At 1am, I was alone with E2 and a nurse on the darkened hospital isolation ward, watching my daughter strain to draw breath and answering all the same questions that I had answered four hours earlier in the Emergency Room. I appreciated the nurse’s thoroughness and I felt safer for being in a place where I knew we’d get the best help, but I was feeling exhausted, alone, and so frightened. When she asked me to strip E2 down in order to weigh her, I took off her shoes, top, and trousers, but left her onesie and nappy on — it was a bit chilly, and my baby was sick — but, when she saw this, she corrected me, “No no, I need you to strip her right down. We need to know exactly how much she weighs so when they weigh her tomorrow, they will know precisely if she’s lost any weight.” And with that one comment, I realised just how serious the situation was — if they were worried about how much weight she might lose in one night, then there was little room for error. I took off the rest of her clothes and placed my daughter naked, gasping — her neck and chest and stomach collapsing grossly inward with every slow breath — onto the scale. It read 10.89kg. Two years ago to the day, just moments after she’d been born, the midwife had placed her on an identical set of scales, and she had weighed 4.22kg. Two years… two years… and she’s barely doubled her birth weight, something most babies do at four or five months.
When the nurse handed E2 back to me, I picked up one of the nappies from the pile the hospital provided and realised immediately that it was far too big: the legholes gaped around E2’s skinny legs with an inch to spare on either side. They were size 6 — perfectly right for a girl her age — and I asked the nurse if we could have 3s instead. E2 wears 3s and she has for the last twelve months. In a year, she has never gone up in nappy size. Any mother will tell you that’s not right.
Later, when two doctors came in, I had to repeat the whole story again — how she’d had a runny nose for two days, how today it had taken a turn for the worse and she’d developed a fever and become miserable and listless. When her breathing became laboured — so difficult and wheezy that I could hear her struggling for breath even from the next room — we’d rung the doctor, who’d told us to go straight to the emergency room and specified that she’d wanted us to go the specialist children’s hospital in the center of the city. My heart had sank at that. Seeing how bad E2 was that morning, I had canceled our planned birthday lunch and my mother had come round for an improvised mini-party at the house instead. As the day wore on, the birthday girl wanted nothing more than to rest her head against my chest and try to breathe. We spent much of the day on the couch, watching the heavy snowfall cover the road, and the cars as they each slid sideways down the hill. It was turning out to be a good day to stay home and I quietly gave thanks that we had no reason to have to brave those roads ourselves — until the doctor ordered us to ER, through the snow and mess, and at rush hour.
The first doctor left — so soft spoken and heavily accented that I’d struggled to understand a single word she’d said — and the second doctor pulled a chair up. He smiled warmly — no one had done that yet, and it surprised me to realise how much I needed that smile. “My name is Tom. Let me explain what we’re going to do…” He was a few years younger than me and nice looking… I stopped listening to him and started thinking about how he could be so good-humoured and kind and… well, awake at 2am. I found myself thinking that he must be the kind of person who meets life head on. That’s the kind of person who gets themselves through medical school, isn’t it? Someone with enthusiasm and energy and a positive outlook on life? I wondered what my life would be like if I’d ended up with someone like that, someone driven and positive and enthusiastic. A few weeks ago, M had told me that he thought the innate positivity of the US had been rubbing off on him and that he reckoned his own positivity had increased probably 40% since moving here — and I was gobsmacked at this declaration. Where? When? …At work? Yes, he agreed, probably at work… Must be, because at home, I see no change. He allows all his exhaustion, fears, insecurities, and negativity to come to the surface unhampered. I know it’s better that he show his positive side at work, even if that means his reserves are empty when he gets home, because that’s where our bread is buttered, but it’s hard to live with someone who spends the rest of his life just waiting for the day to end.
When I stopped myself and tuned back into what the doctor was saying, he was explaining that she had an ordinary virus, but that it was dangerous because she is so small, and so the inflammation in her chest was threatening to close her airways. They wanted to do another breathing treatment — nebulised epinephrine, her third treatment since we’d arrived — because her breathing was so strained that they were afraid her breathing muscles would fatigue. “Fatigue?” I repeated, knowing what it meant but wanting to be wrong.
He paused, and then saw that I needed it said more plainly. “Yes… her muscles might… stop.”
I asked what would happen in that case and he said they’d have to insert a tube into her lung to keep her going. At least, that’s what I think he said. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, I was so tired, so mentally exhausted, and my mind had ceased working when he’d said there was a chance her breathing might stop. I don’t know what he said to me, or what I said to him.
It was a strange night — she spent half of it flailing wildly in my arms, arching her back and screaming blue murder. I held her to me forcibly and she finally, finally succumbed to exhaustion and fell asleep in my arms. I adjusted myself into as comfortable a position as I could in the chair and watched her breathing — still laboured, but still breathing. I mused to myself that we’d been in hospital this same night two years previously and then realised with a start that we’d been in ER exactly one year and a day ago as well… and decided I didn’t much like this trend. But eventually, my thoughts faded and sleep over came me, at long last.
Fifteen minutes later, the nurse woke me to say they’d felt so bad to see me sleeping upright that they’d found me a reclining chair. I lifted myself out of my seat, gently… gently… and let them swap the chairs about. Someone took a mis-step, the chair came down with a bang… and she was awake, screaming and crying wildly for another full hour. Finally, at 4.30am, I calmed her enough to sleep again, and laid beside her. She woke again three times before 7am, but it was sleep, of a sort.
The doctors came around to see her again in the morning: the Indian one I couldn’t understand, a specialist of some sort, and a team of eight medical students. Her breathing was better and they were pleased, but the specialist was not fully convinced, and ordered chest x-rays. Mid-afternoon, they came back clear, and we were ok’d for discharge. Her breathing was still strained, but nothing like it had been, and her fever was gone and she had returned to her lively self again. With strict instructions to watch her closely and return immediately if she worsened at all — and a deep sense of gratitude that the worst was over and she was going to be alright — we headed for home.
The house looked much as we’d left it the day before, birthday presents lying where they’d been left. The girls were both out of sorts after all the upheaval — alternating between playing and disoriented crying. My mother tried to soothe E1 while I went to make us all a cup of tea. …I didn’t see the snowglobe on the edge of the fireplace. My mother had brought it as a “little something” for E1 amid all the birthday fuss over her sister and, when she opened it, I had winced inwardly. A glass snowglobe does not seem to me like an appropriate toy for a three year old, but my mother doesn’t think of these things, and I am not permitted to express such criticism without it creating a problem, so I bit my tongue and planned to secret it away (with the other two equally inappropriate snowglobes) at the first opportunity.
But in our rush to leave for ER, it had been left right there on the corner of the fireplace. And as my mother soothed a confused and crying E1, and I stood sleep-deprived and dazed by the kettle in the kitchen… little, wheezing, curious E2 had spotted it and picked it up to look, and promptly dropped it at her feet, where it broke into a hundred shards of glass that sprayed in an arc ten feet across the room. I ran in in an instant and lifted my barefoot daughter up and away from the glass, and told my mother to do the same with E1 — no, lift her out, don’t walk her out. And then, I took a deep breath, and got down on the floor and began to clean up the mess.