A doctor called me an irresponsible parent

Whatever fears you may have as a parent or as someone who cares for young children become all too real when you enter a children’s hospital. Hearing children crying and screaming — because of a burn, or a broken arm, or a doctor’s examination they are scared of — is haunting.

But what may be even worse is the silence at night, when you hear only the beeps of machines and the odd sobbing of a patient or a relative. That is when it all feels hopeless and terrifying — even if hospitals are, when they work, places where hope can be restored, where diseases can be cured and where broken limbs can be fixed.

But I was not feeling that optimistic when my son León, who is 20 months old, was hospitalised recently. It happened at night. When we were taken to our transparent cubicle where we would spend the night, all I could see were some very young babies plugged into IVs, and I could not shake this feeling of doom off me.

In retrospect, it’s easy to say that León is fine now and that what happened to him was relatively minor, albeit very scary. Yet, something about the way we were treated at the hospital and the whole experience in of itself sparked many reflections about how quickly our society blames parents for anything that goes wrong, and of how we process difficult experiences involving young children.

A very hard day

It all started on one of those crazy days. Both our children (León, 20 months old, Lorenzo, five and a half) were at home on a workday because of the European elections. Our babysitter was not available, and my partner Nacho and I were juggling deadlines and meetings.

In the day’s millionth hour, Lorenzo decided to eat some pistachios. León wanted some too. Now, some of you may be shocked (though some of you may not be — this is how crazy parenting can be) that we feed León some nuts from time to time, making sure we supervise him and that he bites through them.

I am the lucky mother of two very active and physical children who hardly ever sit still. León, for example, does not believe in eating at his high chair. He spends most of his time standing in it, or trying to get out of it. So while he was sitting there chewing a pistachio, he jumped off the high chair, head down. Nacho was next to him, and was quick enough to catch him midair. But in the process, León started choking. We gave him some back blows, and he coughed harder, and some small pieces of chewed pistachios eventually came out.

It was a very scary moment.

The day continued. Among other things, León ran into the corner of a table and developed a huge bump on his forehead. But if you ask me or parents of other energetic children, this is the description of a very regular day.

An unexpected emergency

Fast-forward a couple of days. León has a cough. He sleeps badly and is not eating as usual. We keep him at home from daycare, thinking he has caught a virus. But then something about his breathing worries us — it seems a little too agitated and shallow. We book a paediatrician appointment.

Nacho takes him to see the doctor and explains that León’s cough started the same day that he almost choked. The paediatrician is worried. She thinks there are some food residues in León’s lungs, writes it all down and says we need to rush to the ER.

León seems fine, though. In the car, he repeats sounds back to us, and even says the word “Maradona” back to Nacho. (No, it is not his first word, but I guess that would make a good story given he is half-Argentinian, half-Neapolitan.)

When we arrive at the ER, the nurses are sceptical. The child looks totally fine, why should they even have him examined if the pistachio incident happened five days before, and the child is laughing and running around? We insist on our paediatrician’s report and eventually get to see a doctor, who is just as sceptical. He says it is unlikely León has anything, but that since we are there, he will do an X-ray just in case.

A part of me really wishes this doctor is right — it is past León’s bedtime and he is unmanageable, and all the children’s screaming and crying around us does not help. Another part of me also knows that León has not been well — and we know this. To an outside person, he may seem fine, but something is surely amiss.

When the X-ray results come back, the doctor looks surprised. “There is indeed a foreign body in his lungs, and he needs to be hospitalised,” he says. We are told that León cannot drink or eat anything for eight hours because he needs to get a bronchoscopy — a small tube would be inserted in his mouth and down the throat to identify the remains of food and get them out. He needs total anesthesia for it.

A sleepless night

A very long night starts. Nacho goes home to Lorenzo, while I stay with León. There is the horrific moment when they try to get León’s blood and get an IV in — and cannot find a vein. He screams so much that the nurses eventually give up — but then new ones on the night shift try again an hour later. Then there is the no drinking and no eating. León keeps waking up in the middle of the night asking for water and crying himself to sleep again when I explain he cannot have any. He sleeps a maximum of four hours — compared to his regular 11. And I sleep even less. And the eight-hour wait with no water or food turns into 15 excruciating hours instead — because the OR is with other, more urgent cases. León spends hours walking along the corridors trying to snatch anything that resembles a bottle or a cup from the rubbish or from the hands of visitors.

When they take León away from my arms, screaming, to take him for his anesthesia, my heart breaks. I burst into tears. No rational thought can soothe me. Nacho and I hold each other’s hands, and we hardly speak.

We both fear the worst — and I fear for León without us next to him.

It is a very long hour.

But then the doors open and the doctor emerges. All has gone well, she says, and hands over a plastic container with six tiny pieces of food in it, the size of linseeds. And then she uses some harsh words: she tells us it was irresponsible to feed nuts to a child this small, and that the procedure he just underwent is very risky for his age, and that we should be more careful in the future. She gives us some instructions on what to do when he wakes up, then leaves.

I feel relieved, but also guilty and somewhat angry. I don’t even have León back in my arms, but all I can think is that I know I do all I can to look after León, and that this doctor’s scolding seems unnecessarily violent at a time I feel incredibly vulnerable.

My friend Claudia comes to help: “It could have happened if he was eating rice, or drinking water. Please don’t blame yourself.”

And she is right. While a doctor in a public hospital is so busy that she may want to reduce stupid incidents like ours, and she may feel the need to educate parents, there are more effective ways of helping a parent than blaming them when they’re already in the midst of a difficult moment.

Shared experiences

The following Sunday we went to a playdate on the beach with Lorenzo’s classmates. One of the mothers mentioned that they were going to spend ten days in the hospital, and I asked why.

She explained that her son, who has just turned five, has cystic fibrosis — a genetic disorder that affects the lungs, pancreas, and other organs.

“He has had six bronchoscopies in his life,” she said.

Every few months, he needs to spend 10 to 15 days in hospital for IV antibiotics to make sure his lungs don’t get worse. They have a hospital routine, which involves some screen time, some afternoon visits, and just a lot of love and patience.

On a recent visit, they couldn’t find a new vein to insert the antibiotics. They kept pricking him, until the mother said, “This is enough,” and took her kid back home.

Maybe it wasn’t until I talked to her that I realised just how wiped and affected I was by the hospital visit. Something about being a journalist who focuses on children (thinking a lot about war, poverty, migration) helps me put my experiences into perspective, but sometimes playing them down does not help me. It is clear that what we went through is nothing compared to what this child (and his family) have had to experience, constantly fearing that his lungs would collapse and get obstructed, but I need to make sure that I make space to process my experience.

And then there is León too. For the next few days after coming out of hospital, he would show everyone his bruised hand, making the gesture of something going in and saying, “Ay, ay.”

He is also waking up often at night asking for water. He seems to have nightmares, and even when I offer him water, he gets angry and pushes me away.

One afternoon in the car, he screamed and screamed because he wanted some water. “Acqua acqua,” he repeated. But the water bottle was empty, and we were a few minutes away from home. I told him: “León, I understand you want water. I can’t give you any right now, but this is not the hospital. As soon as we arrive home, you can drink all the water you want.”

He calmed down. So I continued: “I was also scared in the hospital, but you were very brave, León. Hopefully this will never happen again.”

I realised that, like me, he also needed time and space to process his experience — and that I needed to be more aware of how to hold him as he did that. But that is for another newsletter.

What I’ve been reading

This New York Times opinion piece does a great job of summarising the scientific evidence that is so far available on how much becoming a parent can change fathers’ brains. While much research has so far focused on women, and on the concept of matrescence (the transformation into mothers), brain scans now suggest that men’s brains change too — depending on how connected they are to their babies and how involved they are in their upbringing. The author is Dr Darby Saxbe, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California who is writing a book on how fatherhood transforms men. “Transformation requires time and practice, which is why healthy societies invest in policies that promote bonding and reduce stress in early parenthood, like family leave and workplace cultures that allow fathers to prioritize parenting,” Saxbe writes.

What I’ve been listening to

Big Merla is a Canadian comedian and musician. When she became a mother, she started doing renditions of popular songs using her toddler’s toys. “And it’s kind of sweet because you can tell she’s performing for her baby too,” said my friend Tim, who recommended her. This is her take of “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against The Machine, and it is truly wonderful, with lyrics including: “I’ll be throwing a tantrum, kicking, screaming, demanding!”

What I’ve been watching

I just rewatched Inside Out with my son Lorenzo, who is five. This is a parenting landmark that I had been waiting for. I loved the film when it first came out in 2015, and I think the film does offer some great opportunities to talk about emotions and discuss them in helpful ways with a child. There are a lot of things that are too deep for Lorenzo now (and for me too probably), but I did manage to bring up the film within 24 hours of watching it when Lorenzo said he did not like thinking about things that make him sad. “But do you remember what happens in the film?” I asked him. “Joy has to work with Sadness to help Riley overcome a difficult moment.” He did not respond immediately, but I am sure he soon will. And I cannot wait to watch its sequel, which is out in the cinemas now, and turn that cinema outing into another parenting landmark.

What’s been keeping my spirits high

Silly memes, like this one, shared by my colleague and friend Bertrand, who is also a member of The First 1,000 Days community: “Guide to applying sunscreen to a child”. I have tried several sunscreens by now, including spray that you can use from a distance. But thinking of a child as a slippery and scary crocodile is not a bad way of approaching the issue. Please feel free to share light entertainment here, and tips on how to apply sunscreen too!

With love and care, 

📣 The First 1,000 Days is edited by community member and friend, Shaun Lavelle.

📸 Daniele D’Andreti on Unsplash, The image features two Playmobil figures. The figure in the foreground is dressed as a doctor or nurse, wearing a white outfit with blue accents, a white face mask, blue shoes, and holding a stethoscope and a medical tool. The figure in the background is dressed as an emergency responder in an orange and yellow jacket, holding a teddy bear in one hand and a medical kit in the other. The figures are standing against a plain white background.

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