The Scariest Two Minutes Of My Life

Dominic woke up in the middle of last night and was unusually reluctant to settle down again.  This morning after Suanna left for work I trudged downstairs to find he and Ella bickering over LEGOs, so I set about distracting them with breakfast.  Uncharacteristically, Dom wasn’t interested in his — he just picked at a few raisins in his raisin bran and drank a little bit of milk.

He was in good spirits dropping Ella off at preschool but looked awfully tired in the car afterward, so I decided to forego the usual trip to the YMCA and went home to give him a nap.  He didn’t fall asleep in the car, though, so we ended up reading a couple of books in his bedroom.  His forehead felt pretty warm, one of those borderline “Do I give Tylenol or don’t I?” cases, but since his eyelids were drooping fast I decided to just put him down rather than trying to wrestle some medicine into him.

I was down in the basement an hour later, with the baby monitor on.  I heard a couple cries, normal stuff for when he’s waking up, usually to be followed by sounds of movement in the crib and then his voice calling “Daddy!” or “Ella!” or “Mommy!” depending on his mood.

This time I heard strange, guttural gurgles.

For about ten seconds I thought that he was talking to himself in his crib, maybe in a funny voice.  But then the unnatural-ness of the sound set in and I realized something was not right.  I sprinted up the stairs and into his room and found him in his usual napping pose — on his tummy, legs tucked under, butt up in the air.  But his skin was pale and his mouth was full of saliva.  He wasn’t choking on it, exactly, but neither was he swallowing it or spitting it out.  I yanked him out of his crib and realized that he wasn’t doing anything.  His body was completely limp.  His head flopped around like a rag doll.

I would not wish on anyone the experience of the next couple of minutes.  Mind racing:  where did I put the phone?  Do I carry him with me as I search for it or do I put him down?  Do I wait for the ambulance or throw him into the car and rush to the hospital?  As I moved through the house he flopped along in my right arm, conscious but eyes unfocused.  I wanted to stop and hold my ear close to his mouth, to reassure myself that he was breathing, however shallowly, but forced myself instead to hurry, find the phone, and race out with it and Dominic to the front steps where the reception would be clear.

It was a ridiculously beautiful spring morning, sixty-five degrees, clear sky, flowering trees, singing birds.  Even as I dialed 911 and yelled “Help!” at the top of my lungs to no one in particular, part of my mind lingered on how bizarre it was to be going through what we were going through on such a pretty day.  And the other part, the part I tried to keep firmly tamped down, wondered if he was going to die in my arms and reorient the world, the universe, around this one terrible moment, everything else Before or After the now.

And the next moment, things got ever so slightly better:  He moaned.  Not a cry, per se, but a low vocal complaint.  “Hey Dad, I don’t know what’s going on here, but man, this really sucks.  I can’t move ANYTHING.”  At that point I still didn’t know what the hell was going on, and it still seemed entirely possible that something had gone terribly wrong with him that would never get better.  But by the same token it was clear that whatever it was he wasn’t going to die, and that fact alone was no small measure of hope.

This was happening as I was on the phone with the operator, who could hear his moans on her end of the line and assured me that they were a good sign.  An ambulance was on its way but a fire truck happened to be driving by when the alert went out, so I heard the holy sound of sirens before I had even hung up with 911.  One of the firemen who approached had been exercising on the elliptical machine next to mine at the Y two days earlier.

The paramedics arrived not long after.  The one who examined him and heard my (somewhat frantic) account of what had happened assured me that she had seen this sort of thing many, many times before:  seizure after a spike in fever temperature.  (If you’re still freaking out at this point in the story, go google “febrile seizure” and you’ll learn that it all seems way, way scarier than it actually turns out to be.)

So, the two minutes of hell gave way to half an hour of holding my son on my lap in the ambulance and then on a hospital bed, whispering into his ear, trying to believe the people who said that he was going to be OK, and waiting, waiting for him to lift an arm, move his head, cry, or do anything more than adjust his eyes slightly to focus on something else.  And finally, it happened.  It wasn’t even particularly gradual.  One moment he was lethargic and the next he realized there was an oxygen mask on his face and a bracelet on his wrist and a blood pressure cuff on his arm and a band-aid on the bottom of his foot:  “What the hell, Dad?  Get me OUT of here!”  I had been falling down a bottomless pit, and his cry was the bed of pillows at the bottom.

As you might imagine, what followed was several dreary hours of hanging around in a hospital waiting for this or that test or tidbit of information.  All the stuff the paramedics had indicated was probably the case turned out to be the case:  he had a fever, and it had spiked while he slept, causing what’s called a febrile seizure.  Happens to 1 in 25 kids between 6 months and 3 years of age.  The surprise came when the results of the chest x-ray came back:  the fever had come along because he had pneumonia.

In fact, it’s likely that that congestion that we noticed he had as long ago as last Saturday was probably pneumonia.  It didn’t even begin to occur to us because 1) it’s springtime in Washington, pollen capital of the world — who doesn’t have congestion? and 2) until this morning he had not been acting sick in the slightest.   If you’re a parent you understand:  it’s a wild, crazy world of ambiguous symptoms, variable forehead temperatures and nose runniness and skin tone and whatnot, so what you fall back on is the reliable question:  Is he acting like himself?  Or is something Off?  Dominic, blessed Dominic, so good-natured, so tough, gave us no clue until this morning that anything might be the matter.

When the doctor said they wanted him to stick around long enough to see him eat, drink, sleep, and wake, I took the opportunity to get out of the hospital, get the charger for the phone, call a few folks, and grab some food for Suanna and me.  By the time I got back he was up from his nap and was acting … like every other time he’s just up from his nap.  We had to linger longer to let the hospital bureaucracy run its course but by the time we got home the bracelet on his wrist would have seemed odd to anyone watching:  “Why was that kid at the hospital?  He’s the picture of health!”  While I was typing this in the living room I watched Dominic pounce onto Suanna’s back, grab a handful of her hair in each hand, and merrily bellow “C’mon, horse!”

So now the strangest thing about the scariest two minutes of my life is how incredibly distant they feel.  Other than a course of antibiotics, there is every indication that life will go on as if literally nothing out of the ordinary happened today.  And yet:  I have already had plenty of opportunities to run through the What-Ifs.  What if I hadn’t turned the baby monitor on?  What if I had decided to take a nap too instead of making a cup of coffee?  What if he’s one of the 3% or so for whom febrile seizures are a precursor of more seizures to come?  Life goes on, but those two minutes, and the What-Ifs that go along with them, will be waking me up at night for a good while to come.