I start here with blue spray, flickering silently up black brick and falling on the nose of a curious parker, yanking the curtains as he leans from his top window, hungry for a bit of midnight theatre on the Neighbourhood Watch. Tired and locked-down, craving some of that community action, he leans out, stirred-up by sirens and women in dressing gowns with fraying hair knots and rising voices.
To be utterly dramatic, I’d start a few raspy inhales back, with the croaks and the shaking.
As a writer, tricks in my rucksack, I know where to start. As a mum, not so much. If you ever tell anyone your kid has been in hospital you need to start with the most important part first, or as a bear minimum crowbar this in before your listener has time to take a beat. So, here’s the punchline. The finale and the most important thing you need to know; Frank was and is completely fine.
“Why did you call 111?” the paramedic barked in rebuke, the minute he’d gotten inside, closing our door on the balcony night owl and setting up his bleeping machines in the dim light of our sitting room.
“I didn’t know what to do, I wanted some advice.” I now know to look at the chest and throat, to turn the light on and look for blue or swelling, to acknowledge fast breathing as more problematic than slow, sniffly breathes. No one wants to make a fuss, to pointlessly overreact.
Instead of validating these feelings, the paramedic stated, “Never call 111. Always 999,” he was as serious as big black concrete dogs. “Always 999 when it is concerning babies or children under 5.” He placed a stone deep down inside my belly.
I had called because it was the pitch-black night and it had sounded like Frank was struggling to breathe. In the darkness, in our sleepy haziness, he was ‘acting weird’. With the light on, now fully awake, he was grinning albeit a little confused. The paramedics confirmed that Frank was fine but, as he is a baby or child under 5, the emergency services have a policy to take him into the hospital to get him thoroughly checked out. I darted about the house packing Frank’s bag while the other paramedic chatted to Clifford about all the speakers stacked next to our TV.
“Paging Doctor Woodley,” the paramedic said, as he got back behind the wheel. “You’re going to be a doctor, aren’t you Frank? You won’t put up with this driving around all night!” Strapped into his car seat, fitted snuggly in the back of the ambulance, Frank chuckled. The eyes from the top flat blinked and diverted back to bed. Nothing to see here. No drama. “Or maybe you’ll be creative, huh? You are part of a creative family.”
The ambulance arrived at Lewisham hospital in minutes, as we live just around the corner. Only one of us was allowed in the ambulance (and hospital) but, not about to wait at home, Clifford tailed us in the car, racking up a small fortune on car parking tickets.
The paramedic took us to Paediatrics, carrying Frank in his car seat, me trailing in my pyjamas. He explained to the nurses what had happened, what tests they had run and left us there. I’d heard on their radio another call, about another baby, a three-month-old, who was having breathing issues. “Are you all in cahoots?” the paramedic had asked Frank. How scary. How fucking terrifying. Thank god for ambulances, thank god for paramedics, thank god for the NHS. My heart bounced a little when I thought about the state of things when Frank was born, when Frank was 3 months. With a smile and a nod, they disappear back into the early hours. How lucky we are to have these people in our world.
The nurse saw us straight away to assess again if anything urgent was needed. When it was confirmed that it wasn’t, she left us in the hospital room, with instructions for me to get a urine sample (which I did and believe I should receive some kind of medal or small prize for).
Ducking behind the bed and popping up again giggling, cheeks rosy with skin a little hot, Frank was happy. He found the drawers with the packaged syringes and scattered them all over the floor, pulled on every enticing lead coming out of every medical machine, pushed all the buttons before I could pull him away. When he tired of the room we were in he took himself at speed down the corridor in search of fresh havoc, his elephant sleep suit bunching at the ankles. Tummy puffed with that wide-stance stride toddlers have, as if they’re always wading body first and fast into trouble.
I was hyper aware of the time and that he wasn’t asleep. As minutes ticked by Frank became increasingly harder to occupy, and rightfully so, I didn’t blame him. I was amazed he hadn’t kicked off sooner. I was out of treats and bribes and ideas.
“Mum, do you think Frank is in any pain right now?” Finally, a doctor came to see us. Frank winked against the flashlight, mouth wide as his throat was observed, surprisingly unconcerned.
“No, I don’t think he’s in any pain,” I replied. “I can see he’s unwell but he’s happy.”
“It’s a viral infection,” she confirmed, “he’s blocked up with snot and unable to blow it out, that would have made his breathing different to normal and strained, especially as he was lying down in his cot. I’ll test his urine if you’d like, but I don’t think that’s going to show us anything abnormal.” I said I would like, simply because I had managed to procure it.
Frank’s first cold. Babies are meant to have a certain number of colds in their first year and in lockdown Frank hadn’t experienced any. He’d sauntered into Nursery, the breeding ground of flus, after a year of isolation, with all those whimpering mucus brains and streaming faces, all coughing in each other’s mouths and licking the same plastic toys. All those hotheads and snotbots. His immune system hadn’t stood a chance.
It’s good in the long run, of course, it’s all needed but it was a shock for all of us. Clifford grumbled about with the same cold, as did his mum and my mum, and it debilitated them all. It was not a small thing. Doused with some super strength mum shit, holding the whole fabric of existence together I didn’t come down with it*. (*Since writing this I have totally come down with it and am coughing like a hag on forty a day, while coughing in public is akin to what flashing a couple of leprosy infected scars used to be).
A couple of days later Frank has his one-year jabs. I asked the nurse the day before if she recommended delaying these due to him being under the weather, but she said that kids always have colds, so he’d be fine. His vaccinations hit him hard, mixed with the big change of starting at nursery and a twelve-month sleep regression. We were back to sleepless nights and midnight cuddles.
I called 111 about 11pm and Frank was back asleep in his cot by 3am. I cannot emphasise enough how amazing the NHS is and how lucky we are to have them.
Frank laughs amidst run-away, free flowing snot, as I shoot some saline solution up his nostril and OD his soft toy-baby’s face with inhalant decongestant oil, that clears little noses. We pray for a better night, but Frank was and is completely fine.