Every year at Christmastime, I recall what we remember as the worst Christmas ever. It began with one of our older children shouting into the intercom, "Clare is throwing up in her crib," and went downhill from there. We opened our Christmas presents worrying about a repeat performance. My husband opened his gift from my parents, a thoughtful collection of sausages and cheese, turned green, and said he would enjoy them later. As the day went by, one by one, the rest of the family repaired to their beds or the bathroom until only our oldest daughter and I were able to eat the lavish feast, and soon after that we were also down for the count.
Over the next couple of days, family members gradually recovered except for Catherine, the 5 year old, who continued to complain about stomach pain. That night, she was so much worse that my husband and I took shifts staying up with her. He told me that he was going to lay her down on the sofa and pull on some clothes and would then take her to the Emergency Room. But when he came back out, she had finally fallen asleep, so we were able to catch a few hours of rest.
In the morning, she seemed worse so my husband took her up to the pediatrician while I held down the fort at home. He called to say that her white blood cell count was up and the doctor directed him to walk her across the parking lot to the hospital to admit her. When I got there, I learned that the pediatric surgeon was on Christmas vacation and the head trauma surgeon was treating her. He thought it might be appendicitis although he told us that 5 was a little young for that, but he recommended surgery in any case. We told him to go ahead and he said it would probably take about half an hour. We sat in the waiting room, and the half hour turned to an hour and then an hour and a half. Finally, the pediatrician came into the waiting room, shaking his head. He must have seen that our faces blanched, because he came over to us and told us that he was shaking his head because he had never seen a case like that in 35 years of practice. He explained that what Catherine had was an omphalo-mesenteric duct cyst that had ruptured, probably Christmas day, when she was vomiting, and that had resulted in a terrible case of peritonitis. He told us that the omphalo-mesenteric duct connects the yolk sac to the unborn baby's intestines, through the umbilical cord. The duct normally disappears as the placenta replaces the yolk sac, but in Catherine's case it never did. The surgeon removed the remnants of the duct as well as her appendix and told us she was on three different antibiotics, had a nasogastric tube and was also in an oxygen tent because she had bronchitis. He said the next 24 hours would tell. I thought he meant how quickly she would recover, but my husband understood correctly that he meant whether she would make it. She was moved to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, and I stayed overnight, while my husband went home to relieve my parents, who were watching the other children. I was shown to a room nearby with a sofa where I could catch a few hours of sleep but also check on her whenever I was awake. I fell asleep quickly once Catherine was settled and apparently asleep or still under the effects of the anesthesia. I woke up about 2 in the morning and went in to her room. She looked up at me and moved her hand toward her face. I was afraid she was going to try to pull the nasogastric tube out (after all, this was the child who was getting a shot at 18 months and pulled the needle out of her thigh so quickly the nurse couldn't stop her; she said that had never happened to her before). Instead, she blew me a kiss, and I remember thinking then that she was going to be all right. We realized the next day that Catherine had had her surgery on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children whom Herod ordered killed in an attempt to destroy the newborn "king of the Jews" whom the Magi were seeking. We have always been grateful to those young saints for their intercession for our young daughter.
Catherine was in the hospital for a week, and learned to read while I read one Boxcar Children book after another to her to keep her occupied. The only problem with the books was that they were very detailed about the food that the Boxcar Children were having, and at first Catherine couldn't eat anything, and eventually progressed to broth and jello, which was a far cry from the hot dog that Benny, the youngest of the Boxcar Children, had in one of his famous adventures. At one point, he slipped and nearly fell down a steep mountain, but his grandfather grabbed him just in time. He told Benny that he needed to think very seriously about what to do with his life since he nearly lost it. And I used that as an opportunity to impress upon Catherine the same lesson. She had nearly died, but her life had been saved by the truly kind trauma surgeon and the prayers of so many of our family and friends who came to the hospital, called or sent cards. She needed to think seriously about what God was eventually asking her to do with her life. Yesterday, as I was playing Michael Haydn's "Anima Nostra," written for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, for Catherine, I was feeling very thankful that she is now a wife and mother of three young children, whom she and her husband are working to teach, "Your ears shall hear a word behind you: 'This is the way; walk in it.' "