Even the most mundane things take on special significance at Christmas time. Little Melody Banner’s case was sad to begin with; maybe it was the Christmas season that made her situation seem all the more tragic.
I picked up the new chart from the wall slot and called her name. A dirty-blonde, toothless mother stood up, cradling a weeping, blue-eyed, curly-haired child in her arms.
As I escorted them into my office, it occurred to me that seeing a new patient was like opening an unread book. The story had already been written, the plot lines laid down, the characterizations set. It was my job to discover these secrets. On occasion, I would find myself pulled into the next chapter.
The mother maintained her composure, in spite of Melody’s obvious distress. I still remember the toothless smile, a rarity among my mothers in their 20s.
They had fled their cramped apartment and their small South Carolina town. There, Melody’s father, who did not live with the family, had occasionally visited to satisfy himself sexually. He was usually drunk when he showed up, and Melody’s mother would bear the brunt of his anger. During his last visit, he had beater her soundly, raided the few dollars from the covered tea can in the kitchen and smashed the television.
That’s when Melody’s mother decided she had had it. Before dawn, Melody’s mother and grandmother piled their few belongings into the back seat of an ancient ’62 Chevy, and the family of three headed north.
Four days later they arrived in Hartford, where Melody’s mother had been born 28 years earlier. Unfortunately, she had no relatives left there, so the family made the rounds of the women’s shelters and the Salvation Army soup kitchen, but continued to live in the car.
The mother kept the engine running overnight to heat the car’s interior. She knew enough to keep the window open a crack. She was breastfeeding Melody but produced little milk on only one meal a day. When Melody developed a fever and started vomiting, the mother decided to bring her to the clinic.
I paused from my examination to look at this whining child clinging to a dry, flaccid breast. Temperatures had dropped to the teens this past week, and Melody’s mother had no more money to buy gasoline to fuel the heating system in their car.
Medical records hand-carried by the mother delineated past weights and heights. I glanced at the new chart on my desk. Melody had lost two pounds over the past three weeks. In two weeks she would reach her first birthday.
I almost rejoiced when I saw the inflamed eardrum through the otoscope: otitis media—this acute problem, coupled with the weight loss, was Melody’s ticket to a hospital for the next few days. Fortunately, the local hospital had rooming-in privileges for parents of pediatric patients.
As I picked up the phone to call admitting, my eyes fell on the desk-top calendar: December 22nd. With a little skillful manipulation, I could arrange for Melody to remain in the hospital over Christmas. Normally, I make every attempt to get sick children home for the holidays. But in Melody’s case, the hospital was the only home she had now.
“Uneventful” is the accepted medical description for Melody’s hospital stay. However, from Melody’s viewpoint, the four-day stay was anything but uneventful. During that time, she had regular nourishing meals, a soft bed and a warm room. She even had a visit form Santa, who brought her a teddy bear, the only present she received that year.
Like so many other clinic patients, Melody missed her follow-up appointment with me. The following spring, I received an authorized request from a clinic in northern Maine for the release of Melody’s medical records. Melody and her mother were still running.
Since then, not a Christmas has passed that I haven’t thought about those blue eyes and that toothless smile.