‘But where are the boys who took me in the caravan?’ Elsie asked. It was 2am and we were lying on a narrow bed together in the emergency room at our local hospital. The ‘caravan’ was the ambulance and ‘the boys’ were the two middle-aged paramedics who entered our lounge room in their uniforms carrying various bags of medical equipment and supplies.
Elsie had woken with croup before midnight and I held her in front of the fire while Anthony tried to get her to take the steroid medication we keep in the fridge. The more we tried, the more upset she became and the more she coughed and wheezed, both inwards and out. We tried both steam and cold night air as we waited for the ambulance. We did what the 000 operator had said and kept her alert and upright with her chin away from her chest. I gently changed her pyjama top to one that didn’t have orange vomit down the front and used a warm baby wipe to clean her little hands and feet.
And we waited some more.
On an ordinary day, it takes me 15-20 minutes to load the girls in the car and drive into town, so I expected the ambulance to be at least that long by the time the paramedics answered the call and got out of bed, dressed, down to the ambulance station and out to our farm. Regardless, as Elsie’s weak arm patted the flap back down on each page of the Spot lift-the-flap book, we both looked at the clock then out the front window.
I remembered the urgency of our wait three years ago when I wondered if the floppy, blue baby was going to die in my arms. It was half an hour during which I felt like we were doing nothing at all. And if she’d died, that we didn’t do enough.
In the ambulance last night she sat upright against an inclined stretcher. I sat behind her and could see her reflection in the back window. On a pillow in front of me, visible through its white case, were the words KERANG ACCUTE in black texta. Funny, I thought. Whoever wrote that probably worked in acute. And the stray pillow’s large clear label with its incorrect spelling hadn’t worked; our ambulance and its station are a couple of hours from Kerang.
The wonderful paramedic kept his hand on her leg, adjusting her oxygen mask and speaking to her softly and calmly as she dozed. He told me that Elsie was a much better sight this time and that he’d been thrown when he arrived last time. That was not evident to me then. He was our saviour—such a welcome sight was the vehicle with the diagonal red stripes pulling up outside the kitchen window.
In the hospital we waited for the PredMix to work and Elsie entertained herself firstly by watching the lines and numbers on the monitor screen, then by looking at the clamp and its red light on her finger and discovering what else shone red when she pointed her finger at it, by touching the large teddy bear sticker on the back of each hand that she’d been rewarded with after taking the medicine, and finally by asking about each poster and piece of equipment around the room.
Elsie told me that the bed we were on was ‘just like the one in the caravan’. We were to stay until 6 or 7am on that little bed together and she was wide awake. She asked what the blue 99 was on the monitor and I explained that the special red light in the clamp could see through her finger and read how much oxygen was in her blood. And once the medicine worked and it became easier for her to take nice deep breaths, it may even get to 100, which is a 1 and two zeros I told her. With my back to the screen and her facing it, she reported that it had changed to a 9 and an 8. After some more coughs and gasps for her, I asked her again what it said. ‘It has a 7 and a 9.’ I nearly shot off the bed in fright but was most relieved when I sat up to see the blue number 97 on the screen.
And today at home I listen to her singing in a raspy little voice a song she’s made up about colours. Some lyrics are interrupted at times by a cough that sounds like a cat, and I am once more grateful for the ambulance service and our local hospital and all of their wonderful staff.