Greeted by the most peaceful wintry scene last Monday morning, our Christmas vacation was now extended at least one more day. With all five kids home, including my oldest who was home from college, my Mommy heart was happy. My heart would go through a range of emotions over the next few days...
"We have a 19 year old who needs to be next. I'm sending back Jameson, Ronan Jameson...he's just had a seizure..."
"Mom, we're next," Ronan's younger sister said, as we gathered our belongings.
Thank God, I thought.
Ronan had been in and out of sleep. Tremoring. Coughing. Heart racing. Feverish. Trying to remain calm in the midst of a storm racking his now weakened body, he couldn’t do much. At some points, he could barely lift his head. The only time Ronan was his usual self in those early morning hours was during the exam when he was triaged. A pro at sitting still when nurses take his temperature, blood pressure, and check his heart rate, I was grateful for his cooperation. The nasal swab, based on the symptoms he presented with, was another story. It took three people, me included, to convince Ronan to hold still and stay still for that invasive part of the exam.
Knowing it could be a bit of a wait to be called back, I didn't expect it to be an hours' long wait. When the doctor paged the nurses about Ronan, I think we were waiting 4 hours at that point. Those 4 hours don't include the harrowing 2 hours prior to arriving. Prior to our arrival, another kind of storm brewed, one that dumped 12" of snow in our area. We'd already lost power before waking up the day of the storm, and that was with only a few inches of snow on the ground at that point.
More snow would come.
So would downed trees and power lines.
We'd learned about the condition of the roads but it would take seeing them to believe how bad they were. Ronan's big sister experienced them firsthand. She had reported to work before any of the roads saw a flake of snow at 4am Monday morning. Normally a 25-minute drive, it took her 5 hours to get home. Even with 4-wheel drive, it would be a treacherous journey for Fiona. Snapped trees, thick snow, unplowed streets and icy patches in places that had been cleared peppered her drive back. When she needed it, people helped her get out of the places her car had gotten stuck. When it was safe, she helped clear the road of the jagged limbs blocking other people's paths. Stranger helping stranger, I was comforted knowing others were quickly helping my daughter get home. Once safely in our neighborhood, she could only get so far though.
A utility pole on the street just behind ours, split in half, leaned and landed on the sagging power lines of the other side of the road. Neighbors had been using chainsaws to cut trees blocking several intersections, but they knew not to touch the utility poles. In a line of cars waiting to get around that area, my daughter sat in her cold, wet work clothes hoping it would only be a few more minutes before she was on our street. She was so close to us! But she had to turn around and was rerouted again.
While we waited for her safe arrival, my other kids took to the hills in our neighborhood to go sledding. I love to see them play outside! So happy, so full of energy, I smile big smiles when they get suited up for that kind of fun.
As they got ready to play, I got Ronan settled on the couch with his fully-charged iPad so I could begin shoveling the driveway. Normally something my husband does, it would be up to me to clear it since he was out of town. I always offer anyway when he's home because it's a good, little workout for me. Knowing I'd do the bulk of the work myself, I needed to conserve my energy. The snow was heavy, and there was just so much of it. This time, I would have to shovel part of the street also. The one plow that went down our street one time during the early part of the storm managed to pack extra snow along the entire length of our 4WD truck that was parked on the street. Somehow, it dumped snow in front of it also.
The next day, every muscle would ache, and not just because of exertion, but I would be grateful that I spent those few hours shoveling out the truck.
The power would remain out all day and into Monday evening. With the temperature dropping, I had to get the generator started. I'd never done that before and had misplaced the instruction book my husband typed up for me. Texting my husband to get step-by-step instructions, Ronan's younger brother and I worked together to figure that out. When we finally started it, we warmed up the house, made a quick dinner, and recharged all the devices. I also made a cup of coffee to have in the morning. It would be cold, but coffee is coffee no matter the temperature.
When everyone was fed, I looked for a few updates on the internet, which we can connect to when the generator is on. Curious about what the world looked like beyond our street, I was floored at images I'd see. It looked like a bomb went off in our neighborhood. Worse, the electric company had yet to post when crews would be dispatched. The roads were impassable for residents in many places, both inside and outside of our neighborhood. That meant they were also impassable for utility trucks. Too many trees were still blocking too many roads. Even if Ronan's big sister had made it to our street earlier, she wouldn't have been able to drive down it. A very large tree landed across both lanes. Neighborhood maintenance crews hadn't made their way toward our section yet, but once again strangers came to the rescue. Using chainsaws to chop the decades-old tree up into smaller logs, strangers, and neighbors, moved them off the road into a snow pile.
Getting the kids settled down for the night later was easy. Ronan was also tired even though he'd stayed inside where it was still fairly warm despite the heat being off most of the day. He'd had a slight fever Sunday evening but had perked up when the kids took turns watching him while I was outside. I would be grateful he'd sleep through the night that night. Crawling under the covers, I looked forward to another day off the next day. No way would all that snow melt away by Tuesday morning. We'd make the most of another snow day and enjoy some family time together.
Tuesday was a repeat of Monday: Shovel the walkway. Keep Ronan happy. Shovel the rest of the driveway. Check on Ronan. Shovel some more. Stay warm. We still had no updates from the power company, but I was hopeful we'd get the lights back on by evening. We had to - the gas can only had about 2 gallons left. We'd turned the generator off during the day so that we could power up later "just in case" we faced another cold night.
It would be more than just another cold night. Tuesday night would be one of the most frightening nights ever.
Before nightfall, we, like so many others did, ran out of gas for the generator. Even if I wanted to trek through the neighborhood to replenish our supply, gas stations had also run out of gas. The kids were helpful and said it wasn’t too bad. We’d gone a night without heat before, so they bundled up and grabbed as many blankets as they could find. They also rearranged where they were sleeping so we were closer in a warmer area of the house. Ronan’s bedroom stayed surprisingly warm, so I settled him back in his bed after dinner. He’d slept in very late that day and also napped for the few hours I was tending to things outside. Since the kids had gotten their fill of snow the day before, they stayed with Ronan while I got rock salt on the driveway, moved the broken limbs from a tree in our yard, and talked with a sweet neighbor who had brought some gas to us.
I couldn’t sit still inside, so I stayed busy outside most of the afternoon. Temps would drop by nightfall, so everything that could be cleared needed to be cleared. My neighbor stayed with me, chipping away at ice, shoveling more snow off of the tops of our vehicles, and also keeping me company. Satisfied that I could manage the rest by myself, she said goodbye. Exhausted, more so than I thought I would be, I cleaned up the tools we used and headed back inside.
As it got colder outside, Ronan’s temperature started to rise. “Mom, he’s warm,” one of the kids shared with me as I walked in.
His fever was back. His youngest sister had had one also on Sunday. Now, two days later, she, too, was starting to feel sluggish. I was also, but I chalked that up to all the work I’d been doing outside. It would be an early-to-bed night for all of us. Before bed, we made a plan. Since fevers can bring on seizures for Ronan, I made sure to have his emergency meds with me in his room. I’d sleep in there with him to monitor his temperature. Advice from my best friend had me bring the pulse oximeter with me also. I’d checked Ronan’s readings earlier that evening and saw some troubling numbers. Oxygen was at 97, not too alarming, but he’s a solid 99 kind of guy. It had been so long since I’d checked his resting heart rate, but I knew it had increased. Since we had no internet at that point, texts and calls to others fed us information - What is an average heart rate for a 19 year old? What are signs/symptoms of pneumonia? When do you need to seek emergency care for covid? It hadn’t dawned on me that this could be covid, but I wanted us to know what to look for. The more I read and reread, the more I wondered, Oh, boy. And oh, no. Could this be covid? Ronan cannot tell us where it hurts or when it hurts, so we rely on signs and symptoms, several of which by Tuesday night he was fully displaying.
Tucking everyone in after saying family prayers, I continued to pray for Ronan. He fell asleep instantly at 9pm.
Jarred awake at 3:23am, Ronan’s cough that started mid-afternoon Tuesday was pretty strong. Unable to clear the cough, he would get so winded afterwards. The fever that had gone away came back with a vengeance. The heart rate that had been just slightly elevated was now incredibly high. Grabbing the pulse/ox monitor and the stethoscope, I watched and listened. Then I woke up the kids and put a plan into action.
“Kids, if Ronan begins to struggle, I’ll need to take him to the ER. I’ll bring Izzy. Fiona, you’ll stay with the others,” I told the kids before we went to sleep. It was difficult to pick which kid would go with me and which ones would stay home. Each of them wanted to come with their brother, God bless them! We hadn’t left the neighborhood yet, so I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know it, but God knew that Izzy, who happened to walk the entire neighborhood Tuesday afternoon with friends, needed to come with me. Fully awake and ready with our bags, at 3:55am she and I held Ronan’s hands and tippy toed up the icy driveway to the truck I’d shoveled out.
The tremors were a sure sign that things were definitely going from bad to worse for Ronan. If the cough and high fever were not enough, the wildly high heart rate was also terrifying. So was having to drive through the darkened neighborhood over the power lines that lay limp on the frozen ground. Relying on Izzy’s memory, I went against every rule in the driver’s ed book when we ventured away from our home and toward the hospital. Feeling full of energy the afternoon before, she and some teens wanted to walk to one of the restaurants outside of the neighborhood Tuesday afternoon. I thought they were nuts, but teenagers like to do things tired adults don't want to do, so I gave Izzy my blessing to go. It was midday when they left. She would stay out until sunset and be driven home by one of the dads of the kids.
Along the way during the day, the teens helped shovel driveways and made a little bit of spending money to buy food if the restaurant was open. It was, so the adventure was worth it. So was the knowledge Izzy gained while traversing the few short miles to the main roads. Without her with me when Ronan needed emergency medical attention in the middle of the night, I would not have been brave enough to keep going. Several times, I thought we should just turn around and go home. I prayed so hard in those moments, but Izzy’s voice was louder than the one screaming in my head.
"Mom, when you go down Mrs. K's street, remember the utility pole is down. You can't go under this one, so turn right. But you will have to go under another pole," she said confidently.
We only got one street away from ours when I had to reroute us. Backing up down the snowy street, there was no place to turn around until we were at the intersection again. Izzy asked if I could turn around in a cleared driveway. I thought about it, but one false move and we’d land in a deep ditch opposite that cleared driveway. The thought of that scared me so much. Ronan would surely not make it if we got stuck. Feeling weak, even though my heart was racing with adrenaline, I said it would be safer to back up along the dark road.
Turning around, I snaked our way at less than 10 mph and approached the next intersection. "Okay, mom," my daughter started, "Remember when I said we walked all over this place earlier? You're going to have to trust me when I say go over them. Mom. DId you hear me? You have to go over them..."
Over what, I wondered.
It was pitch black, darker than dark with hundreds of branches hanging lower than usual under the weight of significant amounts of snow. Our neighborhood is a settled one, with thousands of trees lining the main streets, the side streets and people’s yards. Sounding like shotguns going off during the day, trees and large branches snapped one after another and came crashing to the ground even after the snowstorm had ended. Evidence of that lay all about us.
Rattling off instructions again, I listened to Izzy say, "Start slowing down now, stay as far to the right as you can...and...you can't see it yet, but go a little more to the right and go wide...now!"
Holy crap! I'd already been saying a string of Hail Mary prayers in my head. This next one was out loud. “HAIL MARY, FULL OF GRACE...dear Lord, Izzy! That's the power line!!" I yelled trying to slow down. "MOM!” Izzy raised her voice at me, “GO, you need to keep going, just go wide and stay to the right, even when you turn.” I never advocate for a child yelling at their parents, but had she not, we never would have made it around that area safely.
Trusting her, I did exactly what she said while driving down the hill. I could just make out the wires above us as I went under them. On a straightaway for another quarter mile, I switched to the Guardian Angel prayer. Imagining Ronan's Guardian Angel guiding us, traveling with us, keeping an ever vigilant eye on him and on whatever lay ahead of us, I kept going. Eyes wide open and taking in the storm destruction everywhere I looked, Izzy said, "Mom, remember I said you're going to see a few lines down? Well, the next set is approaching."
I asked, "Honey, how many times am I going to go over these things??"
Without hesitation, she said, "Three. Keep going, the next one is right....now. GO, keep going, you can do this, Mom. You just need to trust me. The power is off, remember. I saw so many cars and people walking over them today. Just keep going."
I didn't know the route Izzy and the other teens took on their walk early, but they went on both main roads and many of the side roads. She knew where the dangerous pockets were.
"Izzy, I'm so nervous. I've never been this nervous to drive before!" I admitted to my 15 year old.
"Mom, you've got this. Plus, Ronan needs you to stay calm and keep driving." She was right. Ronan was tanking again. I could have called an ambulance, but trees still littered the roadways. If I was struggling in my 4WD truck, I couldn't imagine a large ambulance being able to navigate the barely cleared roads we still needed to travel.
“Okay...Angel of God, my Guardian Dear…” my prayers continued both audibly and in my head.
The amount of snow that fell on our untreated roads would be something I'll never forget. Finally making our way out of our hilly, dark, terrifying streets, I crept toward the main roads. Hearing awful stories of stranded drivers, I was happy that we had a full tank of gas and that some lanes were a bit more cleared. On a normal day, I’d reach speeds up to 50 mph on the route I was taking. That day, I never went faster than 25mph. It would’ve been too dangerous. It made our trip take longer but overall safer. I felt a sense of relief when a truck pulled out about 100 yards in front of us - it was sanding the streets. Thank God for the crews! We followed the truck the last few miles to the hospital, dodging cars that had been abandoned and also trees that had not been cleared off the roadways. I’ve driven around obstacles before, but never so many in such a short stretch.
Finally in the parking lot of the ER, Izzy gently maneuvered Ronan out of the backseat. Weakened, he took her hand and let her lead him. I told her, “Straight to the wheelchairs, remember he loves wheelchairs,” I directed her as I grabbed his backpack. I’d had Izzy also pack a backpack for herself. At the time we made the ER plan, there was no telling what the conditions would be outside nor what condition Ronan would be medically. If our local hospital couldn’t manage Ronan’s symptoms, which has happened before, we’d need supplies to get us through at least one night at the children’s hospital 2 hours away. We hoped things wouldn’t get that bad, but we knew to be prepared anyway.
I will never hope for a seizure, but it took having a seizure in the ER to get Ronan to move to the top of the patient list. “He needs to go back next…now,” the doctor barked.
“Mrs. Jameson, you can bring him back. We’ll get his test results soon, but let’s get a chest x-ray ordered and some other labs,” the ER nurse said as we wheeled Ronan through the hallway. Looking around, I was stunned at how many patients I saw. Every ER exam room was full. Two of the ER hallways were also - people sitting in waiting room chairs, in wheelchairs and on gurneys. Some wrapped in blankets, some hunched over in discomfort, some looking far worse than Ronan.
The nurse apologized. The weather had impacted the staff, and some were out because they couldn’t drive in through the snow. Others were out because they had covid. In fact, the patients in the hallways were delayed being admitted because of a shortage of nurses. The ones who worked upstairs where these patients needed to go were sick. How tragic! I thought. Praying Ronan wouldn’t need to be admitted, another ER staff got the seizure padding attached to Ronan’s gurney.
Ronan had barely gotten a chance to transfer to the bed when his nasal swab results came back. “Positive,” the doctor who’d called him back said, “Let’s plan on getting you discharged.”
Stunned, I said, “Discharged? We just…”
She started an exam on Ronan. His oxygen had dropped to 92 while we were in the waiting room but now crept up to 96. His temperature, which was as high as 103.8, had fallen to 100. His heart rate, which had jumped to 158, was back in the 90s. “I’ll have the nurse get you the forms. You’ll want to continue to rotate fever reducers, keep him drinking liquids, and bring him back if he gets worse…”
But that cough, which was getting worse.
But that fever, which acted like an out-of-control yoyo.
But that risk for pneumonia, which is compounded due to the dysphagia, we’d been told.
But that seizure…where there’s one, there’s always more!
I asked for clarification when the very rushed doctor left. Speaking candidly to the nurse, I asked, “She thinks he’s okay to take home? I was so scared…just getting here was risky. Now she’s says it’s okay to travel back through all of that mess and to monitor him at home? What if he tanks again?”
“Bring him back,” the young nurse offered. “You can always bring him back.”
I should’ve fought to keep him monitored there longer, but like a friend shared with me the next day, “Cathy, you do not want to have him admitted if you can avoid it. You’d have no say in what they did to him. They’re understaffed and don’t follow a treatment plan that will help Ronan get better. Think of it as a blessing in disguise, even with how bad things are now. Trust me.”
Like I’d had to trust Izzy, I trusted my friend. A front-line worker who’s seen the worst the medical system has to offer, she knows firsthand the horrors happening in some hospitals. Even so, I was very angry that we got the bare minimum from the local doctor while Ronan dealt with the worst symptoms. Had I had a fight in me that day, I know I would’ve balked at the care we did receive. Once we were home, and when my symptoms went into full swing, I put that anger aside. Anger wouldn’t get Ronan better.
I won’t go into the interventions I was able to use, but with my friend’s advice to stay away from the medical center, Ronan did recover. I, and my other children who later tested positive, recovered as well. It wasn’t an easy road, I’ll readily admit that, but we recovered. The struggle of getting better post-snowstorm, with still no power at the house, with a medically-fragile adult child who was very sick, and with me now sick, was great. What got us through was the power of prayer, small medical miracles we encountered along the way, and getting 2 hotel rooms several towns over.
When Ronan’s fever spiked again after we’d come home from the ER Wednesday morning, my Mom and sister offered to help look for rooms for us. Neighbors were saying it would be at least another day, and up to 3-5 days later, for power to be restored. I’d stayed so strong for so long, but hearing that had me crying in a heap. Seeing me cry made Fiona cry. I’d relied so heavily on her. Without one complaint, she’d step in before I needed to ask for her help. As much as I loved being home with her and the kids on that first snow day, we both knew that home was not safe for us anymore.
In less than an hour, we packed up for a projected 3-5 days and got the heck out of town.
Taking two cars - in case I needed to bring Ronan to the larger hospital we’d be near, I held back tears while driving. Following my oldest, who mapped the way for us, I gripped the steering wheel. Are we really doing this? Is this really happening? I was in shock at all that we’d had just handled. I was in awe at how strong my children had to be and continued to be.
“Dear Lord,” I prayed. “Please help us! I am not strong enough to do this anymore.”
Once checked in to the hotel rooms, more blessings poured in. Friends who’d also left town for a warmer place to stay happened to text me. We rarely text, but she reached out, “Hey, I hear your neighborhood got hit hard. Is there anything you need?” Never one to accept help quickly, I prefer to be the helper, never the helpee. About to say No, we’re good, but thank you… I let the Holy Spirit smack me upside the head. Yes, I replied. Yes, please. Delivering food, water, soup, Gatorade, OTC meds and more, she and her husband, who were unbeknownst to me just in the next town over, dropped off groceries to us in the morning.
Other friends near and far reached out on Thursday offering various gifts and services to us - advice, encouragement, dinners, keeping watch over our house, and even offering to clean it up, while we were out of town. Ronan was still not out of the woods, and I had yet to go through the worst of things myself, but each call and each message I would receive made me happily overwhelmed. I graciously accepted everything, thanking everyone for their kindness. Relieved of the thought of not having to do all the things for all the people when we did get to return home, I fell asleep.
A stranger turned friendly helper offered me the greatest advice when we were in the hotel. Hearing the same message twice in the previous 24 hours, I took her words to heart:
“To grow and mature the way God wants you to, you need to accept people’s help. We never give others the opportunity to do that as much if we can help it. So let people help you now. It’s their turn to show you God’s love.”
And God’s love surely did pour in! To those who helped us, thank you. To those who prayed for us, who showered us with love, with groceries, with meals, with financial support, with medicine and with hope, thank you. To those who are waiting so patiently to help us next, thank you also. Your generosity feeds my soul! To those who didn’t know we were in a tough situation but who now know, we’ll happily take your prayers of thanksgiving that the kids and I survived one of the most harrowing weeks ever.
I won’t hope for another snowstorm for a long time, but I will be better prepared for the next one (including the one forecasted for today!). What a test it was to get through last week’s storm and through everything we never expected to encounter with it.
Cathy Jameson is a Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.