It’s a Sunday night. We’re driving out west to have dinner at a friend’s house. The M4 is cruising along nicely. Then the traffic starts slowing down a little. Ahead, in the distance we can detect the blue flash of a police car but can’t see what’s going on. We slow to a stop. “Looks like there’s an accident up ahead,” I comment casually to my husband. Time passes. We’re not moving. Whack. Something smashes into the back of us. “We are the accident,” I think, still not really registering what has happened. After what seems an inordinately long time, our car crashes into the stopped car in front of us. I have visions that we’re in one of those 20 car pile-ups that you see on TV. Maybe somewhere at the back there’s a semi-trailor. As I’m thinking that, a piercing scream cuts through the air. It’s Birdy. Is she OK?
The scream turns to a wail – a penetrating cry of distress. I don’t know if she’s OK. I can’t see her. I can’t reach her. I’m not thinking clearly. She doesn’t say anything, just cries. We’re all sitting there stunned and I don’t know what to do. A man appears at our window. “My foot slipped. It slipped on the break.”
“We have an infant,” I say and then repeat it, like a broken record.
Eventually we realize that we need to move off the freeway into the breakdown lane. I get Birdy out and hold her as she weeps. I still don’t really know if she’s hurt, but after a time she calms down so I figure she must be OK. It’s still a distressing situation – we’re standing on the edge of a freeway with trucks roaring past at 100 kilometres an hour. The man who crashed into us introduces himself and inspects the damage to our car. “I don’t care about the car!” I say, “as long as she’s alright.” Fortunately, my husband was driving, so he deals with the business side of things, the swapping of numbers and addresses, the showing of licences, while I comfort Birdy. After a while, it occurs to me that holding her on the edge of a freeway is probably not the safest option, so I strap her back into the car and after half an hour or so we’re on our way, the car thankfully still drive-able.
I’ve heard horror stories of people in car accidents having all sorts of medical problems later on, so all night at the dinner, I’m watching Birdy closely for any signs that something is wrong. After all, she was in the back and took most of the force of the crash. Later than night, we drive home cautiously, still feeling nervous.
Just a few days later, on Thursday, I collect Birdy from daycare and the staff tell me that Birdy didn’t play all day. She just sat there. They thought she had a bit of asthma and had given her ventolin at 12 pm. When I pick her up at 1.30 pm, I can see she needs more ventolin, even though the normal recommended interval is every four hours. I give her six puffs at 2 pm, then go home and let her watch television until we can get an appointment with the GP. She is miserable the whole time, cries and complains of abdominal pain. By the time we get to the doctor at 5.15 pm, she’s hysterical. So hysterical that the GP can’t examine her abdomen. I tell the GP we were in a car crash a few days ago in case it’s relevant. I also tell her that Birdy’s had asthma that day. The GP can’t figure out what’s wrong with her. Birdy is crying so much that the doctor doesn’t notice how much her stomach is sucking in when she breathes. I mention the asthma again before we leave. The GP says that she can’t hear any wheeze and that she doesn’t think it’s asthma. She suggests I give her Panadol for the pain, wait an hour and that if she doesn’t improve I take her to hospital. I take her home and give her Panadol, but there’s no way I’m waiting an hour. We go straight to hospital. By this time it’s 6 pm and I’m stuck in a queue to turn west-bound onto Victoria road, where the traffic is crawling. Birdy is growing more distressed. I find my eyes welling up with tears. I pray and ask God to clear a path for us. Moments later, I turn the corner, and as far as the eye can see, for a kilometre or two, Victoria Road is empty. At peak hour. Heading out of the city. It feels like a miracle.
Even so, it takes almost an hour to reach the children’s hospital. We wait in line 20 minutes. Then when the triage nurse see us, she looks at Birdy and says, “You’re struggling to breathe, little one.” She measures her oxygen. She doesn’t tell me the result, but takes us straight through to emergency. A doctor sees us immediately. She starts her on ventolin every 20 minutes and administers prednisole, a steroid that reduces the inflammation in the airways. After an hour, I have a different child. She sits up and starts colouring in. Only afterwards does the doctor explain why we weren’t hearing any wheeze – she simply wasn’t getting enough air into her lungs to make an audible wheeze. She explains that once the air passages open up, then we’ll hear the classic asthma wheeze. That’s exactly what happens. At the same time, the abdominal pain disappears. The doctor explains that it was probably the effort of trying to breathe that was placing so much stress on her abdomen.
As we sit there in the asthma bay, families in the same situation as us trickle in. We hear our story told over and over. Sydney’s mid-spring winter has taken it’s toll on the asthmatic children in town. Thinking winter was over, the parents have all stopped giving their children preventer medication. Then along comes a second winter during spring. The air is freezing but loaded with pollens. The asthma ward is filling up fast.
At around 10.30, the doctor tells us there’s no way we’ll be going home tonight. Birdy is still only just coping on hourly Ventolin and they won’t let us out the door until she’s down to three hourly. So at 11pm they show us to our cosy little private room. Before we bed down for the night, I call work and tell them I won’t be in the next day. We won’t be released from hospital until mid-morning at the earliest. It’s bright and I can’t sleep, but I’m happy that Birdy is already improving. Through the night, the nurses come in and check on her and administer ventolin every two hours. Only the next day, when her oxygen is back to 100 do they tell me her oxygen had been 93 the night before. That’s the lowest you go before you’re into the danger zone. Or that’s what they told me.
The next morning, sleep deprived, messy, still wearing my jeans from the day before, I load Birdy into the car, thankful she’s recovered so well. I’m relieved Birdy survived both the car crash and the asthma attack. I’m thrilled to be finally heading home. But I still can’t bring myself to take the M4.
Have you ever been concerned for your child’s safety? Have you seen your child suffer an asthma attack, anaphylaxis, convulsions or some other frightening health problem? Have you ever had a car accident with your child in the vehicle? How did you cope when your child was in danger?