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Parenting: getting ready for those trips to the E.R.


One minute I was the proud father, beaming as the loudspeakers boomed out my kid's name, crediting him for making a tackle in a junior varsity football game.

A few minutes later I was the driver, ferrying my son to a nearby emergency room to get his broken thumb put in a cast.

While the emergency room was not the place I would pick to while away the final hours of a gorgeous autumn afternoon, it felt familiar.

Part of being a parent is taking your kids to the emergency room. Put another way, if you breed them, they will come to the E.R.

By rough count, in the two decades that my wife and I have been in the parent business, we have made 11 trips to the emergency room with one of our two kids. We have spread our visits around, dropping in on emergency rooms in four states: Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Massachusetts. In the Baltimore metropolitan area, we have logged emergency room hours in three jurisdictions, Baltimore City, Baltimore County and, just this week, Annapolis.

However, until this week, it had been almost three years since we had filled out emergency room forms. This represented a significant drop-off from the visitation rate we had established in our early days of parenthood. For example, just seven days after our first son was born, we were in the emergency room. The kid had stopped eating. I forget what the pediatrician did, but it worked big time. The kid regained his appetite and ate almost nonstop for the next 19 years. During one heavy feeding time in his mid-teens, most of my conversations with the him began with the words "Close the refrigerator door."

For our tribe, the call of the E.R. seemed especially strong when the kids were small and the family was on summer vacation. Somehow all that sand, sunshine and surf always seemed to end with an emergency room nurse asking, "When was the last tetanus shot?"

The scary thing is that, now that the kids are teen-agers, I am starting to know the answers to these E.R. queries.

I get the feeling that in the world of emergency room characters, we are the avant-garde. We show up in emergency rooms with ailments long before they become famous. For instance, we had a skateboard-related visit, a broken wrist as I recall, years before the skateboard craze, and its accompanying injuries swept the nation. We demonstrated, long before the inline skaters and the scooter-riders, that pavement breaks bones.

It is true that the reason for our latest emergency room visit, a fractured thumb from a football game, was pretty run-of-the-mill. But it did give me the chance to improve my X-ray reading skills. Over the years, I have seen so many X-rays that not only am I beginning to recognize fractures, I am also spotting growth plates.

Moreover, this recent visit gave me a chance to add another name, Dr. Charles M. Ruland, to the list of orthopedists I know and support. During my career as the father of two boys, I think I have become acquainted with approximately 50 percent of the docs who mend bones in the greater Baltimore area. I get the feeling that if I had more children, I would not only end up doing business with all the orthopedists in the area, I would also get invited to their kids' weddings.

My son broke his thumb in Annapolis, during an "away" game against St. Mary's junior varsity. I arrived at the game just in time to see him make a couple of tackles, then to watch him leave the field, clutching his left hand. The St. Mary's trainer looked at his thumb and suggested we go to an emergency room.

The Anne Arundel Medical Center emergency room was just a few blocks away. It did not take us long to drive there, and, thanks in part to Dr. Ruland's quick work, we got in and out in about two hours. Not bad as emergency rooms go, and it has valet parking.

We took the old route, Ritchie Highway, home to Baltimore. The road was dark and thick with traffic, but it had a Popeye's, purveyor of spicy chicken, the kid's favorite fast food. We rode through the darkness, the kid, still in his football uniform, learning how to eat the chicken with one hand. We talked. The cast would be on for five weeks, meaning the football season was over for him. "That is too bad," he said, "because I was having a real good game."

I told him that while his cast was on, he would have to learn how to scratch an itch inside it, and how to shower without getting it wet.

"To scratch an itch, you use a hanger," I told him. "To cover up your cast in the shower, you use a plastic bag, tied with waterproof tape."

How did I know this, the kid asked. I told him I had picked up these tips a few years ago when I had broken a wrist - or was it a finger? I couldn't be sure. After a certain number of trips to the emergency room, your mind blurs.

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