She Was Only 11, But Her Mom Knew Something Was Terribly Wrong

Jacqueline Dooley
9 min readFeb 18, 2019

This story was first published in the Washington Post on September 16, 2018

My daughter, age 11 (with her beloved cat, Pepper)

You’ve had a bad feeling all summer, a nagging in your gut that something’s wrong. She looks thinner, but she just turned 11 and kids that age get taller, thin out. Yet . . . why is she so pale in July? Why is she tired all the time? Your husband said it was because she’d been staying up too late on her iPad, so you limited her screen time. That didn’t help. She keeps falling asleep smack in the middle of bright summer days.

You notice she isn’t enjoying her summer. She’s irritable, picking frequent fights with her younger sister. “It’s just hormones,” you tell yourself. “Eleven is a difficult age.”

You take her to the doctor for a rash and fever, and you learn that she has strep. You’re relieved. Maybe that’s what it was all along. The doctor looks at your daughter’s torso — she looks right at the tiny bulge in her abdomen — but she sees only the rash. “It’s scarlet fever,” the doctor says. She prescribes an antibiotic and sends you home.

A month later, your daughter returns from a five-day trip with your mother-in-law, who insists she was fine on the trip. “I gave her tea to help her stomach,” your mother-in-law says.

That night, your daughter admits that she was in a lot of pain during the entire train ride home. “I’ll take you to the emergency clinic if it still hurts in the morning,” you tell her. You tuck her in, kiss her forehead and go to bed with a terrible feeling of foreboding.

Maybe, on some level, you suspect this is your last normal night.

The diagnosis

The stomach pain doesn’t go away. By morning, she’s walking hunched over, favoring her right side. You Google “appendicitis” and take her to the emergency clinic, concerned her appendix might burst. The doctor looks at her distended stomach, gently touches it and immediately sends you to the emergency room at your local hospital.

You call your husband and tell him to get backup for your younger daughter, who is 8.

“What do they do for appendicitis?” your daughter asks. Her eyes are wide with fear.

Jacqueline Dooley

Essayist, content writer, bereaved parent. Bylines: Human Parts, GEN, Marker, OneZero, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Pulse, HuffPost, Longreads, Modern Loss