Mummy can’t breathe

Mummy can’t breathe

Hi all – it’s been a long time – I wrote this over a year ago, and it has been sitting in my drafts gathering virtual dust. At the time it was incomprehensible that the coronavirus would continue to cause chaos in our lives. I’m sharing this because the story might resonate with someone, but also because I think it is time and a story that needs to be told.

On my first mothers day I woke up in the morning unable to breathe. After almost of week of feeling poorly with a cough and on/off high temperatures (? spiked by watching the news) I was sitting with my 9 month old baby singing nursery rhymes, and I couldn’t get past the “Old” of Old McDonald had a farm without gasping for air. You don’t need to be a medic to know that this state of breathlessness is not normal, so, reluctantly, I called 999. As I gave my name and address, I profusely apologised for “wasting their time” and, whilst struggling to speak still managed to say

“I’m (gasp) sure (gasp) its (gasp) nothing”.

A couple of hours later I was being blue lighted through the empty inner London streets in the back of an ambulance with a Respiratory Rate of 44, Temperature of 39.6 degrees Celsius, and an oxygen saturation around 85% – worse than a lifelong chain smoker (for the record, something I am not). When the ambulance crew arrived it was plain to see I was seriously ill – yet even with all my years of training and expertise I refused to go to hospital, because I refused to leave my baby. She needs me, I kept saying. We had not been even an hour apart since the moment she was born. Shes breastfeeding. “I can’t leave her” I gasped, over and over again. To this day I’m very thankful to the paramedic, whose name I cannot remember whom casually said “hey I tell you what – just come with us, let us check you out in A&E, make sure everything is OK and you will be back home in a few hours”. Obviously that was a lie, but one of those little white lies that saves lives that sometimes we have to do.

The next 4 days was a blur. I was placed in “isolation” – alone in a large magnolia coloured room with a small window that faced a red wall. Nurses came to check on me regularly, albeit from a distance covered head to toe in personal protective equipment. I was placed on oxygen therapy and given antibiotics. I was in such a septic rush that I didn’t pack anything in my hospital bag but some old pyjamas, a gym t-shirt (?), a small bottle of holy water from my mother that I’ve always carried with me whenever I travel, and a portable phone charger which was only 10% charged itself. I used my phone sporadically, only to face-time my daughter for a few seconds at a time before her naps. I didn’t pack a breast pump, the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind – until a few hours later when I was struggling with engorgement and doing my best to hand express into a kidney dish through the night to stop myself getting mastitis on top of everything else.

A few days later with improved oxygen saturations I was allowed to leave hospital as I was mostly better (on retrospect not fully recovered by any means – but I think they gave me the benefit of the doubt being a “sensible” doctor, whatever that means…)  I was told a few times that I should stop breastfeeding and be separated from my baby for a number of reasons – “coronavirus could be in the breast milk”, “you could harm your baby”, “you could infect her” , “the antibiotics might not safe” , and possibly the most patronising “well you have had a good run”, all of these claims totally false and founded in fear rather than facts, and although I knew it was false with my clinical expertise I was too weak to argue with them at the time so chose to save my (much needed) breath.

As soon as I came home, I gave my daughter a huge hug and she went straight back on the breast like nothing had ever happened. Since then so much evidence has come out about the benefits of breastfeeding and its immuno-protective qualities – something that needs to be shared more and one of the reasons I have chosen to share my own dual patient and professional experience. I have also written to our government and with organisations behind the scenes to support the often neglected needs of breastfeeding women admitted to hospital and separated from their children, both on a practical and emotional level.

It took some time to recover, but I am thankful to say that from a physical perspective I am back to normal and honestly it is a wonderful feeling to not only be alive, but to be able to breathe, talk and sing with ease again. Being unable to breathe is so anxiety-provoking, not surprising as the breathing control centre, stress and anxiety are intricately linked by the vagus nerve. Deprivation of the breath of life also conjures images of death – since writing this original article, the world witnessed the tragic murder of George Floyd in 2020, repeatedly stating “I can’t breathe” to his oppressors, igniting the black lives matter movement for the next generation.

Psychologically speaking, I also feel very well and grounded – but even the process of writing this has raised a lot of questions for me; how mothers/daughters/women in caring roles default to “putting others needs before their own”, and how the line between doctors and patients is truly blurred in times of sickness and health. These questions are something I explore a lot with my patients, so pertinent in the perinatal period, but maybe we can talk about that another time.

I’m thankful to my husband whom looked after our infant alone in lockdown without any support from family or friends during that first (of many) lockdowns. 

I’m thankful to the lady on the end of that breathless 999 call who told me to take care of myself.

I’m thankful to that paramedic that told me a white lie.

I’m even thankful to the junior doctors whom did countless arterial blood gases on me (with and without local anaesthetic).

I had to make a split second decision about coming into hospital, and I’m thankful I made the right one.

.. and even though its taken me over a year to gain the courage to do so – I’m thankful I am able to share my story.

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