July 5, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

I’ve posted a couple of stories involving my daughter on this blog. It seemed time to share one about my son. This was originally told as part of my solo Minnesota Fringe Festival show, “The Sins of the Mothers,” in 2011.

Maggie and Baby Aidan

Maggie (She of the Einstein Hair) and Baby Aidan. He’s probably six months old here.

When I was pregnant with Maggie, my husband used to joke that I read so many birthing and nursing and parenting books because I was trying to have my second child first.

The truth is that if Aidan had been born first, he would have been an only child. He cried the moment he arrived. The boy was angry. “I’m cold! It’s too bright! I’m hungry!” Maggie slept through the night at five weeks. I don’t think Aidan was sleeping through the night at five years.

We named Aidan after a Celtic saint who founded a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in England.

We almost didn’t, though – this was 1989, and it wasn’t a popular name at the time. Also we were afraid he might get the nickname “AIDS.” Aidan didn’t think much of being named after a saint growing up – but he was keen on the fact that in Gaelic, the name meant “fierce.”

And if you were a little boy, you would probably rather be fierce as well...

And if you were a little boy, you would probably rather be fierce as well…

My labor was short with Aidan – three hours from the time I checked into Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

The nurse who set me up had placed the external monitor that measures contractions, the toko, incorrectly. So while I kept telling everyone the contractions were strong, they kept pointing to the graph on the screen – my husband kept pointing to the graph – and telling me the contractions were mild and that if I’d just relax I’d do much better. When the resident finally came in and adjusted the toko, the lines on the monitor jumped like a geiger counter at Chernobyl. He did the internal exam, and said, “Oh, my. You are in transition.”

They wheeled me into the delivery room at something of a clip. And then the negotiations began. “Now just wait till we move you from the guerney,” my doctor said. Across the room in the mirrored cabinets I could see my son’s head, crowning. He was always an impatient child. “Just wait till I get my gloves on.” Catch.

Aidan went back to Henry Ford once, about two months after he was born.

He had what they thought might be RSV – Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV). It had been mentioned at his last checkup, something to be aware of during the winter season. “There’s not much we can do to treat it,” I remembered the doctor saying. What I thought that meant was that, like a cold – which was all RSV basically was in older children – you just had to wait it out.

What she really had meant was that when a child under the age of one gets RSV they need to be as close as possible to a respirator or they might die.

That’s something of a different message.  And I had missed it. I, Stay-At-Home Mom, who could quote chapter and verse of every Baby Manual on my shelf, did not have a book with RSV in it, and had misunderstood a simple doctor’s directive. So I had ignored all the warning signs. That he was not nursing well. That he was listless. That he had stopped crying.

When the cold did not get better and I finally called, and described these symptoms over the phone, I was surprised at how quickly the nurse put me on hold. The doctor on call told me to bring him in right away. The waiting room was full, but we were in an examination room in five minutes.

The doctor was younger than me, with preppie clothes under her white coat and a Princess Di haircut.

When she saw my son she sent us straight over to X-ray. They strapped Aidan down on a plexiglass tray, covered his genitals with a lead-lined mat, took pictures of his wheezing chest, and ruled out pneumonia.

“We need to do an arterial blood gas,” she said. “Do you want to be in the room?”

“Of course I want to be in the room!” I said. “He’s my son!” “Hold him still then.” Hold him down was what she meant. I found out later that a blood gas can be quite painful for a baby, especially if it is not done properly, and this was the first time Princess Di had performed one on a child this young. I had never heard him scream like that.

But the results were inconclusive. “We could do it again,” the doctor said as she suctioned the mucous out of his nose. “But I’d rather send him straight to the hospital. They have better equipment there.” I called my husband.

“A cold lasting more than two weeks,” wrote the intake nurse. I bit my lip to keep from crying. “Possible RSV.”

They attached Aidan to a heart monitor – the leads had little smiley faces on them – and another monitor that measured the level of oxygen in his blood. He struggled to breathe. The skin between his ribs contracted like webbing. “Only one of you can be here overnight,” we were told. “Is mom nursing?”

All night I lay in a sweaty, naugahyde, Lazy Boy next to the bed; someone came in every hour to suction and to scribble something down on his chart. Aidan still didn’t want to nurse. After an hour or so I stopped pretending it might actually be possible to sleep, and I just listened to his labored breathing, watched the screen on the monitor, the way the lines went up and down, up and down, with his heart beat, watched the numbers on the black box blink. Thought about that toko. What if these, too, were not hooked up right? It was a long, long night.

But in the morning, Aidan seemed to have turned a corner, and he was doing much better – he even smiled at one of the nurses.

“This boy is sick? No – I don’t think so!!!” she said, while she played with his feet. They never did another blood gas. By the end of the day, the doctor decided it was not RSV after all, and he could go home.

On the way out we passed several rooms where the doors were barred with yellow tape, like at the scene of an accident, or a crime. The babies in those rooms cried constantly. There was no sign that anyone had visited them– no bright balloons, no stuffed animals, no flowers. In black letters on the tape was written “Caution: Biohazard .”

“What’s that about?” I asked the front desk nurse.

She leaned in confidentially, like the desk between us was a white picket fence, built for gossiping. “Those are the AIDS babies,” she said. “Their mothers are crack addicts, mostly. They don’t know the first thing about taking care of their children.

She smiled at Aidan. “What a cute baby. What was he here for?”

I held my son tightly to my chest while the other babies cried. “A virus,” I said.

Panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

23 thoughts on “Virus

  1. teentweentoddler1 says:

    Oh my goodness what a moving post. A brilliant read x


    • Thank you, Sharon. I’ve had a long time to reflect on that one. Boyo is 25 now. Interestingly, the nickname we worried about was never a problem. Protease inhibitors that came out in the mid 1990s changed HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a (mostly) chronic condition. And while stigma certainly didn’t disappear, a lot of the fear that causes people to lash out did.


  2. Terry Tyler says:

    Very, very good post, Paula

    As an aside, I live just a short ride away from Lindisfarne priory and have visited it several times – marvellous place!


  3. So moving, poor wee things. Puts the night waking into perspective. Thanks for sharing! I picked this post up via #MondayBlogs


  4. Annecdotist says:

    Paula, Lindisfarne is a beautiful island linked to the Northumberland coast by a long causeway at low tide. Last time I was there we heard the seals making such a plaintive noise, it was easy to believe that in the past they had been mistaken for mermaids. Hope your son gets to visit some time as compensation for that pickup near the beginning.


  5. Ariel Bernstein says:

    Wow, such a moving read. What a scary night for you and so sad to read about the other babies. It’s so easy to forget how lucky we are when our children are healthy & well-cared for.


    • Yes, it is. Also easy to think we are above the misfortunes of others, who somehow deserve them. I worked at the Minnesota AIDS Project for four years, and while I was there I met a few of those babies, now grown up – many of whom had very loving parents who did not survive to take advantage of the new drug therapies. They are strong advocates, and ready to be loving parents when their own turn comes.


  6. Claudia says:

    Wow! Scary. We had a similar unexpected experience when my son was about 5 months old, wheezing, chest pulling up and down. I had never really heard of croup, but when I called the pediatrician in the middle of the night and had my infant wheeze into the phone, he said, “I’ll meet you at the emergency room.” Scariest night of my life….all they did really is put him in a tent, which he did not like at all. Anyway, thanks for sharing and it’s a stark reminder of how fragile we all are (especially little babies!) Love the name Aidan, btw!


    • Thank you, Claudia. It was scary. Part of the problem was a friend who had gone through midwife training five years before had given me all her books, and they were out of date. And no internet then, of course. Good to know I’m not the only one something like that has happened to – though I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, either. Appreciate your taking the time to share your story. I still love the name too, even if half the world can’t seem to spell it…


  7. Great post. We have been lucky so far on not having had to go to hospital for either of ours. Must be very scary.x #PoCoLo


    • I thought I responded to this yesterday, but perhaps it didn’t take. Knock on wood you don’t have to go to hospital period! Except for this one incident, and a trip to the emergency room for the daughter because of an ear infection, we were remarkably hospital-free.


  8. I just have to finish this post. Amazing experience, amazing story and amazing storytelling. #PoCoLo


  9. I think I stopped breathing myself, Paula, while reading your story, as I couldn’t anticipate where it was heading. A brilliant telling of a harrowing experience for any mother – glad the boyo recovered – and Aidan is a fine name. Gorgeous pic – your daughter’s smile is priceless!


  10. Why haven’t we come to know each other sooner?! I loved your writing…and the number of times I’ve said the exact same words, “If our second daughter was our first, she would’ve been our only” ;P What a moving story, and so beautifully told. I’m glad I came on here, Paula. You’re going to have a regular reader in me :) x #pocolo


    • Kanchan: I’ve been away from the world of #pocolo for a month or so, plus I’m across the pond, so despite the coziness of cyberspace, I’m not surprised we haven’t met. Glad it has happened now. Yes, I’m sure I picked that phrase up from a sit com or something; it’s not original, but it certainly expresses the surprise-and-delight (or maybe just the surprise) features of parenting. I checked out your post because it was one of the few on the linky that was not about parenting, so it’s ironic that we’re connecting on that score. But wonderful as well. Looking forward to more.


  11. Lisa Reiter says:

    Lovely post Paula. My heart was in my mouth waiting for the outcome. Lxx


  12. […] at four in the afternoon. Aidan was born at seven in the evening. I’ve described that three hours elsewhere, but not what happened immediately afterwards. Which was that I was suddenly starving. Absolutely […]


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