Monday, August 19, 2013

Dark Night

 I left Clementine crawling around on our bedroom floor and went into the bathroom. I'm gone maybe a minute (I have three kids, I go quickly) and come out to find that she is choking on something. And it's not just the food down the wrong pipe choking- she's gone rigid and is making this horrible noise because she can't breathe.

I grab her and sweep her mouth with my finger. I can feel something lodged in her throat. I'm holding her like a football and my knees go weak because suddenly time stands still and I start to see that surreal moving picture of my life that people always talk about flashing before them. I know in this moment that this is my worst nightmare.

At last the hard something goes down her throat and I sink to the floor and tremble while she wails. But before I can even begin to calm us down she chokes again. And again. Whatever it is is still in her throat. 

I grab the boys and we drive to Urgent Care. They're closing and so they send us to the ER. The boys are with me because Brent's on a nine day rafting trip on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. "It'll be great. Have fun! Don't worry about us," I'd said just days before, figuring that the worst thing that could happen is that I'd overwater the tomatoes (again). 

My stomach was churning as we drove and Clementine wheezed and sputtered in the backseat. I doubted myself. Should I be calling 9-1-1? When arrived at the ER, the scruffy looking teenage boys ahead of us let me cut in line. Our intake nurse was an old friend from high school, which was comforting, but that comfort also allowed me to lose my shit in the lobby there for a minute. 

They looked in her throat. Nothing. They did an x-ray. Nothing. Meanwhile my friend comes to get the boys because the ER is definitely not a place where you want to hang out with two kids who are up past their bedtime. When we finally see the doctor, Clementine's breathing is more regular, but she's drooling like crazy and when I try to feed her she chokes. She's not swallowing.

"I don't like this," said the doctor. "I want you to check in to Riverbend for the night and see the pediatric surgeon in the morning."

And so at midnight, I walk into the pediatric ward of the hospital to admit my daughter. And I know that the hospital is a place of healing, and I know that we're playing it safe here and that most likely we'll walk right back out of there the next day, but I'm terrified. I'm terrified because the walls are closing in on me and my mind is racing with all the memories of visiting my mom in the hospital when that fucking cancer just kept coming back. And I have to leave the room when the nurse sets the IV "just in case the doctor wants to sedate her" because she screams and clings to me and I can't tell her that it's all going to be okay.

"Try to get some sleep," the nurse tells me around 2. "We'll see what the doctor says in the morning." I'm struck by her compassion, which starts my tears afresh. Once we turn the lights out, my mind goes to a dark place. I can hear Clementine's ragged breathing and she startles awake with a choking fit from time to time. She cries out and I've been told not to nurse her. The IV line beeps and clicks. I think of the babies who've been in this bed. These walls could tell stories and I never want to hear them. Why is she breathing like this? What did she swallow? Will they have to operate? If ever my priorities have been askew, in deep darkness of that sleepless night, they fell into place. I know without a doubt that I would give anything to heal my child.

I think of my friends and family who've slept nights beside their own children in hospitals. Some who have gone home the next day, and some who have not. I see the smallest window into their experience and it floods my body with a fear so thick that it suffocates me. And in that dark room on that very dark night, I'm humbled by the depth of my love for my child.

Though Clementine is able to sleep on and off, I stare at the ceiling and wait for morning because every time I close my eyes they replay those impossibly long moments when she was choking. As I've told the story again and again, the doctors and nurses have gently reminded me that the right way to help a choking baby is to flip them onto their stomachs and hit their backs. And I know this. I've sat through countless CPR classes, smiling and nodding, this will never happen to me, paying my $10 and signing my card. But for some reason in that moment of panic, my instinct failed me. It was my finger that pushed the object down her throat, I'm sure. 

By the time the sun rose, Clementine was decidedly worse. She was irritable and listless. Her breathing was labored and I'm sure she was hungry, though her stomach was distended. We were wheeled down into the bowels of the hospital and Clementine drank barium under the eyes of a radiology team. "All clear," said the radiologist after scanning her esophagus. "Whatever it was is in her digestive tract now."

"Her stomach is full of gas," the technician noted. "She probably swallowed a bunch of air during the choking episode." 

They all seemed relieved and I started to feel the tiniest bit better. Then Clementine let out the mother of all farts and we all laughed. We were wheeled back to our room and she nursed with enthusiasm.

By the time the doctor came to see us, she was clearly improving. He explained that whatever it was must have been stuck in her esophagus for awhile, but had likely moved along while her muscles relaxed in her sleep. The drooling and labored breathing was due to irritation of the esophagus. Keep an eye on her, wait for it to pass. Follow up with your pediatrician as needed. Etc.

He began to demonstrate what to do if she choked again, turning her onto her stomach and hitting her back. "I just wish I'd done that in the first place." I began to tear up. "I don't know why my first instinct was the wrong one."

The doctor looked at me with kind brown eyes. "No, your instinct was not wrong. Her airway was blocked and you cleared it. She was choking and you saved her."
iPhone photos while we waited for our discharge papers. Just realized I haven't been consistent with my verb tenses.

And that mysterious foreign body continues to elude us. I have inspected diapers with the intensity of a gold panner. I have racked my brain (or have I wracked it?) trying to figure out what she could have ingested that wouldn't show up in an x-ray. We might never know.

But that doesn't matter. I walked from that hospital with my sweet baby girl in my arms. I came home to my boys and a network of friends and family who dropped everything and came to our rescue. My mother-in-law even did our laundry.

And tonight when Brent comes home I'm sure he will have some amazing river stories to tell. I'll listen patiently and then it will be my turn. I'm sure he won't mind about the tomatoes.


  1. Oh Cassadie, that's a very scary story (that nevertheless had your humour down the middle of it in your retelling). There she is in the photo, sitting up in the little hospital bed, ready to play again! (while her mum no doubt stood raggedly by still in fear)... Kids are truly amazing in their resilience. (I'm so glad she's fine!!!)


  2. What a nightmare! Must have been a truly terrifying experience. Really hope little Clementine has made a full recovery; I bet you've been hugging her close ever since x

  3. :( I'm so sorry you went through this!! I think I probably would have done exactly the same thing in your scenario - a finger sweep is so tempting!! (did I just write that??). I am glad everyone is doing OK. PArenting ain't for the weak of heart, that's for sure...

  4. Cassadie, Oh my gosh, how scary!!! I'm so, so glad your sweet baby girl is okay. Other than SIDS, this is one of my biggest fears since I had kids. I think I will still be cutting up my boys grapes and hot dogs into 1 million pieces until they are 18.

  5. So scary, glad all turned out well. Rosie was telling me about this as I had not had a chance to read it yet. You are an amazing mother so nice of you to share your experiences both good and bad. That's what life is like, just hope to have many more good than bad things happening. Connie

  6. I cannot imagine how frightened you were, but it sounds like you acted quickly and logically...amazing, under the circumstances. And so glad your daughter is okay! I have to say also that your story telling style is quite captivating. I am visiting from Elisabeth's.