Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Choking on the fragility of life

When Isla emerged from her swimming lesson at Crystal Beach, her lips were blue. Her skin was a carpet of goose bumps. She’d been in the water for an hour. The sky was overcast, absent of friendliness or warmth, a quilt of steel gray.

I wrapped her little, shivering body in a towel and sent her straight to the car. “Go on the grass,” I said. “Follow the lawn until you see our car. It will be nice and warm in there. Don’t go through the parking lot. I’ll be right behind you.”

It didn’t occur to me to say, “Don’t eat any candy!” because I didn’t know she had any candy.

I walked across the short, empty beach to where Esther and her friends were sitting on a blanket under a tree watching YouTube videos on an iPod Touch, the gateway drug for handheld gadget addiction. We hesitated a moment to admire a family of fuzzy baby ducks waddling across the grass.
“C’mon, Esther,” I said. “Isla’s already in the car.”

Esther jumped up, picked up her things and headed toward the parking lot. I followed her and, as socially-deprived parents tend to do, stopped to chat with several other moms along the way. When I got to the car I opened the back door and put my bags into the back. I rummaged around to find something the kids could snack on while we drove home, so they wouldn’t beg to stop at Dunkin Donuts like we did the day before.

Before I could do anything, Esther said, “Isla’s choking on something.”

“What do you mean, something?” I said.

“I don’t know. She’s choking,” she said, a recognizable edge of panic in her voice.

I went around and opened Isla’s door. She was in her booster seat, struggling to breathe. She coughed, once, twice, but then I only heard gurgling.

“What is she eating? What on earth is she eating?” I yelled, unbuckling her seatbelt and lifting her outside. I pried open her hands and found three soggy Dots candies.

“Where did she get these?” I shrieked as I pounded on her back and bent her over.

“I don’t know,” Esther yelled back.

There’s no way I can tell you everything that happened next. I suspected I should be doing the Heimlich, but wasn’t sure if Isla was too small. I got behind her and reached around, all the while looking around,wondering if it would be better to yell for help, or keep doing whatever pathetic thing I was doing.

I do remember the trajectory of my emotions, from fear, to anger, to disbelief to anger, to  fear to eventual panic once it occurred to me that if I didn’t do the right thing, Isla  could actually die, right then and there.

But she couldn't die right here, right now in this beach parking lot, wearing only her bathing suit, with her mother smacking her on the back. Could she? She wouldn't die like this. Would she?

There's a surreal quality to the moment when you realize that, yes, your child could die right in front of your eyes, right in front of all those people standing there watching you, some friends and some strangers, all with concerned looks on their faces, and cell phones poised, as you try to remember how to do the Heimlich maneuver.

Lucky for me, and for Isla, a friend, a young woman who looks after one of Esther’s friends when her mom is busy, a woman who works with  kids with development issues and special education needs , a woman who also works as a lifeguard, a woman who is so confident and comfortable in times of crisis, she later told me she has saved an untold amount of kids, and adults, from choking, appeared.

When she saw me pounding Isla on the back, she ran towards us and grabbed her from me. She did a few Heimlich moves. Then she also tried some back blows. Isla started to cough and coughed up a small piece of chewy candy. “Is there more in there,” Jen asked. Isla nodded yes. Her eyes were getting bloody and  a horrifying gurgling sound escaped from her throat.

Esther started to scream. Someone took her away. I remained strangely numb. Stoic. A woman standing nearby asked if she should call 911. My head reeled. “This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening. This isn’t happening.”

Isla started to gag and cough and spit up some more. Then she spoke. “Am I going to the hospital?” she said.

Then the gurgling noise again. Then another big gag and then, there on the blacktop, lying in a puddle of spit, was a completely intact yellow Dot candy. When it was over, 911 calls retracted, and  Isla could speak again, and Esther had calmed down, we sat in the open back of the car and hugged and laughed nervously.

“Where on earth did you get that candy?” I said, desperately grasping for something tangible. “I have never bought you Dots.”

“Daddy bought them for me yesterday," she said. "They were in the car.”

“Were you trying to eat them fast before anyone saw you eating them, by any chance, Isla?”


“Do you think choking on Dots is better than being scolded by mommy for eating candy at 11 in the morning?”


"Death to Dots!” I said out loud. “Death to fucking Dots!” I screamed on the inside. Death to the constant fear of death. Isla’s not a toddler. She’s seven years old for crying out loud. Seven. Who on earth would imagine a seven year old choking to death on a piece of candy. Will I never, ever be able to let my shoulders relax and feel sure my children won’t die or be maimed somehow, every day of their lives? It appears not. 
Motherhood is relentless.

Then we got in the car, backed out of the parking lot, pulled onto the highway and headed home as if nothing had happened. Nothing had changed. Life goes on.

Nobody spoke. That car was stone silent. I tried to focus on my driving, feeling suddenly vulnerable on that narrow road with nothing but a guardrail between our car and the short cliff that dropped down to the lake. I reached back and held Isla’s hand. It was cold. Then I reached for Esther’s hand.

That poor girl carries such a burden when it comes to her little sister’s suffering. 
My mind kept returning to that place, that moment when I was unsure that Isla would breathe again, when I felt the most complete absence of control over life and death, over anything. And the tears finally came. They came from someplace deep, hot and familiar. And their source seemed endless.

There was no sobbing, or urge to sob, accompanying those tears. Just hot liquid pouring forth through my eyes. Crying is so strange. It feels so animalistic, yet I know of no other animals besides humans who do it.

I cried the entire 20 miles back to our house, keeping my eyes fixed firmly to the road for fear if I turned my head even slightly, Isla and Esther would see me.

For some reason, I didn’t want them to know just what a wreck I would be without them.

This happened nearly a month ago. I only just now have managed to be able to put it into words. I've been feeling a bit floored by the fragility of motherhood. I'm also kind of obsessed with the thought that there is only so many accidents your child can have on a mother's watch before someone wonders what the heck is wrong with that child's mother. I know, I know. Balderdash. Right? 

(More than 12,300 kids per year visit Emergency rooms for choking on food. I posted about this over at BabyCenter as well. )


Hilary B said...

Oh Betsy this was very emotional to read. What a terrifying experience for Isla, yourself and Ester. Glad she came through ok. This reminds me of a time my sister was leading her horse around in a walk by the reigns. My then 7yr old son was riding. While she briefly let go of the reigns turning to chat with me out of nowhere the horse took off running. In those moments where it became clear the horse couldn't be stopped & my son couldn't regain control of the reigns (actually didn't know to), the terrified, panic that I felt was nothing I had known up to that point of parenting. All I could think as my sister & I sprinted toward the horse, was 'he's gonna fall & be trampled upon'.'Upon is head, neck, back'. In those briefest of seconds I like you was hit with the thought my child may die right before my eyes(I still tear up). Long story short, my son landed clear of the pounding hooves of the horse, somehow, miraculously. I ran to him & scooped him up, both of us crying hard but the relief that I felt made my knees weak. Poor guy, however, did take it directly to his forehead & face, also jammed his thumb into the ground (grass & dirt) which ended up broken. No concussion even, but a huge goose egg to the forehead, cut lip & bruised eyes.Your quote. "I've been feeling a bit floored by the fragility of motherhood." I feel it too. Motherhood is intense & consuming in regards to the amount of worry & guilt that goes along.

Was Living Down Under said...

Oh Betsy. This has left me with tears. I am so glad it all worked out - that you were close by, that Esther went to the car when she did and that there were others on hand to help you. It always amazes me how you can watch something unfold and still not move at the speed that you need to. I am so paranoid about choking I still cut my children's grapes for them. But we cannot control everything can we?

"I'm also kind of obsessed with the thought that there is only so many accidents your child can have on a mother's watch before someone wonders what the heck is wrong with that child's mother. I know, I know. Balderdash. Right?" Yes - balderdash. Though I completely understand the feeling.

Really happy she's OK. Thank you for sharing.

Andrea said...

Sometimes it feels as if motherhood is a whole series of accidents... and they creep up on you just when you think the coast is clear... there is no way you could have prevented that! I would guess that Isla will be really careful with candy from now on, poor Isla (and poor Esther and poor you!).

Robin said...

Oh, Betsy, can I reassure you that one of my best friends had almost this exact thing happen with her son, although the offending food was a Cheeto, not exactly a known choking hazard. Dots, cheetos, a piece of fruit, whatever. It happens. But she had the same panic and fear and lack of certainty, but she happened to be at a block party with a neighbor who had been an EMT, who did just what your friend did.

Both of my children almost knocked their front teeth out on more than one occasion. And by almost, I mean loosened, trip to dentist, and both ended up with one front baby tooth that discolored. The second time my son went to the dentist with a huge fat lip and bloody loose front tooth, I though the same thing: how many times can one parent let the same thing happen to the same two kids? But short of keeping them in a bubble and feeding them a liquid diet, what can any of us do?

Robin said...

Oh, and I'm a different Robin from the one who commented at BabyCenter. You have two loyal readers with the same name. 😊

Kingsmom said...

Betsy, my heartbeat is in my throat. I worry about everything and even more about my ability to react under pressure. I'm so happy this turned out the way it did.

mooserbeans said...

You are the second mom blogger to post about choking this summer http://brittanyherself.com/2013/07/06/andy-hero/

I don't know what it is about the youngest child. Everyday with my youngest, I have countless near misses. She is 8 and I should be able to relax by now, right? Some days I feel like she'll be tethered to me for the rest of my life. I am so glad that you had a friend near by to help.

Kristi said...

Reading this made me sick. You described the emotions perfectly that I almost literally couldn't read them. I'm so sad you had to go through that. And balderdash! Yes! Accidents happen.

Jo said...

This brought tears to my eyes. Motherhood is indeed relentless. I have an Isla; mine is almost two and insanely accident prone. Earlier this year she had a febrile seizure and the very next day a concussion...I could go on but I'll stop.

Being a mother makes you so incredibly vulnerable. It's almost unbelievable! I told my mother a few months ago, after pulling a tick out of my Isla's head, that If I had known how it would be, how absolutely nothing in the whole world could ever prepare you for those terrifying moments, I might not have had children. I don't regret them in the slightest, I just don't know if I have the emotional stamina that they require.

Kris&Kay said...

Omgosh Im lying in bed at 12:13 am crying. Soso frightening. Youre so detailed about everything!! It is really scary. My daughter is 3. Shes always been a "non choker" until recently. She would eat like a vacuum and I would patiently wait just "knowing" one of the moments like yours was bound to happen. When my daughter gets excited about something she tends to inhale deeply....I do the same thing like a surprised "huh". Well of course she was eating cereal one day and inhaled....then choked. It was nothing like your ordeal but it was just her and I and I remember thinking I knew she was going to do that while eating one day dammit I knew it!!!! I rushed over and she was getting a little red but was coughing then it finally came up but I remember saying oh my God I dont really know what to do for her at this age aside from your instinctual back patting (which can make it worse) or reaching in there. I knew what to do when she was an infant....what would I do? She had another incident a cpl days later out to dinner with our family....calamari. i cut it into small pieces but one opened up longer apparently. She coughed again and gagged (she has a great gag reflex so I think that helps lol ) I reached in to take what I thought would be a chunk out but was actually a long piece a bit longer than my pinky that was down her throat a little ways. It flashed me back to a time when I was very young and got one single strand of pasta literally stuck partially in my throat and mouth. Unbelievable. Thank you so much for your story and for the great detail. I felt like I was there. Heres to no choking or anything else bad ever happening to our children!!!!

Liz F. said...

I could feel the fear... I'm so glad Isla is okay. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

O.k., so you got me crying! The trials of motherhood are never ending! I'm glad that Isla is alright. I don't imagine that she'll be doing that again! I was always afraid of grapes..... Poor Esther really takes Isla's fragility to heart. She's the perfect big sister.

I missed you! I'm glad that you're here writing again.


cheyenna said...


Emma said...

Ruby is a choker and it terrifies me. Her issue is that she eats and talks at the same time and she has had some really awful choking episodes. My biggest fear is that it will happen when I'm not there.

Sending you hugs and empathy! xx

Anonymous said...

Oh my, I am sitting here with my eyes wide and hand clasp over my mouth. I am terrified and just want to give you the biggest mommy hug EVER to console us both. And as for Ester, sounds like she is just like my oldest, watching over and concerned. like a mini me, over his little brother. I was the same way as a kid with my sister. It must be natural, with the age difference. Kids hit 10 or 11 yrs. and realize things about life they never used to before.

Hugs to you Betsy. I hope you never have to post another story like this, but thankful that you do. xo

mizzee/melissa joy

Anonymous said...

Your story terrifies me. I'm so relieved that Isla is OK!

I already wrote on Baby Center re. your article. Yesterday we just signed up a baby sitter for our daughter. I´ve been with my daughter for 3 years and need some time for myself. Anyway, I was insisting on how much knowledge the baby sitter had re. first-aid and choking, and well, not much. All of this because of our own 1-time choking experience with our daughter when she was 18 months.

After reading your article, I just called the Red Cross and have signed our baby sitter up for an 8 hour course on first aid for children!!! (We'll pay for her to go, etc. and I'll be going as well, as it is really something, I think, one should do every year as a refresher).

Devorah Shore said...

Wow, i could barely read that. I had to walk away a few times from the computer before I could finish it. I am so glad that Isla is ok! Thank you for the reminder to be vigilent about choking hazards.

Tina G said...

So relieved the outcome was happy- choking has always been my #1 mom- fear for my kids. Big Hug from one mom to another.

Anonymous said...

Another tear jerker, you do it everytime Betsy. So glad everything turned out well, and Isla is ok. Have you ever heard that saying, something like, "whenever there's a tradgedy, look around. You'll see all the angels."
It's amazingly true. There's always someone there helping. Someone whose one and only goal at that moment in time is to offer assistance and make the situation better.

Keep talking, we're listening.

ps - I still fear the hell outta grapes.

Anonymous said...

I read your article and though 'need to brush up on my first aid skills' and the following week my 6 year old almost choked to death on a coin. it was the most terrifying day of my life. I still need to call and schedule a first aid class.

Lea Singh said...

I have three little children and choking is one of my constant fears. This post sums up very poignantly the terrifying experience of watching your own child choke. Thanks be to God that all was well in the end!

Lea Singh said...
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Lea Singh said...
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Rain Clair said...

When I was 9 years old, I was alone in the house because my mother took my little brothers to the neighbors to play and my dad was at work. I decided to sneak a giant bowl of butter pecan ice cream. I started wolfing it down to avoid being discovered and swallowed a pecan piece. The pecan lodged in my throat and suddenly I could not breath, I could not cough...I was choking! I panicked and started trying to make it to my mother. I was getting light headed, my lungs were burning, snot was pouring out of my nose, I was staring to see spots and feel tingling in my extremities. I realized I was not going to make it to my mother and if I didn't breath very soon I was going to die. I looked around and saw a fence post. I climbed on to the fence, positioned myself over the fence post and dropped my myself into the post. I did it again and finally dislodged the pecan! I fell down on the ground and vomited. I could breath and I was sobbing hysterically. I got up and ran to my neighbor's and into my mother's arms. In between sobs I told her I had almost choked to death, but I think she thought I was being a drama queen! I will never forget how it felt to be choking to death! Worst feeling I have ever had in my life. Your daughter must have been terrified!

Karin B (Do Overs in Denver) said...

Betsy -- Karin here (formerly An Alien Parisienne). I was re-reading my final post there at my old blog and re-read your lovely comment to me, so I came over to see what was up in Betsy's world, as it has been a good, long while. I landed on this one...

OH MY WORD. Terrifying. Completely. So hard to watch this stuff happen to your own kid. I am glad for the friend that stepped in. In fact, I have been that kind of person this summer just having gone through a refresher course in First Aid for summer day camp (which is now over and I am at an after-school care program).

Weird thing is (in choosing this story to read on your blog), just the other night my grandmother, who turned 94 on Saturday, started choking on meat in a similar fashion during her birthday dinner. I am glad that I was able to step in, and fortunately did not need the Heimlich. BUT, I was prepared. And I felt qualified and knew exactly what I needed to do when everyone else was frozen with not knowing.

You know: it's a good thing for all parents and people working with kids on a regular basis to have a First Aid refresher course. It gives a little bit of peace and presence of mind in that moment where you are going, "HOLY F*CK! WHAT DO I DO?"

I'm so glad all turned out well. WHEW.

Love to you from Denver, Betsy. Looks like other than the Dots Incident, it has been a good summer for you all. (I'll catch up on some other posts to make sure that is the case, lol.)