This morning I attended the first session of a pediatric first aid course. The training took place in the living room of a friend's friend. All of us there were the mothers of young children. All of us appeared to be in our early thirties. For what it's worth, all of us were white (not sure what that has to do with our first aid aptitude, but it struck me as interesting; draw your own conclusions, if any, as to the sociological significance therein). All of us, as evidenced by the rapt attention displayed on our faces, were familiar with the nagging parental refrain: What if?, and What would I do?
As the instructor, a local paramedic, was setting up the powerpoint projector, she raised her eyes momentarily and asked, "Which one of you recently had the choking child?" A woman sitting across from me, attractive, well-dressed, and holding a baby boy on her lap, sheepishly gestured with her hand. "Well everyone in Dubai is talking about it," said the paramedic matter-of-factly. "So can you tell us a little bit about what happened?" And then she went right back to connecting extension cords and rebooting her computer, oblivious to the way she had just left this poor woman dreadfully exposed in front of all of us strangers.
The story began casually enough: Her 3-year-old son was eating some grapes before dinner. It was a Friday (which is a weekend day here), so her husband was home (thank goodness, she said). She left the kitchen momentarily, and when she returned, she saw the boy struggling to swallow. "But you never know how serious they are..." she explained tentatively. [My brow furrowed in empathy, and I felt a flash of shame in realizing that I now routinely dismiss Sushi's daily pseudo-medical complaints as frivolous ploys for attention.] The woman tried banging the little boy on the back but it wasn't working. Ok, this was no joke. She screamed for her husband, and his banging on the back wasn't working, either. The little boy continued to struggle. She frantically called for an ambulance. The person on the phone was asking for directions. ASKING FOR DIRECTIONS. They tried the Heimlich Maneuver but didn't know how to administer it to a child. The boy was turning blue. AND THE AMBULANCE DID NOT COME. The woman started pounding on neighbor's doors, begging for help. The boy was now bleeding from the mouth. Still there was no ambulance. At this point, the husband managed to dislodge the grape enough that the boy was beginning to make some groaning sounds, but the grape remained in the boy's mouth, as he was clenching his jaw. Fifteen minutes later, the ambulance arrived. The driver asked the woman which hospital she wanted them to drive to. Tests were done at the hospital. The diagnosis: brain damage. But the doctors would not know the extent of the brain damage until further tests could be performed.
As I sat there listening to the story, I wept, and I wept. To the point where I was a little bit embarrassed. And I am not a person who gets all mushy and emotional at the slightest thing; in fact I pride myself on my cynicism. Yet this woman was tearing my heart out. Because christ, how many times have I turned my back on the children while they were eating. And hell, I stopped cutting Sushi's grapes in half ages ago; at 3 years old, she just seems so... grown up, relatively speaking... and it doesn't even *occur* to me to treat her like a little kid anymore. This could have been *my* story. The woman was just like me. This could have been *my* kid. Turning blue. Christ. I was terrified.
By the time the woman finished the story, she, too, was crying, as were a few of the other moms. Apparently there is a happy ending: the boy seems to have fully recovered, and the brain damage, I guess, never materialized.
But I was shattered. Aside from the obvious cautionary aspect of the story, there were so many realizations in her tale that unnerved me: Hello, I live in a country where the ambulance DOES NOT COME. I live in a country where you have to have enough wits about you, while watching your child turning BLUE, to give someone on the phone DIRECTIONS. I live in a country where the emergency operator takes your street address but can offer you no medical assistance, does not make any effort to walk you through a layperson's rescue whilst you wait for help to arrive.
Meanwhile, the paramedic was doing little to allay my fears: It's true, she said, that you cannot necessarily rely on the ambulance. It's not like other countries, where an ambulance is dispatched from the closest hospital; here, you get an ambulance from one of the main public hospitals, regardless of how far away, unless you specifically call the direct phone number of a closer clinic. She even recommended that, if there is someone else at home during the emergency, that person should stand outside the house and attract as much attention as possible to assist the ambulance driver in finding the house. Like, jump up and down. And she warned that often, the drive to the hospital, especially in rush hour traffic, can take an hour at least.
I felt overwhelmed and defeated. In the States, all my life I had just taken for granted that, in an emergency, qualified help would be at my doorstep within minutes. And now? All that security had been taken away. The chill crept up my spine: In an emergency, we could be on our own. *I* could be on my own.
In spite of myself, I kept sneaking occasional glances at the woman throughout the 3 hour lesson. How was she able to regain her composure, after what she had most recently been through? And didn't it freak her out to hear from the instructor that "everyone in Dubai" was talking about her crisis? Did she feel like we were all watching her, evaluating her? And was it just my imagination, or did the paramedic take particular care in walking this woman through the practical portion of the lesson, as in-- I'd better make sure she gets it; this lady has already failed as a parent once... ?
It bothered me throughout the entire class that this woman had involuntarily been put on the spot to discuss such a private ordeal. Especially because we all know how mothers just LOVE to judge one other. So when the class was over, I made a point of approaching her. "Excuse me," I said, "but I just wanted to say that I think you're a real hero. Saving your child like that, without help... No mother should have to see what you saw, and you should be so proud of yourself for holding it together." The woman's eyes welled with tears. "It was all my husband's doing," she said. "No," I assured her, "you're a hero in my book." She smiled appreciatively and said, "You wonder, if something *had* happened, and he had not made it, would I have spent the rest of my life saying, 'I should have...' and 'I shouldn't have...'?" And I strongly felt, from the look in her eyes, that the rest of that thought was, "And for the rest of my life, would people have been looking at me like, there's the woman who let her son choke to death?" I didn't know what to say. Because we both knew that the answer to both questions was yes.
And you wanna know one last crummy thing? Tonight, at dinner, I left the kids alone while they were eating their chicken. I wandered in and out of the room, listening to them goofing around, checking my email, texting the neighbor. I wasn't watching them. The paramedic said that children don't thoroughly chew their food until age FIVE. And yet there were my 2- and 3-year-olds, jumping around unattended with food in their mouths and making each other laugh. It's as if the complacency had already crept right back in and reclaimed the comfy spot where it's been living these past 4 years since I became a parent.
In my defense, I will venture this one theory: Maybe I didn't retain the full traumatic impact of that woman's story because I simply... couldn't. Maybe, in the same way that they say you "forget" the pain of childbirth (or so I hear-- I'm a 3-time c-section champion, myself), maybe mothers have to "forget" the vivid fantasy that a fatal accident could happen to their own children, or else they would be unable to parent. Maybe, if you let the choking stories and the drowning stories and the car crash stories run too many circles around your head, you lose the ability to live in the everyday world-- maybe you become so morbidly fixated on the "What if?"s that you become ineffective in processing the "What next?"s and the "I love you!"s and the "Hurry up and get in the bath!"s. I don't know how else to explain why I wandered in and out of the room while the kids were eating tonight.
But I'm sure as hell going to pay attention in class again tomorrow. I do know that.