THE BLOG

My Toddler Almost Died In My Arms

12/01/2015 02:19 EST | Updated 12/01/2016 05:12 EST
Angie Campanelli

A week ago today, my 20-month-old son swallowed a Monopoly game piece and nearly died in my arms.

Within seconds of swallowing it, his face turned a colour.

He started foaming at the mouth.

He stared at me with large, round, panic-stricken eyes -- a look that changed me to the core. Forever.

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At first, I did what many first-time parents do. I became hypersensitive to everything -- guarding my son from every fall, every germ and every pain he could potentially encounter. But as weeks turned into months and we finally crossed the year-and-a-half mark, I figured that I'd done my job. My kid had enough smarts to play safe. He seemed like such a strong little boy -- scaling book shelves, climbing on furniture, running through our halls and participating in organized sports. I felt confident in his ability. Slowly, I relaxed into my role as "Mom."

The afternoon of the accident is forever burned into my mind. My son woke from his nap and I decided to take him to the library. Or, not...

Since I was heading back to work for a couple of months starting the next morning, I wanted to make the most of our day together. To really take things up a notch, I delayed the trip to the library and decided to sit and play with him using the toys that we typically reserved for my 10-year-old step-son's visits (a little storage bin containing Lego figurines, small toys and a special edition Monopoly game piece -- a little cat).

I lined up the Lego one by one, attaching hats to their heads and putting wee cups in their hands. In a flash, I saw my son, who was sitting within inches from me, put the cat into his mouth. Sternly, I turned to him:

"Jack, spit that out. You know it doesn't go in your mouth." (sigh)

"Jack!"

"Jack, listen to mommy!"

"Oh my gosh, oh my gosh... are you choking? Oh my gosh, he's choking!"

"Help me! Someone help me!"

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It honestly plays out like an investigative crime procedural. I screamed for help at the top of my lungs (thinking maybe someone in my townhouse complex might be a doctor and heroically kick down our front door and save my son) and frantically tried to dislodge the toy.

I hesitated ever so slightly to dial 9-1-1 thinking that I'm going to end up being that person -- the one who dials an emergency line and ends up wasting their time. But as our eyes locked and I could see him fearfully looking to me for help, I made the call. Within minutes, I heard the sirens and ran to the door, with my poor baby in my arms, and waved them in.

Three large men tore into our home, kicking anything out of their path and quickly hooked Jack up to various devices. By this point, the 9-1-1 operator had talked me through enough of a process to restore some semblance of breathing.

We filed into the waiting ambulance and headed to SickKids Hospital.

By the time we arrived in the emergency department, Jack's breathing seemed relatively normal. He could run around, talk and so on. Immediately, the nurse's questions started:

"Ma'am, we hate to ask this repeatedly, but are you sure he swallowed it?"

"Is it possible he spit it out when you were administering back blows?"

My mind flashed back to the frantic emergency call and all of the instructions I was given. I pictured myself giving him back blows, reassuring him and so on. But not once did I visualize that darned cat coming out of his mouth.

Still, I second guessed myself. I thought he had swallowed it?! But, maybe not?

Time passed slowly in the ER waiting area. My husband arrived. We sat. We waited. Just as we were about to leave and go home (I figured he must have spit it out and I missed it) they finally sent us in for an X-ray.

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There it was, lodged upside-down in his throat, pressing against his airway.

Staff flew into gear. Within hours of seeing the X-ray, doctors admitted him into the operating room. They planned to stick in a breathing tube, then use a scope to find the piece and pull it back out his mouth, all while he was gassed and knocked out.

In the end, the breathing tube pushed the object too far down and they couldn't get it. We simply had to wait for it to pass through his system.

When he came to from the surgery, he was out of it, a total wreck. I held him, cried (I didn't stop basically the entire evening/night) and rocked him against my heart.

I slept with him every night until the cat finally came out.

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The whole point of this post is to hopefully reawaken other parents who may be a wee bit lax in their monitoring and share some words of caution:

(1) Don't ever think it will never happen to you, because it can, it might and it could even happen when you're sitting right there with your kids. Get rid of those small choking hazards. Just because they haven't swallowed one yet doesn't mean they won't. You just never know when.

(2) If your child likes small toys (Shopkins, Lego figurines, etc.), figure out what they like about them and buy alternatives that are age appropriate. My son likes putting little people and animals into things (like cars, doors and houses) so we've removed every single mouth-sized piece and replaced them with Little People, Playmobil and other safer options.

(3) Never hesitate to call 9-1-1. Ever. The seconds wasted trying to discern if it's actually an emergency can mean the difference between life and death. Who gives a "beep" if you call for help and then your child recovers? No one cares. If anything, respondents and all involved will share in your joy and relief.

(4) Be the calm in their chaotic moment. Stay centred by reassuring and soothing your baby. One of the few things I remember the paramedic telling me over the phone is to calm my son. As soon as I started tenderly telling him how much I love him, rubbing his back and reassuring him that we'd be okay, it was easier for the item to move down a bit to allow for air because he relaxed.

(5) Never doubt your instincts. I knew that toy was still in there. Trust me, I think I would remember if something had flown out of his mouth because I would have felt relief. But I never saw or noticed anything, and in the end I was right.

(6) Parenting really is about being present with your child in every moment. If I had been folding laundry in another room and left my son with those toys, I guarantee the outcome would be very different. A lot of parents leave kids in baths or with food in high chairs as a means to buy themselves some time to do chores, check email, fold laundry and so on. But it's those seconds and minutes that could devastate your family forever. Nothing can ever be more important that just being present.

To be frank, the rude awakening I received from going through this awful nightmare can never truly be explained or articulated. I honestly think it's something you'd have to experience (the thought of your child dying in your arms) to really understand what I've written.

I now believe that if every parent had to go through something this scary and traumatic within the first year of their child's life, we'd all be much better parents.

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