Smoky tendrils of white mist snake their way out of the mouth of a pale blue tube pointed at my baby’s face just under his nose. There’s a faint smell of ozone blended with something else in the air that makes my stomach want to curl in on itself and closes my eyes against the by-now predictable dizziness as my heart races. It’s a side-effect of the albuterol in the nebulizer chamber, a drug I appear to be particularly sensitive to even when only exposed to minute amounts of it, second-hand. I power through the symptoms though, because Julien needs this nausea-inducing haze to help keep his lungs clear.
It all started last Sunday night around 10pm when he got increasingly listless and lost the sparkle in his eyes. Up until then, what had seemed to be a simple cold was making him cranky and a little fretful, but the fever wasn’t anything to write home about and the symptoms were run-of-the-mill runny nose and occasional cough. At 10 though, the numbers on the rectal thermometer beeped 103.4 and the telltale lines, drawing in ever deeper under his ribs told another story. With Victor asleep and my license still a hypothetical acquisition, I had to send Julien off to the ER with Sebastien only.
“Get some sleep,” he told me as they left. I shut the door and paced the living room instead, then retreated to the bedroom to wrap myself in a quilt and watch Victor sleep while I desultorily clicked around the web to distract myself. I finally slept at some point, only to be awoken by the ringing phone and Sabs’ voice on the end of the line. “It’s probably RSV,” he said, “maybe pneumonia too. They’re taking X-rays and bloodwork and a nasal swab. He’s had a breathing treatment and he’s doing better, but we may have to be admitted. Pack a bag just in case.”
My hand shook as I hung up the receiver. Julien’s a big healthy baby, but he’s still only just shy of 6 months old. Pneumonia in his little lungs was no laughing matter. I got up and packed a hospital-stay bag, the irony of that bag being my post-partum one completely lost on me in the moment. I folded union suits into it for Julien, thinking he’d need warmth, but unencumbered hands and feet for the IV and other wires, change of clothing and toiletry pouch for me. Then I curled back up under the quilt and wrapped my arms around Victor and prayed silently to whatever gods were listening, that Julien would be all right.
Much too short a time later, the phone rang again. Dawn was just creeping into the room as Sabs’ voice came down the line. “Okay, we’re being admitted. I’m going to get him settled in then come and get you so you can stay with him and I can get some sleep.” Dazedly, I staggered into the shower, turning the hot water on full blast until the steam rose up all around me just as it had a few hours earlier when I tried to ease Julien’s breathing with a steam treatment. Sebastien walked in while I was still rinsing out my hair. He took Vic, all wrapped up in his quilt down to the car, a sleepy, confused bundle while I tossed on clothes and lobbed last minute things into my bag.
Cold air seeped into the car, despite the blasting heater and Sabs’ voice echoed strangely in my ears as he recounted all of the happenings of the evening. My mind seized on the most important parts and let the rest drift away, too tired to hold onto it all. Minutes later, we were walking into the pediatric ward, where tired nurses nodded and smiled as we arrived and turned the corner into the room Julien shared with another little baby with RSV.
Two nurses in masks greeted us, one trying to get some kind of monitor attached to him, the other trying to get him to take a bottle. I hovered on the edges of all this, waiting for them to give me my baby. His blue eyes ringed with purple circles and locked on mine and I could read what his expression said, clear as day, though he had no words to say it: “Oh Mommy, you’re here at last! I don’t -want- this stuff in the bottle. It tastes nasty and I’m so tired!” Finally the nurses were finished and they pulled a rocking chair into the room for me so I could nurse the baby. I pulled him into my arms, feeling relief to finally have him there, though the IV in his foot made me nervous about how to hold him. He didn’t care though – he just wanted a hug and a belly full of milk. In the shuffle, I missed Vic getting thoroughly scared by all the masked people hovering around until Sabs murmured in my ear: “He’s scared Beth …” Julien had dropped off to sleep, so I put him in the prison-cell hospital crib, raised the bar and went to wrap my arms around Victor.
“It’s okay honey, Julien is sick but he’s here to get better. You’re going to go home with Daddy and then go to school, okay? I love you,” I said to him and kissed his forehead. He looked at me with uncertain brown eyes but nodded. “Okay mommy,” before Sabs whisked him away to the car. I pulled out the bottom part of the sleeper chair in the room and curled up to watch Julien sleep and the light growing outside, until Sabs came back briefly, to watch him while I got something more substantial than what was on the breakfast tray brought to the room.
The rest of our stay in the hospital is pretty much a blur. I’d brought the laptop with me on the theory that I’d get some work done, but instead, I either dozed in the chair, held Julien, looked out the window or talked to the other mom we were sharing a room with. The ward was full of babies and kids with respiratory ailments of some type. So full that they were double-rooming everyone and talking about sending the overflow to Stanford or UCSF in the city. It seems to be the plague-du-jour this year, RSV, instead of the flu.
We were discharged on Tuesday around noon-time after a snafu with the order for the nebulizer kept us in the hospital over Monday night. Julien was much improved then, but was going to continue to need albuterol treatments through the night, so they couldn’t let us go without a nebulizer. The following day, no nebulizer had materialized and the hospital pediatrician hadn’t ordered it yet, so I took the initiative and called our pediatrician to put an authorization in for one. We scheduled a follow-up appointment for 3:30 in the afternoon and arranged to pick up the nebulizer then.
Finally, we were walking out of the ward into the bright sunshine. I felt numb and overly sensitized all at the same time, my skin stretched too tight across my skull, my teeth aching in my head from fatigue and worry. Julien fell asleep in the car and I looked forward to a nap at home in my own bed instead of the narrow chair in the hospital. Unfortunately, sleep deprivation continued to be the name of the game as Julien needed treatments every four hours and wasn’t sleeping that much in between. When he did sleep, I slept with him, or sat and watched him breathe, waiting for each new breath to come, weighing its quality as he inhaled and exhaled, alert for any laboring, wheezing or changes in his skin tone.
On Thursday morning, very early, he relapsed a little and when we saw the doctor a bit later, he increased the frequency of the treatments to every two hours. Another harrowing 24 hours followed, where I’m no longer sure of the order of things. All I remember is holding the baby, having snot smeared all over my face and chest and firing up the nebulizer more times than I can count, while my head spun and I covered my mouth with a blanket to block out the horrible stench of the albuterol.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that it’s only been a week. He’s so much better now, just two days after the relapse, fever free, bright-eyed and smiling, playing in the playpen as if nothing had ever happened. He’s still coughing and twin streams of thick white snot keep streaming out of his nose, but in a way, it’s almost reassuring to see those gross rivers of stuff coming out. At least I know it’s coming out and not sticking to the inside of his lungs.
He’s better enough that I’ll be going to work tomorrow, though maybe only for half a day. He’s not well enough for daycare and Sebastien has to work too.
The sun is bright today, the skies so very clearly blue. I took Victor outside to kick a soccer ball around for a bit while Julien and Sabs napped. I wouldn’t have left Julien sleeping alone just a few days ago. Now, even though the treatments continue every four to six hours, I feel confident enough to spend an hour away, playing with Victor. All through this illness, while I sat and watched my son breathe, I was doing a little bit of family research in the U.S. Census from 1860 to 1930 about my family. Every single woman I read about, had lost at least one baby during that time span. Every single one.
When I looked over at Julien’s sleeping face and the nebulizer sitting in the crib beside the bed, it was a stark reminder of just how far modern medecine has brought us since then. Without that machine and the oxygen in the hospital, it’s entirely possible that I would have joined my forbears in mourning a child.
Instead, I am grateful to that albuterol haze, no matter how sick it makes me.