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I can’t believe this is happening. My 10-month-old son, who is usually smiling at strangers and singing to himself as we shop, is looking up at me from the Costco cart with tears streaming down his face. His cheeks are a splotchy mix of red and purplish-blue, and there is panic in his bright blue eyes. He doesn’t call out. He doesn’t make a sound. He doesn’t even reach for me. Instead, he grips the red plastic cart handle with such force that his tiny pudgy fingers are white. Something is wrong, very wrong. The little paper cup that was holding a Ritz cracker sample that we were both munching on as we shopped is sitting empty on his lap. My blood runs cold—my baby is choking.
I unhook the safety strap that tethers him to the child’s seat in the cart and pull him out. He is conscious, and wiggles uncomfortably in my hands as I flip him facedown with his head angled slightly toward the floor. I drop to my knees so that I can keep him supported in this position as I start administering blows to his back. I remember what to do—five blows with the heel of my hand in a downward motion between his shoulder blades. I can do this. On the fifth blow, as I am preparing myself mentally for the 5 chest thrusts that come next, a full cracker lands with a soggy splat on the floor at my knees. My boy is coughing and spluttering, with snot, saliva, and tears running from his face. I sigh with relief—it is the sweetest sound I have ever heard.
I scoop some of the soggy cracker out of his cheeks and hold him close to me, carefully attentive to his breathing. He is breathing. He is okay. He is clutching my shirt and crying. We made it!
My eyes fill with tears as my adrenaline drops. My mind is reeling with the rest of my plan that I did not have to go through with. If he still isn’t okay after the first five back blows and chest thrusts, I have someone call an ambulance. Then I check his airway, repeat the back blows, flip him over, and do 5 chest thrusts with two fingers just below the nipple line. I go through the steps over and over in my head, as I sit on the floor of the Costco and clutch my baby to my chest.
When my tunnel vision clears, I notice that my boy and I are not the only people in Costco. There is a crowd of people around us, just standing there watching. How long have they been there? My husband is at my side, telling me that our son is okay and that I did great, phone in his hand at the ready. A woman comes up to me with napkins, as I notice I am covered in snot, tears, and Ritz cracker.
It felt like time had slowed down, and it had to have been at least 20 minutes since we started down the paper towel aisle. But it wasn’t—it hadn’t been more than a minute or two. It all happened so incredibly fast, as if an hour in hell was somehow crammed into one minute of reality.
It was scary, but things like this happen. You have to be as ready as you can for a situation in which your child or someone else’s will need you. I wanted to share my story so that you can have an idea what it is like to go through something like this, and to encourage you—no, implore you—to do these 3 things to prepare yourself for an emergency.
First, learn what trouble looks like.
It can be deceiving sometimes, and you need to be knowledgeable about what real trouble looks like so that you can take the appropriate steps. You don’t want to call 911 so often that the dispatchers sigh when they see your number or run to the doctor every time your baby bumps his head. But at the same time, you need to know when to call and when to start taking lifesaving measures.
Choking. Babies who are learning to eat, especially little ones who put everything in their mouths and have eyes that are bigger than what they can swallow (like my son), are at a high risk of choking. A baby who is truly choking doesn’t make noise. If you hear heavy coughing or any vocalizations, the airway isn’t blocked all the way and you may only hurt the child by performing the Heimlich. There is a big difference between choking and just being unable to swallow something that is stuck on the roof of the mouth. For older kids and adults, it is easier. Just ask them—”Can you breathe? Are you choking?”
Allergic Reactions. Allergy symptoms can range from just an irritation to a life-threatening situation. Watch your child after introducing a new food and keep your eyes open for any allergy. Coughing, confusion, breathing problems, and vomiting are signs of allergic reactions, as well as swelling of the face and neck. A tiny rash is one thing, but if your child is having trouble breathing, it is serious.
Drowning. In movies, a drowning child flails around, splashing all over the place and yelling in distress. This is not realistic at all. In fact, a drowning adult or child will have his head back and nose up. It happens quietly, and sometimes people within arm’s length are not even aware of the danger. Know what it looks like so that you can help someone in distress and be a better lifeguard for your own children. If you know what you are looking for, you can call for help, throw a flotation device, or reach for them without going in. Don’t go in after them unless you know what you are doing!
Concussions. The child might be acting strange (not remembering how they got home from the park, etc.), the pupils of their eyes may be different sizes or an inappropriate size for the lighting (huge pupils in the sunlight), and in some cases the eye movement will be in odd directions. Essentially, if your kid hit his head and his eyes are acting funny, go to the hospital.
Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.
An emergency can happen anytime, anywhere. And they happen fast, so know what to do—study and practice ahead of time so that it is second nature.
Take a class! The American Red cross holds CPR, first aid, and AED classes across the country. If you have kids, you really should spend the time and money taking this. It is smart to know how to handle choking, CPR, concussions, drowning, allergic reactions, and trauma wounds.
But more importantly than a checklist of things to learn is to frequently ask yourself “What would I do if ________ actually happened?” If you don’t know, look up the answer! Having an attitude of preparedness will force you to be ready if the worst does happen.
When in doubt, remember that when you call 911, the dispatchers will walk you through what to do while you wait for help to arrive. It is comforting to know that you don’t need to know everything…but it is smart to be familiar with life-saving techniques, especially if you have children.
If your child has an allergy, you need to talk to the child’s pediatrician about what to do. He may give you an EpiPen or something similar and walk you through exactly what steps you need to take if there is an allergic reaction. In fact, if you have any questions about how to handle any emergency, your pediatrician is a good person to ask!
Get your family involved! Teach your children what to do if a sibling is in trouble. You might not always be there, so it is important to make sure your children know how to help their brother or sister, or at least to call 911. Children should know what to do in case of a house fire, what to do if they get lost, and what a policeman and a fireman look like. Take your kid to the firehouse so they can see that a fireman in all his/her gear is not a monster, but a good guy. And please, never ever tell your child that they will be arrested or that the policeman will get them if they are bad. This makes kids afraid of the police, instead of going to them for help.
Practice staying calm.
Staying calm during a stressful situation is not easy. It takes practice. It doesn’t hurt to do yoga, meditation, or simple breathing exercises regularly so you have something to fall back on in an emergency. Practice breathing in through your nose for 4 counts and out for 4 counts to calm yourself—that way, this will be familiar to you and is an easy tool in your back pocket for an emergency.
When you are calm, you are more likely to remember what to do. Adrenaline will be pumping, believe me, but that doesn’t mean you can’t steady yourself and get the job done. When you are extremely nervous, your hands may tremble and you may lose fine motor control. If I wasn’t calm in Costco, I never would have gotten the safety belt unbuckled and my baby out of the cart.
Time will seem to slow down, and you may get tunnel vision. Tunnel vision is when it seems like there is nothing else in the world but you and what you are focusing on. This is not necessarily a good thing, as you could miss more danger coming or help being offered. It is natural, but by calming down and slowing your heart rate, you can fight back against the tunnel.
Emergencies can come upon you very quickly, and at any time. It happened to me, just like it has happened to many other parents! Instead of being worried about it, take the time to prepare yourself by learning about what an emergency looks like, taking a class or studying what to do in a variety of scenarios, and practicing strategies to calm yourself down. You will be surprised by the weight that will be lifted off your shoulders when you feel confident and prepared for any emergency.
Here are some videos to get you started: