Friday, June 5, 2009

Oooh, that smell

No, not the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, sorry.....

This post is about the amazing way that smells can instantly transport you to another time, another place. I've experienced that phenomenon many times before, but it never ceases to amaze me. Today was no exception.

In the children's hospital where my boys each spent their first weeks of life, the NICU is on the 8th (top) floor. The elevators are on one end of a long hallway, and the NICU entrance is on the other end. Pediatric intensive care (PICU) is on that far end of the hallway too.

As things tend to come full circle, I found myself back at the children's hospital today, only as a visitor this time. A former student of mine has her own daughter now, and that daughter is very ill and a patient in the PICU on the 8th floor. Through the miracle of Facebook, I've been reconnected with that student and have followed her updates about her daughter. I knew I wanted to do something for them, if I could, so I decided to make a care package of snacks, bottled water, etc for these parents as they spend hours, days, weeks in that hospital....a situation I know very well myself.

So I packed up the boys this morning, and we trekked downtown to deliver the package. After a successful parallel parking adventure, we went into the hospital and I guided the boys to the main elevators. The instant the doors opened and we stepped inside, I smelled it. Can't describe it, won't even try other than to guess that it's a mixture of disinfectant, hand soap, bed linens and fear. But when the smell hit my nose, I had a simultaneous feeling of pain, dread, sadness in my heart--literally a physical pain in my chest. It was strangely like the feeling I remember having when I began my second tour as a NICU mom--disbelief that I was there again, coming to grips with what I was facing, what I'd lost, what more I possibly could lose.

We rode up to the 8th floor, and when the doors opened on those familiar sights in the hallway, the smell was even more vivid. I'd know that smell anywhere, anytime. Come find me in 20 years, with that smell in a bottle, and I could tell you what it was. I tried not to focus on the surreal aspect of walking down that hall holding the hands of my 2 boys, and just stayed with the task at hand--delivering our package of muffins, pretzels and granola bars. That hall can seem so long, so scary to walk down, and I really never thought I'd walk it again. But here I was, remembering the lonely and fearful walks down that hall--45 days in 2001, 78 days in 2004.

I just keep coming back to the smell, though. Indescribable, but unmistakable. It's like I was right there again, rather than 5+ years removed from those days. When we reached the hall's end, and saw the entrances to the NICU and PICU, I looked toward the NICU side and thought about the babies that are in there today, and about their parents. How many babies are fighting for life today? How many parents are living off of vending machines and sleeping in the little family waiting room? Then, we turned to look at the PICU doors, and I remembered parents I'd met along the way who had older kids here......cancer, transplant patients, etc.

We didn't find who we were looking for, and ended up heading back downstairs to the information desk. They agreed to take the package up for us and get it where it belonged, so we left the bag with them and headed out. But all day, I've been remembering the smell and its amazing connection to memory and experience. We're unbelievably fortunate to have had one of the country's best children's hospitals to care for our preemie boys, but I think you'll understand if I say that I'd be perfectly happy NEVER to smell that smell again.

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