The emergency room at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital has become one of my three-year-old son’s favorite places in the city. In the past year and a half, he has been there three times. We go to Lurie the way less accident-prone families visit the zoo or the Art Institute.
His first trip to the ER happened when he was two years old. He dislocated his radius, an injury commonly referred to as nursemaid’s elbow, which sounds both aristocratic and horrifying. He had stubbornly decided to climb the back stairs of our house by himself. When he slipped, I instinctively grabbed his arm to keep him from tumbling down the steps—and popped his elbow out of joint in the process. Afterward, as he cried while sitting on my wife’s lap, his arm hung limply at his side like the lame appendage of a Dickensian street orphan. Please, sir, me arm is crooked, he seemed to be saying through a sheet of tears.
We took him to Lurie, the 23-floor Level 1 pediatric trauma center in Streeterville built in 2012 to replace the aging Children’s Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park. It is, by far, the most welcoming state-of-the-art medical facility I have ever experienced. Inside, the walls are calming green, yellow, and blue. Exotic tropical fish swim tranquilly in an enormous aquarium surrounded by vivid sculptures shaped to look like fantastic anemones and coral. On the day we visited, a staffer led us immediately to a clean, well-lit exam room and presented to our son an array of goodies: an orange Popsicle, a Beanie Baby tiger, and a menu of several on-demand Disney movies from which to pick. After a very short while, an understanding doctor slipped the radial bone back in place, but not before a nurse offered our son a second Popsicle.
And yet the most amazing part is that all of this—injury, drive to hospital, diagnosis, medical procedure, release—took place within about two hours, roughly the same amount of time as taking my kid to a movie. My wife and I felt certain that this was a fluke, that maybe the hospital was not busy that day or our son received special attention for some mysterious reason.
But no. On our second trip to the ER—which happened only a few months later, when my son fell down the same steps, this time knocking a front tooth out of place—he once again received a Popsicle and a toy, watched cartoons, and generally had another terrific experience. We were in and out and resuming normal life within an hour and a half.
Most recently, we were back at Lurie in February because my son cut a wide gash in his ear when he ran full speed, as if barreling across a wide-open field, into our kitchen table. During the car ride to the hospital, he held a towel to his ear to stanch the blood while describing the kind of Popsicle he was going to eat. In the ER, the attentive staff carefully glued his ear back onto his head. Remarkably, the procedure wrapped up just as the credits of the movie he had chosen—Cars—were rolling.
I contacted Rebecca Meyers, the manager of child life services at Lurie Children’s, to see if this degree of immediacy and attention was unusual. She briefly explained the hospital’s mission: “We’re trying to offer kids a positive experience so that when a child goes in for a wellness visit on another day, it will also be positive. We believe a trip to the emergency room is one of the harder days of your life, and there’s no reason to make it harder.”
Yes! I thought. Then I happened to read “The Overprotected Kid” by Hanna Rosin in The Atlantic. The essay, which has gone viral since it was published online in March, details the gross oversanitization of contemporary childhood. In it, Rosin traces to 1978 the beginning of the nationwide movement to remove the danger from public parks: At Hamlin Park in the Roscoe Village neighborhood, a boy fractured his skull on the pavement after falling through the bars of a jungle gym. The resulting lawsuit against the Chicago Park District led to changes with some unintended consequences.
Rosin quotes a risk researcher who found that newfangled parks—padded underfoot, engineered to protect kids from normal slips and falls—may be encouraging children to take greater risks (or perhaps exercise less caution). And sure enough, according to the article, the annual rate of ER visits by children related to injuries from playground equipment has remained basically the same since 1980, in spite of the rampant rubberizing and even though parental obsession with safety seems to be at an all-time high.
Which made me wonder if I had inadvertently rubberized my son’s world. By eliminating discomfort and sanding the edges off painful experiences, had I taken away the opportunity for him to grasp the seriousness of landing himself in a hospital’s emergency room for the third time?
When I was 10, I spilled a pot of boiling water on myself. I was Mickey Mousing around in the kitchen, something I knew I shouldn’t be doing. The scream that escaped me seemed to come from a place outside my body. My father, tired from a long day’s work, drove me in complete silence to the ER at Little Company of Mary Hospital in Evergreen Park.
I remember sitting on a hard plastic teal-blue chair, a leaky ice pack on my bare stomach, a blurry episode of Hill Street Blues playing on the television overhead—even the TV show seemed adult and bleak. A man seated across from me coughed violently. Does he have tuberculosis? What is tuberculosis anyway? The place was scary. It felt terrible and institutional, like going to court or maybe jail. Waiting for my turn to see the doctor also gave me plenty of time to think: What happened? What stupid thing did I do to myself? My dad just sat there. He glanced at the TV, checked his watch, sighed a number of times. I remember feeling like an idiot. But perhaps owing to the unvarnished reality of that shabby ER, I now think my father was able to teach me a valuable lesson without having to say a word.