Wednesday, October 19, 2011

20 Years Ago

Twenty years ago today we almost lost our son.

We were living in the wilds of Northwestern Ontario, on an Indian reserve of some 800 people. Paul taught at the little Christian school. Matt was 5, Amy 3, and Emily 1.

A child on the reserve belongs to everyone and this was especially true of our children who were stared at and gushed over and discussed and kissed everywhere they went. People loved Emily's big blue eyes and Amy's charm, but they seemed especially fascinated by Matt with his red hair and his way of going up to anyone, anywhere, and talking their ears off whether they spoke English or not. "Matchoo," people would murmur with a twinkle in their eyes. "Matchoo, Matchoo," and they would shake their heads. They couldn't understand him, but they loved him.

"Emmity-go-genes," the old people would say as they grinned indulgently at our crew. "Little white kids." And when Matt sat by the aisle in church, old men shuffling up to their seats would reach out and reverently touch his hair as they passed.

They also discussed us on the village radio. It's hard to explain the role of the local station on the reserve, not that there were any non-local stations to choose from. Everything was announced and discussed there. The time Paul took the kids out canoeing when the ice was breaking up--that got discussed on the radio. And when the other teacher's parents came to visit, the neighbor lady went on the radio and said everybody be careful driving down this way, there are two old people visiting. His parents were actually in their 40s.

We had electricity and phones at Round Lake but it still felt very isolated. During most of the year the only way in and out was by plane. The exception was from January to March, when you could bump your way out some 25 miles of bush road pushed over the frozen ground.

There was a nursing station on the reserve, and a small grocery store. The nearest doctor was some 175 miles away in Pickle Lake. The nearest hospital roughly 300 miles away. The nearest big grocery store some 400 miles.

That fall of 1991 Matthew got sick. We seemed to get sick an awful lot, so this wasn't such a big deal. He had a stomach ache for a few days and just didn't feel good. Then one night he vomited off and on all night, so I took him to the nurses in the morning. They said it's just a virus and his stomach hurts from all the vomiting.

He got a bit better but I was still concerned. Then a few nights later he woke up screaming. We took him to bed with us and he was in terrible pain and his abdomen was as hard as a board. What on earth? Finally he fell asleep and as soon as we could I laid him on a big sled and hauled him to the nursing station.

Something was obviously wrong, they said. Something had ruptured inside, but it didn't seem like appendicitis. They started an IV and said he needs to be flown out for surgery. So while they called in the air ambulance from Sioux Lookout, 300 miles away, we made hasty plans, finally deciding that Paul would fly out with him and I would stay home with the girls.

An old van drove us to the airstrip and the big sleek ambulance plane landed. They loaded Matt's stretcher inside and I tearfully told him goodbye, with that ghastly knot in the pit of my stomach that you feel when you don't know if your child will live or die.

They flew off.

Someone took us back home. I tried to do housework, and people came by all day, offering their support. The radio station announced updates whenever I got a call from Paul.

Meanwhile Paul and Matt were taken to the hospital in Sioux Lookout. Matt was evaluated. Yes, he needs surgery, although they still didn't know what for. The lone surgeon was out fishing. The policemen couldn't get their boat motor started to go fetch him.

They called the Dryden hospital. The one surgeon there was out moose hunting.

They would take him to Thunder Bay.

At 9:00 that night he went into surgery. The radio announcer told the whole village to stay awake until they knew if little Matthew Smucker would be ok.

At 10:30 I got the call that Matt was out of surgery and he would be fine. I fell to pieces from sheer relief and gratitude. Our friend Lucy Day was less sentimental. She grabbed the phone and called the radio station. They announced the news and told everyone they can go to bed now.

So we all did.

The trouble had been a Meckel's diverticulum, a little tube or pouch on the small intestine, left over from before he was born, that had a bit of stomach tissue in it. This developed an ulcer and eventually burst through the intestinal wall.

He would probably have died without the surgery, said the doctor. And, he said, looking a bit puzzled, often these cases bleed heavily before surgery but for some reason Matt's didn't.

Two weeks later, we had a blizzard and the planes couldn't fly.

So despite the ordeal we saw God's hand all over it and knew He still had a purpose for Matt's life.

Matt was in the Thunder Bay hospital for a week. The mission pilot flew me and the girls out a few days later. We hung out at the hospital and watched Matt recover.

And 20 years later Matt is all grown up with a scar across his belly button to remind him of the time he got to live and not die.

Quote of the Day:
"It hurts so bad and I'm so hungry but they won't let me eat and I told the doctor I want a hamburger but they won't let me have one."
--Matt's teary words to me when I got to the hospital which of course made me cry as well. We got him a hamburger before we left Thunder Bay a week later. Maybe this deprivation is what makes him so fond of Wendy's Baconators


  1. Love this post. God is good and merciful and gives us reasons to know He is not done with us yet....

  2. that radio station thing cracked me up...and thinking about a mom with three littles and almost loosing one, brings the tears.

    i love how you write. you have a way of so often connecting with something deep inside of me.

    there are scars like matt's...and we remember HIS mercy and providence. each detail like dots that had to connect to save his life. and then there are scars from other... traumas. reminding us that we had to live. pointing to HIS hope and redemption for me dorcas.

    thank you.

  3. What a wonderful story. I kind of know the feeling of the gut-deep pain and anxiety about the life of a child. Our family has experienced a lot of cancer, including two of our children. I like the way the locals loved your family.

  4. FYI: all of us have survived our cancers, thanks to our Great Physician. It's been our eldest daughter, my husband and myself who had cancer and were treated with chemo and radiation (our eldest daughter had it twice and finally had a bone marrow transplant,) and just this summer our youngest daughter had a spinal tumor that turned out to be benign.

  5. ah.

    And my internal northern nurse quickly pictures it all.... and puts myself with a little red-haired boy and calling for an Evac and praying he makes it out.

    Such a crazy wonderful northern story.

    So glad it all worked out.

  6. Thanks, Sue and Cindy.
    innacanoe, you obviously know that gut-deep pain very well. wow.
    And whisperedlongings, that's funny to think of you as that role in the story. I hope people appreciate you as much as they ought.

  7. Thank you for this post.

  8. I love your writing...and this story especially.

  9. From your description, it doesn't sound like much has changed in the bush over the last 20 years. At least the radio definitely hasn't!