I share this story with you because I relive this each time I pass through on I-80. It’s a happy ending but does contain trauma:
Some experiences are seared into your memory. You can recall every detail for the rest of your life. Strange how the mind works when other times you don’t remember what happened the day before.
June 4. 2010. MM 237 on I-80 in Iowa. Tiffin. This insignificant rest stop on I-80 holds special meaning to me for the rest of my life. It has a happy ending, but with the real memories is tangled the potential of the nightmare that it could have been the most painful place on earth.
Five and a half years ago, I just had 3 munchkins then. The kids and I were planning to spend the summer with my parents and my dad had flown in to drive across the country with me. The kids were 2 ½, 4 ½, and almost 7. All the kids were getting over colds, but they all seemed to be croupy as we drove. It wasn’t uncommon that they were all coughing at once. Dad and I took turns driving, but he seemed to prefer driving to keeping the kids occupied, so I was in charge of that at the time.
Little #3 seemed to have the worst time of it. She had a wheeze since birth, something diagnosed as laryngeal malaycia, a harmless “floppy voicebox” that kids outgrow by 2. She barked when she coughed, but we were reassured that it would be done by the time she was 2. She was 2 ½ but maybe it would just take her a bit longer. That morning she was pretty barky, which wasn’t unusual, but the other kiddos were too. We were making good progress, and I was busy handing the kids snacks. They got treated to goldfish crackers. She was eating, drinking, and coughing. Sometimes, and this wasn’t unusual either, she would bark so much she couldn’t stop. Her cough was working its way up to this point and I finally suggested that maybe we pull over at the next stop so I could nurse her. Dad agreed and by the time he had, we both thought he should pull over sooner than later. By the time we hit the off-ramp, she was really struggling. I thought I would save time and started unbuckling myself and climb over the seat to release her from her car seat. As we slowed to a stop I was already trying to nurse her, hoping the milk would soothe her throat enough to calm the coughing. She tried but couldn’t stop long enough to latch on. She was beginning to panic as she tried to cry for me, “mom, mom!” but could only inhale and I could hear her pitch rising as she wasn’t able to exhale. The car rolled to a stop and dad hopped out to come around to the passenger side. Before he could even reach us I watched as her eyes rolled to the back of her head before she stopped breathing completely and went limp in my arms. I screamed at my dad to dial 911 and I planned on running into the rest stop, hoping it had a manned desk. It’s odd how the brain works. My first instinct was to completely panic, hoping screaming and looking at my limp daughter would be enough action to save her. In these situations, time grinds to a halt, and every millisecond spreads out into distinct thoughts. As I watched her turn blue, I realized that I would be holding her here in this parking lot, and would just watch as she passed away. My next thought was to find someone to help me. There had to be someone that could take this responsibility from me and do their magic! I began to run with her toward the building, a frantic look on my face, scanning each face that I passed, knowing with certainty I would be able to see their ability to help written on their face. By the time I entered the building, I knew there was no one that would be able to help. Then my thoughts shifted again. I knew I could help her. I hadn’t taken a CPR course since high school, more than 15 years before. But it all came calmly back. I knew what to do. I knew exactly what to do. I laid her on the floor. I wasn’t going to waste a precious second checking for what I knew wasn’t there already, or waiting for her heart to stop beating. I started doing rescue breaths on her tiny face. Again, the miniscule thoughts that stand out like giants in your mind. She was just over the toddler age. Do I pinch her nose or breathe through both? Making this decision instantly: She was tiny and I breathed through both. By my second rescue breath, a man was kneeling by me, ready to assist. Seconds ago I would have given anything to have someone do this important work for me, but now I couldn’t trust anyone else to do this for my own daughter. I was ready to move on to the next steps when she woke up and began breathing again.
It turns out the man that stopped to help me was a volunteer EMT who had already called 911. As we waited for the ambulance to arrive, I held her to nurse, and she was strangely quiet. We also happened to be right outside Iowa City, home of U of Iowa. We had her checked out in the ER, and my dad followed behind the ambulance to the hospital. She was totally fine by then, the guess was her throat constricted long enough to pass out and/or have a small seizure. She was X-rayed to make sure she didn’t aspirate. She was cleared to go (she apparently did aspirate as she developed pneumonia later that week).
So many parents aren’t lucky like we were that day. I have no explanation for why we got to keep our daughter, and why she is alive today. I can only be thankful that we were spared that kind of unspeakable pain. It’s scary knowing how easily you can lose a child, in the most unexpected ways. While I believe in divine intervention, I also hold tight to the belief that life and death happen, randomly, and often unreasonably. One of my favorite passages for answering that age old question of how good and bad things happen to good or bad people, is Matthew 5:45. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous”. To believe that God spares some and not others is to believe that we somehow might have earned our blessings. It seems presumptive to me.
Eventually we continued on our way. In the words of the oldest, full of compassion, ever practical, said when we got in the car, “Well, THAT was a waste of time! Let’s get to grandma’s!”
* There’s more to her health story that I will write about soon.