What I learnt the night I thought my daughter was dying

Being a parent has taught me that I can cope with my own mortality; but the thought of my child’s mortality fills me with a fear that is as deep and primal as life itself. This is what I learnt from the night when I felt the bottom was falling out of my world.


Late one night, walking up the stairs to carry out my late night baby check, I heard the grinding, grumbling noises of a boiler on its last legs. Or so I thought.

I pushed open the bedroom door and it was then that I immediately realised something wasn’t right. The noises were not coming from a faulty boiler; they were lower sounds, more guttural, almost animal. And there was another sound too, one that I had not heard before. It was a writhing, flapping, beating sound.

I rounded the door and looked to the cot. Where my peaceful, calm, tranquil sleeping baby should have been lying fast asleep, was instead a wide eyed, rigid child, rattling with violent tremors, foaming at the mouth. The noises hadn’t been coming from the boiler. They were coming from my child.

A pulse of shock went through my body. A knot of tension surged across my chest. I felt sick in the pit of my stomach.

Time stood still. A second wave of shock came over me. I went over to her cot and tried to talk to her, tried to engage her, to see my baby, to engage and soothe and calm. But her eyes were wide open, fixed in a horrific stare – dark pools, soulless, like the haunted, cold eyes of a shark. The shaking was getting worse and I noticed that she was soaking wet, and lying on sodden bed linen. I touched her, tried to get her out of the cot, but she was wooden, rigid, plank like and it proved a struggle. And she was burning up, a fever so hot to the touch, literally dripping with her own sweat, her hair plastered across her forehead. All the time a low grunting and growling was emanating from deep inside her.

I had only ever seen something like this in a horror film. I wondered if I was in a nightmare. I thought she was having a fit, maybe worse. I had no idea what to do. I tried to take her clothing off, trying to get some air to her. With the shaking it was impossible. I laid her on the floor, put her on her side in the recovery position, and shouted to my wife to come in. My wife heard the tone in my voice and came running through. She came straight over and let out a small cry.

By now the shaking had stopped and something worse had happened. My daughter’s body had gone limp and her eyes were shut. The horrific grunting had stopped. I held her face and tried to talk to her, my voice increasingly growing desperate, louder, frightened. But she was limp and floppy and quiet, her eyes closed to the world. She lay motionless. I couldn’t hear her breathing. I scooped her off the floor and ran through into our bedroom, laying her on the bed. I tried to find signs of life. I felt sick, truly sick. This could not be happening.

Then panic. “Wake up Asha! WAKE UP!!” But she didn’t. She couldn’t. The prickle of horror spread up my neck and behind my ears. My heart was racing.

But wait! There it was! There! I could hear breathing through her nose! She was breathing. We quickly established a pulse too. But she was unconscious and still burning up. 

My wife called an ambulance. We live near a hospital and they were with us within 5 minutes. They were amazing. In the back of the ambulance, after a few tests and listening to the answers to a couple of well chosen questions, they told us she was probably having a febrile convulsion. My jaw dropped. This did not sound good.

They must have seen the look of horror and confusion on our faces so they quickly told us it was incredibly common. They told us it was not dangerous. They told us it was probably nothing to worry about. Each statement was like a kiss from a lover. Each statement dispersed the clouds and bought the sunshine streaming in. Each statement lifted the darkness on my soul.

Anyone who is a parent, and has been in a drama like this, will know how reassuring it is to hear these words coming from qualified professionals. And you will also know too the feeling that accompanies words like this, words of hope. It feels like a part of your life is returning. You begin to feel complete again. The dark fog and the mist lifts and you feel strangely euphoric.

In the hospital they ran tests. Our daughter lay in a deep sleep for hours afterwards. Despite being reassured by those around us, and the fact we were in a hospital and being looked after extremely well, it was frightening as she could not be woken and was silent, immovable.

I just wanted my baby to wake up. I wanted to look into her big eyes and see the light return, the glimmer, the sparkle, the glint of mischief. I wanted to see her dimples again, and hear her chuckle. I wanted to erase the memory of the staring, dead eyes and the body wracked with convulsions. I never wanted to feel like that again – powerless, impotent, scared to death. I wanted my daughter back.

Eventually she stirred, let out a little cry, rubbed her eyes and sat up. She looked pale, drawn, white as a ghost, shattered, but she was awake, alive. She looked surprised at her surroundings and I reached across to her. The corners of her mouth turned upwards into a little grin and her eyes sparkled. She held her arms out. I went in for the biggest hug ever. I squeezed her tight, and allowed her gorgeous curls to tickle the side of my face. I cried tears of relief. I didn’t want to let her go.

In the morning we were discharged. We learnt that my daughter had had a virus which had caused a sharp spike in her temperature. This had triggered the febrile convulsion. We were told it was likely to happen again, and that while it was not serious, we should call the doctors or an ambulance for peace of mind.

She has had tests since which confirmed the diagnosis and only one convulsion since. It was equally scary, but this time we were prepared. She has been clear now for close to a year. Apparently children generally grow out of them, there is no lasting damage and they are relatively harmless.

I learnt that night to be very grateful for the NHS, the excellent staff who reassured us, the speed with which an ambulance was with us and for their overall care and commitment. I am lucky to be living in a country where this kind of service is still free.

And being a parent has taught me that I can cope with my own mortality, but that the thought of my child’s mortality fills me with a fear that is as deep and primal as life itself. This is a feeling that is so powerful, a feeling the strength of which I never thought possible until I became a parent. There are no words to describe it. Life is so transient, so temporary; we never know what is waiting around the corner. Having children has really taught me to live for the moment, embrace every second because life moves so quickly and I don’t believe in regrets.

I knew when I became a parent that it was going to be a challenge. But I had no idea that being a parent could so profoundly rattle my soul; I had no idea that being a parent could result in such unbelievable highs and such unfathomable lows; I had no idea that being a parent could give me such a incredbible reason to live; And I had no idea that being a parent would stretch me in every fibre of my being to be a better person.

And the thing about being a parent is this. My emotional capacity has grown exponentially. My capacity to love has become infinite and unconditional. And my emotions are, on a daily basis, polarised to such extremes. My children have taught me to fear; a fear so profound and primal that it cuts in such a way that I have never experienced, not even when I have been in situations where I have been fearful of my own life. And conversely my children have taught me to love; a deep profound love; a glorious love that can cut through the darkness and gloom; a love that can send a crackling pulse of energy so strong, that it feels like it could push back the tentacles of Death itself. This is what I learnt the night I thought my daugther was dying.



12 thoughts on “What I learnt the night I thought my daughter was dying

  1. This post took me back to when my son had a bad case of croup and was struggling to get a breath. You realise how vunerable they are and you get that dark scary emotion that you’ve never felt before. So glad all okay now. 🙂

    • Thanks for your empathy and for taking the time to read and comment. I really appreciate that. Croup is indeed a horrible illness. I remember having it when I was young. My mum helped to ease the symptoms by boiling a kettle in my bedroom!!!

  2. Gosh what a frightening! Glad the little one was okay. My younger sister had febrile convulsion as a baby, I remember it being a very frightening time.
    Awful when little ones aren’t well. My son had 2 operations before his first birthday, seeing them vulnerable when they are so tiny is awful.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read the article, for your empathy and for sharing part of your story. I cannot imagine how you must have felt during those operations. Where did your strength come from?

  3. Utterly terrifying. Although I knew from the title that your daughter would be okay in the end I was feeling sick with you, picturing you finding her like that. My worst nightmare. Like a previous commenter, my son had croup too and I found him rasping and struggling to breathe. I had no idea what it was, never heard of croup before. Called my husband to come home from work, dithered, started taking my boy to the car to drive him to hospital, then imagined him stopping breathing with me alone and driving along a red route or something, so went back inside and phoned an ambulance. Later on in the hospital, my husband and I swapped phones and I found a text he had sent to a friend on it saying: “Please pray. I just followed an ambulance to my own house.” Somehow, those words are still what makes me cry thinking back to that moment. Picturing how he must have felt, discovering that the ambulance was there for his little boy.

    Anyway, your description of sitting by your daughter’s bedside in hospital waiting for her to wake up and smile at you has made me feel ten times better about the rubbish sleeping my baby is doing at the moment. Much better to be up five times a night but know she is okay than the horror of watching your child sleep for endless hours and not knowing if she will wake up.

    • Thanks for your comments and the story about croup. Croup sounds hideous. I remember getting it when I was younger and my mum boiled a kettle in the room which really helped. What did the hospital advise you to do if it happened again?

      And man I have empathy with your husband! What must he have been thinking!

      And I really hope you get the sleeping thing sorted. Hang in there. Xx

      • Hospital said mostly croup can be sorted at home with boiling kettles and calpol, as you say! If it is more severely, like in my son’s case, the child might need steroids in some form or other. He got an injection and the next morning he was much much better. If it ever happens to one of your kids and you are very worried, take them to A&E, otherwise just get them seen by a doctor ASAP.

  4. You describe it so well, the fear, the cold dead look. It is the most afraid I have ever been. Being a parent is a whole new level of terror and wonder.

    • I will drink (in moderation, in case there is a night time crisis) to that.

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. I really “liked” your post on febrile convulsions too (if you know what I mean!)

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