When my son Jonah was not quite two months old, he had a terrible case of pertussis - the kind of pertussis, in fact, that kids are immunized against when they get the DTP shot, given first at two months of age.
Unfortunately, Jonah got the illness at seven weeks of age, just a week before he was scheduled to get his first round of shots.
At first, I noticed that he wasn't breathing well through his nose. That was a problem when he tried to nurse. He couldn't breathe, so repeatedly stopped sucking to breathe, and finally started to cry in frustration. I took him to an ear, nose and throat doctor who was a friend of mine. By then, his breathing was worse, and it was painful for me to watch him trying to get enough air. But my friend told me he just had a virus and would be better in a few days.
By then, the nights were terrible. Jonah couldn't breathe at all while lying down. I put him in his carseat or swing, but couldn't sleep myself for fear he would suffocate. Finally, I would end up holding him for hours, so exhausted I could hardly stay awake.
I tried everything I knew - vaporizers, nasal drops and spray, even a mild decongestant, but nothing worked.
It was a dark time for our family in general. JD had been out of work, and after several months of not working myself, I had just started a new job the week before. I was desperate to make the money our family needed to pay bills, determined not to miss any work. So I stayed up with Jonah at night, and worked in the day.
Finally, when Jonah had been sick for about a week and I was beyond exhaustion, it came to the point that I knew we couldn't go on. Jonah had started to cough by now, and there were long spells during which he simply couldn't catch his breath at all. Quickly, I packed him into his carseat and headed for the hospital. On the way, I called the pediatrician I was working for and told her I was on the way.
At the little Portland hospital, they couldn't start an IV and didn't have the right equipment to get his oxygen level up. My mother-in-law, who is an RN, came to be with Jonah and me.
Ever since that day, I have had a hard time forgiving myself for what happened after that. I worked in one of the offices in the hospital, and I was the only provider there that day. In fact, the receptionist (who doubled as a medical assistant) had not shown up. I opened the office at 9:00 and started checking patients in myself. I knew my baby was sick, but I felt such a sense of responsibility to be at my job.
I had only taken care of a few patients when my mother-in-law called to say that Jonah was worse. "He needs to be in Vanderbilt," she said.
I called the doctor again and told her I wanted Jonah at Vanderbilt. They called an ambulance, and I held Jonah while we waited. I felt terrible - frightened, more tired than I'd ever been, weak, and lightheaded. It was then that I realized that, in addition to not sleeping, I hadn't eaten much in the past two days.
It was such a relief to finally be in the ambulance, headed for Vanderbilt. The paramedic was exceptionally nice. He got some oxygen on Jonah and kept him on the oxygen monitor all the time, so I could see that his levels were OK. His confidence was contagious, and I started to feel better.
It was an even bigger relief when we got to the hospital, and they had a room ready for Jonah, with staff already assigned to him. In fact, his nurse met us at the door and walked with us to the room, getting a history as we walked.
I will never forget how efficient and skilled those people were. They deep-suctioned his lungs almost right away, allowing him to breathe more freely. They made his bed into an oxygen tent, so we didn't have to try to keep a mask on him. When he was able to breathe better, he started to drink, first from a bottle, and by that evening was able to nurse again.
I stayed with Jonah constantly. JD was there, but his main job was to care for Ellie and Owen so I could be with Jonah.
As I watched my tiny baby, still breathing with difficulty but at least breathing, so many thoughts raced through my mind. I wondered who he would be as he got older - what he would look like, what kind of personality he would have. I desperately wanted him to survive so I could find out. Life is so fragile, I thought. Just a few breaths separate life and death - just a few breaths missed, and there are no more chances.
I slept in Jonah's room that night, and again didn't sleep much, but felt relief that help was right outside in the hallway, if he should get into trouble.
Amazingly, Jonah was so improved that they let him go the next day. The cough was still there, but after that, his breathing was almost normal. It was like the illness finally gave up, released Jonah from its grip, and slunk away. It was no match for the skill of the healers who cared for him at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital.
Now, Jonah is a healthy, lively, very normal five-year-old, and this is the first time I've written about his illness. It was such a painful spot in my memory, that it was hard to even pull it back up again. But now that I have, I realize I learned some things from the experience. Here they are:
1) Since then, I have learned to set better limits. It was a difficult process for someone addicted to doing it all, caring for everyone, and never disappointing anyone. It actually took some time with Kay Arnold, an excellent therapist who helped me work through the reasons I could not set limits.
Now, I can say with confidence that if this happened again, I would never leave my sick child in order to take care of patients. I dont' think the patients would even want me to do that! I have also learned to take better care of myself, since the health and welfare of my family depends on me being healthy.
2) I haved learned, firsthand, the incredible power that those in the healing arts possess, to relieve suffering and give people the gift of life and health. Since then, I have approached people who are in physical or emotional pain with a new, deeper empathy, and a renewed passion to be the very best, most knowledgeable, skillful, and compassionate healer that I possibly can be.
I will never forget the people who helped Jonah, from the paramedic in the ambulance, to all the staff that cared for him at the hospital. Though I don't remember their names and may never see them again, I bless and thank them whenever I think of them.
3) I have learned that even though I am a medical provider myself, it is hard for me to be objective when caring for my own kids. In retrospect, I should have taken Jonah to Vanderbilt much sooner. I probably would have told other parents to do this, but somehow I couldn't see it myself. Also, I had not eaten or slept much, which clouded my judgement.
4) Having experienced the fragility of life, I really treasure every minute I have with Jonah, Ellie, and Owen. And when I go into their rooms at night to check on them, sometimes I stop and just listen to their easy breathing, and feel grateful!
5) I REALLY believe in immunizations! I mean, I have always thought it was a good idea, but now I'm almost fanatical about it. If a parent tells me they don't believe in shots, I tell them Jonah's story. I would NEVER want anyone to go through what we went through with Jonah, especially when it can be prevented with a series of simple little shots.
The sad thing, that I only found out through researching the topic after Jonah recovered, is that a fairly high percentage of babies who get pertussis do not survive. Many who do, end up having to go on the heart-lung bypass system, which sounds pretty traumatic.
Jonah is learning to read now, and every day makes new discoveries. He is independent, creative, cuddly, and full of mischief. He also has a wonderful sense of humor, and often has the whole family laughing. He is very affectionate and always climbs up on my lap during church, while watching a movie, or reading a book. His freckles, brown eyes, and big grin are completely disarming, but then I admit to being biased!
Thank God for excellent health care professionals, equipment, technology, compassion, and a big helping of grace, which allowed Jonah to come through such a serious illness, back to full health and well-being.
I can't wait to see all the great things Jonah will do as he grows - and am glad he has been given the chance!