A story of a peanut-eating toddler and four hospitals on five Caribbean islands. Part 1.

This is part 1 of the Peanut Saga – one of the worst things that ever happened to me. It’s taken me a while to feel strong enough to write all this down. Yet I wanted to do it, even if only to remember the details myself and to not take a single day with my child for granted. Maybe you can also learn from this and keep this from happening to other young kids, or know what to do if it does happen. I wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone. It was very nerve-wracking.

So now it’s been just over a year since our toddler inhaled a peanut into her airways in the Caribbean and at last I feel like I can write about this experience without getting too emotional. Up until now I have felt nauseous just thinking about it or looking at the photos from those crazy days on my phone (yes, this peanut saga went on for several days! But luckily it has a happy ending).

So I hope you “enjoy” this wild tale that involves a toddler, a peanut, an emergency helicopter ride and four hospitals on five Caribbean islands.

As this is a long story, it will be split into several posts.

So here is how it all went down:

December 7, 2019

While we normally live in Guadeloupe (and thus I also run a blog called Guadeloupe Guide), at this point we were on the beautiful Caribbean island of Anguilla with my little family of three: me, my French spouse J-F and our then 1.5-year-old toddler girl Lily. I was there reviewing local luxury hotels for an American website (I know, it’s a hard life but someone has to live it! Or had to… this was obviously pre-Covid days).

Dec. 7 was the last one of our three nights in Anguilla, and we were living it up at the 5-star Manoah Boutique Hotel on the northern end of the island. We had just come back to our spacious room for a bath after doing a night swim at the Olympic-size lit-up pool of the hotel.

Night time swim, anyone?

Around 9 p.m. J-F prepared a typical (albeit a very late) French apero for us on the low-lying mirror table, consisting of beer, nachos and crushed peanuts. Our dinner was to be a store-bought baby meal for Lily and some Ramen noodles for us (fancy, eh!), as those are easy to prepare even in a hotel room without kitchen access. (And we weren’t about to pay those 5-star dinner prices at the hotel’s restaurant – that could easily wipe out my earnings from the whole hotel reviewing gig, hah.)

After seeing the food set up, Lily rushed over to the table and quickly stuffed her mouth with the peanuts and the nachos. I wasn’t too worried about it as she had been successfully eating crushed peanuts since turning one. (At this point I wasn’t aware that whole and crushed peanuts aren’t actually recommended until age 5! It’s better to serve young kids a thin layer of peanut butter on a cracker instead. This reduces their risk of developing a peanut allergy but helps avoid the choking risk.)

Suddenly things took a dark turn. Before Lily had managed to swallow the peanut pieces and the nachos, she also grabbed some noodles. She quickly shoved those into her mouth, too, on top of all the other stuff. And it turned out they were spicy noodles! So she freaked out. Acting in a panic, she took a deep breath and thus inhaled much of the food that was in her mouth. She then started coughing and was clearly struggling to breath. I panicked but instinctively grabbed her onto my lap and slapped her back a few times while she was lying down on my knees, facing the floor. This helped most of the food to come out but clearly not all of it.

The scene of the unlucky peanut incident.

The child’s breathing then became scratchy and wheezy – we could hear there was something stuck in her airways, probably a piece of a peanut or a nacho. She coughed a few more times but nothing more would come out. She calmed down. She remained unusually chill for about 10 minutes but then seemed all energetic and fine again, despite her breathing being labored. Soon she was roaming around the hotel room and playing with the room’s mirrors and the safety deposit box, as usual. We the parents, on the other hand, started frantically Googling what to do if a toddler inhales a peanut. While there were some tricks to try at home, like giving the child a bubbly soft drink in case the food was in fact just stuck in the food pipe, most of the advice seemed to point at going to the hospital. So that’s where we headed too.

Anguilla’s small Princess Alexandra Hospital is located in the center of the island, so it was about a 10-minute drive along the small dark roads for us. When we arrived there after 10 p.m., only one corner of the single-story building was lit up. This is where we found the Accident and Emergency department. We explained the situation, filled out some papers and sat down to wait. There were only a few other people in the small waiting room but it still took about 20-30 minutes for us to be seen. We were then called into the doctor’s room. The man listened to Lily’s breathing with a stethoscope and said he could clearly hear the scratchy sound. He thus ordered a chest X-ray. Before getting it done, we had to pay for the hospital visit at the cashier’s desk. I remember the bill being around 60 euros.

After about a half an hour of waiting in the hallway, we got called into the X-ray room. The room had seen better days – it had paint peeling off the pink walls and the machine itself seemed scruffy and old. We had to hold Lily down on the bed while the machine took a picture of her chest from about a meter above her. Of course at this point Lily started panicking and crying and coughing frantically, so much so that it was hard to get the picture taken. Finally we succeeded though. And magically after she got up from the bed, her breathing seemed normal again. No more heaviness or scratchiness. Whoa! I wasn’t sure if I should be happy or worried about this – after all, we had not seen anything come out of her mouth. Could the peanut have gone further down the trachea (wind pipe) or even into her lungs? Or could it have come up and she had simply swallowed it?

When the doctor told us the results of the chest X-ray a while later, he seemed convinced all was fine. The chest X-ray had showed that Lily’s lungs were clear. “And her breathing is okay now”, he said victoriously. The doc said that ideally he would have also taken a picture of Lily’s trachea, too, but the person in charge of running that particular machinery was off the island at that moment. So if we really wanted to get further consultations, he said we could go to the island of St. Martin the next day and visit the hospital there. But that would be up to us and just an extra precaution – overall it seemed that all was great now. Lily was breathing just fine and the X-ray was clear. (Plus I only learned later on that peanuts don’t often show up at regular X-rays since they are organic material…)

I asked the doctor if it was possible that the peanut could have gone deeper into her lungs during her coughing fit. “No, we would hear it. Her breathing would sound scratchy if there was anything more in her airways,” the doctor reassured me. Plus, again, the X-ray had looked good, he said. So we ended up driving back to our hotel around 11 p.m. and let out a sigh of relief that all seemed to be well again.

Lily enjoyed a good night’s rest after a rough night.

Little did we know at this point that this was just the beginning of the long-winded peanut saga.

December 8, 2019

After a short but fairly well-rested night, we woke up around 6 a.m. to drive to the Anguilla port to catch the day’s first boat to the neighboring island of St. Martin. Lily seemed to be back to her usual energetic self in the car and in the waiting room of the port too. She slept for most of the 20-minute boat ride to the bay of Marigot in St. Martin.

For a while we pondered if we should in fact visit the hospital in St. Martin just in case, but in the end we decided not to. Our kiddo appeared totally okay and normal and was breathing well too. She coughed a few times during the morning in a dry way but it didn’t sound alarming – I figured her throat was just irritated from the previous night’s overload. So once we got to St. Martin, we hopped directly onto the ferry going to the island of St. Barthelemy. I was slated to visit some more luxury hotels there during the next three days.

We spent the day in St. Barth’s catching up with my Swedish friend Veronica who lived there, and visiting a few of the first hotels. We settled into our cute luxury boutique hotel, Les Ondines sur la Plage, where we would stay for three nights. Lily was excited about the hotel’s pool and its nice waterfall.

We were the only guests at the hotel so the pool was all ours.

We also passed by a beach near Gustavia and did a small hike to a beautiful viewpoint. It was incredibly hot and sunny that day and unfortunately we forgot to put a hat on Lily. None of us probably drank enough water either.

Therefore when Lily suddenly developed a fever that night and I woke up to her puking onto the bed and on me at 2 a.m., my first thought was that she was suffering from heat exhaustion. The symptoms all seemed to match what I read online about the impacts of excessive sun exposure.

We gave the poor little thing some of the children’s Doliprane (paracetamol) that we had brought with us. That quickly brought down the fever and she was able to fall asleep again. I soon went to sleep too, of course feeling like a terrible parent for not keeping her out of the sun.

December 9, 2019

Lily woke up seeming completely fine, with no sign of fever or nausea or anything being wrong. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast on our ground-level balcony, just in front of the beautiful bay of Grand cul de Sac. Lily also took a morning bath in our jacuzzi tub that lit up with various disco lights. She was loving it.

Around 10 a.m. Veronica took us on a scenic hike along the coast nearby. The plan was to head down to a swimming hole of sorts, but finally the cliffside path looked too steep to descend down with a toddler. So we just admired the views for a bit and then turned back. During the hike Lily was in a baby carrier and wearing her sun hat tightly on her head, and we regularly offered her water to avoid any risk of heat exhaustion.

The rest of the day we kept the little one out of the sun as much as possible, too. During the hot midday hours her dad stayed with her at our hotel while Veronica and I toured some of the luxury properties on the island.

In the afternoon we visited a local playground, where Lily played as happily as ever. In the evening we had drinks by the waterfront in Gustavia and then a nice Thai dinner at the trendy Black Ginger.

Throughout all of this Lily seemed to be totally healthy. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary within her behavior.

One of the hotels we visited this day was the luxury property of Eden Rock St. Barths.

But alarmingly enough, later that night Lily developed a fever again. We didn’t have a thermometer with us, but her skin certainly felt very hot. That got me worried, as this time it clearly could not have been heat exhaustion. We gave her some Doliprane again and a few hours later she fell asleep. Wisened up from last night, I covered the bed with towels just in case. And sure enough, at 2 a.m., Lily woke up to puke on the bed for the second night in a row. At this point I really started to worry and searched for hospital info for St. Barth’s. But as she only puked once and then settled back into sleep, we decided to wait until the morning to see how she would be doing.

December 10, 2019

For the first time since this all started, Lily did not wake up looking healthy or energetic at all. In fact, she looked very tired. She had developed a proper phlegmy cough instead of the occasional dry one she had exhibited here and there over the past few days, and she still seemed feverish. It was definitely time to take her into the local hospital.

I still had a few more hotels to visit before completing my work assignment, so Veronica and I dropped off J-F and Lily at the island’s modern-looking Centre Hospitalier de Bruyn and headed off to my meetings. Needless to say, I was quite absent-minded during the morning and anxiously awaited for some news about my little daughter.

She and her dad got out of the hospital a bit before noon and all we met up at the Hotel Villa Marie Saint-Barth, where we had been invited for lunch. Oh man, it broke my heart to see my baby sleeping on her dad’s arms, totally limp. She just seemed completely exhausted.

Despite our worries, we tried to be cheerful for the lovely lunch at the Hotel Villa Marie Saint-Barth.

J-F told me the doctor’s verdict: Lily had a lung infection in her right lung, i.e. pneumonia! Oh my goodness. 😦 My heart sank upon hearing that. Apparently the doctor had no idea what was causing the infection though, as no foreign object had showed up on the X-ray that morning. (Again, food particles don’t always show up on X-rays….and neither does plastic, FYI.) So the doc had just prescribed steroids plus a week of antibiotics (Amoxicillin) for her and told us to go see a doctor back in Guadeloupe in about a week, to make sure the pneumonia had subsided.

I was pretty upset about the antibiotics – I had hoped that Lily could avoid taking them at least until she was a little older to protect her gut bacteria. But of course at this point we didn’t have a choice. Pneumonia is a very serious condition and you definitely don’t want to leave it untreated.

While we ate our multi-course lunch, the little one got her first dose of the meds (which she hated taking from the get-go). Throughout the day she started perking up and regained some energy. In the evening Veronica and I even had dinner at the famous Le Ti St. Barth, the only cabaret restaurant on the island, and Lily ran around the property and admired all the outfits in the performers’ backstage closet.

Things were looking better but I was still kind of worried – what could have caused the sudden lung infection? I had lingering fears that there was still a peanut hiding in there somewhere…

Le Ti St. Barth serves impressive drinks and has the island’s only cabaret show.

December 11, 2019

We were slated to fly back to Guadeloupe in the evening from St. Martin, so around 10 a.m. we caught the one-hour ferry to Marigot, St. Martin. The boat trip went well again, with Lily sleeping most of the way. After our arrival, our Bolivian friend Edgar who lives in St. Martin came to meet us at the port and drove us around the island for the day. We had a nice Mexican lunch near the famous Maho Beach, known for the dramatic airline landings. We spotted a few planes landing and then drove to the French side. While there, we visited the impressively long beach of Grande Case before our friend dropped us off at the Grande Case airport.

The 45-minute flight onboard the French carrier Air Caraibes went by fast. Lily seemed fine, she fell asleep as she usually does on flights. Once we got back to Guadeloupe, we breathed a sigh of relief: it was great to be home as now Lily could really start recovering. We gave her the antibiotics and she went to sleep early.

A family pic at the famous Maho Beach of St. Martin.

But it didn’t take long for me to notice something was weird about her breathing: it sounded scratchy and raspy again! I wondered if it was just the sound of the phlegm in her throat but somehow I wasn’t convinced. In an eerie way, the sound was familiar – it reminded me of how she had sounded on Saturday night in Anguilla, right after she had inhaled the peanuts and nachos. Oh gosh.

I got concerned and stayed awake a long time listening to the toddler’s raspy breathing. I even recorded a video of the sound, which I sent to my step sister in Finland. She played it to one of the pediatricians at the hospital where she worked, explaining about Lily’s pneumonia diagnosis too. The recommendation I got from there was to go see a doctor again: if in fact there is a foreign object in the trachea, it apparently most often causes aspiration pneumonia in the right lung. That is exactly where Lily had the infection. And, my sister told me, food particles do not usually show up in X-rays. That was exactly what I had been worried about…

The story continues here with Part 2.

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