Tracking it down

In late April 2012, a month after his fifteenth birthday, my child Eamon was admitted to Vassar Hospital with an intestinal concern eventually confirmed as E. coli infection. In the next few days, the poor, deathly six-foot-tall teen was isolated and intravenously hydrated on Vassar’s pediatric wing.

A number of possibilities were floated. Maybe it was C. diff, another ubiquitous bacterium that he had tested positive for, one that can account for just about anything at any time, or nothing at all. Maybe it was a recent round of prednisone, a steroid with an adverse-event profile that reads like a short history of global calamity, which is also what it treats.

When the big E came back thumbs up, the other diagnoses and conjectures slunk quietly away, as one does in the presence of an acknowledged master.


We went to his pediatrician’s office, Pine Street’s Highland branch, bringing a sample of deep self, as instructed. Upon seeing him and the sample, they just just waved us through to the E.R. We didn’t even meet the doctor — “advance directly to a level of care we are not able to provide at our office.”

At that point, I called my wife. She tore out of school, cornering with a uniquely parental urgency that sent my Yorkville cabinet smashing through the side-back window of our Subaru wagon. The scars that prove the love.

My common, garden-variety red-green deficiency color blindness had in fact blinded me to what would have been a glaringly obvious and literal red flag to a normal-sighted person. It was, to memory, the only occasion on which my color blindness had had potentially serious consequences, other than keeping me out of fighter-pilot programs.

It is likely Eamon got E. coli because of all the changes in the business environment at Times Square. He and one of his friends and I had raced there on a bus the weekend before to see Punch Brothers and Jesca Hoop at Town Hall. We got there without enough time to sit down to eat. His friend was fine with a deli sandwich, but Eamon doesn’t do sandwiches and just wanted a slice. The glitzification of that part of Manhattan has really reduced the pizzeria count. He settled for a kabob from a street vendor.

In what is a common experience these days, an E. coli positive always triggers a few friendly if interrogatory calls from the Department of Health. We’ll never know for sure. But it was the street food.

When we got the skinny thing home, he posted “officially not dead” on Facebook, and went out with friends.

We were told to monitor our own guts closely. E. coli is not super-contagious, but our exposure had been extreme. The night we got him home, Liz began throwing up.

Turns out it was just stress, but as I lay on the couch, fully certain that the cycle began again tomorrow, I saw the roof of our house parting, the wall disintegrating, leaving only the dome of a cold night’s starry sky. I said to myself words I’ve repeated often since and still don’t know what they mean:

“I am an animal alone under the night sky.”

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.