Saturday morning was fairly typical around our house. I was up with the kids while Jon had a bit of a lie-in. Jacob escaped from my diaper-changing ministrations and was running naked around the house. Hannah decided to join him, and I had two children without a stitch of clothing behaving like rabid monkeys. I followed them and tried to coax Jacob to lie down for a diaper change. He was having none of it, so I picked him up.
Laying Jacob down, just a second too late, I saw a glint in his mouth. I didn’t know what it was, but it caught in his throat and didn’t come up. He started choking. I pulled him upright, and for about 15 seconds he wasn’t breathing. I screamed for Jon and tried desperately to remember how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a toddler. Then Jacob threw up, but not the shiny thing, and gasped in some air.
The next few minutes are a blur. Jacob was breathing, but also coughing and vomiting and in some distress. I tried to call my mother-in-law the nurse but she wasn’t there, so I only succeeded in scaring my father-in-law. Jon threw on clothes. I yelled at Hannah to get dressed and I got Jacob mostly dressed. I called 911, and cried to the operator incoherently. She wanted my address, and I really just wanted someone to tell me what to do. Before the operator got the pertinent details out of me Jon grabbed Jacob and headed to the ER, about 90 seconds from our house by car. I explained and hung up.
At this point I really freaked out. My baby was going to the hospital and I wasn’t with him. I got myself dressed and Hannah dressed and jumped into my own car. Waiting at the one traffic light between my house and the hospital Jon called and told me that Jacob had finally expelled the object about 15 minutes after swallowing it. It turned out to be a pendant of Hannah’s. He was now fine and well-oxygenated, although they kept us in the ER to listen to his chest and do an X-ray.
This is my third trip to the ER with my children. My average is more than a year and a half between visits, which is not too bad all things considered. But it does bring something into stark relief for me – in spite of all of my efforts, there is only so much I can do to protect my kids. I was in the room with Jacob when he put the pendant in his mouth, I just wasn’t looking at him. I was not talking on the phone or reading or checking my email, I was trying to get some clothes on my kids and something slipped under the radar.
When kids get hurt we rush to figure out what went wrong. This can be good, because sometimes we can use that information to prevent something similar from happening in the future. Post mortems have helped us to develop better cars, car seats and bicycle helmets. I have no doubt that lives have been saved. But we have to be cautious, at the same time, that we do not place undue blame in the process. When you have small children, there but for the grace of God go you. In an instant, as you visit the bathroom or make a sandwich, things can go south.
In spite of the fact that our kids are little accidents waiting to happen, I don’t think we should lock them up in padded rooms. Kids need to explore and learn. They need to fall down sometimes, or face a few germs. Our impulses to protect them are sound, but we must also protect their freedom and their quality of life in the process. This is the constant balancing act of life with small children, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get it perfect.
The panic is fading following our ER visit. Eventually it will be (almost) as if it never happened, and I am thankful for that. In spite of the occasional panicked moments most children show no ill effects, and the likelihood is extremely good that my kids will be the same. But having felt that panic myself, when I hear stories about toddlers who accidentally drown, or open a locked door and wander off in the night, I do not rush to blame. I know that this could easily be me. Even as I work to protect my children, they work to defeat my safety net. There but for the grace of God go I.
Care to share your stories of rush trips to the ER? I could use a little commiseration.