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26th September 2014

When your baby is sick for the first time – and it may be serious

My four-month old daughter lie hacking on the examination table with a high fever. Was the world ending? No, but it felt like mine was. Anna had RSV.

Anna was born about four and half months earlier (a few days after my 30th birthday) and aside from the generally irritating traits of newborn babies, she was more or less a normal one.

She had already been through the three rounds of early vaccinations standard for Irish babies, including one for whooping cough. I know this because my California-based immunologist sister made me run through the list with her to see if Irelands’s vaccination programme was up to snuff.

Polio, diptheria, hepatitis B – it all checked out. She’d be getting what she needed. “But wait”, my sister said, “you should see if they’ll give her antibodies for RSV. It can be pretty bad when babies get it.”

So I carried out the perfunctory Google search and found that wow, it could be pretty bad, but that they generally only give the antibodies to high-risk babies with existing heart or lung conditions. The US was one thing, but there was no way I was going to convince an Irish doctor to give the injection to my healthy baby. And from what I read in the three minutes I spent on research, the risk of Anna contracting RSV seemed to be low. I shrugged, closed my browser tab and forgot about RSV, or Respiratory Syncytial Virus as it’s known by its full name.

“How long has she been coughing?” the hospital paediatrician asked hurriedly, as she buzzed between examination rooms. “Since Wednesday, but it’s been getting worse every day. Sometimes it seems to go on forever, we answered, already very tense from the sea of screaming toddlers in the waiting room. “It sounds like whooping cough,” she said plainly, “either that or RSV. Yeah, that sounds like an RSV cough to me.”

“WHAT?!” I screamed at myself from the inside but tried, probably unsuccessfully, to mask what I was thinking. “How could that happen? The risk was supposed to be low, otherwise they would give all babies those stupid antibodies right? She’s four months old for god’s sake. This is bad. This is really, really bad.” From my three minutes of research I was convinced of the three things: 1) RSV was rare disease; 2) RSV was life-threatening; 3) no matter what, my baby was spending the next month in hospital.

“We’ll have to test her snot to see if it’s RSV, whooping cough or the flu. You have to take her up to the paediatric intensive care ward where they have the machine to extract the snot from her nose.” And my worst fear was confirmed: Great. The paediatric intensive care ward, here we come. Let the misery begin.

We handed screaming young Anna (not yet calmed from her fever-suppressing suppository) over to two nurses, one of whom held her steady while the other connected one end of a tube to a tall machine and stuck the other up her nose. After striking out with her left nostril, they decided that her “good snot” seemed to be in the right one – a song and dance that served only to prolong her terror. After what felt like an eternity but was probably only five minutes, they got enough and we watched them commit the sample to a tiny bottle marked CARMICHAEL, Anna—the contents of which was to be dropped onto a rapid RSV test to see if the antigen associated with the virus was present.

Call back on Monday evening for the results they said. By then it was 8 o’clock Friday evening and rapid test or not, the lab guys don’t work weekends. In some hospitals, doctors can even do it on the spot in the exam room, but apparently this was not that kind of hospital.

After a quick stop at the after-hours pharmacy to stock up on baby ibuprofen, we arrived at home, exhausted and dumbstruck by what felt basically like the worst thing that had ever happened to us. I played the “brave-face” show, telling my wife it’s no big deal while counting the seconds until I could get some alone time to scream in agony into my pillow while she camped out in the living room where we’d put Anna’s cradle alongside the couch.

It was honestly the first time I felt an emotion that deep and it freaked me out. Even as I write this, sitting on a crowded commuter train, I can feel the drain of that moment and it must be showing on my face. Apparently, that’s parenthood(!?).

For a good twenty minutes, I was convinced that it was all over. That there was no coming back from RSV. No more baby. Then probably no more marriage. Nothing.

And then I did the thing you’re never supposed to do when it comes to your kid’s health: I googled it again. I found out that 6 out of 10 infants get RSV within the first year of their life. Yes, they can be hospitalised if they can’t keep fluids in and yes, death is possible. But it usually doesn’t go that way. Even if the patient is a four-month old girl.

If we could keep her food in and get her to relax while we used an aspirator to break up the junk in her lungs, the whole thing would pass within ten days.

And within a week it had passed.

We got lucky, but other babies with heart, lung or other conditions might not. I couldn’t help but ask myself how those parents deal with stuff like that. How could they even bear to stand up and function when I almost collapsed in fear over something that was basically a routine head cold in comparison? I freaked out and I’ll probably freak out a hundred more times in the years to come. But apparently, that’s parenthood.

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