When your child becomes very ill, nothing else matters

When Annie Ridout’s son became very ill, very quickly, she dropped everything to spend five days with him in hospital. Here, she discusses the moment she realised that nothing mattered, except his recovery…

A few weeks back, my son had hand foot and mouth disease. It sounds medieval but it’s actually a fairly common childhood illness that he picked up at nursery. As it’s contagious, we kept him at home and my husband looked after him so that I could work.

Towards the end of the week, he’d recovered. Back in high spirits, the rash fading, we went to meet my parents and sister for a roast. On the way there, he started coughing a lot. His nose was runny so I assumed he was getting a cold.

Over lunch, he slept on my lap for nearly two hours. It was sweet but quite out of character. Once he woke, he didn’t want to eat much and was groaning a lot. Later that night, he had a temperature and my husband thought his breathing sounded laboured.

We gave him Calpol and kept an eye on him through the night. The next morning, he seemed better. We decided it was a probably just a cold and that he’d recover soon. But he still wasn’t interested in food, and was quite fussy.

The next day, he was so sleepy that after a long nap in his cot, he was only awake for half an hour before he’d fallen asleep on me, on the sofa. I phoned the doctor and made an appointment, explaining that I was concerned about his lack of appetite and drowsiness.

After collecting my daughter from school, we headed to the doctors and by this point he was very lethargic and whimpering. The doctor was worried. He called an ambulance, and we were rushed to hospital, with suspected meningitis or sepsis.

He was given oxygen and intravenous antibiotics, in case of sepsis, and my husband and I took it in turns to have him on our laps while the doctors and nurses rushed around, trying to work out what was wrong with him. An X-ray revealed double pneumonia.

Around 2am, we were transferred to the children’s ward and spent the rest of the night sat up with him, making sure the oxygen mask was attached. The next day, he still needed help breathing. And the day after that. He had various fluids going through the cannula in his hand.

Soon, the antibiotic drip was removed and we were able to give him his dose orally. Instead of iv fluids, he was able to drink water from a cup and eat food. After a few days, he could breathe for himself, while awake, which meant we could take him to the playroom (he was overjoyed).

During our five days in hospital, I missed a day’s work on Clementine App – I’m a partner, and write the copy. An evening event I was co-hosting had to be cancelled. My Forbes articles – I write seven a month – were going to be delayed, also my final blog for BabyCentre.

Lastly, my book – The Freelance Mum: A flexible guide to better work-life balance – was going to be printed and I’d planned to go and see the first hard copies arriving in the world. I envisaged it being one of the highlights of writing a book.

But none of this mattered. While my son was critically ill, it was barely a consideration. We were locked in an A&E bubble and everything else had fallen away. Our world consisted of bleeps and lights and drips and oxygen, and my eyes were blurred by a constant stream of tears.

Once we were on the children’s ward and he began to recover, my focus remained on my son. Ensuring he could sleep comfortably, and – eventually – eat. Also, on checking that his sister, who was being looked after by grandparents, had everything she needed.

It made me realise how tough it must be for parents who are employed and have to keep phoning in and telling their employer they need another day off to care for their child. It shouldn’t ever be an issue, but I bet it often is; with parents going back sooner than they’d like.

It’s at times like this that the need for flexible working becomes so pronounced.

I felt grateful that I could prioritise my son over work, knowing I’d make up lost hours when he’d recovered. This is when the flexibility of freelance work is really amazing – I don’t earn when not working, but there’s scope to compensate later in the month.

He’s now back home, behaving as if none of it ever happened. I keep playing it over in my head, as often happens following a traumatic event, but in time – I’ll move on. Ultimately, this episode reminded me that nothing else matters, when your child is ill.

Shout out to the incredible staff at Whipps Cross Hospital – the paramedics, nurses, doctors, porters, dinner ladies, cleaners, anaesthetists, physiotherapists. And to the NHS, in general.