When I turned the corner into the ICU, I saw him. He was not an attending physician, charge nurse or therapist. He wasn’t an administrator or a chaplain, a resident or a fellow.
He sat and rocked, covered with a blanket. I barely could see what he was holding. Then it came clear.
At that moment, in my mind, he was the most important person in the room.
At Children’s of Alabama (and I’m sure at other children’s hospitals), people can volunteer to rock and hold newborns who have had toxic exposures (such as cocaine) in utero, who have other conditions that might cause them distress, or who have no available parents. Many of these babies cry incessantly – a particularly agonizing sound to this adult neurology resident on the first day of his pediatric neurology rotation.
As many of you know, ICUs can be loud and very busy, with alarms, ventilators, monitors, and staff moving very rapidly to take care of their patients.
Like a sailboat in safe harbor, the old, blanket – draped man sat smiling in his rocker, his hands cradling a little lost person fighting for her life as a neurochemical storm raged inside her brain.
“Peace, be still, little girl. I’ve got you safe and warm here in my blanket. It will be all right.”
He rocked and rocked. The little body trembled and contorted. He kept rocking, whispering, singing. He looked like he had done this many times before. Perhaps he thought of his own little girl or boy at a time when they had needed comfort. Perhaps he thought of himself in his own mother’s arms. Maybe he dreamt of the child he never could have.
Before I left the ICU that day, the little lost daughter had stilled, and was quietly asleep.
So was the old man.
And the chair kept on rocking.