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A Rescue in Bethesda
Comments () | Published August 1, 2009

A doting grandmother whom the triplets called Meemaw, Jeannie had spent a difficult night. She knew the news wasn’t good the moment she heard Ami Susan’s voice.

“Mom,” Ami Susan began, “we’ve just met with the doctor, and I think you’d better get up here.”

“Why? What did they tell you?”

“Not much more than you already know. I just think you should be here.”

“What aren’t you telling me?”

“Mom, the doctors have told us if you want to see them again or hold them again or kiss them again, you should come up here. You have to be honest with me as to whether you are up to it physically, but I couldn’t live with myself if you never saw them again.”

In saying those words to her mother, Ami Susan also spoke them to herself for the first time, acknowledging aloud what her sons faced.

When her mother called back to say she had a plane reservation for Saturday, two days away, Ami Susan told her, “Mom, that might not be soon enough.”

Her mother got a flight for the next morning and packed clothes for a funeral.

It didn’t take fire engineers long to determine the cause of the fire: a short circuit triggered by a splice in a wire connecting the hot-tub motor to the electrical panel. The motor had been replaced recently, and the wire should have been connected directly from the motor to the panel. Instead, the wire had been spliced and covered with a plastic cap. The splice was a shortcut that violated the county’s building and fire codes. “We see this kind of thing all the time,” says Kenneth Korenblatt, who is involved in fire and explosives investigations.

The short circuit ignited material around the hot tub and started the fire. According to the Petrucellis, the electrician who installed the motor had been recommended by the hot-tub company.

Daniel Finkelstein, the triplets’ regular pediatrician, came to see them at Children’s. From office visits, he knew them to be whirlwinds of energy who had defied the odds just by coming into the world. He was encouraged when ICU nurses told him all three needed strong sedation because they were feisty.

“These boys have always been fighters, and they still are,” Finkelstein told the family, “and we have to trust in that.”

Two days after the fire, Dr. Chaney again threaded the fiber-optic tube of her bronchoscope into the triplets’ airways and found them looking much better. Some swelling remained, but they appeared less inflamed. She loosened the remaining soot adhering to the walls of their airways by squirting them with saline solution through a tube attached to the bronchoscope and then suctioning the soot out. Aiden’s and Bricen’s airways appeared healthier than Coleson’s, which was more swollen and inflamed.

Doctors now were able to dial down the oxygen and pressure settings on Aiden’s and Bricen’s ventilators, and their lungs began showing improvement, but Coleson’s course remained rocky. He didn’t look as good as his brothers, and his ventilator setting remained high because his lungs weren’t functioning as well. His blood pressure, temperature, and vital signs remained erratic, and he was less responsive than his brothers. The doctors grew optimistic about Aiden and Bricen.

Ami Susan’s mother and her brother, John, came up from Florida; her sister, Beth, came down from New York. With Michael and Ami Susan they maintained a vigil in the ICU from morning till late at night. Ami Susan sang songs to the boys, brushed their hair, and squeezed their hands.

“A squeeze and a squeeze and an ‘I love you’!” she sang, as her mother had to her. She taught the boys to squeeze back when she sang those words.

In the days following the fire, Ami Susan wondered if Coleson would ever return to her. His little body grew weaker and skinnier, and he often trembled. Even when she played his favorite Johnny Cash song, “Cry, Cry Cry,” he didn’t respond. She stood over him again and again singing, “A squeeze and a squeeze and an ‘I love you,’ ” hoping for a return squeeze that never came. Then suddenly, five days after he’d been admitted, she felt his fingers flutter in her hand.

“Coley, did you feel Mommy?” she asked. She sang the song again and told him she loved him. This time she felt him squeeze back and saw him open his eyes ever so slightly. She turned, smiling and crying, to her mother beside her, and the two women embraced.

The Petrucellis’ friends continued to offer support. Doug Davenport helped set up a Web site that posted information on the boys’ medical status. Other friends took care of their dogs, Sesto and Asti.

Ami Susan worried not only about her sons but also about her husband. Michael had continued to cough so badly that doctors at Children’s had persuaded him to return to Washington Hospital Center. Doctors there took chest x-rays, did blood tests, and checked the oxygen in his blood, which was low but not dangerously so.

Ami Susan was also troubled because she found it hard to connect with Michael. He seemed lost in himself, taking blame for what he saw as his failure to protect the children.

Ami Susan felt her own pain, fearful not just for her children’s survival but also for what might have happened to their brains. A nurse noticed Ami Susan crying, took her hand, and led her to a private room, where she was soon joined by Michael.

There Ami Susan confronted her husband. “Michael,” she said, “I can’t lose you, too. You have to take care of yourself and get well, and you have to be with us because we need you here.”

“I know, I know,” Michael answered. 

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 08/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles