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This Secret Place, The Land Of Tears


When I showed up to the pediatric transplant unit for my first day of clinicals, it was mercifully dark and quiet, the nurses flitting purposefully about as stealthily as they could. The only sounds I could make out beyond the steady mechanical hum found on any hospital unit were the occasional IV beeping, signifying, perhaps, an occlusion in the line or that a bag of fluids was now emptied. It was quieter than any unit I’d ever been on before.

Reds and blues and bright yellows lined the hallway and I noted cheerful balloons painted on the walls as I thought to myself, how wonderfully non-clinical it all looked. How perfectly child-like. It seemed only fair that if a kid were sick enough to have to be in the hospital, at the very least, they could feel at home.

I spied a television with a DVD player and PlayStation stashed in a corner, and marveled at how this hospital really had been designed with children in mind. The unit fridge was stocked with puddings and chocolate milk and chips and graham crackers; all stuff my own two-year old would have happily eaten. I felt as though I might actually be in some sort of elaborate daycare facility rather than a major children’s hospital. There was even a McDonald’s in the basement.

It wasn’t until I got my first assignment -a baby; severe liver failure- and saw that my one-year old patient was the size of a three-month old that these children weren’t having much fun. These kids weren’t on vacation. They weren’t at daycare. They were sick as hell. Some were well on their way to dying.

And still, even as these children died, life went on outside.

People bustled by on the streets, knowing, perhaps, the name of the hospital and the types of patients, but never knowing that fear. The fear that lives in your gut once something horrible happens to you and you know how in the cosmic scheme of things, there is no “fair.” They’d never know how terrible it is to listen to children -innocent children- in pain. These people would never have to voluntarily inflict pain upon their own flesh, their own blood, because sometimes life deals you a wild card, and you do the best you can.

They’d never know about the secret places in the hospitals, the PICU’s; the NICU’s where small, but real lives routinely hung in the balance. Where cosmic scales made absolutely no sense. Where kids lived and where they died.

This secret place, the land of tears.

When they’d think of hospitals, they’d think of the places where old people went when they were ill. Where your appendix or a foot or two of colon would be removed and you’d go home. Cured. Where you’d splint your broken arm, x-ray a broken leg, and bandage up that nasty gash on your finger. Where old people died.

Hospitals weren’t places for children. Because in a fair and just world, kids wouldn’t get sick and kids wouldn’t die.

Kids wouldn’t be born without brains, or with only part of their brains, or born too early, too soon to live. Babies wouldn’t be born still. Kids wouldn’t need dialysis or organ transplants. No kid should have to know the torture of chemotherapy. No parent should have to send their kid to the morgue. No family should have to plan a funeral for a child.

Death, dying; transplants and cancer, those are things that should affect the old, the people who had loved and lost, married and had their families, kids, grandkids; people who had lived.


My universe is less random than I once thought it to be.

When I birthed my sick daughter, Amelia, it just so happened to be where the very same children’s hospital where I’d previously worked had just opened up a satellite unit. At three weeks of age, she underwent neurosurgery, and for the second time in her life, she became a patient there. First in the NICU, then the PICU.

The monitors blipped intermittently for my daughter, gown bearing the same logo I’d seen so many times before, when her heart rate dipped or she’d forget to breathe and watching them, I’d shake her tiny feet, whispering breathe, baby, breathe into her pink shell of an ear. And then she would inhale, those glorious oxygenating breaths filling her lungs as the monitors would once again blip normal vitals. The alarms would stop shrilly alarming and yet another crisis would wink at us in the rearview mirror as it passed.

Her father and I signed furtively in and out of the NICU, then PICU after we were buzzed in by some unseen, nameless, faceless person into a locked, secret unit; mere ghosts of ourselves. We’d drift in and out for the tenth or sixtieth cup of coffee to keep ourselves awake and functioning, getting gluey food from the cafeteria to put into our mouths and chew, never tasting it. Sometimes, our paths would converge with other shells of parents. We’d smile knowingly as we passed; the kinds of smiles you smile without any trace of joy. Those commiserative, “you too, eh? Well, FUCK,” smiles, not the, “hey, friend, how are you?” kinds.

We learned later that we were the lucky ones. The ones that were buzzed out of this unit with our daughter in her carseat, strapped tightly in and screaming her head off.

The unit of sadness, of broken dreams and tears. Laughter and heartache.

This secret place, the land of tears.

47 Comments to

“This Secret Place, The Land Of Tears”

  1. On April 7th, 2009 at 3:30 pm magpie Says:

    Oh, so sad –

  2. On April 7th, 2009 at 3:39 pm Sarah Says:


  3. On April 7th, 2009 at 3:01 pm Cassie Says:

    Your words have me crying.

  4. On April 7th, 2009 at 3:24 pm Sara Says:

    You couldn’t have said any of that any better.

  5. On April 7th, 2009 at 3:46 pm birdpress Says:

    That would be a very difficult place to go to work every day. I’ll bet it’s always good to be able to go home, yet hard to keep it from going home with you.

  6. On April 7th, 2009 at 5:18 pm Trina Says:

    Your post brings back the memories and feelings sadness of losing our baby last year. The NICU nurses were wonderful with her and we were so greatful they took their time with our princess to make her comfortable. I am so greatful to them for that. I am so glad your precious baby is OK and that she will have a wonderful life. Being a nurse is a hard job, but being a nurse in those parts of the practice is beyond words!! I am glad it isn’t me too!

  7. On April 7th, 2009 at 5:34 pm Mrs Soup Says:

    I cannot even imagine….I shed tears here after reading this.

    I’ve been blog hunting these last couple weeks and constantly have come across mothers and fathers with their children in the ICU/PICU currently, have had their children there in the past, or left with only an angel in their arms. Every time, I have offered up a prayer and a tear for these families crushed. And every time I thank God for my beautiful healthy daughter.

    I wish that all children were born healthy and that this pain wouldn’t ever be felt by anyone again.

    Parents should never have to bury their children.

  8. On April 7th, 2009 at 6:37 pm SciFi Dad Says:

    Great post Becky.

    Your experience as a nursing student reminded me of my sister’s job doing research for a study of the effects of chemo on the cognitive processes of children. She spent her days in the cancer ward of a children’s hospital, and more than once she arrived, asked for a child (subject) and was told they had passed away in the night. I cannot imagine doing that.

  9. On April 7th, 2009 at 5:48 pm DD Says:

    Some times I think I could go back to school and become an RE, and then I remember the little hell that I went through and couldn’t bear to see that in one more face, even if it was a stranger’s.

  10. On April 7th, 2009 at 6:55 pm Anjali Says:

    Oh, this was a beautiful tribute to those children.

  11. On April 7th, 2009 at 6:01 pm Cathy Says:

    I hate hospitals. Your post has me crying, afraid of the next time we wind up there. Because it’s only a matter of time. I actually found the non-Children’s hospitals to be the worst, because outside of your little NICU/peds world were people who just Did. Not. Get. It. Who did not understand why you were throwing elbows trying to get to that elevator, to get to your child. Because they were just there to visit Grandma for a couple minutes on their way out to dinner.

  12. On April 7th, 2009 at 6:03 pm fidget Says:

    i find it gut wrenching to read this. My sons both required special care at first… my son Levi was there for a mere 3 days but it was three hellish, sleep deprived, anxiety ridden days.

  13. On April 7th, 2009 at 6:26 pm Betts Says:

    Hospital walls are covered with the screams of parents and the floors are tiled with their tears.

  14. On April 7th, 2009 at 7:37 pm Ms. Moon Says:

    I, too, hated my peds rotation. And I had two children so yes, every one of those kids reminded me of my own healthy ones.
    Becky, that was fiercely written.
    I am so glad your baby got to come home.

  15. On April 7th, 2009 at 7:40 pm Jerseygirl89 Says:

    That was so beautiful and heartbreaking.

    I am so glad that both of your experiences there were brief. And that second one had such a happy ending.

  16. On April 7th, 2009 at 6:58 pm gypsygrrl Says:

    ohh becky.
    i so need to email you…
    thank you for sharing this…

    love you and please kiss the cinnamon girl from her auntie gypsy!
    your BBFF,

  17. On April 7th, 2009 at 8:13 pm heather Says:

    This is a beautiful and poignant post – and all the more gut-wrenching because you walked it, felt it, knew it. And you’re talking and spreading awareness and using words to show that this sort of thing doesn’t happen to other people; it is nothing if not random and cruel. Hug that beautiful cinnamon girl extra tight tonight for all of us.

  18. On April 7th, 2009 at 8:36 pm lola Says:

    My cousin worked in the NICU for years, but now that she had her own baby she’s never going back.

    Let’s hope we can all avoid that secret place 😉

  19. On April 7th, 2009 at 7:51 pm kalakly Says:

    It’s a double edged sword, I’m glad they’re there but I hate that they are there. It was the first thing out of my mouth when the ambulance came for Cason. “Get him to Children’s”. I hated every moment we had to be there but there was no other place where I would have wanted to be. Those beeping monitors, as annoying as they are, reminded me all the long nights that we were there that his heart was still beating away and that was what let me sleep, a little.
    And your post reminds everyone, I hope, of why it was you that I called out to when I was there.

  20. On April 7th, 2009 at 8:03 pm Katy Says:

    It’s the secret club that no one knows about until they are a member. I’m sorry you had to join and I hope your cinnamon girl continues to defy the odds.

  21. On April 7th, 2009 at 8:22 pm Jen Says:

    You would make a wonderful Peds nurse if only because understand that they’re parents/families are your patients, too. Those beeping noises and bright lights aren’t just scary to children, as any parent who has spent time in a NICU/PICU/PEDS knows.
    I was a PICU nurse for about six months and I thought that I had the whole thing down. I felt very blessed to have my job and I even felt it was my calling at one point. I became very zen with the “bad” days and very humbled by the “good” days. As you well know, ‘bad’ and ‘good’ days take on a whole new meaning in PICU.
    Then Madison came into my life. She was eleven weeks old and I got in report that she rolled off the bed. Freak accident. Parent’s nightmare. I saw her intubated little body, the brusing. She was a fighter. I told that over and over to her mom. Later that day, when she was arrested on the unit for Madison’s “fall”, the unfairness of it all hit. Children. Babies.
    I walked off my unit that day and have never been back.
    Went to work on an adult surgical unit.
    I think the parents who can support each other and their children are amazing people. You’re right; life just seems to go on outside.
    Thanks for the post.

  22. On April 7th, 2009 at 9:05 pm Leslie Says:

    Geez. Another fantastic, heart-achy post.

  23. On April 7th, 2009 at 10:14 pm Eva Says:

    Oh, no.

  24. On April 7th, 2009 at 9:58 pm CJ Says:

    *sniff sniff*

    I’m tempted to go wake my son up and squeeze him and kiss him.

  25. On April 7th, 2009 at 10:36 pm Jenn Says:

    It took me 20 minutes to read this because I was crying so hard… I had to keep stopping & starting.
    I’m so glad that she is doing all right. xoxo

  26. On April 7th, 2009 at 10:49 pm kate Says:

    you are a brilliant writer. and mother.

  27. On April 7th, 2009 at 11:28 pm Danielle Says:

    Sad, I couldn’t detach myself enough to be a peds nurse. Although, I think it’s a job I’d be honored to do. I’m so very glad Amelia is doing well.

  28. On April 8th, 2009 at 12:28 am Mama Bee Says:

    Beautifully written, my friend! I’m going to go search for another box of Kleenex now, ’cause that was f-ing depressing!

    But well written! 🙂

  29. On April 8th, 2009 at 2:36 am Maria Says:

    I read this after I found out about Maddie tonight.

    Everything hurts so bad right now.

  30. On April 8th, 2009 at 6:17 am Badass Geek Says:

    Damnit, Becky.

    You are the third person to make me cry this morning.

    But I want to hug you for it.

  31. On April 8th, 2009 at 6:26 am SCY Says:

    *sniffle* I hope to God I never have to travel to this land you speak of.


  32. On April 8th, 2009 at 6:21 am Betty M Says:

    Children shouldn’t go before their parents. When they do, and pretty much at whatever age, you get the same hollow look. I only know one peds ICU nurse and she still finds it hard 20 yeaars in to her career.

  33. On April 8th, 2009 at 7:18 am gina Says:

    absolutely heartwrenching.

  34. On April 8th, 2009 at 8:17 am Ginger Magnolia Says:

    Do you realize how amazing you are? Honestly, do you???

  35. On April 8th, 2009 at 12:16 pm Amelie Says:

    We have the magic number of 8 in our house. 8 days in the PICU for LittleBoPeep with RSV at age 1 month. 8 days in the PICU for LittleRedRididngHood with an internal injury at age 10. 8 days in the adult version for me with a blood clot in the chest after treatment for cancer 9 months after Red’s stay. 8 days of watching monitors go beep, and alarms and terror. And while the doctors were great, and we all were lucky – the nurses made the real difference. They were the ones who woke the doctors when the stats were off, when they just had a “bad” feeling, who drew the tiniest amount of blood possible, who gave me clean scrubs and brought trays of food and gave hugs and held my hand when we didn’t know if things would end well. So thank you Aunt Becky for your beautiful post. And thank you nurses who do most of the real work in medicine for doing such heart breaking work every day. I think my kids need extra hugs today. They will shrug them off, but you will understand.

  36. On April 9th, 2009 at 11:35 am Coco Says:

    You made me cry.

    I love this post.

  37. On April 10th, 2009 at 6:01 pm Michelle Says:

    I know exactly what that is like. During my pediatric residency I spent so much time in the bathroom crying it was ridiculous. I was on my PICU rotation while 7 months pregnant with my first child. It was the worst month of my rotation. I cried DAILY, sometimes more than once a day. I knew then I would never be able to sub specialize in anything, instead choosing general peds where most kids are healthy and most kids get better.

    It was a beautiful post and a great reminder to be grateful for what I have.

  38. On April 12th, 2009 at 3:15 pm Emily (Apron Strings) Says:

    Finally catching up on some of your older posts. This is a gorgeous post … and precisely the same reason I could never do peds myself. I’m so sorry you and the Daver had to be part of that “secret” place.


  39. On April 14th, 2009 at 10:57 am Mommy Wants Vodka » Blog Archive » Dona Nobis Pacem Says:

    […] lieu of a real post today, I will link you to the post I wrote while talking to Maddie’s mother while she was in the PICU with her […]

  40. On April 14th, 2009 at 12:12 pm stacie Says:


    This said it…the horror…the hope of that place is in this post. It brought tears to my eyes. I so wish no one had to know about this secret place.

  41. On April 14th, 2009 at 1:41 pm Em Says:

    When my youngest was first diagnosed with PKU, we had to travel a 2-hour round trip to the Children’s hospital twice a week for blood draws.

    I hated every single second. But loved them just the same, because I knew modern medicine was going to help my child. Yes, we were the lucky ones. Why? I still do not know. I pray that we remain lucky.

    I pray very hard for the parents who are not.

  42. On April 14th, 2009 at 2:22 pm Ames Says:

    I’m in tears right now after reading this for a second time. I know that place…I lived that place for 26 days with my daughter, 16 days with my son, I spent so many days and nights wondering if my children would survive, if they would be lucky enough to come home. I watched as the children around them fought for their lives, In the sixteen days my son was in the NICU, two of the babies in his pod passed away ~ I saw what it did to their parents. I wept silently as I sat and nursed my son – thankful that it wasn’t us and yet feeling guilty that I was sitting there holding my child as these parents said goodbye to their daughter forever. I hope that I never have to go back to that place…ever.

    Great post, Becky.

  43. On April 25th, 2009 at 9:42 pm Erica Says:

    My son spent over 150 days of his first year in the hospital. 93 days in the NICU/PICU, including an open-heart surgery. 62 days in the PICU/Children’s floor, including a 2nd open-heart and a fundo/g-tube placement. 10 more days in the PICU/Children’s for a 3rd open-heart when he was 2. I thank my lucky stars that he’s doing well now.

    The day that his congenital heart defects were diagnosed, I remember being alone w/ my husband in the LDP room and staring out the window overlooking the parking lot. People came and went. Carrying balloons, flowers. Laughing, talking. Taking home babies. That was the moment it crystallized in my head – the world doesn’t stop for my pain. My son was dying and the world was still turning.

    I won’t say that every day was pain, heartache. Friendships were formed – comrades in the foxhole. My other kids tottered around the hospital with us, providing comic relief. It’s a different world when you’re a hospital frequent-flyer. Stoic intensivists drop their guard and draw Care Bears and sneak the siblings popsicles. Playdates are held in the corners of hospital wings. BUT I’m quite certain it has effed me up for good. I get royally sick to my stomach before any doctor appointment now, have to take anti-anxiety meds to be able to actually go. Alarm bells are part of my nightmares. I made my husband get a new cell phone because, after too many 3am phone calls from the hospital, I just couldn’t stand its default ‘unknown caller’ ring.

    Thanks to inventions like Facebook, every once in a while, I’ll bump into someone who doesn’t know my son’s story and I have to tell it again. The same words echo back to me each and every time. ‘I can’t imagine…’ I say, ‘No. You can’t. And I hope you never ever know.’

  44. On July 13th, 2009 at 1:36 pm Mommy Wants Vodka » Blog Archive » My Soggy Bottomed Girl Says:

    […] as we approached the innocuous white door that would bring us to our daughter, now a patient of the secret place, the land of tears. I’m not a stranger to NICU’s by a long shot, and I happen to find the tiny babies, the […]

  45. On September 11th, 2010 at 10:28 am Amelia's Grace | Band Back Together Says:

    […] My daughter lives. So many do not. […]

  46. On January 13th, 2011 at 5:29 pm StephanieC Says:

    I like to think I am helping, in my own way, by donating to the Sick Kids’ Hospital in Toronto.

    But you know what? I’m not.

    I am not making life any better for those kids or those parents. I do it to make myself feel less guilty about all the unfairness. About all the suffering and sadness.

    No parent should have to send their child to the morgue, arrange their funeral. Nevermind and infant or toddler.

    It’s real and true and sad and heartbreaking. And what can be done?

  47. On October 25th, 2011 at 2:58 pm The Darkness and Light of Encephaloceles - Band Back Together Says:

    […] In a bizarre twist of fate, this happens to be a satellite unit of the same hospital that I did my pediatric rotation through years ago. It’s an amazing […]

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