Family

When My Son Got Too Calm

I knew kids were getting sicker this year. I wasn’t prepared for when it happened to us.

The author, wearing a black mask, holds his son in a hospital room.
The author and his son. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Aymann Ismail.

It’s indescribable what you feel when you see your kid hooked up to machines in a hospital. He’s just barely a year old, and he’s got tubes in his nose feeding him oxygen, a tiny IV hooked into his tiny arm, and, like, five wires taped to his body to monitor his vitals. He was just getting the hang of walking, and now I need to keep him pinned down and distracted so he doesn’t accidentally yank the stress tape on his cheeks that’s keeping the oxygen tube in place.

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We didn’t know at first what was making it hard for him to breathe. Initially, I barely noticed that he was struggling at all. It was early September. Summer was ending, and my son had been sick pretty much nonstop since he’d started day care a few months prior. We laughed and sent videos to our family of him blowing snot bubbles. It seemed normal—all kids get sick at day care. When he started coughing and got a fever, we thought it was just another thing he’d picked up. We gave him baby Tylenol and extra milk, and rocked him to sleep.

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He beat the fever, but the cough lingered. Then, one morning, after he woke us up by yelling from his crib like he always does, my wife and I noticed he was calmer than usual. We picked him up and changed his diaper, and he didn’t fight back. When we took him out of his pajamas to get him ready for breakfast, my wife noticed his belly pumping up and down extremely hard. Then we noticed his breathing was louder, as if he were pulling and pushing with his entire body.

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This is called seesaw breathing. I remembered reading about it before he was born, in one of the baby books. He wasn’t getting enough air, and his whole body needed to compensate. My wife called the pediatrician right away for an appointment. They were too busy to see us, but they referred us to another branch that could. I was worried, but it didn’t feel like an emergency. My wife, very pregnant with our second child, even decided to stay home. I thought my son’s body might relax as soon as we got there.

It didn’t. I told the receptionist we were there because I was worried about my son’s breathing, and they saw us right away. A nurse examined his chest, listened to his breathing, and measured his oxygen saturation. She looked startled. “Let’s just give it time to settle,” she said, staring at the oximeter attached to his finger. It was reading somewhere around 75 percent. “Sometimes with babies this small, the number isn’t always accurate,” she said. It climbed a little, to 78 percent, but no more. She looked nervous, which made me nervous. “I’m going to get the doctor,” she said. She rushed out.

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I don’t think I was scared at this point. My son looked calm. He wasn’t trying to flick the oximeter off his finger. I had no idea that his oxygen was dangerously low. The doctor and three nurses rushed through the door. The doctor took one look at his chest and stomach, still seesawing, and told me he needed steroids right away. I asked, “Steroids?!” “Your baby is in distress!” she shouted. “Oxygen saturation under 92 percent is dangerous, and he’s not even hitting 80 percent.”

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More people rushed into the room, one with an oxygen tank. The tiny room was now crowded, and my son began panicking and crying. The nurse with the oxygen tank tried to attach a tiny breathing mask to his face. My son swatted at it, so I held his arms and tried whispering Quranic verses into his ear. It got so loud in the room that there was no calming him down. Another nurse stuck his thigh with a needle. “The steroids should keep him from getting too tired to breathe,” she said. All I could do was squeeze his body tightly so the pediatric staff could work.

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I felt as if I were outside my body. I was still calm, focusing only on trying to calm my son down. I still didn’t believe he was in that much danger. My mind didn’t catch up until the paramedics arrived. We were being rushed to the hospital. The verses I recited into my son’s ear were interrupted by the reality crashing down on me. “Shit,” I said quietly to myself. The first nurse who’d seen us was gathering my things while I kept my arms wrapped tightly around my son. “Is any of this normal?” I asked her. “Honestly? No,” she said.

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I called my wife from the ambulance. I was scared. I was holding the oxygen mask to my son’s face and took a selfie. My son loves seeing himself on camera. It was the first time he’d smiled at me in forever. In that moment, he was the one comforting me.

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We got to the emergency room pretty quickly. Because we were brought in by ambulance, my son was admitted right away. They attached him to more oxygen, this time through a breathing tube that was quickly fastened, with tape, to his poor, tiny baby cheeks. He was elated to see his mom, who came to meet us. We usually take shifts taking care of him, so when we’re both around, he gets extra smiley.

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His oxygen saturation had improved slightly. He was fluctuating around 90 percent, which was far less dangerous but still not great, especially for a baby on oxygen assistance. I wondered if this was RSV, the virus that is putting hospitals into overdrive this season and catching even doctors by surprise. The doctor who examined him told us that she still needed to run some tests before she could tell us what was going on, but she had a strong suspicion that our son had bronchiolitis, a common complication of RSV that, in his case, may have actually been caused by a rhinovirus, or a common cold. The condition makes it difficult for kids to breathe on their own.

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Hours later, we were picked up by another ambulance and transferred to a hospital better equipped to treat our son. We were admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit, where almost every room was occupied by children showing similar symptoms. “He’s going to be OK,” a nurse assured me.

His breathing was already better. He was getting treated with a combination of steroids and breathing medicine, and he was responding well. The doctor confirmed he had bronchiolitis—but that was good news, because they now knew exactly what to do. They couldn’t just cure him, but they could keep his oxygen from getting dangerously low long enough for his system to flush out the virus.

We stayed in that hospital for four days and three nights. The nurses were sweet, checking in and sometimes bringing my son new toys to play with. My wife and I took turns staying with him, and bringing him fresh fruit and his favorite cereals.

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On the last day, my son’s breathing got much better, and the doctor came into our room to hand us packets on caring for kids with asthma. “He’s too young to be diagnosed for it, but he’s showing all the signs,” she told us. She gave us prescriptions for albuterol and budesonide, and told us we’ll need to regularly administer them for several weeks, as well as anytime he gets sick in the future.

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One moment in that conversation broke my heart. She asked us where we lived. I told her we’re in the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey. The doctor didn’t say anything, but she didn’t have to. She nodded as if to say, Yeah, that makes sense. Where we live, 1 in 4 children has asthma, three times the national average, because of the intense pollution. I was raised here, too, and I have asthma. I had contemplated whether to stay in the neighborhood, but a big move would have been tough financially when my son was born. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking I had caused this.

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It’s been several weeks since we brought him home, and we haven’t stopped giving him the medication. He’s still pretty much always sick. Last week, his coughing got particularly coarse. We called the pediatrician again, but they told me this time they were so overrun with cases of RSV that they won’t be able to see us. My son had a fever and runny nose, and it sounded like he was breathing through a ton of mucus. We rolled the dice and kept him home, since we had the medicine he was prescribed. He seemed to respond well, and after about a week, he didn’t need it anymore.

The emotional toll, though, has lingered. I know that many parents out there, right now at this moment, are just at the beginning of what we experienced. I hope they know they’re not alone.

This article has been updated since it was first published for clarity.

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