February 3, 2007, 1:38 pm

“Call 911, He’s Dead!”


This is a GI Joe nurse doll.

I find her interesting in a few respects, not the least of which is the fact that she is wearing dog tags.

She isn’t glamourous. In fact she looks rather weary and her hair looks as though it was chopped off herself a la Nurse Colleen McMurphy in China Beach (remember that show)?

Unlike her nurse doll colleague Barbie, she is carrying blood. Barbie never looked like she even saw any body fluids, let alone handled them.

Her cap has seen better days.

I would have put her in khakis – can’t imagine the white would do well in a combat area.

And I don’t think the mini-skirt uniform would be conducive to bending over.

Bottom line: I gotta get me one of these!


Every now and then we medical/nursing professionals find ourselves on the other side of the fence as patients.

I’ve written about what it’s like being the wife of a patient over on Scared to Health (newly designed, by the way), but I don’t think I’ve ever told the story about being the mother of a seizure patient.

The theme of Grand Rounds this week happens to be “Medical Professionals as People”. Well, I’m a nursing professional and I’m a people so that qualifies! Besides, I’m always up for a literary challenge!

And now, the feature presentation….


The hair dryer plug fell out of the socket.

I never would have heard the noise if the hair dryer had not stopped.

A whimpering, unworldly sound.

I followed the sound to the side of my bed in another room.

My 20-month old son was lying on the ground, motionless with a large amount of bubbling saliva running down the right side of his face and making a puddle on the carpet.

He had just been with me in the bathroom as I was drying my hair and I noticed he felt warm. “Better get him some Tylenol as soon as I’m done with my hair, ” I thought. He walked out of the bathroom.

Thirty seconds later the dryer unplugged itself from the wall.


I thought he had vomited so I grabbed him and threw him over my left arm and ran for help. There was no muscle tone in my son’s body whatsoever. Limp doesn’t even begin to describe it. I knew he was gone.

My husband had just come in from the backyard.

“Call 911!” I yelled. “He’s dead!

My husband grabbed the phone without asking questions and called 911.


In the meantime, I threw my son back over my right arm. He seemed weightless. He was the color of ceil blue scrubs and his pupils were fully dilated.

I went numb. You think you won’t remember your BLS in a real crisis. You are wrong.

I went into full BLS mode, but not consciously. My body was moving without any effort. I was not panicked. I was not anything. I was just moving.

Place the patient on the floor in a sniffing position. Check. Listen, look and feel for breathing. Check – and there was none of the above.

Give two rescue breaths, just enough to see the chest rise and fall. Check. Breaths given.

Feel for a pulse at the brachial artery.

Just as I was feeling for the pulse, two things happened simultaneously. The fire department, who was just around the corner showed up at my door.

And my son took a stacked, gasping breath.


I rode in the front seat of the ambulance with the paramedics as we drove Code 2 to the local ER. My husband stayed home with my older daughter and besides, I’m a nurse so I can handle this.

My son was screaming in the back as his clothes were removed and cooling measures initiated.

It was music to my ears.

When we arrived at the ER, I was the untimate professional. I was calm. None of this hysterical parent role for me. I gave a complete detailed report of what I had found, what I had done and the time frame during which the loss of consciousness could have occured. No, I did not actually witness any seizure activity. Yes, his eyes were dilated. Fully.

Tylenol and Motrin needed to be given (Motrin was prescription only at that time).

I am happy to administer it – I’m a nurse and I do this all the time.

Labs needed to be done. No problem, let me help restrain him. I’m a nurse, you see. I do this all the time.

A chest x-ray was ordered. No problem, give me a lead apron and I’ll assist in keeping him in place. I’m a nurse. Do it all the time.

A lumbar puncture was needed.

Uh oh.

“Dr. Emergency, I don’t think I can be present for the lumbar puncture. I believe watching may tax my coping skills. Is it okay if I sit in the waiting room?” Yes, I said those exact words. I’m a professional, remember?

What happened next still touches me to this day.

The emergency room physician put his arm around my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye and said, “You know, it’s okay for you to be “mom” now. It’s okay for you to need to be in the waiting room.”

I burst into tears, he gave me a hug and showed me to the waiting area.


I was a horrible mother.

I let my 20-month-old walk out of my sight.

I didn’t stop drying my hair and give him Tylenol when I thought he was a little warm.

Where were my priorities?

I was a horrible mother.

All this went through my mind as I sobbed in the waiting room while the lumbar puncture was in progress.

It wasn’t long before they came to get me. Seems it took four grown adults to hold him down.

My son was so ticked off at me for leaving, when I held out my arms to take him from the nurse he turned his head and wouldn’t come!

At least that’s how I read it.


We were in the emergency department for so long, it was time for the Tylenol and Motrin to be repeated. My son, while not in a full post-ictal state, took a long time to reach his “normal” baseline of behavior. The emergency department doctor was on the phone with our pediatrician, trying to have my son placed in observation for the night secondary to the prolonged alteration in behavior post-seizure.

The pediatrician said no. I heard the conversation from the ER side. Per the ER doc, the pediatrician said that hospitalization was not necessary, that I was an Intensive Care Nurse and I knew what to look for.

I was devastated. I desperately needed to be able to “let go” and have someone else in a position of responsibility in case he seized again. As it was I sat by the crib all night, awake.

The ER doctor kept my son in the department for a full twelve hours – the length of his shift. He figured if my son wasn’t going to be admitted they could observe him as long as he was on duty. The ER doctor said to give Tylenol and Motrin around the clock – even waking my son up to keep the fever from recurring.

I sat sentry duty all night long by that crib – wide awake. And scared to within an inch of my life.


Well, twenty one years later I know the pediatrician was right. My son really did not need to be hospitalized. I needed him to be and that is not the same thing.

In the year following the seizure, he had a normal EEG. We kept the kid sleep deprived for the test and do you think he would go to sleep – not a chance. He had one more seizure for his grandmother up at the farm – scared her to bits and she had raised nine kids!

As far as brain damage is concerned, my son is now a law student at the University of Notre Dame. Then again, there will be some readers who think that alone is indication of brain damage!


I wish I knew then what I know now.

We are professionals, but when illness strikes close to home we need to acknowledge the “regular” person deep inside, and take care of ourselves just as we would take care of anyone else in our position.

After all, medical professionals are people, too.


  • ChiaLing81

    February 3, 2007 at 2:29 pm

    Oh goodness. Your post moved me. I was on the edge of my seat. I can only hope that I’m ever in a similar situation with my (future) child, I will handle it with the grace that you did. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Nickie

    February 3, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    How scary that sounds! I think people who are caregivers are so often expected to “have it all together”. But in some of the medical situations I’ve experienced, it’s those vulnerabilities (like that doctor taking the time to hug you) that make the best medicine.

    Good for you for knowing the right ways to keep your son alive until the first responders got there. Thanks for writing this!

  • mcewen

    February 3, 2007 at 4:42 pm

    It’s terrifying being a parent and not a medical professional for a change. I sincerely hope you never have to change sides again. You’re both stars in my book, and now so much brighter.
    Best wishes

  • girlvet

    February 3, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    Wow. I remeber I took my son to the doctor for neck pain when he was about six. Had xrays – doctor said it showed “subluxed” c-spine vertebra. I said what do you do for that? She said “I want you to go to childrens hospital and have them look at the xray. You might have to see a neurosurgeon”. So in the car we go, with mom panicking about my son probably needing some kind of horrible neuro surgery. Turns out he had what is a normal variant that would eventually go away. Thank God.

  • Mama Mia

    February 3, 2007 at 7:00 pm

    Had a similar experience with the nurse/mother dichotomy when my then 5 yo (now 14 and in top of his class) fell out of his 2nd story window. In many ways it is easier to be the nurse – you don’t have to be as emotionally involved – but then how can you not be emotionally involved….

  • Annemiek

    February 4, 2007 at 3:06 am

    My oldest son had febrile seizures when he was 9 months old, I was ready to start CPR when he started breathing again. We raced him to the hospital where he had another seizure, and later when he was 18 months he had one. Now he is 18 and in college, but when something like that happens, it knocks the wind out of you. Your right, at those times your the mom first.

  • Uncool mommy

    February 4, 2007 at 6:37 am

    I enjoyed reading your post. Thank you. I found your blog just today. Been a nurse over 10 years but I’ve never witnessed a seizure until my now 27 month old had a seizure when he was 13 months old. I had worked the night before and my husband put him in bed with me for a nap. He started to cry so I turned over to nurse him. What happened next just freaked me out. I knew there was nothing I could do but wait it out but I was so frightened, thought the seizure would never stop. He turned blue. The seizure lasted about 7 minutes. He began breathing on his own, no need for CPR thank God. Really don’t know if I would’ve had the presence of mind to do it. The ped did okay for the ER doc to admit him for observation. I had just gone back to work night shift in Nov and so had just got him to sleep through the night. Lost all that and he didn’t sleep through the night again for almost a year. Oh well.

  • Jo

    February 4, 2007 at 9:57 am

    Oh my gosh. That would have given me an MI alone. How you didn’t panic and lose it is beyond me.
    Congrats to your boy and law school!

  • missb

    February 4, 2007 at 10:55 am

    Phew! Wow. I KNOW there must be nothing scarier in the world, and I don’t even have kids!

    “…You think you won’t remember your BLS in a real crisis. You are wrong.”

    My biggest fear in life is that I will forget.

    But I believe you that I won’t. If you can remember in a crisis like this one, then there’s hope for me…I just hope it never happens.

  • Liana

    February 4, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Wow. I like all of your posts, but this one really spoke to me.

    Thank goodness for the ABCs.

  • A Bohemian Road Nurse...

    February 4, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    It is different being on the “other side of the fence”. Whenever is it ME that is feeling sick, all my medical knowledge flies right out the window!—and I have to ask other nurses and doctors “what’s wrong with me?” I feel silly, but that’s just what happens…

  • Barbara

    February 4, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    Thank you for sharing! My son had a seizure post head injuring in our home when he was 11 yrs. old…swinging from a rafter going to the basement. Anyway, because we had recently seen a fractured neck and death of a child in the emergency department, I was afraid to not hold C-spine until the ambulance got there. I stayed a “nurse” until we got to the emergency department…then I dissolved into being a “mom!” It is so scary. Anyway, he’s 32 years old now, been through other scary things, and is fine…and a father of one of his own…who hopefully won’t scare him half to death.

  • Barbara

    February 4, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    Thank you for sharing! My son had a seizure post head injury in our home when he was 11 yrs. old…swinging from a rafter going to the basement. Anyway, because we had recently seen a fractured neck and death of a child in the emergency department, I was afraid to not hold C-spine until the ambulance got there. I stayed a “nurse” until we got to the emergency department…then I dissolved into being a “mom!” It is so scary. Anyway, he’s 32 years old now, been through other scary things, and is fine…and a father of one of his own…who hopefully won’t scare him half to death.

  • Valerie

    February 5, 2007 at 3:45 pm

    Kim. You are right about bcls becoming automatic.When he was 21/2, my son fell into a pond wearing winter clothes (heavy, hooded jacet, jeans, and boots). His dad was working in the creek about 20 feet away. His playmate walked down to dad and said “Daniel’s in the pond.” Dad said “Tell him to get out”. Playmate answered,”I can’t reach him.” All that could be seen of my baby were the bottoms of his boots. He was head down in 5 feet of water. Dad pulled him out, cyanotic,limp, and tried rescue breathing-nothing going in.He began screaming for me. When I saw that limp body, I prayed “Not my baby.”,took him and began CPR. It was before 911, I worked in the county ED, and calmly told Dad to call the hospital #. I had to Heimlich Daniel to express water just so I could get some air in. No pulse, began chest compressions.Al of this was so automatic, I was just thinking now do this, now do that.He suddenly gagged, I rolled him on his side and he vomited what seemed like gallons and then…. took a breath! The ambulance arrived just then and I was yelling “He’s beathing, he’s breathing.” I rode in the back of the truck to the hospital.He WAS admitted and slept for 20 hours in an o2 tent with good SATs.Woke up asking for Mommy, and then I fell apart! Thank God for the fact that I was 1.A nurse 2.A CPR instructor 3.Home when it happened. He’s now 26, married, and a CPA. Obviously, no brain damage. Oh yeah, the water was Cold, his temp on arrival was 92f–probably some diving reflex.

  • justcallmejo

    February 5, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    What a terrifying story!

    You always (or I do) wonder if you’ll remember BLS when you need it. Thank god you did. Thank god he was all right. It is brain damage to be studying law, but certainly ‘good’ brain damage.

  • Max E Nurse

    February 6, 2007 at 3:58 am

    I think it’s fair to say all your training flies out the window in some cases. I know how to deal with the minor stuff at work – but my daughter gets a rattly chest and suddenly I can’t tell the difference between an URTI and Pneumonia, but someone rolls their 4×4 in front of me, and suddenly the instincts just kick in. I think adrenalin plays its part.

    Anyhow, I got distracted from my point, if Barbie never touched body fluids, how come Ken was always so stiff?

    Love the site, will be back.

  • jen

    February 6, 2007 at 7:08 am

    wow! I don’t know what I’d do if I ever had to take Hunter to the ER for something these days.
    Once before I was a nurse, Hunter was about 2, and he ate “something” and choked, I remember him walking into the kitchen completely red not making a sound. I picked him up and did “baby” back blows on him. I completely forgot that he was too old for that. Luckily the piece came dislodged, he coughed, cried and everything was ok.

  • nuangel1

    February 6, 2007 at 1:02 pm

    wow that story had me in tears i felt for you and your son .i am glad it ended well .its a kick no matter what when we are put into the position of being nurse and family too .my boyfrien recently had a mi cath stents etc and eventhough we both knew he was in good hands its still scary .

  • Awesome Mom

    February 7, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    This would be a great post for the next edition of Pediatric Grand Rounds. Please email me and let me know if I have your permission to use it there also. Thanks!

  • AlisonH

    February 7, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    Wow. I am so glad he came out okay! All the memories this post brings back–of my 13-year-old daughter lying in the road after a bike accident, the neighbor calling me, scooping her half unconscious into my car and running… She’s a PhD student now.

  • George

    February 9, 2007 at 8:50 am

    Touching really! and how true!Love your site

  • mumkeepingsane

    February 13, 2007 at 6:04 am

    Oh wow. You’re bringing back some scary feelings for me. My son has epilepsy and the first time he had a seizure almost 2 years ago I thought he was dead. I’ll never forget it. My husband drove away with him to the hospital (we’re in the country and this was faster) and I was left there with my other son who I then put on the school bus. I stood there alone in the laneway thinking my son was dead. I had to borrow a car to get to him and his screams coming from the ER were music to my ears.

    A question, what was the lumbar puncture for? Is that because it was a febrile seizure?

  • Michelle

    February 13, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    Wow. I had tears in my eyes from start to finish. I am so glad all is well.

    Happy Valentine’s day to you ~~and your son!

  • Otana

    March 22, 2007 at 2:37 am

    Wow, I was linked to this post from another blog and it brought tears to my eyes, despite being someone who doesn’t want children at all. What a terrifying position to be put in as a mother.

  • marly

    January 12, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    Very well written, it took me there to the e.r. Having 7 kids myself, I know how to keep it together when necessary, but there always comes a time later, after the ‘big ones’, when you think “what if” and lose it a bit.

About Me

My name is Kim, and I'm a nurse in the San Francisco Bay area. I've been a nurse for 33 years; I graduated in 1978 with my ADN. My experience is predominately Emergency and Critical Care, and I have also worked in Psychiatry and Pediatrics. I made the decision to be a nurse back in 1966 at the age of nine...

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