This is a post Lisa Oldfield wrote for Mamamia in 2015…
I had only ever once before heard a sound that dreadful.
It was the sound my little dog made when she was hit by a car. The sound encapsulated shock, pain and death. It’s a sound that haunts you, that even on remembering, delivers a gut punch and is impossible to forget.
Last Friday, I heard a similar, agonising high-pitched scream. Except this time it did not emanate from a poor, unfortunate animal.
This time it came from me.
Only minutes before, I’d arrived home from work. I threw my bag and briefcase on the counter, kicked off my heels. My beautiful little boys, Harry, four, and Bertie, two, were sitting with their au-pair, Stella, making play-doh dinosaurs.
“Harry the Heartbreaker and Bertie the Jawbreaker” are how my pair are known to family and friends.
Harry is a gentleman, he loves the ladies, has a wonderful, innate kindness and is something of an intellectual and a lateral thinker. When asked at school “Imagine you were being chased by a dinosaur, what would you do?” Harry replied “I would simply stop imagining”.
Bertie is like a whirling dervish. Incredibly physical and already displaying extraordinary sporting prowess, Bertie enjoys running away at shopping centres and waking me up by swan diving on my unsuspecting person.
But that night, they both looked a little glum. They’d picked up a cold from kindy and were snotty and fractious. I kissed Harry’s forehead - he was warm.
Stella and I decided we’d give them an early night. I’d pop on dinner and she’d give them a bath. Once fed and a story was read, it was off to bed.
Downstairs in the kitchen, peeling spuds, I could hear Stella upstairs running the bath and managing the peanut gallery: “I want to take ALL my dinos in the bath” and “I’m NOT getting in there, Dirty Bertie did a wee ”.
Stella is an angel, like a very much loved big sister of the boys. Never once, in all her time as part of our family, had she raised her voice or lost her temper with them.
That’s why I found it difficult to process when I heard Stella sharply rebuke Harry – “Don’t do that Harry! Come back Harry! STOP IT Harry!”
What on Earth? He must have done something very naughty and out of character.
I put down the vegetable peeler and made for the stairs. Stella, now screaming “Help! Please HELP!”
Running, I reached the bottom of the stairs, I looked up and saw Stella, wild-eyed, hysterical, holding a wet and lifeless Harry in her arms.
That’s when I heard the ungodly, primal scream and realised it was from me.
My legs felt leaden as I climbed those 17 stairs to Stella and Harry. I begged God not to take my baby. This can’t happen. He’s only 4.Then I cursed God, how dare he take my baby?
David? David? Where is David? My husband, he’d know what to do. I screamed his name. I screamed so loud, that later my chest ached for days.
I snatched Harry from Stella. He was burning hot to touch. He was a dead weight. He wasn’t breathing. He’d drowned. How did he drown? He was in 4 inches of water?
“What happened? Stella, please tell me, what happened?”
The same question asked again, this time to both of us. David, now by my side, was taking Harry from me.
David put Harry down on the cold marble floor and checked his vitals. “Lisa, ring an ambulance."
“Don’t let him die David. Please don’t let him die. He’s not breathing. Give him mouth-to-mouth. Do CPR!”
My phone? Where was my phone? I ran downstairs. Shaking I found it, trying to dial the emergency number. In a surreal moment, I found myself asking “what is the number for triple-zero?”
It was ringing. The operator asked “Emergency – Fire, Police, Ambulance?”
“Ambulance, please. Please, please, PLEASE get me an ambulance.”
Connection seemed an eternity. I counted twelve, thirteen, fourteen rings and still my call was dialing through. “What is happening?” I screamed at the operator.
Then click, a woman was on the phone, I babbled, I cried “My little boy, he is 4. He’s dying.”
“Where is he now?”
“He’s on the floor?”
“Is anyone with him?”
“My husband. His father.”
“Put him on speakerphone.”
I ran back in to the room. Bert, was only wearing a towel, wrestling a sobbing Stella to get closer to his brother.
David was on his knees, taking control of the situation, answering the dispatcher’s questions, his ear hovering over Harry. Harry’s tiny wrist was in David’s huge fingers as he checked his pulse.
“I have him in the recovery position, his breathing is shallow, but he is breathing. He has a pulse. It is racing.”
The dispatcher continued to talk to David. Asking him questions, giving instructions.
David appeared calm, he tended to Harry, who right now seemed as small and helpless as the day he was born. I started to breathe: Maybe Harry was going to be OK.
My eyes flitted between Harry and David, then the cadence reached a panicked crescendo once again.
“Just tell me an ambulance is on its way,” David growled at the dispatcher.
“It’s 8 minutes away.”
I spent the next few minutes answering questions about my son – his date of birth, the fact that his real name is Henry, he had no allergies.
All this happening in a room away from Harry. I needed somewhere quiet to answer the questions, away from Stella and Bert crying. Honestly, I was too scared to look at Harry. It seemed ridiculous, every ounce of my being wanted to comfort Harry, but I was dumbstruck with fear.
Then, I heard the sirens. I fumbled with the outdoor lights to clear a path for the ambos. I ran outside to open the gates. It was raining and I didn’t have shoes on, the gravel was piercing my feet. But it didn’t hurt. Is that what shock feels like?
In a blur, I took the two paramedics upstairs. Harry, still naked, still wet, still unconscious, his arms painfully contorted. Was he brain damaged? That’s OK, I thought, I can deal with brain damage.
I just can’t lose him.
Huddled around Harry, the paramedics started to talk to him, trying to rouse him, checking his pulse, taking his temperature. Harry was shaking and made a little moan.
The room was freezing. Who the hell had opened all the windows on this freezing cold night when my little boy was naked and wet on the floor? I started closing the windows and gathered up a blanket to cover him.
“No, please keep the windows open and don’t cover him,” said one of the ambos.
“But he’s shaking. He’s cold.”
“No, he’s actually very hot. His temperature is 41 degrees.”
Listen to Lisa Oldfield's No Filter interview with Mia Freedman. Post continues after.
That’s when the paramedic started to explain what happened. Harry had experienced a febrile convulsion. Effectively, it was a seizure caused by high temperature. Already a little unwell and with a fever, the warm bath that I’d asked Stella to prepare tipped Harry to the point where his little body couldn’t cope and his body went into convulsions.
Whilst horrific to watch, Harry, like the 1 in 30 kids who experience febrile convulsion, would make a full recovery. They were going to take Harry to hospital to run some tests and manage his fever.
David started to dress Harry in light clothes and carried him to the ambulance. I put on some shoes and a jacket and gathered Harry’s favourite cuddly dinosaur, Steve.
Still unconscious, and with an oxygen mask over his little face, Harry and I rode in the ambulance. David, Stella and Bertie followed in the car behind us.
Looking at him, hot silent tears ran down my face.
In an attempt to comfort me, the paramedic said, “You should be very proud of your husband. He did everything right. He knew to cool the room, put Harry in the recovery position and most importantly, stayed calm.”
“The only time kids with febrile convulsion are in any danger is when their parents panic. Because the experience is so terrifying, they start resuscitation, blowing carbon dioxide in to their lungs, causing thoracic damage when performing CPR.”
That’s when it hit me. The only danger to my son was me.
I had panicked.
I never established what had happened to Harry and had assumed he had drowned.
I would have performed resuscitation.
I would have wrapped him in blankets, further spiking his temperature.
This wasn’t right. My job is to look after these boys. Not harm them. Surely I wasn’t the only parent that would have made these mistakes?
Six hours later, after experiencing extraordinary care and every imaginable test at Royal North Shore’s Paediatric ward, Harry was discharged.
Exhausted, he slept the whole way home. David carried him in to my room and put him to bed. That night, I lay next to him, watching the soft rise and fall of his chest and stroking his hair, processing competing feelings of relief, gratitude and guilt.
I had to turn this in to something positive. Otherwise, the footage of Harry, wet and lifeless, accompanied by the sound track of my scream would play on a continuous loop in my mind.
I’d done First Aid at school. I had posted a CPR chart on the pool fence long before it was mandatory. There were several emergency kits around the home - I thought I was prepared.
I started to investigate a refresher course. I found Kids First Aid, a nationwide network of paramedics that teach First Aid to parents and carers.
Stella and I attended a 3 hour session. Surrounded by pregnant ladies, new mums and dads, grandparents. I couldn’t help but think we should have done this years ago.
I was amazed at how much we DIDN’T know.
This video is a quick, one minute guide to understanding how to handle a febrile seizure. (Post continues after video.)
For instance, my first reaction to a choking child would have been to fish the obstruction out of their mouth. No: You turn the child over, head down and firmly, administer back blows to dislodge the object.
We walked out of there feeling more confident and wanting to share with everyone what we knew, which is why I am sharing my story.
My two takeaways for you, the reader, are these:
First and foremost, DON’T PANIC. Yes, even though this old chestnut is drilled in to us, time and time again, and easy to say when it’s not your child or loved one in distress, but you are no help to anyone if you can’t focus on assessing and dealing with the situation. And like me, you could cause more harm than good.
Secondly, equip yourselves with life-saving skills. Whether it is a course through Kids First Aid, St John’s Ambulance, Red Cross or one of the many first aid course video series on the internet, if you feel your knowledge and confidence in this area is wanting, make it an immediate priority to bring yourself up to speed.
My mouth still dries and my bowels still shake when I think about that Friday night, and how I let my Harry down. But I am also grateful that, should such a thing happen again (and with two little rambunctious boys to look after for many years to come, it will) - I’m ready for it.
Note to readers: This story is one woman's experience with febrile convulsions under the guidance of medical professionals. You should seek information from your doctor about the treatment, management and first aid responses that may be relevant for your child.
Have you had any experiences with a febrile convulsion? Are you going to refresh your first aid skills?