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Febrile Seizures

The Most Terrifying Moment of My Life

Parenting certainly comes with its share of scary moments. Falls, head bumps, bruises, scrapes: these are everyday events in a life of a parent, and yet each new injury can be heart-stopping, tear-inducing, traumatic . . . for both kids and parents. But I recently learned there's a new level of fear that a mom can experience, one in which a far more heartbreaking outcome than a broken arm or a stitched-up leg becomes a real possibility.

My worst moment came at the end of what was actually a very fun weekend. My husband, our two children (4-year-old Mae and 18-month-old Sam), and my parents had flown from Chicago to Minnesota for a family wedding. The trip was a busy one, full of wedding events and sightseeing, and our kids, unpredictable travelers at best, adapted surprisingly well. We spent most of the weekend outside, which should have been great (Duluth typically stays in the 70s during the Summer), but this weekend was relentlessly hot, holding steady at 90-plus degrees all day and well into the evening. In a city where air conditioning is mostly reserved for commercial spaces, everyone was feeling the heat.

The sweltering temperatures inspired us to spend most of the last day of our trip at the pool, and my two little water bugs were quite happy with the decision. On the way back to the hotel to get ready for the wedding, Sam fell asleep in the car. Because the ceremony was outside and required a bit of a hike, we decided it might be best for my husband to stay with him and let him sleep in the heavily air-conditioned car for as long as possible, then meet us at the reception. We passed each other in the lobby as my parents, my daughter, and I were leaving for the ceremony, and Sam seemed a bit off. He was warm and fussy, but considering he had just woken up and it was 92 degrees out, we kind of brushed it off.


Sam seemed back to normal when he first got to the reception, running around and exploring the country club and golf course with the other kids. When the fussiness returned, my husband took him inside to cool off, and he fell asleep. By the time my husband passed Sam off to me a bit later, it was obvious he had a fever, though it didn't feel alarmingly high. We let him sleep for a while longer, and when he woke up even fussier, we all decided to call it an early night and head back to the hotel to get him some medicine and rest.

We said our goodbyes to our extended family, and right before we headed to the car, I stopped by the bar to get an ice water. Sam reached for it, and I gave him a drink. The effect was immediate: he started having a seizure.

Right away, I screamed for someone to call 911, knowing I was out of my depths of being able to care for him. When no one responded quickly enough, my husband and parents still trying to figure out what was going on, I passed my still-seizing son off to his dad and called myself. When my husband realized what was happening to our baby, he began running with him up to the parking lot, not content to wait for an ambulance.

I followed him while frantically trying to tell the 911 operator where we were and what was happening. I got to the parking lot seconds after my husband and heard him screaming, "He's turning blue. He's not breathing. He's dying. I think he's dying." I didn't even want to look at Sam, didn't want to see him in that state, but I ran over to him and began breathing into his blue lips, all while the 911 operator begged me to calm down and demand my husband do the same.

And as quickly as it had started, it was over. My son began crying, the most beautiful noise I had ever heard. The seizure had lasted less than a minute. I took Sam from my shell-shocked husband and carried him inside the air-conditioned clubhouse, where the paramedics met us a few minutes later. They put an oxygen mask near his now-screaming face, then strapped him down to a gurney, where he promptly fell asleep — a typical postseizure behavior, according to the paramedics, that nonetheless rekindled my fear.

At the ER, we learned that Sam had had a febrile seizure, convulsions brought on by a fever, typically of 102 or above, in small children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years, when they typically go away for good. Despite how terrifying they are for parents, the seizures are, for the vast majority, harmless for children. Sam had a temperature of 103.3 when we were admitted, but after a dose of Tylenol, it quickly went down to 98.6. The doctor was unclear about whether the ice water contributed to the seizure, but considering how rapidly it began after he drank it, it's hard for me to believe it wasn't a factor. He was diagnosed with a throat infection and, because a chest X-ray showed a bit fuzziness indicative of an early pneumonia, given an antibiotic.

We were released from the hospital just a few hours after we arrived, shortly before midnight, not that my husband and I slept much that night. Sam, however, slept well and popped up in his crib at 7:30 a.m. with a smile. The next day, our wild, curious, affectionate toddler was pretty much back to normal, though a bit more attached to me than ever, a welcome fact considering I was feeling the same way about him.

One of the most surprising parts of our ordeal occurred after we got home and started telling friends about the experience. Quite a few of our loved ones, colleagues, and acquaintances had experienced similar things with their own children. I did some research and was surprised to learn that one in every 25 children will have at least one febrile seizure in their youth. (You can read more facts about febrile seizures here.) Despite their commonness, I had never heard about them before Sam had his. Assuredly, knowledge wouldn't have eliminated all the terror we felt during Sam's seizure, but perhaps it would have helped. I hope our story can help someone whose child experiences this kind of seizure in the future.

We can't know for sure whether Sam's seizure was an isolated event or whether he'll have more. We do know that his first one means he's more likely to have another, and that if that should happen, we should put him on the floor in a safe place instead of restraining him in our arms. We know that whenever he develops a fever, we need to give him ibuprofen or acetaminophen to bring it down as quickly as possibly. And, personally, I know I'll never give him another sip of ice water without a bit of trepidation. But at the end of the day, I can only feel grateful that my most terrifying moment as a mom came with such an innocuous outcome. I know not all parents can say the same, and for my healthy child, I feel very lucky.

Image Source: Jenny Modesitt
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