Looking back, the first sign that something was wrong was when C rejected her bottle.
Our pediatrician had been advising us to wean her anyway, since she is now eighteen months old, but we were planning to wait until after the trip to Jamaica. Call it lazy parenting, call it indulgent parents of a third child, but we knew the long flights would be easier if we could give C her beloved “ba ba” to suck for comfort.
C was fussy on the plane ride to Charlotte and batted away her bottle. On the flight to Montego Bay, she was happier, but every time I offered her the bottle, she shook her head and said, “nuh”.
“She won’t take her bottle,” I mentioned to Andrew several times.
“Well, I suppose we shouldn’t be pushing a bottle on our 18-month old,” he said. “Maybe she has outgrown it.” Maybe, but it struck me as strange for her to reject it so suddenly.
The second sign came that evening, when Aunt J was in our room, playing with the girls.
“C’s breathing sounds funny,” she said. “Has she been sick?” “She was,” I replied, “but she is better now.” For the past four weeks, C had been laid low with a yucky cold and had only seemed to recover in the last few days before out trip.
I checked C, and she looked okay to me. I went back to unpacking. We would be spending the next eight days in Jamaica, and the warm weather would be good for C. Andrew and I were very excited about the vacation and the chance to relax with the girls, as we had both been working long hours and missed hanging out with them.
The evening progressed uneventfully, everyone went to bed easily, and we looked forward to our first full day of sun and fun in the morning.
The sound of C coughing woke me at 7 am. I lifted her out of the crib, nuzzling her tummy and kissing her fuzzy head. “Her nose is running,” I commented to Andrew. “I can’t believe she is getting another cold. Poor kid has only had a few days off since the last one. I wonder if it’s from the airplane.”
Despite the little coughs and the persistently running nose, C was acting like her usual self—affable, smiling, cheerful—so we headed to breakfast. She ate readily enough, and the big girls feasted. K happily filled her plate with pancakes and fruit and sausages, asking if she could get a banana smoothie. AR ate four or five sausages in a row, cramming them into her mouth as fast as she could.
We spent the morning moving languidly between the pool and the beach. AR was perfectly content to sing to herself as she paddled about in the water beside her cousin R, whereas K wanted to make friends with other kids at the resort and tried to find a kid her own age.
Papa and Andrew took the big girls out on a paddleboat; then I took a turn with his mom, N. We were struggling to steer and K hopped into the water to push us from the back of the boat. We almost ran over Ewan McGregor, who was swimming in the water with an adorable baby.
“Are you the rudder?” he asked K good-naturedly, smiling at the sight of her steering us haphazardly. When we were out of earshot, I whispered to K, “That man with the tattoo on his arm who was holding the baby was Obi-Wan Kenobi in the first three Star Wars movies.” K’s eyes widened characteristically, and she smiled.
Out of respect for McGregor’s privacy, we decided not to ask for an autograph, but it took some restraint. But we thought it would have been unfair to disturb him during his vacation, so we paddled away and went on with our fun.
I took C in for a nap after lunch, and Andrew stayed on the beach with K and AR. C slept an unusually long time, and when she woke up, she felt a touch warm to me. I rummaged around for a thermometer and then remembered that I had switched diaper bags at the last minute, and our thermometer was in the other bag.
C was only slightly warm; I wasn’t even sure if she had a fever. The resort has a nurse’s office, so I figured I could stop by there if she started to seem truly feverish. We had brought AR to that nurse’s office several times: last year, when she got an ear infection on during our trip and needed antibiotics; and two years ago, when she was stung by a jellyfish in the water and had a swollen, inflamed leg.
It was late afternoon by now. I gave C to N for a few minutes and scooped up AR.
N turned her face and touched her cheek to C's head. “I think she has a fever,” she said worriedly.
I felt C again, and I noticed she was shivering. “I’m going to take her back to the room and give her some Tylenol,” I told N.
Andrew and the girls followed me soon thereafter, as they were tired and in need of baths and downtime before dinner. “Andrew, can you call K and see if she has a thermometer?” I asked. My niece had been sick last week, and I knew K traveled with a lot of medical supplies. Her room was downstairs, and she brought a thermometer up.
I took C’s temperature, and it was 103.2. This was about thirty minutes after I had given her Tylenol. My girls have a history of running high fevers, so although I wasn’t thrilled with the number, I wasn’t unusually anxious, either. Kids get sick; kids run high fevers. I figured the Tylenol would kick in within another fifteen minutes, and it did.
Cleo perked up; the fever dropped, and we took the girls to meet R and I for an early dinner. Our plan each night was to feed the kids at 6:30 pm, then bring them back to the room, settle them for bed, and have a babysitter named Vanessa stay with them while we headed to an 8 pm grown-up dinner. We originally wanted to have the kids eat with us, but they were too exhausted to wait, and the grown-up dinner wasn’t served earlier than 7:30 pm.
C barely touched the food I had ordered for her. K also claimed she was feeling queasy and asked to go back to the room. Vanessa, the babysitter, was waiting for us when we got back. I changed C into her pajamas and put her down in the crib, and she fell asleep instantly. K seemed to feel better too.
“C isn’t feeling well,” I told Vanessa. “She is probably down for the night. But will you check her, because she was running a fever earlier? We are just going to be eating dinner and then we will come right back.”
Vanessa and the big girls were in one room, and Andrew and I began to get dressed for dinner while C slept in our room. About fifteen minutes later, C started to cry in her sleep. I walked over to the crib and touched her face. It was hot. “That’s weird,” I thought. She received Tylenol less than two hours ago; it should still be in her system.
I lifted C out of the crib and carried her to a couch, where I took her temperature. 105.7. “Andrew,” I told him, “It must be a mistake. It said 105.7. I am going to take it again in a minute.”
The second time, the thermometer said 105.8. My heart started to beat faster. I was nervous. “Go get your parents,” I told Andrew, “and tell them we need to find a doctor. We need to go to a hospital. C’s fever is too high.”
He raced out and returned with R and N. “N, the nurse’s office is closed, and we need to find a doctor for C,” I said. She agreed. R went to see what the options were for getting us to a hospital, and N sat on the couch with C while I hastily threw a few supplies in a bag to take to the hospital. A handful of diapers, C’s bottles, a container of formula I brought for emergencies in case we couldn’t get milk.
Suddenly, N cried out, “She’s seizing!” I ran to C, who was in the throes of a febrile seizure. Her whole body was jerking; her eyes were rolling back. N ran out of the room to get what she needed for the hospital. Andrew was scrambling to grab our passports, but the safe in the room had jammed and wouldn’t unlock.
As the seizure continued, C stopped breathing and her lips turned blue. “She isn’t breathing!” I screamed at Andrew. I stared into my baby’s face, thinking, “I’m not ready. Please don’t die. I can’t go home without you.” No response.
My legs were shaking so much that I had trouble running as I fled the room, heading toward the lobby area of the resort. For all of my life, I will never forget what it felt like as I ran with my limp, unconscious baby in my arms, stuck in a remote resort in a foreign country. I was keening, wailing, “Somebody call an ambulance! Somebody call 911!”
But there was no 911 to call. There was no reassuring ambulance nearby, no paramedics waiting to administer oxygen and IV fluids, ready to whisk us to the comfort of an American hospital.
C gurgled in her throat and began to breathe again, but remained unconscious. She was there and she wasn’t. Still, the fact that she was breathing was everything in the world. I searched her face desperately, I said to myself, “She’s still here, she’s okay, she’s okay. She’s breathing, she’s alive, she’s alive.”
She was burning up; her fever was now 106, and I was terrified. When does brain damage set in? How can we rehydrate her without an IV? Who could help? I felt so alone, so helpless.
N was yelling at the people behind the front desk that we needed help. Then I realized with huge relief that since we were staying at a resort, the chances were pretty good that there were some American doctors there on vacation! Within minutes, a doctor named Erin from New York was found. She stripped C, covered her with washcloths of ice, administered both Tylenol and Advil, and monitored her pulse and her breathing.
Dr. Erin said, “She is still really hot. The fever is still really high.” We did not want to take C to the public hospital in Jamaica, unwilling to have her undergo invasive diagnostic medicine there. Several other guests at the hotel were able to locate a known and trusted pediatrician, Dr. G., who lived near Montego Bay. I spoke with Dr. G. on the phone, and she told us to drive to Mobay Hope, a private hospital about 40 minutes away, where she would meet us. Dr. Erin, who was all dressed for dinner with her family, offered to come with us to the hospital.
All this time, C’s fever raged, and she was very out of it, but I was reassured by her cries when we put new cold towels on her. It meant she was responding, conscious, aware of her discomfort. I cried as I held her. I am crying now as I write this, remembering.
A wonderful Jamaican man named Mr. S. drove us to the hospital, and he went so fast that there were times that I wondered if we might all be killed before we could get there, in which case it would no longer matter. Having Dr. Erin in the car brought us all immeasurable comfort. She was soothing, she was knowledgeable, and she was a mother.
It took two hours before C’s fever came down from 106 to 104. While we were at Mobay Hope hospital, C opened her eyes and looked at me, really looked at me.
“She came back to us at that moment,” N later told R. C began to look around and even gave a little smile to Dr. Erin and Dr. G. Since C’s fever began to come down, Dr. G. wanted to proceed cautiously.
Andrew and I did not want to do any invasive stuff (spinal tap, blood tests, etc.) in the Jamaican hospital unless we absolutely had to. Dr. Erin and Dr. G. both agreed that a CBC would be unhelpful at this point, because C’s white cell count would be unusually high following the seizure.
(Plus, when we had arrived at the ER, a bloody rag that another patient had been using on his head was still lying on the check-in desk, making me extremely nervous about the environment in which I would be exposing C to needle sticks).
Since C was breathing and conscious and acting more normal, we felt slightly more secure in waiting to see if the crisis had passed before launching into tests. The next 24-48 hours would reveal whether it was viral or bacterial, Dr. G. explained, because either the high fevers would stay away or they would come back and persist.
“But,” she cautioned, “if anything unusual happens or the high fever returns, she must come back to the hospital immediately. Any change in status at all. I will call you tomorrow to check on C,” she promised.
If we were at home, C would be at Children’s Memorial in Chicago, and I would relax. But in Jamaica, there was nothing left to do at that moment but head back to the resort and hope all would be okay.
And it was, for about ten hours. Andrew and I laid in bed beside C and we prayed together. We said the Shema and the Shehecheyanu, not because they were necessarily appropriate to the occasion, but because we love those two prayers the most. C stayed cool, slept through the night, and in the morning, she smiled at us, toddled around, and asked to eat.
And then without any warning, several hours into the morning, C began to wail and scream and moan, throwing her head back repeatedly and thrashing her limbs. I carried her, inconsolable and writhing, to the nurse’s office. The nurse took one look at C and paged the resort’s on-call doctor, who lived 15 minutes away, but he was tending to another medical situation and was unavailable. She paged the back-up doctor, who was also unavailable. I began to panic, crying and struggling to breathe.
Another American guest, Nikki, who we had met last year, stayed with me at the nurse’s office. “I think she needs to go back to a U.S. hospital,” Nikki told the nurse.
“Well, she has to be stable to travel,” the nurse replied. Then the nurse paged the pediatrician from Mobay Hope, Dr. G., who we had met the previous night. By now, someone had found Andrew, and both his parents and his sister were taking turns with C, who had been moaning and raging for over forty-five minutes.
Dr. G was about to go into surgery and was unable to meet us at the hospital. We called our pediatrician’s office in Evanston. Our doctor was on vacation, so we spoke with another doctor, who was concerned by what he heard. He advised us to take C to Mobay Hope, and if they couldn’t tell us definitively what was going on, we needed to come back to the U.S.
An hour into the episode, C abruptly fell asleep, and when she awoke fifteen minutes later, she was acting totally normal again. It was emotional whiplash. Inexplicable.
We finally reached our beloved pediatrician from home, Dr. S, who was frantically trying to connect with us after receiving our texts and messages. “You need to get out of there,” Dr. S told me, “and take her to Miami.”
The people in Jamaica agreed that C needed to get to a U.S. hospital. Arrangements were made, and we departed, leaving K and AR in the care of Andrew’s parents. My dear friend Dr. Jen, a pediatrician in LA, contacted a colleague of hers who is a pediatrician at Miami Children’s. The ER knew we were coming, and Dr. Marc was expecting us.
In the hours that followed, C had two additional episodes, identical to the first. Thrashing, moaning, completely unreachable, ending suddenly when she fell asleep for five to ten minutes, each followed by a brief interlude of normal behavior when she awoke.
C was admitted to Miami Children’s shortly after we arrived. During the days we spent there, we received terrific care. Because the fever had come down, we all agreed to hold off on a spinal tap. Dr. Marissa told us that C’s initial high fever, seizure and symptoms looked like viral meningitis. The episodes of altered mental status were explained by some encephalitis and severe head pain.
Old friends who live in Miami came to visit us at the hospital. Andrew and I took turns meeting them in the lobby. They brought food, clothes, keys to a car that they left for us to use. Andrew slept at night in my childhood friend Lena’s purple sweatpants, with PINK printed on the leg in giant letters.
Friends called and emailed. K's birthmom called and emailed. Our families called and emailed. The text messages sustained us, brought us comfort and smiles. Nikki and her family helped out with our girls in Jamaica. Everyone at the resort asked about C daily and offered assistance. Dr. G. called us several times while we were in Miami to see how C was doing.
I showered in the mornings at the hospital’s wonderful Michael Fux Family Center. Other than that, I spent every minute with C on my chest. “Mommy,” she cried, if I moved out of sight.
Over the next few days, the virus attacked Cleo systematically. Conjunctivitis in both eyes. A chesty cough. Bloody pus draining copiously from her ears, staining the sheets of the crib, my shirt, her lovie.
“Her throat looks bad; her ears look really bad,” Dr. Melissa told us a few days into our stay. “But we knew this was coming; the seizure and fever told us this was coming.”
C refused to eat and drink and stayed hydrated through her IV. “If we have to, we can drop an NG tube in her,” Dr. Melissa reassured me, when I grew concerned about the fact that my already tiny baby was steadfastly refusing nourishment. C is almost nineteen months old and weighed eighteen pounds before her illness.
But then C began to perk up, to smile, to talk. Ear tubes are helping. Cipro and time and luck and prayers and love are all helping.
On December 31, the last day of the year, the hospital declared C fit to fly, and we went home. Tonight Andrew drove to the airport to meet his family, who were bringing home K and AR. They did remarkably well all week in Jamaica without us.
C is asleep in her bed, continuing to heal from her illness. K is asleep in her bed, her hair full of braids from Jamaica. AR is almost asleep. As I tucked her in, she put her hands on my face and said, “I’m sorry you were so scared about Cleo, Mommy. I was scared too.”
“I was scared,” I agreed with AR. “I was so scared. But she is okay now. I missed you and K every day. You did a great job together without Daddy and me.”
“There were times when I wanted to cry,” AR told me earnestly. “But I persevered.”
“We all did,” I told her, kissing her sweet face and smiling through my tears. “We persevered.”
And as the New Year starts, I am reminded yet again that it is the people in our lives, not the things or the accomplishments, that are our greatest blessing. All that matters, all that has ever mattered, is those that we hold most dear.
With my three children together again, I can ring in the New Year, grateful for all that I have. My heart is full. My cup overflows. My baby is okay, and my big girls are home. My family and friends are the world. May it be a sweet new year.
Filed under: Uncategorized