‘I’m Here—You’re OK’

Our family was hiking in Hawaii when my son had a terrifying seizure. The next day we learned what caused it, and what he still had to face.

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Nadya Sagner and her son, Charlie. Photo by Skip Brown

I told off my son’s neurosurgeon. I’m not usually a confrontational person. I’m nervous around people with knowledge that far surpasses mine, especially when it comes to things like advanced math or science. I needed this doctor to perform brain surgery on my 14-year-old son, Charlie, but so far the man had come off as brusque, stern and dismissive. Charlie was terrified of everything from his medical jargon to his death-grip handshake. But this was the surgeon we’d been assigned, and he happened to be the one everyone had recommended. 

It was late last August, day three of our stay on the neurology floor at Children’s National hospital in D.C. I had barely slept, having just rolled out of the convertible vinyl couch-bed in Charlie’s room. He was heavily medicated and hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) that was monitoring the electrical activity in his brain. And here was that surgeon, breezing toward us. I didn’t want Charlie to wake up and panic, so I stopped the surgeon as he walked into the room and rushed him back into the hallway. 

“I know you’re brilliant,” I told him. I explained that he had scared Charlie with all the talk about what could happen during surgery, how he could end up with weakness on his left side or damage to his motor cortex. “Tell me the scary parts, I can handle it,” I said. “But don’t tell him. He doesn’t need to hear it right now. You have to be more gentle.”

Looking back, I’m embarrassed that I said any of this. Blame it on fear, exhaustion or adrenaline, but I had to stand up for my kid. Normally, Charlie’s not easily rattled. He’s polite and respectful, and he’s also got a sarcastic side. So far he’d handled this whole experience—the world of hospitals was completely new to us—with patience and even amusement. But the idea that he was having brain surgery was too much for him, and something in me was triggered. Maybe it was the eloquence of my maternal plea, or my obvious desperation. Maybe the surgeon was just eager to move on with his morning rounds or get away from the crazy emotional mother. Whatever the reason, he listened. 

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