Of Parenting and Pertussis: Bedside Lessons
As we drove to the Emergency Room I could only focus on my son, strapped into the carseat next to me. I hovered over him, watching his blue-tinged lips, seeing his chest heave high with each breath. What can a mother know, what can a mother think, in such circumstances? I could only breathe alongside him, hold his hand, pray that my husband could weave through rush-hour traffic and get us there quickly.
A few hours later he lay in a too-large hospital bed, an IV tube in his head giving much-needed fluids, oxygen flowing through the cannula in his nose, monitors on his feet to check his blood oxygen levels. I stood at his bedside waving a toy above him, breasts heavy with milk that I would need to pump (eventually), when I dared to leave his bedside. He was in isolation because of the nature of the disease. Anyone entering his room first donned gown, gloves, and mask. I alone interacted with him sans precaution. But I already had pertussis myself—had given it to him. I was not in danger.
“Our pertussis babies are usually here for a few weeks,” the nurse had said with a hesitant smile. She tried to get me to relax a bit as she showed me how to turn up the oxygen flow during his coughing spells and how to read the monitors to know if the oxygen levels dipped too low. An alarm would sound and the staff would come running, she explained. Within moments the alarms rang and the skilled medical staff inserted a tube into my son’s nose to suction out the phlegm that was choking him, literally sealing his airways. That task accomplished, the monitors assumed their normal hum.
I could only think about how my boy looked so cold and alone. Despite my concerns, I felt security that he would survive. He had cutting-edge medical care and world-class physicians. He had the love and prayers of his parents. He would have me at his side until his release.
There was great irony in that the love showered on my son by extended family members brought this near-fatal disease. Unknown at the time, my parents had both contracted pertussis from the hospital where my father received his cancer treatments. Then they had given it to me during their visit a week after my son’s birth. When I, as a new and fairly naïve parent called my pediatrician and OB to express concern about my worsening cough and my son’s inability to nurse properly due to his coughing spells, they had reassured me that all new parents are too paranoid. It was when I called and insisted that his lips and fingers were taking on a bluish tinge, that they finally scheduled an appointment. And when his doctor then heard the barking rasping cough—the hallmark of pertussis–he sent us quickly to the nearest Children’s Hospital with directions to proceed straight to the Infectious Disease clinic.
Now as I think back on this event I marvel that we survived it so well. My son shows no signs of the brain damage that can result from oxygen deprivation. His mild asthma is perhaps the most persistent evidence of the trauma his young lungs experienced. As I look at this boy who now wears the same size shoes as me, who grows more independent a savvy with each passing day, I wonder if and when my actions might unknowingly bring him harm again. It is the paradox of parenting that we try as hard as we can to protect and to nurture our children and sometimes pertussis happens anyways. We can’t see the invisible threads of cause and effect. We can’t know the end from the beginning. We can only commit to stand at the bedside and be there alongside them—come what may.
This experience was formative for me as a parent. As a result I’ve become a rather vigorous proponent of immunizations (Pertussis is the “P” part of the DTP shots that children typically receive when they are about 2 months old) and I was also highly protective about germs and other dangers when my children were small. I am still a bit paranoid—keeping my kids close and guarding their safety as best I can. Sure I can’t prevent them from all ailments and pains, but I do my best to keep them safe.
I am curious what experiences have contributed to your parenting styles/philosophies? Are there incidents that dramatically shaped your approach to nurturing or caregiving?
**Top photo taken just after his release from the hospital after his bout with pertussis. Bottom photo taken last Spring during a visit to Julian, CA to enjoy some of their famous apple pie.