Lesson learned from a child’s smile

M Burke headshotGrowing up an extremely avid soccer player, it wasn’t a surprise that I was injury prone. It wasn’t until I received my first concussion that the injuries became alarming. From 2012 to now, I’ve had 5 severe concussions. Because of how little time was in between the occurrence of these injuries, permanent brain damage was a result. Not only was I not able to play soccer anymore, but everything was different: I couldn’t go a day without getting a pounding headache, I couldn’t engage in much physical activity without feeling sick, and sometimes I couldn’t even write without the letters switching around like I had dyslexia. It was a lot to handle and it still is, especially when there’s nothing I can do about it. Because of these permanent symptoms, I often have doctor’s appointments. Although most of the appointments blur together, there’s one that I’ll never forget.

I first started to have these permanent symptoms when I was in 8th grade, I was immediately sent to Boston Children’s Hospital to see a neurologist. The only time I had ever been there was when my cousin had a heart transplant. Because this was the only memory that I had connected to this hospital, I was absolutely petrified. I was terrified that there was something horribly wrong with me; I was assuming the worst was yet to come. The two hour car ride to Boston seemed to take years. It was unbearable, I just wanted to get it over with. I remember being absolutely silent the entire drive; you could hear a pin drop. I was too scared that I couldn’t even talk.

My parents were constantly asking,    “Meagan, are you okay?” and even though I wasn’t sure that I was, I always replied,

“Of course, why wouldn’t I be?” Putting on a brave front was something I always did, and always will.

After what seemed like an eternity, we began driving up the steep ramp of the parking garage of the hospital. Eventually we found an open parking space, parked, and walked across the bustling Boston street with numerous of other families towards the entrance. The second we entered the massive building, it was sensory overload. The lobby was flooded with people all moving in different directions: grandparents, parents, children, siblings, infants, etc. Dozens of different conversations taking place caused the room to seem to be buzzing. Unexpectedly, the scent of delicious food filled my nostrils. Food is the last thing I’d expect to smell in a hospital, never mind appealing food. The delicious scents of the various foods (the chicken noodle soup I can still smell) were coming from the cafeteria across the room.

Immediately we were greeted by a welcoming, older man dressed in a costume: “Hello!” he said, “Welcome to the best hospital in New England! Where are you folks heading today?”

As my parents answered his question, I noticed how there were other men dressed in various costumes greeting families just as we had been. These cheerful welcomings lightened the tension and eased the nerves of those coming into the hospital. I continued looking around; there was so much going on, so much to see. I couldn’t help but notice all of the other patients. There were dozens of children hiding bald heads under colorful, designed bandanas or being pushed in their decorated wheelchairs. Additionally, there were tons of attractions all around the lobby. A staircase decorated as a piano chimed out notes as the steps were walked on and a contraption of a wooden sphere traveling through a course, encased in glass, both contributed to the noisiness. My parents and I were directed towards a set of elevators decorated as fish. We rose up to the top floor to the neurology department. Before walking into the waiting room, there was a short hallway which contained many windows overlooking the city. Looking out the windows across to the opposite tower of the hospital, I noticed how there were posters plastered on almost all of the windows.

“Mom, why are those windows so decorated?” I asked.

“That tower is the residential one, so kids live in those rooms. They probably put up their own posters to make it feel like home,” she answered.

Absorbing this information chilled me. I couldn’t imagine having to stay for a few nights in a hospital, never mind living in one. I hesitantly followed my parents down the hallway into the waiting room to check in for my appointment.

When I walked in the waiting room, I felt like a new student walking into class for the first time. The waiting room matched the theme of the rest of the hospital: colorful and light hearted. There were dozens of chairs spread out all across the room yet most of them were full. I was too scared to look around at the other patients so I sat down in the first empty chair I saw. My dad followed my lead and sat beside me while my mother went to the counter to check me in. After a few minutes, I worked up the courage to look around. I can remember this moment like it was yesterday: I panned around and looked at everyone else in the room for a couple of seconds (to not be rude and stare). Across from me sat a hispanic boy who was about nine years old. The first thing I noticed was what appeared to be a massive lump the size of a softball on the side of his head. Because we were in the neurology department, I assumed that this was a tumor. I continued to observe everyone else in the room and noticed their various medical complications. However, there was one boy I saw that impacted me. He was across the room surrounded by his family sitting in his wheelchair. His head was lolled back against his head rest, his arms and legs lay limp. He was only able to move minimally. What struck me about him was that although he wasn’t really able to move much, and I could imagine that he’s always having doctor’s appointments, his mouth was curved into a smile (to the best of his ability). For the remainder of the time that I was waiting here, this was all I could think about. Considering he clearly had a condition that affected him to the point where he could barely move, he must exert a lot of energy moving. Despite this, he still did the best that he could to smile at the simplicity of sitting in a waiting room. I had never comprehended such positivity before. Out of all the things going on, he still found one to smile about. Although most people might look this event over, I was simply stunned. I continuously thought about this for the rest of the day, even occasionally I still think about it.

Although I came home that day knowing that I had permanent brain damage and there was nothing I could do, I was thankful.

My devastated parents repeatedly told me how sorry they were, but all I could say was, “Don’t be sorry, it could be worse.”

— Meagan Burke, Sophomre

That day changed the way that I think a lot. If a boy who has it so much worse than I do can manage to smile, even at a hospital, I can too. From that day forward, I learned to be optimistic. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to tell this boy how much of an impact he made on me. Little does he know that he changed the way someone thinks about their situation for the rest of their life.