The other day I get a call from Haiti saying one of our kids accidentally sniffed a cup of bleach and now he is sick.
Before you worry, he’s fine. I’ll give you details in a second. But it speaks to something I rarely write about and don’t often talk about. Something that is there all the time, looming in the back of my mind.
Any parent will share this feeling. It’s the worry that at any moment, something you overlooked, some small, barely perceptible detail, may cause harm to one of your children.
It’s haunting enough in a modern, suburban American home. But imagine in a craggy, potholed, sometimes rickety old orphanage facility, where 50-plus kids race around daily with boundless energy and constant curiosity?
We take every precaution. We warn staff and volunteers. We put things on the right shelves. Lock the right doors. But there’s no way you can guard against everything.
Will a loose toy piece fall from a box that a toddler decides to put in his mouth? Does a little one who wanted to help in the kitchen tangle with another kid and tumble near the propane stove?
Will a shoeless kid land awkwardly in a concrete divot and gash a foot? Break a toe? Tear a muscle? Will a child come bounding down the stairs, in a hurry to get to dinner, and trip and land face first on a hard tile floor?
What kind of insect might a four-year-old pick up and fondle? What if a curious grade-schooler gets into the medicine shelf? Someone drinks dishwashing liquid? Someone climbs a tree and falls out? Someone thinks bleach is a box of sugar?
Which by the way brings us to the most recent incident. It involved a 12-year-old named Dorvensky, to a kid with a big, wonderful toothy smile that takes over his face. He was helping our staff do the dishes. A daily chore. Somehow, a cup of bleach was nearby, and for some reason, before an adult could mix water in it, Dorvensky sniffed it, maybe to see what it was.
Well, sniffing bleach, even a little bit, can have negative effects, and soon Dorvensky wasn’t feeling well. And that began a series of texts to me:
💬 Dorvensky is not feeling well.
💬 He was vomiting too.
💬 I am taking him to the hospital.
💬 He is at the hospital now taking an IV.
💬 He is stable now.
💬 We are going home.
Dorvensky after his little excitement.
Dorvensky is fine now. Crisis averted. To be honest, given the breadth of our place, the number of kids, the hours in the day, and all the potential surfaces to bang into, fall on, slip on, or trip over, I’m surprised at the relatively small number of incidents we have actually had.
Which is not to say we don’t have bumps and bruises. Some kids tend to flaunt them. I can’t count how many times little Moise will run up to me and, in his husky little voice, say, “Mister Mitch, look!” And he’ll have a cut on his foot. A gash on his finger. A knee scrape. He never cries. Quite the opposite. He usually seems fascinated. Even amused.
I am less amused. I worry constantly. I see danger in railings, stairs, countertops, table edges, tree branches, swing sets and soccer nets. I imagine the worst. When I’m not there, I brace for a phone call. I wait for a text.
The one I wait for the most is “Everything is OK now.” Then I take a breath, and start thinking about what else could be sticking out or poking through and sitting on the wrong shelf with the top open. The kids never stop. Your brain doesn’t either.