In the children's ward

August 24, 2002

THE HOUR glows blood red on the nightstand clock: 1:20 a.m.

Awake, disoriented. The urgent beeping that summons the sleeper is not coming from the timepiece. Beep ... beep ... infusion complete ... infusion complete ... the green letters scroll across a digital panel monitoring doses of painkiller, antibiotic, fluid given intravenously. A nurse pads into the room. Go back to sleep, Mom, she murmurs. He's fine.

At 5 a.m., the alarm chatters again, but this time, the patient stirs. A little hand darts from a swath of white blankets and tangle of tubes, and pokes a button on the IV machine. The green script blinks off. Silence. The kid turns and flashes a know-it-all grin. Go back to sleep, Mom.

It's a beautiful conspiracy, the truth that dawns with the arrival of morning and the playroom coordinator, who escorts the child away. On this hospital children's ward, pint-size patients are granted a powerful role in assisting their own recovery. It's their job to play, fantasy being as essential as anything administered through the IV tube.

So they're putting on a magic show in the playroom. Searching under the sofa for Fuzzy, the staff rabbit, who is on the loose. Making paper hats. If the weather's good, they're slipping out to a rooftop playset to swing or slide. If they're stuck in their room, they're wired to the bedside Nintendo.

Doctors hold conferences with the busy patients in the playroom. There, too, nurses administer meds without interrupting the games. Children pulled away from games for exams, therapies or meals return on foot or in a wagon, dragging their IV poles and reasserting the order of their turn-taking at the game controls. You don't have to stick around, the 7-year-old announces. I'm fine.

He's not, but the children have coalesced as a group, rendering parents all but extraneous. They haven't forgetten that they're sick, they even press each other for a few details: What're you here for? Yet when they are joined by a tiny boy bearing an extraordinary scar -- cranial stitches from ear to ear -- they summon their best manners and try not to stare. Bubbles? the newcomer asks, and a pan of soap and wands appear at his table. As the room fills with iridescent orbs, parents duck out so the children can't see the tears well in their eyes.

Later, when over mother's protestations, a child refuses a dose of morphine, the nurse takes his side: It's his pain, his decision. Besides, he'd rather be at the PlayStation just now. He can push the call button when he's ready.

The parents' role is not usurped so much as managed, leaving them free to call the relatives, oversee toothbrushing, and fetch the always-ready supply of Hawaiian Punch, popsicles, and gelatin from the pantry. They exchange survival info: where in the hospital to go to send an e-mail, get a blanket, find a decent cup of coffee, use an ATM. Can you believe this place? they joke. My kid doesn't want to go home.

In the afternoon, the parents queue up in the hospital library. This one needs a book to explain leukemia to a toddler; the next needs help preparing a teen-ager for anesthesia. It seems an act of defiance to choose a picture book, but the "regulars" -- whose children are chronically ill and frequently hospitalized -- nod in encouragement.

A parent can begin to feel like chopped liver while the sick child revels in playroom distractions and instant gratification that is always a call-button away. But when the medical center grows hushed and dark, and the child at last nods under the aura of blue and green vital-sign displays, comfort's name is a favorite bedtime story or lullaby or tickle-toe game. A simple family ritual restores order to the parent-child relationship in the hubbub of the children's ward.

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