Note: this story sounds, and certainly felt, dramatic. But everyone is fine. Mademoiselle is home from the hospital, and nothing turned out to be seriously wrong: just a cold plus a minor bacterial infection. I, however, am still recovering from the experience of having my littlest one hospitalized, and writing this will help me, I hope.
I felt the sensation of losing footing, of treading water with my head barely at the surface. I was in a hospital room like an aquarium, a row of windows into the nurses station, another large window to the gray, wintry outside. Mademoiselle was sleeping inclined in a smaller aquarium, a crib with clear plastic sides. I sat in a chair, shaking with fever, dull worry throbbing in my aching head.
It was Saturday afternoon, or Saturday morning, I was no longer sure. The only time that mattered was the time it would take for someone to come and give us news of the tests that had brought us there and to tell us something rational and reassuring, magic words to break the spell. Periods of intense activity -- like the blood tests that seemed to take hours -- punctuated long periods of nothing. Occasionally a nurse or assistant would knock softly at the door and come in to take Mademoiselle's temperature or check the beeping monitoring screen. We asked few questions and got fewer answers.
It started on Thursday, when Mademoiselle's cold had kept her awake and unhappy through most of the night. She only slept fitfully and in our arms, and had trouble nursing. She was running a slight fever. We called the hospital and our concerns were summarily dismissed. We eventually split the worst of the night in two: my husband held a sleeping Mademoiselle for the first part of the night while I slept in bed, then I held her in the wrap, alternately pacing around the room, staring at the computer or dozing upright on the couch until morning came. I had a driving session in the morning, and I'm still not sure how I managed to safely drive in circles around Paris with my mind numb from the night I'd spent.
Meanwhile, my husband and mother-in-law took Mademoiselle to see our family doctor. His verdict: a cold. The same one le Petit and I were suffering from, unsurprisingly. As long as Mademoiselle continued to nurse, her fever didn't climb too high, and no other symptoms appeared, we needn't worry. Sure enough, the day went well. Mademoiselle napped for much of it. We went to the pharmacy and bought what we needed to clean her nose.
I dreaded the night to come, however, because I was exhausted and sick myself, and worried that I could neither calm Mademoiselle nor think rationally if I had to. I asked my mother-in-law if she could stay with us to second my husband if things got rough. It was a good thing I did, for aches and a bout of nausea kept me in bed while Mademoiselle fussed and my husband and mother-in-law comforted her, paced, and fretted. I was suffering from pain and guilt (what a useless mother! Sleeping -- or trying to -- when her little one needs her!), but the pain won out. Mademoiselle's fever started to climb again. We called the hospital again and were temporarily reassured. But by early Saturday morning, long before dawn, we decided to go to the emergency room.
The emergency room was thankfully deserted and we were seen quickly, then transferred to the pediatric unit at the hospital a few blocks away, the same where I'd given birth just weeks ago. We declined an ambulance and my husband carried Mademoiselle in his arms. We were greeted and assigned to a room. More tests were carried out, and we explained our story to more people than I remember. Then we were left alone with the feeling of being lost at sea. I coughed into a surgical mask and sat and shivered in my winter coat.
At first, I was simply grateful that Mademoiselle was being taken care of, and that it was no longer just us and our uncertainty alone in the middle of the night. For some reason, I didn't doubt that she would be OK, not at first. Before long, however, the chief pediatrician came in, and in the speech he must give thousands of times about the difference between viral and bacterial infections and the particular risks associated with the latter in young infants, he mentioned meningitis. He used words that I never think about, much less know how to translate into English, to explain that they would be taking a sample for testing from Mademoiselle's spine. Tears welled up as panic hit me full on, and my husband's panic mirrored my own. I no longer ached, or shivered, or was even aware of myself or how I felt. Shortly we were sent downstairs. We couldn't stay for the procedure. We sat in a hallway near the delivery room and made frantic phone calls, then held each other and cried, and waited.
When we went back upstairs, the first thing we both heard and recognized was Mademoiselle's cry. When the nurses brought her back, she had a large, square bandage on her head covering a catheter for later IV treatment. She calmed down quickly enough and slept. We sat, and waited and watched, and made hushed phone calls to family and friends, and felt useless. At some point in the early evening, the news we'd been waiting for most desperately arrived: the meningitis test was negative. Whatever Mademoiselle was suffering from could presumably be treated, and the terror started to recede, at least for me. Night began to fall.
I remembered the Breton coast in the summer, standing on the top of rocky cliffs on a clear day and looking down at the waves crashing below, able to vaguely imagine what it must be like to be in the same place, in a boat, far down below and during a storm. We were safe, but what could be have been perilous was now all too real to me. So many parents face so much more terrifying realities, and they start in hospital rooms like the one where we'd anxiously waited that afternoon.
We took turns going home to eat and shower. The night staff arrived on their shift, and the new pediatrician explained that they would start an IV of antibiotics that night. There were no beds for parents, but we'd brought some old blankets and pillows and made a bed on the floor. From time to time, I started sobbing, feeling sick once again and useless and guilty. The children's nurse took me aside and told me that it wasn't my fault, that germs were everywhere, that this happened all the time and my little one was in good hands, and that I needed to rest and take care of myself if I wanted to be able to take care of her. I noticed that she and I both had the first name, which reassured me for some reason. She was serving as the my rational side when my own ability to reason had fled.
I wanted to stay awake and take care of Mademoiselle for the first part of the night and let my husband sleep, since he hadn't slept at all the night before, but when I picked up Mademoiselle my back hurt terribly. I fell asleep in the chair beside her bed and when I woke up my ribcage hurt with each breath. The night nurse overheard me complaining about the pain, and took my temperature and blood pressure. They could help me if I needed it, they insisted, and I started to realize that it would be critical for me to take care of myself, too. They gave me something for the pain, and I went to sleep on our makeshift bed, where my husband joined me as soon as Mademoiselle fell asleep. I was dimly aware of the night nurses coming in and out of the room, checking Mademoiselle's temperature, watching over us sleeping like businesslike guardian angels.
Another day passed in a daze, and the second night arrived, and I didn't dare go home for more than a shower lest Mademoiselle need me or my milk. It was Sunday, and I couldn't see a doctor anyway. Le Petit came down with a fever and woke up on Saturday night terrified that we weren't there, even though my in-laws were staying with him, so my husband and I decided that he should spend the night at home on Sunday. I worried. Would Mademoiselle sleep? I wasn't feeling much better, and I knew I had to rest. Mademoiselle's fever, however, had dropped and we were much less worried. There were still no explanations from the test results, but either the antibiotics were working or a viral infection was clearing on its own. Either way, we might be home in as soon as 24 hours.
On Monday, I saw my doctor, who ordered tests for me. I was afraid that whatever I had I could give to poor Mademoiselle if she didn't have it already. I trekked downstairs to the hospital lab and waited for over an hour for tests which should have been immediate, while my mother-in-law sat with Mademoiselle. I wanted to shout, "My child is hospitalized! She needs me!" but instead dully leafed through old magazines and tried not to cough. The results, when I got them hours later, indicated that I had a cold, not the flu, but accompanied by some sort of bacterial infection. It was probably a sinus infection, my doctor explained over the phone, but I should start antibiotics immediately and go in as soon as possible for a chest x-ray.
In the evening, we were transferred out of our fishbowl room and into a shared room. A family with an 18-month-old daughter politely greeted us and went about their business, speaking in hushed voices. The mother was seven months pregnant, and I was glad I was still assiduously wearing surgical masks and constantly washing my hands, since the last thing she needed was to get sick. I knew logically that we were transferred because Mademoiselle was doing better, but I irrationally feared being moved from the room where I'd started to feel safe. My husband brought me food and my antibiotics and helped me make a new bed on the floor. I nursed Mademoiselle to sleep and tried to sleep myself.
I was too hot, I was too cold, and the dreams I had that night were vivid and frightening. I dreamed at first that the new night nurse had told me something important but I couldn't remember it, and it seemed so real that I confusedly asked her about it when she came in to check on Mademoiselle in the wee hours. I then had a violent dream cut from Lord of the Flies, and when I woke up around five o'clock with aches and nausea it was almost a relief. The dream faded. The nausea continued. By seven, it was clear that I had to go home, and I called my husband to tell him as much. I called my doctor again, who speculated that I might be allergic to the antibiotics. When I stopped by his office an hour later to pick up a new prescription, it was clear instead that I had the stomach flu. He gave me another prescription to treat the nausea and other symptoms, and I went home to curl up in bed and sleep as best I could.
When I started to emerge from the fog late that afternoon -- it was a mercifully short-lived stomach flu -- I first disinfected everything I could in the entire house. Then, I pumped milk. Ever since I'd precipitously left the hospital that morning, Mademoiselle was for the first time in her life drinking formula, and by all reports was not liking it. I wanted her to have my antibodies, and was also afraid I'd lose my milk, so we rented an electric breast pump and I did my best to give her at least a little bit that could be taken over to the hospital. Le Petit spent the day with my in-laws, but was overjoyed to have me home that night. We were alone in the house on Tuesday night -- my husband stayed with Mademoiselle at the hospital -- and I felt oddly like we were alone in the world. We both slept long and well.
On Wednesday morning, we waited anxiously for news of whether we could take Mademoiselle home. I also went in for a chest x-ray and discovered that I had a lung infection, une infection du poumon. My doctor instructed me to continue the antibiotics and see him again in a week. Finally, Mademoiselle was released, and her mystery diagnosis revealed: a cold, with a bacterial sinus infection. The antibiotics she'd received at the hospital were enough for her to be declared fully healed. Le Petit and I would continue ours, since poor le Petit, not to be left out, got his first ear infection. I would continue wearing a surgical mask, just in case.
Now, almost a week later, I feel I'm finally recovered, physically and mentally. For the first few days, I cried without reason. We'd never lost sight of the shore, and yet it felt like we'd been so close to being lost at sea.