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A burden lightened by many hands

Jill Barville (Courtesy)
Jill Barville (Courtesy)

Brahms plays softly on the stereo as I sit in a German hospital watching my daughter sleep. The lullaby takes me back 17 years. I remember watching her tiny face, a rosy flush to her cheeks, her thick locks of hair standing on end no matter how many times I smoothed them down.

While I rocked her in our creaky old recliner I used to ponder how the love I felt for her broke my heart the way an eggshell shatters when the baby bird bursts through.

My heart still breaks with love for Emily as I watch her sleep. My heart breaks again at the grief I see and hear in the hospital when I look up. It’s heavy, a sodden winter coat. Tear rivers tracing laugh lines. Sobs smothered in pillows. German words I can’t understand thrown against the walls where they bounce and echo. Pain needs no translation. Yet, more than anything it needs someone to understand.

I understand.

On April 9, I got a call that Emily had been admitted to the hospital. We’d Skyped two days earlier, talking about her recent trip to the Alps and finalizing her senior year class registration. I was counting the days until she’d return from spending the year studying in Germany.

Curtis and I booked the first flight we could find, arriving less than 48 hours later but not nearly soon enough. It takes too long to get to a child in need when she’s on the other side of the world.

The first few days were a blur of tests, medicine, doctors and tears but on our third day the child I’d come to comfort gave me hope. She said, “Mom, I’m going to get better.” I believed her.

Sometimes, when Emily needed to rest, Curtis and I sat in a nearby park or walked around the town, noticing the beauty as if from under water, submerged with worry. In the evening we went home to her host family, who took us in the way they took in Emily.

They coaxed back my appetite with good food and German beer while feeding our spirits from the well of love and laughter that fills their house.

As Emily stabilized I shared her struggle with friends and family on Facebook. Their responses of love and support shored up our hope and elbowed our worry toward the side for a bit. People prayed and sent good thoughts.

Such simple encouragement is nourishment. It gives strength when you think you’ve run out. Emily’s host mom described it well.

“You’re like a water bottle with a leak at the bottom,” she said, holding up the bottle I carried with me each day when I biked the 10 kilometers to the hospital. “But we will keep filling the top so you never run out of water.”

We were warned that recovery is often two-steps-forward-one-step back but after the first rocky week Emily improved every day. After visits, during the narrow window when the German evening overlaps office hours in America, came countless calls and emails – updating family, lining up care in Spokane, working with insurance companies, figuring out costs. Details like medical escorts, exclusions, American rights abroad and medication side effects made the hole in my water bottle grow larger.

Visa should do an ad about medical emergencies and priceless children. I decided this wasn’t the time to think about money.

Anticipating our need, friends set up a medical fundraising website and began sharing Emily’s story. It’s a hard thing to ask for help and humbling to receive it. I’d rather be on the giving end. But when I read the messages and see the generosity from friends, family and people I’ve never met, my hope is strengthened again. They fill my water bottle back to the brim.

I could give an international thank-you speech for all the people who’ve helped us weather this crisis. Grandparents kept our boys’ routine as normal as possible. Friends gave rides to soccer practice and school or brought meals, milk and cereal when Curtis returned home after 12 days so he could work and parent.

Our family doctor and staff at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center have acted as a sounding board as I advocated for my daughter through a language barrier. They also gave referrals and helped line up care for our return. Their expertise and compassion have held back a flood of fears and tears like a dam.

In the midst of these many kindnesses, I watched the medical staff in Germany do their best by Emily while visibly struggling to communicate with me. The staff isn’t accustomed to parents in this hospital, let alone one who speaks English and wants to know everything.

Advocacy is tricky and the language, culture and perhaps personality barriers became too high and wide for me to scale alone. So Emily’s host mom became another mother bear protecting my cub. Along with her help, a translator, the U.S. Consulate and the student exchange organization, we were finally able to fly home.

Now I can watch Emily sleep in her own bed again, Brahms playing softly in the background.

Contact correspondent Jill Barville by email at


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