Last night, for the first time in our nearly five years of parenting (four years of parenting live children), Ed and I almost called 911 to summon an ambulance for Jackson in the middle of the night. He is much better this morning, and the pediatrician gave us instructions for what to do in case he has a similar episode again, but for a few minutes at about 4:30 this morning, I was absolutely terrified.
Jackson had RSV at 8 months of age, due to my much-regretted decision to put him in day care at St. Ann’s even when I didn’t really need full-day care of any kind. As a result, when he gets respiratory illnesses, they tend to be more severe than they might be for other kids. We’ve had a nebulizer with albuterol refills in our home for about eighteen months now just in case he has an episode of reactive airway disease symptoms. We’ve probably used it five times during those eighteen months, but when we’ve needed it, we’ve been really glad to have it.
Last night, Ada woke up at about 2:15 and couldn’t settle herself back to sleep. I was so frustrated, because she’s been sleeping through the night (from about 8PM until about 7AM) almost every night for the last several weeks. I have been worried that we’ve been relying on the pacifier too much during the daytime, making it harder for her to settle herself down when she wakes up in the night, which, until recently, she’d been doing very well. So I brought her bed to nurse and then put her back into her bed about 15 minutes later after she’d fallen asleep nursing. About thirty minutes later, before I’d even really been able to fall asleep again, she started fussing again. I waited a few minutes, hoping she’d settle back down on her own, but finally she started to cry, and I went in to her room to try to calm her back to sleep. I didn’t want to give her the pacifier (even though I was sure it would work instantly) because I wanted her to be able to go back to sleep on her own, so I just sat by her bed and soothed her with shushing and patting. It seemed to be working for a bit, and she started to settle into “the zone,” but then she cranked back up again. I was trying really hard not nurse her again—I knew she wasn’t hungry and didn’t want her to rely on nursing to get back to sleep either—so I picked her up, walked around the room with her a bit, bounced her some, changed her diaper. Nothing helped. Her crying kept escalating.
Meantime, we started to hear Jackson crying over the monitor. I assumed that somehow Ada had woken him up (although he usually sleeps like a log) and that he was having trouble going back to sleep, too. Then we started hearing him cough and cry and cough and cry. At first, Ed thought he was just mimicking Ada, but when it didn’t change, Ed finally went down to him.
I finally gave up and brought Ada back into our bed to nurse her back to sleep. Once she got quiet, all I could hear downstairs was what sounded like very hoarse wheezing interspersed with panicked cries. My heart seized and started beating very fast. I yelled to Ed from the bed, “Is he OK?” I didn’t get a reply, so I yelled again, louder, “Ed, is he OK? Can he breathe?” Ed said he wasn’t sure what was going on but that he was going to try giving him a breathing treatment. All the while, I kept hearing that terrible sound. Poor Ada was still latched on and trying to nurse through all of this, but I popped her off, stuck the pacifier in her mouth, and ran downstairs.
When I got down there, it was clear that Jackson was having trouble breathing, but it wasn’t clear why. We couldn’t tell if he was just really stuffy (he’d had just some very minor cold symptoms the last few days, and just a little runny nose, sneezing, and mild coughing yesterday) or if his airway was actually constricted, either from mucus in his throat or inflammation in his lungs. He was able to gasp a few words, but again, we couldn’t tell if he was panicking from being unable to breathe or if he was just crying really hard and couldn’t catch his breath. Intermittently, he would try to cough, making a very high-pitched, hoarse, barking sound, which I knew was characteristic of croup. Ed was already getting the nebulizer set up, and I took Jackson, but as soon as we sat down to try to give him the treatment, he freaked out and started crying even harder, refusing to let the mask anywhere near his face. I knew that if he kept at the hard crying, the breathing problem was just going to get worse, so I pulled him close to me and started rubbing his back and talking in a soothing voice, telling him to try to slow down and take deeper breaths. By this point, Ada had started crying again upstairs, but there was just nothing I could do about it. I knew she would survive a hard crying jag. I had no idea what was going to happen with Jackson, so I knew where I had to stay. I heard Jackson say that he wanted some medicine, so I poured him some Ibuprofen and he was able to swallow it, but he still seemed to have trouble breathing, and each breath sounded like a gasp. We had no idea if he was getting enough air or what was going on. Ed said he thought we needed to take him to the hospital, and I said, “Well, do we need to just call 911?” He said, “One or the other.” Again, we just didn’t know what was happening, and I was terrified that if we took the time to get dressed, get everyone in the car, and go to the emergency room, he might deteriorate quickly.
Adrenaline was racing through every nerve ending in my body. Ada was still screaming upstairs. I could barely think about what to do. As I was imagining calling 911, for some reason I was picturing in my head picking up a corded landline phone like we used to have in our house when I was a kid and pressing actual buttons on it. I wasn’t even thinking that my phone, with a touch screen, was back upstairs plugged in by the bedside.
And then I stopped myself. I took my own deep breath. I took Jackson, who was still visibly panicked and frightened, back into the bright light of his bathroom. I looked at his face and his lips and could see that he was not turning grey or blue anywhere, even around the edges of his lips. They looked pink and vibrant. I decided that if we could just get him to settle down and take the albuterol, his breathing would improve. We sat down on the bed again and tried to get him to take the nebulizer. He again freaked out, this time launching into a coughing fit that brought up so much mucus that he choked on it, and we had another near-emergency on our hands. Fortunately, his cough brought it up into his mouth where I was able to fish some of it out with my fingers. But the breathing still seemed labored. We decided we’d just have to hold him down for the neb. Ed held him tight on his shoulder, and I just held the mask in front of his face for a bit, hoping he’d breathe in some of the medicine. I remembered Hudson’s pediatrician telling us once that it can actually work even better if the kid is screaming because it helps to inhale the steroid deep into the lungs. So I just held it there and hoped.
Within a minute, Jackson realized that the mask wasn’t going to hurt him. He let me put it over his nose and mouth and started breathing more slowly. Within another minute or two, he turned around and faced forward on Ed’s lap and held the mask to his own face. This is when I finally knew he’d turned the corner and was going to be OK. He eventually started talking about the nebulizer (he had a classmate at his old school who took breathing treatments regularly, to the point that Jackson would beg us to give him one at home—he actually loved taking them, oddly enough) and other things in the room, and then I really knew he would be OK. Somewhere in here, I’d heard Ada finally stop crying, which freaked me out, too, so I ran upstairs to check on her. The poor thing had just crashed out from all the crying—I, who have never once let a child cry it out for any reason, had just let my poor, tiny, precious 11-week old baby cry herself to sleep. I could tell she was still snuffling in her sleep. It was awful, but as soon as I knew she was OK, I went back downstairs.
Once Jackson finished the treatment, we all went back into the kitchen to get him a drink, and then we went back to his bedroom. Ed asked if he wanted to snuggle in the big-boy bed with Daddy, and he said yes, and then he said, “Mommy snuggle in the big-boy bed with Jackson and Daddy,” and I said of course I would. So the three of us got into the bed and turned out the light. Ed planned to sleep with Jackson the rest of the night, just so that he would be right there if Jackson had another episode. Once the light was out, Jackson started chatting away, petting Ed’s face saying, “Daddy’s scratchy cheek,” and then mine, saying, “Mommy’s soft cheek,” and so on.
As we laid there, all I could think about was laying in bed with Hudson just like this, one night back in May 2010, when she’d woken up again with fever—we’d given her some medication and kept her in the bed with us to make sure that her temp went back down. After 20 or 30 minutes, she sat back up in the bed between us, chatting and playing with the bed rails. I said, “I think it’s time to put you back in bed, missy.” How could I have any idea it would be the last time I would ever put her in bed again? An hour later, she would wake up crying again, her fever having spiked despite the medicine we had recently given her. Four hours later, we had her at the pediatrician’s office as soon as it opened. Fourteen hours later, she was having a lumbar puncture in the emergency room that would reveal a very aggressive bacterial meningitis infection. Twelve hours after that, she was in a medically induced coma from which she would never wake. I sat there wishing so much that she was there in bed with us, all arms and legs, cuddling and laughing with her little brother.
As I laid there with Jackson, I remembered that night, Hudson chatting in the bed between us just like Jackson was now doing. I imagined whatever bug causing this coughing fit marching its way across the blood-brain barrier into his cerebrospinal fluid and causing meningitis in him, too, even as I knew how ridiculous that was. All I wanted to do was bury my face into his little neck and breathe him in. I held his hand and slowly let the adrenaline seep back out of my bloodstream. He asked for some water, and I got out of bed to get him his water bottle. On my way to the kitchen, Ada started crying again, so reluctantly I gave Jackson his water, gave him a trifecta (a kiss, a snuzzle—which is a nose rub, and a hug), and left him in the bed with Ed.
I went back upstairs to Ada in the bed. She nursed to sleep again, and I contemplated taking her back to her own bed, but I decided to just lay there with her for a while, too. As frustrated as I was with her night-waking (not that night-waking is not totally normal for a 11-week-old—I had just gotten used to her NOT night-waking), I remembered how much I wished I could have just these kinds of moments with Hudson back. I would be able to sleep later. I settled in next to her and listened to her breathe. I could hear Jackson over the monitor still chatting away to Ed. At about 5:30, Ed finally put Jackson back in his crib and came upstairs. I was still awake, Ada snoozing away in the crook of my arm. I was so tired by this point and knew I needed to get at least a few hours of solid sleep, so I took her back to her room and laid her down in her own bed.
Finally, both kids were quietly sleeping again, just as they’d been before they’d roused us two-and-a-half hours before. I crawled back into bed and spooned with Ed, pulling his arm over me and holding his hand tight against my chest, marveling at how fucking resilient we are. Not long after that, sleep overtook me.
We all slept late. Jackson woke up feeling much better, but we kept him home from school to rest and to monitor him in case he had another episode.
I have no idea how I managed to re-gather my wits in the midst of that terrifying scene in the wee hours of the morning. But just as I was holding Jackson, rubbing his back and shushing him and encouraging him to take deep breaths, I imagine now that Hudson was doing the same thing for me.