It likes to visit in the early hours after midnight, cutting through the hush of night so abruptly, so intensely, it will not be ignored for a second.
But ignoring it never crosses our minds when we wake suddenly to the cries of his distress. With three children, it’s far from the first time we’ve been through this. But even after three children, it’s by far the worst we’ve encountered when we haul our toddler from his bed, gasping for breath.
Many parents know the tell-tale barking cough of croup, but whereas in its mildest form it will guarantee a disturbed and sleepless night, the other extreme can be frighteningly critical. As my husband and I try to reassure our frantic child, there are three things I immediately know for sure: that croup this severe is a grave situation; that an ambulance needs to be called; and that I’m desperately terrified, as a mother for my child, and as a wife for my husband.
As a born-paramedic, my husband is amazing in emergency situations, but it has been many months since he’s been in an ambulance, many months since he has put on that navy uniform. Will this episode trigger his PTSD? Will having a paramedic crew here evoke a reaction? In an hour? In a day? In a week?
Really!? Right now, this simply shouldn’t be in my mind. I can’t believe this thought is pushing in, making me question, even just the tiniest bit, if we should be calling an ambulance. What kind of mother am I? The panic on my 2-and-a-half year old’s face snaps me back to reality. There is simply no question. Struggling to drag in the air around him, he’s unable to talk to us, unable to drink, and we struggle to dribble a token amount of medication into his mouth, hoping beyond chance that it will somehow be swallowed.
With my anxiety now soaring, as his entire body works furiously for oxygen, I latch on to a single idea that may help. I clutch my son, with legs hysterically kicking and eyes wide in shock as he fights for each noisy breath, and whisk him outside into the crisp winter air. Knowing it contradicts the steamy bathroom theory, but also knowing it’s worked for others before.
The cold air is all I have left. The cold air and a sky full of stars that, on any other night, would be breathtakingly beautiful. But how can I possibly stay calm enough to point out the stars and look for the moon? It’s such a meagre attempt to distract my child from an overwhelming sensation of suffocation, it seems ridiculous. But miraculously he follows my lead and turns his gaze to the constellations.
After several minutes that feel like the longest hour, I sense the merest shift in his breathing, and I give my husband a tentative smile that tells him everything. And in only a few minutes more, the ambulance crew arrives with their equipment and reassuring medications, their skills and calming professionalism. They stay with us until all the relevant numbers look mostly okay, leaving us to decide whether to manage at home or wait out the rest of the night in hospital. They stay until my toddler is breathing easier, until I am breathing easier.
It’s some hours later, after everyone has resettled into their beds but with adrenaline still coursing through my body, that I’m amazed at how my husband can be so readily touched by sleep after such drama. I lie there, for another hour, then two, not at all bothered that my sleep tonight will be counted in minutes instead of hours. As a mother, wanting only to listen to my three children breathing easily in their sleep. And as a wife, hoping that PTSD is not poisoning my husband’s dreams.
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