This time I spotted the signs much quicker — the belly breathing; the way the base of her neck caved in on the inhale; the listlessness, so much so that she was lying flattened on the floor and wouldn’t even lift her head — and I knew what to do. My mother held her on her lap as I put the mask over my daughter’s face and turned on the nebuliser. She would be fine, I knew. I’d done my bit by spotting the signs and now her breathing treatment would open her airways again. It would not go to croup this time.
And she did perk up for a time — the adrenaline rush to her system gave her a jolt of energy that spilled out in songs and giggles and, once she was eventually free of the mask and the machine, the kind of crazed dancing that only drugs can produce. I watched her mania with waves of relief.
So the shock rocked me to the core when I realised only thirty minutes later that she was struggling to breath again. Again, the belly-breathing. Again, that horrible pulling at the base of her neck. It was too soon to use the nebuliser — much too soon, it should have lasted four hours! How could she have fallen back so badly in only thirty minutes?
A cursory call to the doctor’s office, only to confirm what I already knew — we were to go directly to the Emergency Room, by ambulance if necessary. I calmed my racing heart, told it that those words came as no surprise — to no avail — and began to pack our bags. We needed enough nappies to perhaps see us through the night, more wipes, and food. We can go nowhere without bringing our own food — even the hospital struggles to cope E2’s extensive dietary restrictions. Last time, it produced an apple and a bowl of plain rice noodles covered in canola oil. She’s two years old: of course she turned up her nose.
But the timing was terrible and the cupboard was bare. “I’ll make something,” my mother said, hastily shoving a pair sweet potatoes into the microwave. “You…” she looked at me, still in my pajamas and with great globs of snot dried in my hair. E1 had cried through the night with a sore throat so pitifully that I’d slept (or, rather, not) beside her, contorting my too-long body into her toddler bed, where she’d sneezed repeatedly, violently, all over me. My mother winced a little, “You have a quick shower — quick — and get dressed while I make the food.”
I looked at my daughter, judging her breath. She was working at it for sure, much more than she should have been so soon after a treatment, but she was ok for the moment. I could see that. There was time, I thought, and dashed to the bathroom. My shower lasted two minutes — soap on, soap off — but I kicked myself for it the whole time, stepped out onto the bathmat in a guilt-induced near-panic.
In the car as I drove, my mother kept her body turned around in the passenger seat, watching E2’s chest rise and fall, and periodically telling me to slow down. My wet hair dripped down the back of my neck. E2 kept breathing.
At the hospital, they issued us with masks first and read the registration paperwork. “Breathing troubles”, I’d written and they waved us straight in. Weight, blood pressure, stethoscope — ah yes, that wheeze and rattle — and they settled her down for another breathing treatment, this one lasting an hour. She perked up again almost immediately and asked to take the mask off so she could dance with her fidgetting, bored sister. “No, sweetheart. You just breathe,” I told her. She sang instead, which was just as good.
The treatment finished, they left us for a while to see how it took. But when they returned at last, the rattle was still there, so she had another — shorter this time, a steroid. And that one did the trick. After another long observation period, made more difficult by one child who was now totally wired and the other who was bored beyond her tolerance, they declared her fit and released us, with a prescription for more steroids.
We drove home in the falling dusk. E1 succumbed to sleep immediately and, as the adrenaline rush began to die away, her little sister followed suit. I watched them both in the rear-view mirror: their faces relaxed and angelic, their mouths both hanging open, and their chests rising and falling …easily, rhythmically. I counted my blessings.
And then I counted something else: four colds so far this year, and all four times, we’ve had to use the treatment to keep her breathing. Four colds so far this year, and two have ended up in the Emergency Room. What gave the rest of us sniffles and coughs brought E2 to the edge of disaster every time.
We pulled up to the pharmacy and I turned off the car. It was dark now and I was exhausted, ready for bed but knowing it would be another long night with two sick little girls. “Oh, Mum… I hope she outgrows this.” I reached to open the car door when another, darker thought suddenly chilled me. “But…” I turned my head and looked at my mum. “But if she doesn’t… if she’s this susceptible to everything… how will I ever be able to send her to school?!?”
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