It’s when the nurse in the triage room says, “I’ll just finish filling this form in later,” that my blood turns to ice. I always thought that expression was a cliche, but in that moment it became true, and I entered a full-body state of panic. The baby, on the other hand, is pale and smiling, almost serene despite having been yanked from sleep and rushed up the road. But his readings, clearly, are not good.
Other parents tell me that these trips to A&E are a rite of passage. We have been to A&E four times since the baby was born. This is our second trip today. This morning, he was on the borderline for admission, so I know what he has – bronchiolitis – and that he’ll need oxygen. What I don’t know is how bad it may get. No one knows that. Some babies recover quickly, I’m told, and some can become seriously unwell. The medical staff are calm and reassuring, but they are setting up the equipment, taking the infant-sized oxygen mask out of its packaging, and attaching the monitor to the baby’s toe, with ominous speed.
The baby had gone to sleep this evening, and I was about to join him. But a niggling fear made me send a video of his breathing to my aunt Jane, a retired GP. “You’ll need to get him checked again,” she said. I am so grateful for her now, thinking that I could have been at home asleep as he deteriorated next to me.
“He’s not going to die,” the nurse says to me, when I ask her. She brings me a cup of tea. The computer screensaver says the hospital is in category 4, a “major incident”. They’ve found a bed for us in a room at the back. When they say they need to try high-flow oxygen and will put a feeding tube in at the same time, I feel sick.
I feel bad for all the parents in the waiting room who have to listen to me from the toilet next door, whose kids are lying across their laps or on seats, some of them stripped off to help their fevers. The NHS is crumbling from deliberate underfunding but we have been lucky enough to be seen in under five minutes. This morning, I heard a nurse tell a colleague who arrived for their shift, “I’m not going, I can’t go.” Later, I hear a doctor mention that she hasn’t had lunch.
I feel profoundly grateful to the staff as they hook my baby son up to the machines. I am impressed, as I always am when observing medical staff. What a thing, to know how to do this. And to treat us with such kindness, and such patience, when the oxygen tube dislodges yet again and we ask them to come and reposition it for the fourth, fifth, 18th time.
This year, the NHS helped my son into the world, and it helped nurse a dear friend to her death. That is its mission, of cradle to grave. I agree with the American writer and comedian Rob Delaney that it is the pinnacle of human achievement.
They didn’t need the feeding tube in the end. At 2am, the baby feeds from me for 45 minutes, and I cry, deliriously tired, with relief. He seems to be gaining strength. By late morning, when we are moved to the children’s ward, they say he could be home by the evening. One of the nurses jokes that it’s because I went home and brought back so much stuff. “If you hadn’t, we’d be keeping you in, it’s always the way.” She spends all winter looking after babies with bronchiolitis. Thank you, I keep saying, thank you, thank you, thank you.
At home, the adrenaline is dwindling, and I am left shaken and tired. I feel very lucky, and maybe a little bit silly as the baby’s illness is not uncommon. I feel as though we’ve joined the ranks: all those pale, ghostlike parents who carried their children towards the bright glow of A&E, who also spent last weekend on camp beds and plastic chairs, hoping their kids would be OK. Some will be home already and some will only be at the start of their medical journey. Some, and I can barely think of this, won’t have survived. All of us will have used the NHS. It hangs by a thread, but its heart is still beating.
The baby is finding comfort in the beautiful books of Britta Teckentrup, and I love their message of togetherness and solidarity.
Booking baby classes in advance is proving a financial burden during this virus-ridden winter. So far we have missed two baby swimming classes at a cost of almost £40. I’ll only be doing drop-ins in future.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist