Col wins this round
This is for any parent who, in the dark of the night, has prayed, bargained or simply exhaled during the seconds between the sputtering explosions of their child’s cough.
I’ve been there too; I spent this past weekend there, listening to Col’s coughs battering against his ribcage like something trying to get out.
Col has chronic lung disease, a result of being born at 25 weeks. If there was a preemie handshake, it would be the passing of the inhaler from one small hand to another. And as far as the preemie menu of challenges goes, chronic lung disease is a mere appetizer compared to some of the more debilitating entrees parents chew up and swallow daily.
But it does mean that several times each year, while the rest of the Northern Hemisphere sleeps, Dan and I alternate holding Col’s tired, floppy body in our steamy bathroom while our piping hot shower rains like a summer storm; or we’re administering an apothecary of herbal medicine to Col’s weary, reluctant mouth at 3:00 AM; or slipping spoonfuls of honey, warm apple juice or OTC cough medicine down his inflamed throat; or hooking up the nebulizer at 5:00 AM, buzzing inhaled steroids into Col’s lungs while his head rises off the pillow in intermittent coughing spells.
It doesn’t help that nighttime is when fevers spike, coughs worsen and hooded demons slink around my addled mind. Hearing Col’s lungs stuck like a skipping CD on a bad patch of coughing fills my chest with jagged rocks. I’ve cleaned up puke in the middle of the night, and placed wet, cooling washcloths on a feverish body and neither of these symptoms rattles me like hearing my baby’s chest racked with coughs. Perhaps it’s that the lungs are the agents of breathing, and breathing is synonymous with life. It doesn’t matter that we’ve spent years acquainting ourselves with the whistly lung songs of wheezing, or the settings on an oxygen tank, or the sight of Col’s chest retracting, tugging, while the nurse on the line asks “is he turning blue around the mouth or eyes?” Goodness knows we’ve been broken in by nebulizer treatments on a baby not yet ten pounds, oral steroids that replaced our cheerful boy with a snarling, howling tiger, and loads of antibiotics.
When Col was not quite two and we were living in Humboldt County, CA we took our coughing, wheezing, feverish boy to the doctor. She took one look at his naked chest and said “are you familiar with the signs of respiratory distress?” Without further ado, she scrawled a quick prescription for antibiotics.
“So, you think he has a bacterial infection?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but it could turn into bacterial pneumonia quickly.”
I told her I’d rather not give him antibiotics if he didn’t need them, citing overuse, superbugs, and the annihilation of beneficial bacteria.
The doctor sat me down with her stare. In diplomatic doctor-speak she told me I didn’t get to be a pharmaceutical-skeptic, herb-loving hippie in regards to Col. Because of Col’s lung weakness, viruses quickly turn to secondary lung infections requiring antibiotics.
And damn, she was right. Col’s had pneumonia three times and many lung infections that didn’t clear up until a few doses of chalky pink, prescription liquid snaked down his throat. And always, we’ve been grateful for this medicine that leads our son out of the forest of lung-attacking beasts.
On Friday we filled a prescription for Azithromyacin; it’s been sitting on our counter, gleaming and beckoning with pink-smelling promise. On Saturday, we told the on-call nurse that Col was breathing rapidly, his fever rising; “give him the antibiotic,” she said. Later, we talked to a doctor who said to wait on the medicine, the fast breathing could be due to the fever, or the nebulizer treatments. Five hours later the same doctor said fever and fast breathing were markers of pneumonia and that we should administer tylenol and the antibiotic, just in case.
Col spent much of Saturday in bed, in and out of sleep, his body shivery and hot, his respirations frighteningly fast at 56/minute. Sometimes we’d move him out to the couch where he’d sit glassy eyed, silent and red cheeked; when he’d crack a quick smile watching Dan and Rose wrestle on the rug, all of our hearts would swoon.
Dan and I decided not to leap to the arms of the antibiotic this time, but to give Col a few days to fight this infection on his own. Instead of treating his fevers, we’ve let them run, allowing his internal fire to create an inhospitable environment for this pathogen. We’ve dosed him with elderberry syrup, Vitamin C and D, osha glycerite, and an herbal lung syrup I cooked up while snow slanted gently past our windows. Also, frequent nebulizer treatments to reduce inflammation and open his airways.
Rose has been alternately helpful and little-sisterish. Sometimes she performed these brilliant vaudeville acts, stumbling around the living room in sunglasses, singing silly rhymes and tripping over her own feet in that particular brand of slapstick sure to break Col’s solemn face up in a smile. Other times, she felt terribly left out, imploring “when I’m going to start coughing?” Or she’d elbow Col out of the way and insert her open mouth when I approached with the next dose of herbs.
And then Sunday morning, after a night of decreased coughing, where Dan and I were roused from sleep only to prop Col’s pillows and murmur soothing words, I carried him to the couch and he said with a smidgen of life in his voice “look Mama, there’s a mourning dove on the wire.”
By Sunday night—still feverish and choking on an intermittent cough—Col was the tiniest bit naughty, taken by all as a great sign.
Today is Monday morning; I exile the antibiotics to the medicine cabinet for a later date. Col is cheerily building lego race cars and Rose, thrilled to have him back, is battering his ears with questions. “How ‘bout I’m Dora and you the monster. Okay Coley?” Or “Coley, I be the baby coyote and you be the Daddy coyote?”
I think we have won this round. And I feel like Col should be receiving a trophy for fighting off an illness on the merits of his own immune system. So, we’re celebrating with lego race cars and baby coyotes.