17 years ago today, on March 28th 2000, I was 29 years old. Gosh, it seems like a lifetime ago. Shane and I lived in the upstairs apartment at the back of our building of six units, which faced another, identical 6-unit building. Our daughter, Justice, had recently become a big sister for the first time, to Hallie, who was born at 11:58 pm on March 17th ~ St. Patrick’s Day! ~ on the front seat of our Honda Civic in front of Kaiser Permanente Hospital’s Emergency Entrance in Woodland Hills. We almost made it to the hospital in time, but, what can I say? Hallie was in a hurry to be born on St. Paddy’s Day.
When I think about that little baby, my first impressions are of a strong, alert child, right from the word, “go!” I had a hard time, hemorrhaging and requiring a couple of courses of pitocin to get the bleeding under control upon being transferred up to a recovery room, but not our little baby. Hallie was eager to nurse, wide-eyed, alert and responsive. I remember lying on the sofa the day we brought her home, with Hallie resting on my belly. She just wriggled her way up my body all by herself, like a tiny little mountain climber. I know, I know ~ babies do this ~ but we were so impressed right from the start by her strength, her grip, and how awake and aware of the world around her she was. She just seemed interested in everything.
On the evening of March 28th, baby Hallie was just 11 days old. Justice was asleep her room. She would have been 2 years and about 4 months old. Shane was working at his desk in the living room, and I was napping on the sofa. Hallie was asleep in the cradle my dad had built, which was in the room with us. We always had our babies sleep wherever we were. So, we kept the cradle in the front room. I learned later that Shane had somehow become aware that something was wrong with Hallie. Maybe it was the absence of breath sounds. Maybe it was a choking sound. Maybe he saw something out of the corner of his eye. I don’t know, but I thank God that something alerted him. I awoke to the sound of him yelling her name. He was holding her, her face was bright red, mouth wide open, like she should be screaming, but there was no sound. I could see the terror in both of their eyes. I don’t even think I was fully awake before I was across the room whisking her away and saying, “Call 9-1-1!”
Having worked in a preschool classroom, I had, at least, been trained in infant CPR. I went in to auto-pilot. It’s hard for me to put in to words what happened next. I can remember it all so clearly, like I am watching a movie, but it’s difficult to articulate. I remember checking her airway. I remember running through all of the steps in my head ~ which I remembered then, but don’t now ~ I remember performing the infant Heimlich maneuver, and feeling a tremendous sense of relief when she coughed up a huge chunk of mucous…and then a renewed sense of panic when, instead of starting to breathe, my tiny little baby went limp and blue.
I remember that Shane was on the line with the 9-1-1 operator by this time, and that she remained on the line with him until we left for the hospital. I remember that, at some point, little Justice was awakened by the commotion, and wandered out. I remember that the paramedics from the nearby fire station arrived within two minutes that felt like an eternity. I remember. I remember loosening her clothes, jiggling her limp little limbs, begging her to breathe. I remember Shane’s voice pleading with her to breathe. I remember repeatedly thumping the soles of my baby’s tiny feet, so she would gasp for air, and hoping against hope that, eventually, those tiny little gasps would “catch,” and she would start breathing regularly again. And I remember that, eventually, miraculously, she did. Right before the paramedics arrived. She was breathing, albeit shallowly, by the time they got there, but, since she had not been, of course, a trip to the ER was still in order.
I remember when the paramedics explained to me that I couldn’t hold her on the way to the hospital. That I had to hand her over to them. That she had to be transported by them the way any patient would, but I could ride inside the ambulance with her. Shane and Justice could follow in the car. I remember the look on Shane’s face when he realized he had to let them drive away with his baby. I remember how tiny she looked inside the ambulance on that huge gurney.
I remember sitting at the hospital while they checked her over and over and questioned us about what had happened, and found no explanation. No explanation. And just…sent us home. I remember the diagnosis.
I remember searching for information to try to understand what had happened to my child and finding that it stood for “Apparent Life-Threatening Event.”
As if we couldn’t have guessed.
I remember months later when I had to fight for the insurance company to cover that ambulance ride and hospital visit, because, they told me, the incident “wasn’t life-threatening.”
“Please refer to doctor’s diagnosis. A.L.T.E. – Apparent Life-Threatening Event.”
I remember how, at about two months, she suffered another episode of the same type. Still with no further explanation.
I remember how, years later, she developed asthma, and often suffered respiratory complications such as bronchitis or pneumonia. I remember the time she had croup, and developed stridor, and her little chest would cave in, instead of expanding, when she took a breath, and my heart would ache for her. I remember other parents thinking I was being “overprotective” when I said it was important for her not to be exposed to respiratory ailments because she was at high risk for respiratory complications.
But, more than anything, on this day, I remember my child’s beautiful eyes, smile, voice. I think of all of the amazing things this almost grown person has achieved. I think of the art my child has created, the roles this young actor has played, all the music and dances and stories…and everything yet to come.
Hallie was due on March 27th, born on March 17th, under rather unusual circumstances. Then March 28th came along and did its best to wrestle her away from us. Every year at this time, I can’t help but pause and count this particularly incredible blessing.