The narrator is subsumed with fear and worry as a mysterious pain fills his stomach
The afternoon sun shined hard on the tall NYC buildings, making them look like gold, as my mom and I walked home. My hand reached out for the door; the peeling black paint fell gently on my fingers as my hand closed around the knob. My mom and I went in and walked the unbearable four-flight walk up to our apartment. My mom took out her keys and wedged them in the lock. It opened. I rushed in, relieved to be free from the sun’s heat. My footsteps echoed as I entered my house. My dad was standing near the kitchen counter, busy chopping up some garlic.
My dad wore a dark blue T-shirt with stripes and worn-out jeans. He had a smile on his face, like always, and his stubble was freshly shaved.
“Guess what? My team won three-one in soccer,” I rushed to tell my dad. Then I sat down on the brand-new gray couch, took out my iPad, and began to play.
I played for about a half hour until my little sister, Zora, walked through the door wearing a blue dress with butterflies, her wavy dark brown hair falling just beneath her shoulders. She was in preschool and really sweet— to everyone except me. There was happiness radiating off her every movement. I tried to say hi, but she had already walked away, her hair trailing like a big bar of chocolate.
I got up and got a cup of water, suddenly feeling hot. My head began to hurt and my stomach got little flashes of pain. It felt like the world was spinning and I was in the center of a vortex. The change stunned me.
Why is this happening? What is going on? I thought. Confusion and worry swirled through my head, and though I did not know it at the time, I would feel that way for a long time to come.
The pain in my head and stomach grew, becoming almost unbearable in just a matter of minutes. It will all be fine. This will be a fine day. I am just tired, I told myself. But it did not seem likely. Every minute, the pain got worse. It was hard to believe it was a coincidence. I felt like my stomach was about to burst.
I took a deep breath to calm myself down. The aroma from my dad’s cooking drifted in the air. The whiff of sizzling bacon spread through the house, making it smell like barbecue. Not exactly soothing for my rumbling stomach.
I stood up and went to my mom, who was in her room watching a show.
“Can I go lie down?”
“Sure, but are you okay, honey?” my mom asked. Worry spread over her face as fast as a race car.
“I’m fine, Mommy,” I managed, though I wasn’t sure if this was true.
“Goodnight, love you,” she said.
I went to my bed and lay down. My head was hurting and my stomach aching. I slowly fell asleep, hoping that all I needed was rest.
When I woke up, my mom was crouching by my bed, a pained look on her face. My mom was always worried about me and my siblings. Whenever we got even a little bit sick, she agonized, and this was no different.
“Did you sleep well, Mish?” she asked.
“It is dinner soon, honey, so you should go to the kitchen. You don’t look that good—your eyes are glassy and you look pale. Are you sure you don’t want me to call the doctor and ask for an appointment tomorrow?”
“Yes, Mommy,” I said, with a tinge of annoyance in my voice. I stood up and went to the living room. I took a deep breath and sat back down. I was ready to relax, but then I realized I was starving. Now that I was sick, it seemed like I could only see the problems bearing down on me. I looked out the window. A velvety darkness was descending like a blanket over my house.
My dad was still busy cooking. Cooking was, and still is, one of my dad’s favorite hobbies, and he loved to do it. He always made these really extravagant meals that took a really long time and that made my mom annoyed because we rarely ate until after our technical bedtime. Once my mom took over cooking, we would eat much earlier, but my dad did not approve of my mom’s cooking. “Too greasy,” he said.
I started to feel a little better, but the grumbling of my stomach brought me back to my pain.
Why is this happening? I was fine just a few hours ago, I thought in worry.
The pain was changing so suddenly, and I didn’t know what to do. I put a blanket over me, even though I wasn’t hot.
“Googoogaga!” my one-year-old brother said.
Luka was so cute in his little overalls, his toothless smile revealing some of the mashed peas stuck to his lips.
“Luka!” I said.
I really liked my little brother. The only thing was, he kept on doing what my sister told him to do, and back then Zora did not like me.
I began to feel a bit warmer. I was getting hungry and increasingly impatient waiting for dinner, wondering when the hour would come. But these thoughts didn’t distract me for long. Soon the pain made me squirm like a cat chasing yarn. I didn’t feel better, and I doubted I ever would.
I sat on the couch for a little while longer until . . .
“Dinner!” my dad shouted in a booming voice, echoing around my house like a megaphone. I stood up and walked to the hexagon-shaped table. My grandpa was an artist, and he had made this table all by himself. The food smelled delicious, and it quenched my hunger just to breathe it in. But I was sick. My head hurt more than ever and my stomach grumbled—but I knew I couldn’t eat. We all sat down, the pot of steaming pasta sending its aroma into the air.
“Gonoboolobogoob!” Luka said happily.
I smiled a weak smile at his remark.
“Okay, let’s eat!” my dad said loudly.
I hope I can get this down. It was wishful thinking. My hand tightened around the fork as I lifted it into the air and scooped up the pasta and bacon, swirling it around my fork. A burst of flavor exploded in my mouth.
I wonder what movie we will watch tonight. Normally we watch a movie with the whole family, and that night we were going to watch Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. We had watched it before, and it was time to watch it again.
“Misha, chew slower!” my dad said, with a tinge of annoyance in his voice.
The food on my plate was delicious, but despite my hunger, I could not eat. The food would not budge. It was like a wall prevented me from swallowing, making me use all my force just to eat a bite. By the end of the meal, I had barely eaten my plate. But somehow, my pain had miraculously seemed to go away. I breathed a sigh of relief and walked to my parents’ room (we watched the movie in my parents room sometimes because it was cozier). But as I walked, my pain seemed to resurrect itself. My stomach screamed in pain and my head throbbed.
Why is this happening to me? I knew it was time to tell my parents, but I didn’t want them to worry as it was already stressful for them. I took a deep breath and gathered my feelings and strength. I would feel better when I woke up. It will all be fine, I told myself.
I did not know it then, but that would be the mistake that changed the course of that summer, and probably my life. I walked slowly to my parents’ room, the darkness casting shadows on the red blanket. The remote for the TV was lying unused, unwanted on the bed. I called everyone for the movie, and footsteps shook the house. Everyone rushed into my parents’ room and we started to watch. The movie was very good. Now my pain was subsiding and my eyes were starting to close. I started to drift to sleep.
“Aaaaaah!” I woke up with a start. My pain was worse than ever, my stomach was churning, something was coming up my throat.
“Misha, are you okay?” My parents rushed in. We ran to the bathroom and I started to throw up, pieces of pasta falling into the toilet bowl.
“This is why you chew your food, Misha!” my dad cried in exasperation.
Why is he thinking about me chewing my food and not me throwing up? I thought in pure wonder, and by the look my mom gave my dad, she was thinking the same thing.
My eyes blinked to adjust to the light. I stopped throwing up, but my pain still went on.
“Come on. It will be okay, Misha. Let’s go to sleep,” my mom said in her soothing voice. So we slowly walked, and though it took a while, my eyes closed, darkness enveloping me once again.
* * *
The sunlight wrenched my eyes open as a new day came. After the night I’d had, I was ready for a new start.
“Aaaaaah.” I breathed a deep sigh of relief as I stretched my arms.
Suddenly, a searing pain hit my stomach.
Why is this happening? Again, I wanted to eat but knew I could not. I stood up and the pain hit again, but this time it was a hundred times worse. I fell to the ground, my head throbbing, my stomach feeling as if it were on fire.
“Misha!” my mom yelled.
She came to me and helped me stand up. My dad was there too. My mom put a hand around me as we inched our way to the living room. The pain was unbearable.
“It will be fine, Misha,” my dad said in a soothing voice.
“Do you know what happened?” my mom said, her voice trembling with worry.
“No,” I replied, my voice quivering.
I inched to the living room as my mom grabbed my hand and opened the door. We have to go to the doctor, I thought, and it was clear my mom thought the same thing too. We walked down the stairs in just my pajamas and grabbed the nearest cab we could find. We went straight to the doctor. I didn’t know if I was going to survive.
A million thoughts raced through my head, but we didn’t talk as we entered the doctor’s office. It was a new doctor—my old one has just retired. She didn’t recognize me, and in this particular moment, it would have been nice to see a familiar face.
As we entered, I felt the heat leaving my body. I collapsed in the doctor’s arms as I crawled onto an examining table. I tried to listen to what she was saying but could barely understand her. My head was throbbing.
“Can you feel this?” the doctor asked as she pressed my stomach. It hurt so much. Flashes of pain came on and off again.
“Yessssssss,” I squealed. The pain made it hard to speak.
“Okay,” the doctor said, turning to my mom. “I think he has appendicitis.”
“What is that?” I asked.
“There is a pipe in your stomach that doesn’t serve much of a function. When it gets infected it can cause severe pain, like what you have now,” the doctor explained. The windowless room seemed dark and sinister as what was happening was unfolding in front of me.
“There’s only one solution. You will need to have surgery to get it removed, and in order to do that, we need to get you to the hospital now.”
I peeled myself off the table, pain searing through my whole body.
What will happen? Will I be fine? Will the surgery be dangerous? Questions whirled through my head and worry clouded my mind. Only danger was apparent now.
“We will take a cab, and get there quickly,” my mom said in her calm voice. “No need to worry.”
We waited outside the doctor’s office. The busy road flashed with cars, not a single cab in sight. Suddenly my mom caught sight of a yellow car pulling up to the curb with customers getting out.
“Wait for us!” my mom called right as the cab was driving away. We got in and asked to go to NYU Langone Hospital. The driver wore a white T-shirt that said, A New Day with Surprises. He had a kind face and trusting eyes. He took off immediately. The big city rushed by in a matter of minutes. But then my stomach seemed to churn and my throat seemed to tense up.
“Mommy, I am going to throw up!”
My mom took a bag from her pocket and I threw up in it just in time.
“I am so sorry,” my mom said to the driver.
“It’s okay. Let’s get him to the ER,” the driver said.
We kept on driving as the world spun by. I had no idea where I was or what I was doing there. We finally got out and my mom took out her wallet, pulling out a twenty-dollar bill. She handed it to him and the driver wished me well and drove off, leaving the street empty like a world abandoned. We walked one block to the hospital.
NYU Langone was a big, block-long building with gleaming glass walls reflecting the blue sky and a lobby full of people moving in all directions. I had never been to that hospital before, but my family members would later, and I would go back too, though at the time I didn’t know it. We entered, and standing near a white desk made out of marble was a lady with a white doctor’s coat and white pants, hair falling just beneath her elbow. She seemed young but had a permanent frown on her face and said in an annoyed voice, “What are you doing here—and please make it quick. I have my lunch break in five minutes.”
“We need urgent care for my son. He has . . .”
I blanked out. I couldn’t hear her speaking. The world became silent, and my eyes raced around the room. There were big plants that looked like they came from the jungle and a bright green couch which was next to an elevator that led to the rest of the hospital.
“Okay, thank you, thank you,” my mom said as the doctor walked off, clearly to her very important lunch break.
“Are you feeling okay, honey?” my mom said, her voice trembling.
“I don’t know,” I responded.
We rushed up the stairs into a waiting room full of people. We pushed past a chorus of agitated voices. We got through the room and went to a doctor in an old lab coat. She seemed worn out and tired but led us to a hallway with a bed, saying “I’ll come back soon.” She left us alone again in an unknown place like astronauts on the moon.
I climbed on the bed and my head felt better, but my stomach hurt from every tiny movement. I felt a stabbing pain in my belly.
“It will all be fine, Mishakapishka,” my mom said. My face felt like it was on fire as soon as she said it, and not of heat.
Doctors passed by for nearly an hour until finally a group of doctors came and started to look at some papers. One doctor asked me for my name, then went to talk to her colleagues. She had gray hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, and crinkles around her eyes.
What would happen if I needed to get surgery? Worried thoughts swirled around my mind, clouding everything else. I had a fear of surgery, having had an operation when I was just a baby. I could not get another one. No matter what.
“We have evaluated your case and have come to a decision,” the doctor said.
I held my breath. Tension filled the room.
“There are two options. You can have surgery to have your appendix removed. Or we can try something new. There is an experimental treatment we are trying, in which we give medicine instead of surgery. It’s proving effective in Europe, and we are trying it here. If it’s successful, surgical removal of the appendix could be a thing of the past.” The doctor left, giving us fifteen minutes to decide my fate.
“What should I do, Mommy?” I asked.
“I don’t know, sweetheart. I don’t know,” my mom replied.
The sun shone hard through the big glass windows, making the floor look like honey as my mom and I contemplated our big decision.
“It’s up to you, Mish,” my mom said.
I took a deep breath, the sun shining in my eyes, and I spoke . . .
* * *
“Okay, if that is your decision,” the doctor said. “But there’s one more step. If you enter the experiment, you’ll be entered into a lottery—half of the participants get surgery (and they act like the control group), and the other half get the medicine. You can participate in the experiment, but I can’t guarantee that you won’t get operated on.”
My heart skipped a beat. I was worried, hopeful, scared, nervous, even a little excited. “If we go ahead with this, the results will come in ten minutes,” the doctor finished
Ten minutes later, the doctor reappeared, sharing the good news. “You got it! You’re getting the medicine—skipping the surgery!”
I couldn’t believe it. Minutes later, the medicine was delivered. Now all I had to do was await my fate and see if the medicine would work. We would know the results in forty-eight hours.
It was late afternoon and my dad came to see how I was doing. I had a room in the pediatric section of the hospital, a small thing with just two beds and a table. Next to my bed was a baby who never stopped crying, and her parents who never stopped arguing.
To pass the time while the medicine set in, I played a game of chess with my dad. I was winning, like always.
“Checkmate!” I said triumphantly
“You won,’” my dad conceded. “I have something for you. It’s a Pac- Man game set, to pass the time.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” I squealed.
My dad’s birthday was coming up, and I couldn’t believe he was the one giving me a present. For a long time, I was happy and excited—everything was working out.
I got onto the bed just as dinner came in. It was bland rice with chicken and milk. I ate it without tasting anything. My pain was lowering, but not by much. I could walk a little, not a lot, but at least I was improving.
By the time I finished eating, it was night, and with a groan and a lot of pain I tried to close my eyes. I lay my head on the pillow and allowed my dad’s voice to fill my head. It was nice to have my dad here, sleeping in the room with me, helping me have a peaceful recovery. At last, I fell asleep.
When I woke up, the pain had subsided. “Mommy is going to come today to be with you,” my dad said. I nodded because it was what I wanted. I was going to make him a birthday card, so he couldn’t be there. When my mom arrived, I swallowed the remaining pain that was circulating through my body and started writing a birthday card. It was full of love and drawings and warm wishes for him to have the best birthday ever.
After I made the card, my mom took me to a game room. It was amazing. There was a Nintendo Wii, where you could play games. There were tons of kids, and we all could play together. I played a racing game (I lost). A clown visited. It was so fun I forgot how much pain I’d had and how much stress I felt.
But as I played games with other kids, I also saw something else. The room was filled with kids who didn’t have hair, who had wires attached to their heads. Kids who were in wheelchairs. And kids who were really skinny and didn’t look strong. That’s when it hit me: while I would be leaving this hospital, many of these kids wouldn’t be so lucky. They would spend days, weeks, maybe even years dealing with pain like the pain I had felt, and with the worry. For them, this wouldn’t be over in a matter of hours.
In the end, the medicine did its job. I got better. I got to go home. But many of the other kids I saw did not, kids who had illnesses that medicine couldn’t heal. It was then that I realized a simple truth: that every now and then, everyone has a responsibility to help.
We live in a world that is not perfect, where you can get sick without realizing it, for no fault of your own. And when you’re not well, you need the care of people who love you, and even strangers who can make you feel better. We owe it to each other to help one another, when we are feeling healthy and when we are sick. We are in this work together, and if we help one another, nothing is going to get in our way— not even appendicitis.