I trudged into the Orlando International Airport around five o’clock that evening, thirteen hours after I’d boarded the plane in London. It was ten at night there. The guys were probably going to bed, knowing they had to get up and fly to Germany in the morning. Meanwhile, I had barely slept. I’d been up for close to twenty hours, unable to let my mind rest long enough to fall asleep. I was both physically and mentally exhausted.
I had a hard time just staying on my feet as I stood at the baggage claim, watching the empty carousel turn around and around as I waited for my luggage to arrive. All of the benches in the area were occupied, but there was a bare patch of floor that looked pretty inviting. I was tempted to lie down right there, but I knew I’d never get up again. Suck it up, I told myself sternly, as I swayed from side to side. Your wife needs you. Your son needs you.
The hardest part about being in the air for so long was being out of contact with Leigh for hours at a time. I had called her during my layover in Atlanta, but all she would tell me was, “We’re at Florida Hospital for Children in Orlando. He’s holding his own. Hurry home.” I guess she didn’t want to worry me any more than she already had, but the lack of information didn’t exactly help. My mind filled in the gaps with every worst-case scenario imaginable, as I waited for my connecting flight. It was frustrating to know I was so close to home, yet so far. I actually considered calling Leighanne Littrell and asking her to drive me the rest of the way to Orlando, but I knew the plane would get me there faster. I just hated having to wait.
Finally, the baggage carousel started spitting out suitcases. I hauled my bags off the belt and make a beeline for the exit. I took a cab to my brother John’s house in Winter Park, which was much closer than my own home in Cape Canaveral. There I dropped off my luggage and changed clothes, then had John drive me to the hospital.
“Which entrance, you think?” John wondered aloud, as we pulled up in front of Orlando’s sprawling Florida Hospital.
“Um… children’s wing, there,” I said, pointing to a sign that directed us to go left.
John turned into a circular drive and stopped outside the entrance of the new children’s hospital. “You want me to come in with you?” he offered.
“Nah… it’s late. Go home and get some sleep.” I unbuckled my seat belt and opened the passenger door to get out. “Thanks for the ride.”
“Anytime, little bro. Call if you need anything.”
“Thanks, man,” I said gratefully, as I climbed out of the car. I heard him slowly drive away as I walked toward the white building, which had a clean, modern look, with its geometric architecture and color-blocked window panes. The interior was even more impressive, meticulously decorated with an interactive Disney theme. But the cheerful décor didn’t do much to calm my nerves.
I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket to call Leigh. “Hi, honey. I’m here at the hospital,” I said when she answered.
“Oh, thank god.” She sounded as exhausted as I felt, but her voice was overflowing with relief. “We’re on the sixth floor. I’ll meet you at the elevator.”
When the elevator doors slid open on the sixth floor, there she was, looking tired, but still beautiful. I stepped out, and she threw herself into my arms.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she whispered, burying her face in my neck.
“Me too,” I replied, as I stroked her hair. “How is he? Any improvement?”
She slowly pulled away, shaking her head. “He’s not good, Howie. His breathing was getting worse, so they moved him to the PICU. He’s on a ventilator.”
“What?!” My eyes widened as I stared at her, trying to wrap my head around what she had said. How could my son have gotten so sick, so quickly? Things hadn’t sounded that bad when I’d talked to her that morning, although more than half a day had passed since then. “I don’t understand. I thought you said-”
“Come on,” Leigh said quietly and reached for my hand. “I’ll fill you in.”
She led me down a hallway that was decorated in different shades of blue, with murals of the ocean painted on the walls and characters from Finding Nemo and The Little Mermaid smiling down at us from all angles. We stopped outside a set of double doors that said Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and waited for a nurse to buzz us in.
“Mr. Dorough, hello,” she said, smiling at me. “I’m so glad you were able to get here safely. I’m sure it will help Holden to hear his daddy’s voice.”
“Thanks,” I managed to say, forcing myself to smile back.
“He’s over here.” Leigh led me through the unit to a crib in one corner, where our son was sleeping. Holden had always been a small baby, but he looked especially little and helpless lying in that hospital crib, hooked up to monitors and machines. I knew what most of them were for from when our older son, James, was in the NICU as a preemie, but that didn’t make it any easier. While James had been born a month early, Holden had arrived right on time, a perfectly healthy newborn. I never thought I’d have to go through this with him.
“Hi, Holden,” I whispered, reaching into the crib to stroke his head. He felt feverishly warm. Half his face was hidden behind the hose that was hooked up to the breathing tube sticking out of his mouth. There was another narrow tube taped to his cheek that was going into his nose. It looked incredibly uncomfortable.
“They had to sedate him, so he wouldn’t try to pull out the tubes,” Leigh explained. Her voice sounded shaky, like she was trying not to cry. I was struggling just as hard, wanting to stay strong for her, but shocked at seeing my son like that. When I had left him a few weeks ago, Holden had seemed perfectly fine. I was having a hard time understanding how he could have gotten so sick in such a short amount of time.
“I can’t believe this,” I muttered, shaking my head. “I mean, how could this have happened? What did the doctors say? Did you get his test results? Do they know for sure what’s wrong with him?”
“He definitely has pneumonia. It’s some specific type; I can’t remember what Dr. Morgan called it now. I… I should have written it down…” She trailed off, raising a hand to her head. I watched her rub her temple wearily as she tried to recall the right name.
“It’s okay, hon,” I said. “We can talk to the doctor again in the morning.”
She nodded. “She was also concerned about Holden’s immune system; she thinks he may have some kind of deficiency that’s making it hard for him to fight off the infection. She was still waiting on lab results the last time I talked to her.”
My blood ran cold at the thought of our baby having some kind of disease that had caused this. What if it was leukemia? I shuddered. I had met way too many little kids with cancer through Make-a-Wish and the hospital visits we sometimes did while on tour, and they always broke my heart. I couldn’t imagine watching my own little boy go through something like that.
As exhausted as I was, I couldn’t sleep with that idea eating away at my mind all night. Holden’s nurse sent us home to get some rest, claiming the PICU policy didn’t allow parents to spend the night, but I should have just stayed. It wasn’t like I was going to sleep either way. Instead, I lay awake in bed while Leigh slept beside me, counting down the hours until it was time to head back to the hospital.
In the morning, we met with Holden’s pediatrician, Dr. Morgan. “How’s he doing?” I asked, as she invited us to sit down in her office.
The doctor folded her hands on the desk top. “Holden’s condition is still very serious. At this point, we have to wait and see how his body responds to the antibiotics we’ve been giving him. It often takes several days, sometimes a week, for children to show any improvement.”
I nodded slowly, but inside, I felt like screaming. I couldn’t stand the thought of my baby boy being on that ventilator for a whole week. Wasn’t there something else she could do?
“I wanted to talk to you about Holden’s test results. As I explained when I met with you yesterday, Mrs. Dorough, the initial diagnosis of pneumocystis pneumonia was concerning to me because it suggested Holden might have an underlying condition that’s affecting his immune system, which is what usually protects us from disease. Pneumocystis pneumonia is what we call an ‘opportunistic infection,’” Dr. Morgan explained, looking more at me now. “What this means is that it takes advantage of people who have their guard down – people with weakened immune systems. We ran some more tests to find out why Holden’s immune system isn’t working the way it should.”
Leigh reached over and rested her hand on top of mine. Maybe it was mother’s intuition, but somehow, she knew before I did that the news was going to be bad.
“One of the things we tested for was the human immunodeficiency virus, which you would know as HIV.” I heard my wife gasp, but I barely had time to react before I heard the doctor’s next words. “Unfortunately, your son tested positive.”
“He… he has HIV? As in… AIDS?” Leigh’s voice sounded shaky, and I could tell she was on the verge of tears.
“HIV is the virus that causes AIDS, yes,” said Dr. Morgan quietly. “It often takes years for it to develop into full-blown AIDS, but unfortunately, pneumocystis pneumonia is what we call an ‘AIDS-defining illness.’ That means-”
“My son has AIDS.” Each word was familiar on its own, but strung together in that order, the phrase sounded foreign. I couldn’t believe it had come out of my mouth. I shook my head, wishing I could take the words back, not wanting them to be true. They couldn’t be true.
Dr. Morgan nodded. “I’m very sorry.”
I sagged in my chair. Slipping my hand out from under Leigh’s, I brought both hands up to my head. It hurt from trying to wrap my mind around what the doctor had said.
“I don’t understand.” I looked over at Leigh. She was shaking her head, too, looking just as shocked and confused as I felt. “How is this possible?”
“Well, that’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you both about,” Dr. Morgan said. “I can tell the two of you are taken aback by this news, and again, I apologize. But I need to ask you some difficult questions.” She paused, to give us a chance to collect ourselves, and when we nodded, she asked, “To your knowledge, has Holden ever been exposed to HIV?”
Leigh and I looked at each other again. Her eyes were wide. “No!” she insisted, still shaking her head.
“Not that we know of,” I added.
Dr. Morgan nodded, looking down at the file in front of her on the desk. “According to his medical records, he’s never had a blood transfusion or any kind of procedure that would put him at risk – though the risk of transmission through tainted blood products or infected healthcare workers is minimal these days, anyway. Unfortunately, the vast majority of children with HIV get it from their mothers.” She looked up at us. “I’m sorry I have to ask this, but have either of you been tested?”
I shook my head, but Leigh said, “I was, when I was pregnant with him.” I looked over at her in surprise. “My OB recommended it, just in case, and I figured it couldn’t hurt,” she explained. “Better safe than sorry, right? But I tested negative.”
“Hm…” Dr. Morgan pursed her lips. “Well, it can take up to three months after exposure to test positive. Were you exposed to HIV before or after he was born?”
Leigh shook her head emphatically. “No!” she insisted. “No, never! I don’t do drugs, and my husband and I have always been faithful to each other. Right, honey?”
She looked over me, and I felt my eyes widen as the truth hit me like a ton of bricks.
The gay club. That guy. Oh, god.
Leigh was still staring at me. “Howie?” Her voice wavered. “Right?”
Slowly, I shook my head.