I learned to skillfully manage his coughing fits by positioning him and patting him, and I was grateful he was my fifth baby, as nobody had any advice for how to manage the coughing spells.
I asked everyone what I could do for my son. They all said there was nothing. And NOTHING was the wrong answer. There was something, and it wasn’t until I saw the umpteenth specialist on the evening of our second day at Maine Med before someone finally explained it to me.
If only someone had taught me this simple, simple technique, I would not have held my son in my arms, unable to help him, wondering if he was going to suffocate while I watched.
Xavier was two months old when he began coughing. In spite of administering antibiotics at the first sign of a cough after we’d been exposed, he still developed a nasty case of pertussis. We spent time with doctors. I learned to skillfully manage his coughing fits by positioning him and patting him, and I was grateful he was my fifth baby, as nobody had any advice for how to manage the coughing spells.
One morning, as I slept with my son on his side beside me in the bed, I woke alarmed and realized his chest was hitching noiselessly, moving just barely as he struggle for breath. The mucous had blocked his airways and he could not even take a breath to cough. I sat up and mechanically began the positioning tricks that had become second nature, and foamy, frothy mucous began pouring from his nose and his mouth. I carried him to the hallway, shouting for my husband as I worked to get my baby to breathe, giving him instructions to grab the phone to call an ambulance and realizing there was not time for an ambulance. If my baby wouldn’t breathe, an ambulance would be too late. I sent my husband upstairs for our neighbor, who was an EMT, yanked a skirt over my naked torso, and ran into the yard to hand her my struggling baby, who finally began to draw shallow breaths.
I could tell you how when the doctor returned our call, she said he’d be ok if we brought him in first thing, and that the doctor we did see suggested there was nothing to do. I could tell you how our family doctor — who has since left the practice, sadly — did more research and called me late that afternoon, gently confirming what Google had told me long before my morning visit to the office — I should admit my son to the hospital, and not the local hospital, but Maine Medical Center or Boston Children’s.
I could tell you about the drive to drop my kids off at the sitter, pulling over frequently to take my boy from his seat and help him breathe, and I could tell you about the drive back, when he choked on his mucous again, or about the ambulance ride north where they insisted he be in a carseat for safety, but radioed the ER urgently when he fought to breathe again when we got close and I pulled him from the seat to help him clear the mucous. But that’s not what I came here to tell you.
Between coughing spasms, he was fine. His O2 sats were at 99%. He had no secondary infections, and I was fortunate that he was so very, very strong. I explained to everyone I spoke with that day and that night that I felt as if I’d only had a way to suction the mucous from deep in his throat, I could have helped him that morning much better. They all nodded solemnly. I asked everyone what I could do. They all said there was nothing.
And NOTHING was the wrong answer. This is what I’ve come here to tell you. There was something, and it wasn’t until I saw the umpteenth specialist on the evening of our second day at Maine Med before someone finally explained it to me.
As the room filled with the masked specialists and med students coming to learn what pertussis sounded like, Xavier finally had a really bad coughing spell when a medical professional was present to hear it. The doctor was examining him at the time, on his back, and she began calmly explaining to those attending that this baby has pertussis and this is what the classic whooping cough paroxyms sounded like, pleased that they would all have the chance to hear it. I was frantic — “You need to roll him over!” I said; “he needs help!”
The woman did not mask her annoyance with my urgency. She had a fine and rare opportunity for a live demonstration of whooping cough, and she did not want to turn him over just yet, but when I pressed, she whipped out a bulb syringe, tucked it into the back of his throat, and sucked out his mucous. I nursed him and he calmed.
THAT was the magic. I asked her about the suctioning, and she taught me how to take the blue bulb syringe, to be sure I depressed the bulb (and showed me the right way to do it with my thumb) BEFORE I put it into his mouth — because otherwise I could push the mucous down — and how to aim for the back of his throat to one side of his airway, because straight down and I would gag him, and release the bulb.
She taught me to pull the syringe out of his mouth, clear it, and do it again until his airway was clear.
By this time I’d seen at least 5 doctors and countless nurses over the course of nearly a week of the illness. NOT ONE OF THEM EVEN SUGGESTED I BUY A SYRINGE!!! I was a fifth time mother. I used those syringes for sucking boogers out of noses. I’d never been trained to use it for clearing the airway. Most parents haven’t.
If only someone had taught me this simple, simple technique, I would not have held my son in my arms, unable to help him, wondering if he was going to suffocate while I watched. From that moment on, I was never more than three feet from our bulb syringe. When we were in the car, it was tucked into his carseat beside him. It came to bed with us. It followed us everywhere we went for two months or so until the coughing spells finally began to fade away. Once, stuck in stop-and-go construction traffic in NYC with nowhere to pull over, he had a frightening coughing fit, and by then, the kids had learned the positioning techniques and I’d taught them to use the syringe if for any reason they ever needed it when I was out of earshot. They were able to pull him out of his carseat and help him clear his airway while I found a spot to pull off. Carseats were the worst, because it was the only time my son spent on his back.
Four of my children had whooping cough that summer, including my 2-month old and barely 2-year-old; my best friend and four of her kids had whooping cough that summer including HER barely 2-year-old. Several local families had it with all different vaccination statuses. Nobody had ever heard anything about the lowly bulb syringe and its amazing life-saving properties when it came to pertussis.
Please share this, and encourage others to share it as well. Carrying your baby in a wrap or sling will help protect her from germs, but in the end, she will get sick — and if it were your baby, you would wish someone had told you. I did.