A story of a peanut-eating toddler and four hospitals on five Caribbean islands. Part 2.

This is part 2 of the Peanut Saga – the story of what happened when our 1.5-year-old toddler inhaled a peanut into her airways in the Caribbean. Out of all the stressful times we had during this ordeal, this day described below was probably the worst to deal with mentally. You can read Part 1 here that explains what happened before this anxiety-filled day that even included an emergency helicopter ride to another island.

December 12, 2019

After a week spent in Anguilla (where Lily’s peanut inhalation actually happened) and St. Barthelemy, we were back home in Guadeloupe again, after flying in the night before from St. Martin. On our first full day back we managed to get a last-minute appointment for Lily at our regular medical clinic for around 11.30 a.m.

The doctor we saw there was a new one for us. At first he wasn’t phased about Lily’s strange breathing: He told us that as the girl was already on antibiotics and steroids due to the pneumonia, we could just wait it out until the end of the course to see if she would heal well. I mentioned my worries that maybe the was still a piece of a peanut stuck in her lungs, causing the infection – the doctor said that even if there was, it would just “decompose and disappear” on its own. FYI: No. That’s not how things work in the lungs… There is no stomach acid there that would break food down.

After listening to the toddler’s breathing for a while longer, the doctor changed his mind: He said the breathing did sound a bit unusual, so it would be best to check it out. He told us to go to the ER of the pediatrics ward at the local hospital CHU, i.e. Centre Hospital Universitaire Pointe-a-Pitre.

Knowing that CHU visits tend to take hours, I passed by the McDonald’s drive-thru lane before driving to the hospital. J-F went to work to wrap stuff up, and said he would meet us at CHU in an hour or two.

On the way to the hospital Lily was still a happy camper.

So Lily and I arrived at the hospital and registered with the secretary, explaining the situation. We then sat in the waiting room surrounded by other kids and their parents, eating our lunch. Around 1 p.m. a staff member noticed that we were eating fries and told me not to feed Lily anything – they wanted to keep her stomach empty for any tests they might run. Breastfeeding was also not allowed, which was a major bummer since that always comforted her in times of stress.

Around 2 p.m. we got invited into a preliminary interview. The nurse then asked us to move into the waiting room inside the ward. From there we eventually got moved into our own room that had one hospital bed and a few chairs. At this point Lily started crying and getting cranky, as it was nap time. Some nurses came to tell me they actually wanted her to fall asleep so they could run a CT scan on her throat and lungs easier.

But Lily was too anxious to sleep under the bright lights of the hospital. I walked with my screaming toddler back and forth to the general waiting room every five minutes to check if J-F had arrived as I had no phone service. I was getting pretty frustrated that it was him taking so long. The other people in the waiting room also got very tired of me yelling out, “J-F, are you there??” They always responded, “No!” But after a while a nurse came to hook Lily up to an IV drip with a cannula through the back of her hand and then put some wires on her big toe, so we could no longer move away from the bed at all.

Luckily when Lily’s dad finally arrived to the waiting room around 2.45 p.m., people immediately yelled out, “J-F!!” From this enthusiastic response, he knew to come look for us inside the ward. He found us in our room, with Lily crying hysterically and me getting more desperate by the minute as I was trying to calm her down without much success. She was furious at having been tied down to the bed and was attempting to rip off the cords. But after about a half an hour she did fall asleep.

Unfortunately Lily’s nap was a very short one.

Some 10 minutes later the nurses came to push Lily’s bed into the CT scan room. She was lifted up and placed inside the scanner tube. Unfortunately all the commotion was a bit too much and she woke up just as she was about to have her scan. Ahhh. Needless to say, this lead to a major crying fit. In fact the kiddo was so upset hat I didn’t think the scan would work out at all. She screamed and resisted big time. But somehow we managed to get her to stay still for a brief moment and got the scan done. Phew. We moved back into our hospital room to wait for the results.

It was around 4.30 p.m. when a nurse came into the room to tell us the results of the CT scan. Sure enough, the scan had shown there was a peanut in Lily’s trachea, i.e. the wind pipe! Ahhh, why was I not surprised at all?! “Le cacahuete est bien logee,” the nurse said. I took this to mean that the peanut was properly stuck in there. She smiled a bit and looked at Lily and said that little children like her should not be eating peanuts. (Yeah, we had missed the memo on peanuts not being recommended for kids under 5.)

Based on the nurses somewhat lighthearted behavior, I didn’t think that our child’s case was anything too challenging or out of the ordinary. Thus I was very surprised when two doctors came into the room afterward and they looked very, very serious.

Speaking pretty good English, the two women explained that the situation was quite complex. The peanut piece was blocking the entry to Lily’s right lung, meaning that she had only been breathing with her left lung for the past 5.5 days.

The CT scan finally showed the peanut that was stuck in her trachea.

Taking it out in a bronchoscopy would be difficult, they said, as there was a risk it could cut off her airways altogether. “But we cannot leave it there either,” they said, as that would lead to the lung perishing away and Lily’s health deteriorating further.

I started to panic. So what were they suggesting to do?! Neither of these sounded like good options. I couldn’t believe that we were in this super crappy situation without an obvious, clear solution. Tears started running down my face as I hugged my little daughter as tight as I could.

After a brief pause the two doctors said that due to the severity of the situation, they were considering sending Lily to Martinique with a helicopter. Apparently the hospital on this other French island had a better pediatrics’ ward with more specialists on site. That way, should complications arise during the bronchoscopy, the doctors there would be better equipped to deal with them.

If in fact this plan was to be chosen, the doctors said, one of us could go in the helicopter with Lily. We quickly decided it would be me, and J-F would follow us on a regular commercial flight the next morning.

“Sounds like a plan, so let’s go! What are we waiting for?”, I thought. Apparently I wouldn’t even need a passport to fly there with the hospital helicopter. J-F could bring our passports with him the next day, as well as some clothes.

The doctors left our room and said someone would come back to us with an answer soon as to what we would do. I was relieved that we at least had some hope in the horizon for solving the situation. But unfortunately soon after this is when things took a more chaotic turn, with plans changing left and right over the next several hours.

Lily was not happy anymore after many hours spent at CHU.

First off, in about a half an hour, someone came in to tell us that indeed Martinique it was. Lily and I would be taking off later that night.

Then an hour later, around 6 p.m., another doctor came to tell us that in fact the hospital thought it would be best to fly there only the next morning instead of that night since it was already dark. Lily and I could stay overnight in another room at the Guadeloupe hospital so that Lily’s health could be monitored. Okay, fine, I thought.

But then at 8 p.m. we got some alarming news: the docs had decided that it was urgent for Lily to be flown to Martinique that same night after all. Unfortunately there would be no space in the helicopter for me to join for the one-hour flight, as a regular doctor, an emergency doctor and a nurse would need to fit in too. Lily would need to travel alone, and stay in the Martinique hospital overnight by herself. She would undergo the bronchoscopy either immediately after arrival or the next morning, depending on her condition.

We, her parents, would need to purchase our own flight tickets for the next day if we wanted to join her in Martinique.

“What??! No way! I am not letting my baby travel alone. She’s only 1.5 years old! She can’t. That is not an option!”, I screamed.

“You have no choice. It’s an emergency,” said the doctor, the same woman who had just told us we would fly in the morning because it was safer to fly in daylight. Now she had a different tone altogether. She explained that while the peanut was currently blocking the entry to just one of the lungs, “it could shift at any point and block the other one too.” That’s why it was crucial for Lily to be transferred to Martinique tonight already, she said, and the helicopter would be full. The doctor left us alone shortly after delivering this disturbing news.

These sad times were some of the longest hours of my life.

The evening hours at the hospital were a blur – and there ended up being many of them, as we all stayed around until midnight despite the helicopter transfer being classed as “an emergency”. That is Guadeloupe and the Caribbean for you – everything takes ages.

I cried a lot, sometimes yelling out loud in anger and then sobbing quietly. I held my baby even more tightly than before. She cried non-stop too, until she ran out of strength to do so and finally fell asleep. I also felt like the worst mother for having to keep her from breastfeeding despite all her cries. She just looked so sad and couldn’t figure out why I was doing this to her.

At some point another doctor came in to introduce herself – she would be one of the people flying to Martinique with Lily. She showed a few toys that she planned to bring along for the flight, which was nice of her. I also asked her about Lily’s antibiotic treatment that she was supposed to be on – could I give that to her now so that her course wouldn’t get disrupted? (I had asked about this already hours ago from other staff but had not gotten an answer. Now Lily was already hours behind the schedule.) The doctor gave me kudos for knowing the importance of finishing the antibiotic treatments you are given – “not everyone knows about that” – and she said would get back to me. After some time a nurse came to administer Lily her antibiotics via the cannula as she still wasn’t allowed to eat or drink.

I also insisted on Lily getting an identifying bracelet around her ankle, as she still had nothing on her with her name on it. “Oh, that must have fallen off,” said one of the staff members. Uhm nope, she just never received anything in the first place. After me asking about it a few more times, she finally got her bracelet. It was quite alarming that I had to stay on top of so many things that really should have been the hospital’s responsibility.

This was after things were finally kicked into gear, after hours of waiting.

At some point, around maybe 10 p.m., J-F called Guadeloupe’s air traffic control tower (where he knows people due to his work). He asked them to contact the pilot of the hospital helicopter to ask if the helicopter really was slated to be full.

Randomly the pilot said there would definitely be space for me to join them, even with all the other people coming. He said he would be happy to take me onboard. That gave me some hope – maybe I would be able to travel with Lily after all. That thought kept me somewhat sane throughout the rest of the evening.

We also found out from the air traffic controllers that it might still be a while until Lily’s flight – the helicopter was apparently busy tending to patients in the rainforest of Basse Terre. I actually didn’t mind the delay too much. I figured that the longer it took, the less hours of separation we would have from our daughter (in case I wasn’t able to join on the flight and would need to fly to Martinique the next morning). And since the peanut had stayed stable for five days already, I didn’t worry too much about it suddenly shifting places.

Finally around 11 p.m. one of the doctors showed up in our room again (the one who had said that this was an emergency and that I had no choice). She said it was time for Lily to go. She was surprised when we told her that the helicopter pilot had invited me to come on the flight, too. “Oh? You know him? Well, that’s good. It’s true that Lily is so young that it’s better if one of the parents can go with her.” Yes, I agree!

I was already feeling great relief, but then it all came crashing down when the hospital helicopter staff appeared. It was the friendly female doctor from earlier, a new woman nurse and a new man, who was apparently the emergency doctor. The man got very upset hearing that I wanted to join the flight. “I am not taking any tourists on this flight,” he said with a snark, speaking unusually good English by French standards. He then went on to say that he wouldn’t be able to do his job – “to keep your daughter safe during the flight”- if I was there taking up his working space in the cramped helicopter. “If you want to come, fine. In that case I will just go home to watch TV. That is what I would rather do anyway. Up to you.”

This type of attitude was the last thing I needed after 11 draining hours spent at the hospital. Ugh! I was so angry at his tourist reference – I wanted to be there to hold my child’s hand and to help keep her calm, not to bother anyone. Grrr! But finally I had to accept my fate.

Little Lily being wheeled inside the ambulance.

I figured there was no point in fighting further and making the guy even more upset. Then he would certainly not be motivated to do a good job with Lily, should she need help during the flight. I realized I truly had no choice but to stay behind, as heart wrenching as that was.

Both J-F and I cried when Lily was moved to a narrow upright hospital bed and the nurses started wheeling her along the hospital corridor towards the door. It was such a sad moment: she was really leaving us to go alone to a whole other island 190 km away (118 miles), at the crazy young age of 19 months. Lily herself luckily seemed more intrigued than distraught – she could clearly sense that something different was finally happening after way too many hours spent in that boring hospital room. Plus she was clearly quite sleepy.

The friendly doctor who was going on the flight was nice enough to invite us to tag along for the ambulance ride to the helicopter launch pad. So we got to spend another 15 minutes with our child and to at least help her stay chill during the ambulance ride through the dark streets. The doctor also asked us what shows Lily liked watching on YouTube – I said she preferred Peppa Pig in Finnish. The doctor looked up “Pipsa Possu” on her phone so that Lily could watch it during the flight.

When we arrived at the helipad, the engine of the red and yellow helicopter was already switched on. It was very loud outside and pitch black dark. Lily was wheeled off from the ambulance with her hospital bed and moved towards the helicopter door. We hugged her goodbye a few times and told her we loved her and we would see her very soon. It was helpful to see that Lily wasn’t scared – she was ready for an adventure. Luckily she had always been very comfortable on planes, as she took her first flight with a small rental Cessna when she was just a month old.

“Bye, bye! Au revoir,” the brave little girl said, waving to everyone when her bed was pushed inside the helicopter. It was only after the staff had climbed in and the door was almost shut that I heard her saying in an alarmed tone, “äiti??” (mother in Finnish). I guess she realized at that point that I wasn’t joining her. That broke my heart.

Here she is being pushed inside the helicopter.

J-F and I climbed back into the ambulance and looked out of its window for a few minutes while the helicopter was preparing to take off. I started crying somewhat hysterically when it finally did, just before midnight. Seeing the chopper disappear into the dark night with my baby onboard felt like someone was literally ripping my heart into pieces. It was the worst, also because we had no idea under which conditions we would see our child again.

After arriving back at the hospital with the ambulance, we walked to our car and drove the 15-minute trip home in silence. It was exactly 1 a.m. when we finished booking our airline tickets to Martinique’s Fort-de-France, with our departure planned for 6.45 a.m. Thankfully even such last minute tickets were not that expensive, at 128 euros one-way.

Shortly after this the friendly doctor called J-F and let us know they had arrived to Martinique safely. Lily had been calm and had slept most of the flight. Since she was in good health, the bronchoscopy wouldn’t take place until the next day. So there was even a chance that we would get to Martinique before that.

We quickly packed some stuff for ourselves and for Lily, and tried to sleep for a couple of hours before it was time to head to the airport. Needless to say, this being my first night ever separated from my baby, I did not get much rest at all. I couldn’t help but wonder how she was handling being all by herself in strange settings on another island (one that I had never been to – so Lily even got to Martinique before I ever did).

The helicopter that took my baby away. 😦

The story continues here with Part 3.

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