. He went into his room, and I, like an idiot, blithely continued on my merry way to do whatever it had been that I needed to do in our bedroom. Amy continued to happily play with her tub toys.

After all these years I still ask myself why I even left the bathroom. Why didn't I at least call out to Michelle, who I could hear, still chatting away on the phone in the kitchen at the end of the hallway, to ask her how much longer she would be. But nope, I had to get back to my studio, to continue my piddling. So I left Amy, by herself in the tub. "I'm sure she'll be okay," I thought. "I'll check back on her in a minute."

In what seems to me now to have been at least five minutes later, from the vantagepoint of my studio, I could see the kitchen and Michelle, still talking on the phone. I suddenly became perturbed that she was still gabbing instead of tending to our daughter, all the while never once questioning myself as to why I wasn't in there tending to her myself.

I disgustedly began trudging across the living room towards the hallway to go check on Amy, when I heard a tiny voice from down the hall.


And then the echo of a splash.

I sprinted down the hall, grabbing the doorjamb of the bathroom to stop my momentum as my feet slid across the linoleum. I took one look at the tub and shouted, "MICHELLE! CALL 911!

There before my eyes, was my baby girl, lying motionless on her right side in the tub, her tiny face and body half-submerged in five inches of water. Her once bright denim-blue eyes were wide open, wearing a lifeless whitish glaze. Her mouth was agape and filled with water. Her skin was white as a ghost.

At this point, as my thoughts recount that horrific scene, I can honestly see myself from two distinct vantage points: one from the point of my own two eyes, and the other from a point above me, as if hovering near the ceiling of the bathroom, above my body. I'd never believed in those stories people told of "out-of-body" experiences before, but I can tell you, this was one for me.

I leapt toward the tub to grab Amy, thinking she had slipped and hit her head. As I reached in to pull her out, my arm suddenly recoiled from the water. It was only then that I noticed the cord.

Oh my God...the hairdryer.

As I write this, I am at this very moment convulsing in the guilt and shame I still feel over the fact that we could have ever been so stupid, so lazy, to have ever allowed this to happen.

From the vantage point in which I earlier described the bathroom, in the near right corner on the near wall was an electrical outlet. Directly above it was the oak medicine chest we'd received as a wedding gift. It was perfect for the limited space we had in our tiny bathroom. Directly beneath the cabinet portion was a little shelf and towel bar at the very bottom. You've seen a million of 'em in people's bathrooms.

On that little shelf, we kept the hair dryer. And we kept it plugged in at all times...because we were lazy and stupid; no other reason. Had it ever crossed my mind that something disastrous like this could happen? Sure. But it would never happen to us. Besides, the cord was barely long enough to stretch from the outlet to the tub. What could happen? We had always designated it as a "no touch" item with the kids. There was no playing with the hair dryer — ever. It couldn't happen to us, right?

How ironic it is that only moments before, as I had lectured my son on the danger of having an electrically-powered appliance near the tub, that my daughter would choose to pretend she was being a big girl and want to style her hair like her Mommy. Apparently Amy had climbed up onto the vanity and crawled over to the far side, grabbed the dryer and backed down into the tub, where she was immediately was jolted unconscious by the current from the plugged-in dryer, and hit the water. The doctors would later tell me, had she somehow managed to turn the dryer on, she would surely have been electrocuted to death.

Back to my out-of-body experience...

After receiving the mild, but considerable shock from the current running through the water in the tub, from that point on, I operated on autopilot.

I don't remember ever thinking to myself, "what do I do?"

I just did.

Immediately I grabbed the cord that trailed the hair dryer, which was taught against the side of the tub, and flung it backwards as hard as I could.

I then reached in and cradled Amy in my arms. I gently turned and sat down on the edge of the tub with her tiny, lifeless body draped transversely across my lap; her head on my left-hand side. Her lifeless eyes, staring at the ceiling.

Suddenly Michelle and Shawn appeared in the doorway and my wife gasped, "Oh my God!" Her hands covering the sides of her face trembled. She just stood there. I looked up angrily and screamed at the top of my lungs, "CALL 911!"

She hurried back to the kitchen, and I returned my attention to my baby.

Fortunately, several months earlier we had taken a CPR course, given by a friend from our church. The course also offered infant CPR. It was the responsible thing to do. I remember thinking. Something I found particularly interesting during the course was the differences in technique between adult and infant CPR, I figured that I might someday be called upon to use CPR on an adult, but never dreamed that I would ever have to save the life of one of my own children.

For those of you who have never been trained (and shame on you if you haven't), the major difference in the two techniques is the strength with which they are applied. In adult CPR, the heart-pumping technique is a forceful and deep action. Considerable down-leverage from a position over the top of the victim is necessary, due to the strength of the adult sternum and ribcage, through which the force to manipulate the heart must me exerted. Likewise, the mouth-to-mouth technique is tantamount to blowing up a balloon, using long, deep breaths to inflate the lungs.

Infant CPR is quite different. We had been taught to assume a position similar to the one I instinctively took when treating Amy, resting the victim horizontally across the lap, so as to avoid exerting too much leverage. The heart massage is performed firmly but gently with the fingertips only, so as not to damage delicate, still developing bones of the infantile ribcage.

The mouth-to-mouth technique is the trickiest however, as it's tough to gauge just how much air pressure is enough — or too much. Gentle, shallow breaths were prescribed by our CPR instructor.

I was now cast into hell, to test what I'd learned.

I bent my left ear to her motionless chest. She wasn't breathing. I could hear no heartbeat. I tipped her head back and gently pinched her tiny nostrils, closed between my right thumb and forefinger. Then cupping her precious little mouth in my lips, I gently forced a breath into her lungs.

I could feel her body rise slightly off the top of my legs as her back arched and her chest filled with air. I released her nose and drew back momentarily to see if there were any signs of life, before returning to repeat the procedure.

Suddenly a gurgling noise came from deep within her throat. Then she swallowed, and then she heaved what would be the first breath of the rest of her life.

What a wonderful sound!

I don't think I can accurately describe what an incredible sight it was to see her dead eyes come to life again. It was as though they were covered in a fog that suddenly lifted. I watched as her pupils, which had been completely dilated, suddenly constrict in the glare of the harsh overhead bathroom light. Their color immediately returned to their original bright denim-blue hue.

Amy slowly regained consciousness, as if awaking from a deep sleep. She began to cry, very softly at first, but gaining volume with each successive breath. I took her tightly into my arms and held her face to mine.

"You're okay now baby. You're gonna be okay. Thank you Lord, oh thank you!"

"She's alright! I shouted to Michelle, who was on the phone with the 911-operator, "She's really okay..."

Then I heard Michelle come running down the hall, tears of fear and joy staining her cheeks. She came into the bathroom and threw her arms around the two of us as we all wept together.

Michelle said that the paramedics were on their way just to check her out and make sure that Amy was safe. She handed me a bath towel and I wrapped it around Amy, who had begun to shiver. I held her tightly. There was no way I was letting that little girl out of my arms.

We went into the living room and all sat down on the couch. It seemed that only a minute passed before we heard the sirens. I could see from where I was sitting, a big white paramedic’s truck pulling into the driveway. A yellow fire truck was idling in the street in front of our house as well.

Michelle got up to usher the navy blue uniformed paramedics into our living room. I finally surrendered my baby girl to one of them. After asking us to recount what had happened, they checked her out useing a stethoscope to listen for possible fluid in her lungs, but heard none.

One of the paramedics shook his head in disbelief, telling us how incredibly lucky we were to still have Amy with us. Thankfully he didn't scold us about the plugged-in hair dryer, but added that he hoped we now know what not to do in the future.

He also said that although he couldn't force us to do so, he would strongly urge us to allow them to take Amy to the hospital for observation. Although she seemed to be okay, if any water had gotten into her lungs, she could be subject to infection. She needed to be checked out more thoroughly. We agreed, but there was never even a mention as to which one of us would accompany her.

That would be me.

The paramedic apologized to me for the fact that Amy couldn't ride in my car, but that regulations required for her to be transported in the ambulance, which I could follow. I said I understood and hugged and kissed Shawn and Michelle; I said that I'd call as soon as I heard anything.

It was about 8:30 at night by now and the memory of following that ambulance is as surreal as any part of this story. Watching the hypnotic swirling lights, silently cutting a path into the evening twilight. I was trying to get a handle on all that had just happened. How my life would never be the same. How could I ever have had the courage to do what I had just done?

I thanked God for giving the strength in my time of most desperate need.

Next: "I wanna get outta here!"
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