It was 2 am when I woke. Nothing unusual there. Except, instead of Harry’s chattering, or whinging, or crying, it was a cough; an unmistakable, barking cough that made my heart sink. Bloody croup. As Harry had had croup before, I knew what it was and what to monitor for, so I went straight through to the nursery to check on his breathing. His breathing was completely normal so, happy that he seemed content and there were no signs of stridor, I brought him through to sleep in our room so that we would know right away if anything changed. Due to Harry having it twice previously, I was aware that the cough, though loud and often painful, is not actually dangerous – it’s the swelling of the throat that can happen and cause obstruction to breathing which can quickly turn croup from a run of the mill illness to a medical emergency. On both the previous ocassions Harry did develop the stridor but, despite needing medical attention, his blood oxygen levels remained high and so, this time, though I was cautious, I wasn’t too concerned. After all, history repeats itself, right?
Harry slept the rest of the night soundly, in my arms. Morning came and, though he continued to bark sporadically, he seemed well; his breathing was normal, he was playing, laughing, eating. Come lunchtime, though he still seemed well, the cough was more frequent and so, knowing that croup can get worse at night, I called the GP surgery and asked for a callback from a Dr. I still wasn’t too worried, but thought that with the speed at which babies can deteriorate it was worth getting him checked out. In hindsight, I had missed a sign hours earlier that something was amiss; he was still coughing in the day. On both of the previous ocasssions he would bark all night and stop come morning, it’s one of croup’s weird foibles: the ability to terrify you all night and disappear come sunrise. Kind of like a vampire. Or princess Fiona in Shrek.
When the GP called me about 3pm I told her that Harry had a distinctive croup cough but was otherwise well; eating, sleeping, playing and, importantly, breathing as normal. She said to bring him in for ten to six. About forty minutes later, as if from nowhere, he began to get fractious. I picked him up and he was hot to the touch. I took his temperature – 38.5 degrees. It had come from nowhere and had come on fast. I gave him calpol but within another ten minutes the stridor had begun and was worsening really quickly. I stripped him down and took his temperature again: 39.1 degrees. Despite the calpol his temperature was on the rise; we had never experienced this with his previous episodes of croup. Our doctors appointment could not come fast enough.
Sat in the waiting room in just his nappy, I held Harry as he sobbed and wriggled and sweated, sipping from his water cup and clinging to my chest. I told the GP how quickly he had deteriorated. She remained extremely calm as she measured his blood-oxygen levels – so calm in fact that I actually relaxed a little and told myself that, as with the previous incidents of croup, he must only sound like he was struggling to breathe. She gave Harry a dose of steroids and took another look at the numbers on his oxygen monitor. Still extremely calm, the Dr turned to me and said, “I need to call an ambulance. His oxygen levels are much too low.” She brought an oxygen tank for us with a teeny, tiny, baby face mask for me to hold in place whilst we waited for the ambulance. She told me it was an emergency: they would be here soon.
I am not quite sure what my body did for the next however-long-it-was until the paramedics arrived; I worked on autopilot. I held the oxygen as close to Harry’s face as possible. At first he was lapping it up and he calmed, but then was panicked by it; like the virus it was yet another thing intruding on his space and happiness. He kept batting it away as I tried my best to keep it close enough to help him, his little chest heaving away as he sobbed and writhed. This mask was something else that he didn’t understand about the situation, I wished there was a way of helping him to see that it was doing him a world of good. The more he sobbed the harder he found it to breathe. I held him a little tighter and kissed his forehead over and over, wishing those kisses could make it better the way they do a bumped head or a grazed knee.
When the paramedics arrived they were so gentle with him – and with me! We placed him on the bed in the back of the ambulance and they brought out little body straps to hold him securely: my tiny baby on this huge bed, sobbing and wheezing, confused and upset, oxygen fixed in place in front of his sad little face.
Jonathan arrived just before the ambulance set off, allowing us to hand over the car keys for him to follow on behind. I played “baby shark” on YouTube for Harry to distract him from the situation. It seemed to work. His sobbing eased off and, with that and the help of the steroids, his breathing calmed a little too. A machine tied to his toe continuously monitored his blood oxygen levels; they were improving too, meaning the mask was also doing its job. Both I and my thoughts were a little calmer. We were in good hands.
When we arrived at the John Radcliffe we were seen very quickly. The paediatric consultant told us that, though his oxygen levels had risen, they were still concerned about Harry’s breathing as so we would need to stay in to be monitored. I was actually grateful that they wanted us to stay; Harry had deteriorated so quickly that afternoon that I was scared to take him home. Jonathan returned home to get me a toothbrush, change of clothes and phone charger and, once again, Harry and I were alone. He was asleep in my arms, chest heaving and throat still wheezing a little, seeming so, so small.
When Jonathan returned we had been moved to the Paediatric Clinical Decision Unit, where we would be spending the night. Harry was asleep in his cot. The cot seemed huge and cold, with its metal bars and hospital stamped blanket; Harry seemed tiny, only wearing a nappy and hooked up to machines. As soon as Jonathan had left us to go home I updated my parents via text and just stared at Harry. I didn’t know if I should tell anyone else. Jonathan had told his parents, my parents and my sister knew. Should I tell a friend? How do I start that conversation? “Hi, how are you? Oh by the way my baby’s in hospital” seemed a bit weird. I had taken some photos of him asleep for my parents and for a brief second I considered putting them on instagram, informing my friends that way, and suddenly I was fiercely protective. Despite the thought entering my mind, it was the very last thing I wanted to do. He was my baby and he was sick and I would protect him, I would shield him from the world, from everyone and anyone. I didn’t tell another soul that night.
I barely slept. Harry would wake every thirty to forty minutes screaming crying, terrified and confused. I would pick him up as quickly as I could, cuddle and nurse him, kiss his sweaty brow and tell him that he would be okay. A consultant came to see him at 6 am and said he was not happy to discharge him yet. When Jonathan returned at 9 am though the weird curse of the croup had lifted with the sunrise, his wheezing subsided, Harry was playing with the toys on the ward and had even had a few spoonfuls of weetabix. Another consultant came to see us and said that she was happy to discharge Harry. So happy, in fact, that, though she would normally issue a prescription for a dose of steroids to be given before bed to prevent the symptoms returning overnight, she was confident that this was not necessary for Harry. I wasn’t 100% happy about this, and I caught myself about to say “are you sure?”, before internally chastising myself for even thinking of questioning a Dr’s judgment. Who was I to think I may know better? Only his bloody mother after all.
At home that afternoon Harry began to wheeze again. We took him straight back to the GP who said he seemed fine because, as babies often do, he made a miraculous recovery in the time it took us to get to the doctors surgery. Babies have an excellent knack for doing this and then making you feel like the GP must think you’re a raving-lunatic-hypochondriac-time-waster…
Harry’s breathing remained fine the rest of the day. Come bed time I was so nervous that I turned his monitor up full. For reference, we normally have the volume on one, which is sufficient to wake me up if he coughs or chatters; it was now on six. Every snuffle he made now sounded like an enormous godzilla-esque rabbit was sat in our garden, sniffing the roof of our house. I considered showering because, quite frankly, following our night in hospital I was kind of gross, but decided that could wait until morning, sleep was more important. I am sure you all know enough about Sod’s law to know that this was a rookie error…
We’d been in bed no more than an hour when Harry’s snuffles turned to stridor. We woke instantly (as did probably most the street with the volume we had the monitor on!) and I ran straight through to him. He was still asleep but I could see his face was flushed; he was red hot to the touch. With the night light on I could see that his throat was sucking in deep with every breath he took; this is called a tracheal tug and is a sign that someone is struggling to breathe. We knew exactly where we needed to be.
It is terrifying waiting for an ambulance when your child isn’t breathing properly. Of all the things we do, I’m going to put breathing up there at the top of the list of importance! Once again he seemed so tiny in my arms. I couldn’t take my eyes of his throat; with every breath I stared as the skin regressed deep into the space between the bones and with each time it did I winced. Please be able to breathe baby boy, they will be here soon.
And they were. Despite feeling an age, a maximum of ten minutes passed before the blue flashing lights lit up our living room through the curtains. The two paramedics were wonderful and, once again, Harry was hooked up to the monitor, administered the steroids and, for the second time in around thirty hours, Harry and I went in an ambulance to the John Radcliffe, Jonathan following behind.
The consultant was the same man we had seen at 6 am that morning (and actually the same who had treated Harry when he was six days old and his umbilical cord was bleeding heavily); he kept us in again, Harry and I returning to the same bed on the CDU and Jonathan heading home to get some much needed sleep. For Harry and I, another night of very little sleep, a scared and unwell baby, a whole lot of oxygen monitoring and temperature taking and we were discharged at midday, this time with a prescription for more steroids for that evening. They did the trick. Our return to hotel hospital remained capped at two nights only.
This was in mid-May. It took Harry a couple of weeks to return to his normal self, eating normally, and to stop having an intermittent fever and bad – but not croup – cough. He lost a lot of confidence in playing away from me, needing to be by my side or with one hand touching me for most of the day. It’s tiring but I didn’t mind though; I’d rather hold him all day and know he felt safe than ever let him believe he had a reason to be scared. It took a long time but, as of the last few weeks, I would say he’s back to his old self. It was quite an ordeal for such a tiny person – if I’m honest, it was quite an ordeal for me! And though I cannot fault them, though the care we were given was impeccable and, if there were a trip advisor for hospitals it’d be getting top marks, I’d rather not return to hotel hospital for a long, long, loooong time. At least not until baby number two please…