On Christmas Day, Buenos Aires was a ghost town. The city looked like the set of some futuristic horror movie in which the world’s population had been blotted out, but so elegantly that its cities remained perfectly intact.
Holding a listless forty-five pound Griffin in my arms, I hurried past the deserted Coto Supermercado, it’s dimmed lights reflecting ghostly white on the linoleum floor, the boarded up flower stall, and the darkened FarmaCity drug store. Ethan, grim faced, walked next to me, searching for emergency room information on his I-Phone. It was 97 degrees, unusually hot even this far south, and with each empty block I was growing surer that every taxi driver in the city had taken the holiday off too. Not even a dog patrolled the empty streets.
Melting with sun and worry, we made it to the corner of the usually jammed Avenida Del Libertador, an eight lane avenue that cuts through the heart of Buenos Aires like a freeway. But in this heavily Catholic country on Navidad, you could have picnicked in the middle of it. Griffin’s head lolled against my collarbone and he was only half-heartedly sucking his thumb—a clear danger sign of his physical condition–and I knew we couldn’t wait any longer for a cab.
A few high-rise apartment buildings away I saw a man getting into his car. A woman with two small children stood on the sidewalk, holding a bright assortment of beach toys. I ran toward them with Griffin, but when I tried to say “Mi hijo esta inferma” (my son is sick), a strangled sob came out instead.
Fighting for calm, I explained that Griffin had slipped on a piece of Christmas wrapping paper and whacked his head on our wood floor. He’d seemed fine at first, but an hour later his vision was blurry–he couldn’t even see the television clearly!–and he began sobbing and saying his head hurt. Please, I begged. Por favor, ayudame! Please help me.
A minute later, we were squashed into this unknown Argentine family’s tiny car, zooming down La Libertador. I sat on Ethan’s lap in the passenger seat, my head cranked at a painful angle against the windshield, sweating from heat and fear. In the back, Griff lay quiet and still in a stranger’s arms while her two children gurgled Spanish nonsense words from their car seats. The woman’s husband drove intently.
“What is your name?” I asked him in Spanish.
“Gabriel,” he said, and I noticed the whole family was wearing bathing suits.
“That’s Griffin’s middle name,” Ethan said, but my mind made a different connection.
That’s the angel’s name, I thought. The top banana! God’s powerful right hand man who foretold the birth of Jesus, whose birthday we happened to be celebrating today! That my sick son was being whisked to the hospital by a skinny, balding, bathing suit clad angel on a day when getting a taxi would be as miraculous as a virgin birth made me want to sob again. We stopped at a red light and Gabriel asked what would turn out to be the most important question of the day: where were we going?
Argentina is no third world country, but its health care system is very different from the United States. There are three tiers of medical care. Government workers go to “Obras Sociales”, medical facilities managed by the worker’s unions. Rich people go to private hospitals, which collect membership fees just like gyms or golf clubs. And everyone else uses the free public hospitals.
Gabriel explained that the nearby public facility, Hospital Fernandez, had good doctors but bad, antiquated equipment. The obvious plus was that it wouldn’t cost us anything. The private facility, La Trinidad, had an excellent pediatric unit, but we would pay for the privilege. It took us about a nano-second to decide. “Vamos a La Trinidad.”
The hospital’s beautiful, empty lobby was dotted with modern, butter-colored leather sofas and giant houseplants, creating the aura of an upscale office building. Two uniformed guards greeted us, and after a quick look at Griffin, directed us down one floor to the E.R. We skipped the elevator and took the stairs.
At the “Clinica Guardia” I lay Griff down on another deep, comfortable couch and listened to Ethan’s deep, perfectly accented Spanish rumble in the background as he tried to convince the administration officer that we needed to see a doctor now. I was desperate for a positive sign.
“Would you like an ice cream?” I asked Griff, praying he would say yes.
“No.” Bad sign.
“Can you read those letters?” I pointed to the word “Clinica”.
“No.” Bad sign.
Then he sat up. “My head hurts worse when I lie down,” he said
Jesus, God, Please, No. I repeated these words in my head like a mantra, trying to push away the frightening facts of actress Natasha Richardson’s death. One of the downsides of being a former news anchor is that the minute details of bizarre, one-in-a-million, spectacular, tragic or eerie deaths are burned into my memory bank. This treasure trove of ghoulish trivia makes me perhaps a more interesting party guest, but it also makes me hyper aware and a little paranoid. I knew Richardson had suffered “talk and die syndrome” after hitting her head during an unspectacular fall on the bunny slope. I knew she had felt fine at first, but within an hour had developed a massive headache. I knew that a slow, sneaky brain hemorrhage had killed this healthy, forty-five year old woman.
“Gree-fen Doo-bro?” A tall, blonde woman wearing a white lab coat called his name, introduced herself as Bettina, and led us to a small office. When Ethan asked if she spoke English, she said “maybe”—an ambiguous enough answer so that he explained the situation in Spanish. When she began examining Griff’s eyes and head, we assumed she was the doctor.
“Neccisita momographia,” she pronounced when she finished.
“A mammogram?” I asked, thinking Bettina must not be a doctor after all but some hot Latina actress learning how to play one on a telenovela. But then she corrected me—in perfect English.
“No. Tomographia. A CT scan.” Griff seemed fine, she said, but the scan was the only way to be sure that his brain was not bleeding. Then Bettina left the room, leaving Ethan and I to worry about the risks of radiating our little boy’s head.
At a hospital in Los Angeles, with our own pediatrician recommending a CT scan (and a WiFi signal to research the possible consequences), we would have been concerned. At La Trinidad in Buenos Aires, with an E.R. doctor who looked like a South American Supermodel calling the shots, we were freaked out. My anchor information glut was now regurgitating the details of last year’s radiation overdose scandal at Cedars Sinai. We didn’t want to do the test. But we didn’t want to not do it either.
When faced with difficult decisions, if you listen with your heart instead of your ears, sometimes the angels will speak—or at least push you in the right direction. I felt a little nudge when Doctor Bettina returned to tell us La Trinidad’s only tomographia machine was broken. She shrugged her shoulders like this was not all that abnormal, wrote down the name and address of the public hospital (with the bad medical equipment) and said “Good Luck.” Then, as we walked through the spotless lobby, unsure of how we would even get to the public E.R., the heavens parted long enough for Ethan’s I-Phone to find an unlocked Wi-Fi signal. Within a minute, I was speaking with our calm, competent pediatrician in Los Angeles, who, being Jewish, was not even angry that we were bothering him on Christmas. This development felt like more of a shove.
From 6,000 miles away, I asked Dr. Klein to make what might be a life and death decision. This is not very fair and most doctors wouldn’t do it, but Dr. Klein is not most doctors. Had Griffin vomited? Had he lost consciousness? Had the Argentine doctor noticed anything abnormal during her examination? Was he acting in an appropriate manner? No.. no.. no.. and yes.
“Then no CT,” he said. “He probably has a mild concussion. I would watch him closely and if anything changes, take him back to the ER immediately.” As I hung up, Griffin said he was feeling better.
My Big Brother Is All Better!
I felt my world slowly tilt back toward center. Angels, foreign and domestic, had given us some priceless gifts during this emergency, far better than any of the presents that were still sitting under the brightly decorated houseplant back in our apartment. And then, as we walked out into the bright Christmas Day heat, a true miracle occurred—the lone taxi in the city of Buenos Aires pulled up in front of the hospital, empty and ready to take us home. It was the best Christmas I’d ever had.