This one I have found it hard to write. I don’t much want to think about what happened, though in truth I’ve thought about little else these last couple of weeks. But to recall it and record it is painful.
We were staying with our dear friends and their little daughters in the Warwickshire countryside and we’d all stopped off for a pub lunch in a pretty beer garden before heading home. The baby had had a perfectly normal morning: he played with the girls, ate a good lunch, crawled about on the grass and slept happily in the sling. When he woke I gave him a bottle, and half way through the feed I felt his arms and legs go rigid and begin to shake violently. He was facing away from me, but I could see from the horror on the faces of my husband and our friends that something was very wrong. He was having a fit. The shaking lasted only 15 seconds or so, but when it stopped he was floppy and lifeless and he wasn’t breathing. His eyes rolled back in his head, his skin went grey and his lips were blue. His face had changed and he didn’t look like our baby anymore.
In the minutes that followed, and there were several, there was panic, chaos, confusion; people came to help us and by some kind twist of fate there was a paediatric nurse inside the pub; an ambulance was called; he was given back slaps (was he choking?), chest compressions, mouth to mouth. I screamed at my poor husband to help him and I begged my baby to come back to me. I wailed for him. I distinctly remember standing there and thinking quite clearly, “he’s going to die.” I thought, “this is where it all changes for us. Here in this garden in the middle of the countryside. We will lose him.” These are the thoughts that moved through my mind.
After minutes and minutes of chaos and terror, suddenly he was conscious again. People were hugging each other and telling me it would be OK. He was vacant and dazed but he was back. He knew we were there. They handed him to me and I held him in my arms and only then did my tears come. Somewhere above us in the sky a helicopter was circling and I knew it had come for us. The paramedics on the ground got to us first and they took his temperature. It was raised but not terribly high. Immediately, and with absolute certainty, they were able to diagnose a febrile convulsion; they told us he would be OK. They stripped him off and measured his oxygen and blood sugar. But there was no hurry, no panic. We allowed ourselves to be reassured by their calmness and kindness and conviction. We stopped holding our breath. They gave him Calpol and me a hug.
The helicopter landed in a field beside the pub, and like angels in orange jumpsuits, a doctor and more paramedics came to tell me he was going to be fine. They told us how common febrile convulsions are, and how children who’ve experienced them suffer no lasting effects.
We thanked the kind nurse, who had given so much of herself to help us; she was visibly shaken and upset. I wish I’d hugged her. Outside the pub people had gathered to see the helicopter and were filming it all on their phones. I walked past them to the ambulance carrying my little naked boy in my arms and it was as though it was all happening to somebody else. Our empty plates were still sitting on the table, but a lifetime had passed since our happy lunch in the sun. I sat behind him on the way to hospital, stroking his forehead and weeping for the horrors that might have been. To say I was grateful does not begin to describe it.
We spent the evening in A&E, the baby sleeping soundly on each of us in turn, his little body tired out by it all. We saw a succession of doctors, all of whom agreed on the diagnosis and the prognosis, all of whom listened to our questions and answered with patience and kindness. They spoke of the “harmless horror” that is a febrile convulsion. We were told they are caused by a rapid rise in temperature, they occur in one in 20 children under five and three in 10 children who have one will go on to have more. It is hard to understand how something so dreadful to witness can do no harm.
Late that night we were moved to paediatrics, where we were to be admitted. Still naked but for his nappy, the baby was carried through dark, chilly hospital corridors, and somehow it revived him a little. He sat up in my husband’s arms and he smiled at us for the first time since it happened. We laughed aloud, so great was our joy. By the time we got to the ward, he was crawling about and finding diggers and buggies to push around. They let us go home. We carried him out of there like a gift we’d been given.
We drove back to our friends’ house in silence, holding hands at traffic lights and listening to him breathe. I have listened to him breathe a lot since that day. And I have thought a lot about how lucky we are to live in a country where good people will land a helicopter in a field because your baby is in trouble, where you can get an urgent paediatric referral in two days and basic life support training at that same appointment. I will forever be grateful to the people who helped us.
I have talked about it a lot, to friends and family and strangers in the park. I think I need to talk it out of me. I know that in time the memories will fade and it will just be a thing that happened, a story we will tell him. But for now, I will sit with him a bit longer, I will hold him a bit tighter, I will kiss his lovely head. For he is our gift.