Sometimes it lasts mere seconds like when your child falls off the monkey bars or you lose sight of them in a busy store. In these cases, the dread is usually quickly replaced by relief and then perhaps a little concern or even anger.
Other times, the feeling lasts longer and is harder to shake off once the crisis has been averted or the situation resolved. I have one such experience, while almost two years in the past, still haunts me.
The birth of your child is supposed to be a joyous occasion and I'll preface this by saying the births of each of my three children have been amazing, life changing experiences. They have all been unique and I cherish the memories from each. I also recognize the importance of the birth stories and want to stress that this is not a birth story, but does revolve around the birth of our youngest daughter.
After giving birth to our first two daughters in the hospital, we decided on a home birth for our last child. On the day Laura went into labour, everything went fantastically. Our midwives were attentive, my mother-in-law came over to help and even our eldest daughter was around to be part of the story. Laura laboured with limited complications and our youngest daughter, Stella, was born at home in mid-afternoon.
After an initial examination by the midwives, everything appeared normal and we spent about 15 minutes basking in the joy of the latest addition to our family.
As a standard practice, babies heart rates are monitored for a period of time immediately after birth and while I don't clearly remember the details, one of the midwives noted that Stella's heart rate seemed really high and asked her colleague to confer. I do however, remember watching the midwives gently press their stethoscopes on my tiny girl's chest and noted the increasing level of concern in their eyes.
The midwives did a remarkable job of keeping their voices calm when they mentioned that Stella's heart rate was high and they were going to call 911. We would need to take a little trip to the local children's hospital.
Their voices were calm but I could see the concern in their eyes and that feeling of dread crept in.
The ambulance arrived and after a quick examination, the baby was bundled off to the hospital with me trailing behind. I don't remember the drive at all, but can clearly recall that overwhelming sense of concern for my child. All I really remember from the journey was focusing on making sure my hands didn't shake too much on the steering wheel.
When we arrived, one of the ambulance attendants mentioned that she thought our baby's heart rate had slowed on the drive over. I felt a momentary sense of relief flow through my body and thought to myself, "What a great story this will be to tell her when she gets older."
With a newborn, there is no waiting around and the nurses hooked the baby up to a monitor right away. Again, I couldn't hear the conversation, but noted the look of concern in the eyes of the hospital staff.
I left the room momentarily to fill out some paperwork and when I returned, the circle of medical staff had doubled. Their normal calm demeanor seemed to have been replaced by a frenetic energy. I looked at the heart rate monitor and it was at 250 beats per minute. I'm no doctor, but even I knew this was high.
The number of doctors and nurses kept increasing. Our daughter's heart rate kept rising. My feeling of dread went through the roof. Even now, almost two years later, I can clearly recall sitting beside my wife, who had given birth less than an hour before, holding hands, fighting panic and holding back tears by a thread.
The midwives sat in front of us, attended to Laura and tried as best they could to comfort us, but every time we looked over at this teeny little baby, lying on a hospital bed, surrounded by an ever increasing number of doctors, that feeling of dread just kept rising.
It all reached a crescendo when two physicians were arguing over a proposed treatment while Stella's heart rate reached 292 beats per minute and someone said, "I don't care what we do, just do something."
The reality is the doctors were likely just talking and probably suggested that they just take action but in my panic stricken mind, it played out exactly as described above.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, a wonderful young doctor came over and explained that this was a fairly common occurrence with children and there were lots of possible treatments, but the one they had settled on was putting a bag of ice on her face.
I'm sure I looked at her sideways and gave her the WTF look, but she explained that sometimes the heart can get stuck on a cycle where only two of the four chambers are pushing blood through. It's like they are caught on a loop and this causes heart rates to spike. The hearts rates of children, particularly newborns, run at higher rates than adults and even 250 plus per minute is sustainable for a short period of time. According to the doctor, the ice would cause the baby to recoil in shock and this, in turn, would cause the entire heart to reset.
I was skeptical, but at this stage wasn't going to argue. Perhaps a minute later, someone gently put a very small ice pack on our daughter's face and held it there for just a few seconds.
I swear, there was probably 25 people in the room and you could have heard a pin drop as everyone stared at the heart rate monitor. It was probably the matter of no more than a second or two, but all of a sudden the 292 was replaced with 250 and just as quickly a 185 and then down to 130 something.
I'm not sure if you've been in a room where everyone breathed a sigh of relief at the exact same moment, but this was one of those times. Immediately the tone of the room changed. Conversations started and people drifted out to attend to the other patients.
All I can say is that I lost it for a few minutes.
The doctor explained that our little girl had a heart condition, but that if you ever had to have a child with a heart condition, this was the one to have. It was treatable and in many cases resolves itself over time. After several days in the NICU, hooked up to a range of machines, we finally brought our daughter home again and spent the next year monitoring and treating her for this condition.
While I'm pleased to say that she has never had another incident and has even been officially discharged from the pediatric cardiology program, I'm still not over that feeling of dread from those first few hours of her life. Even while writing this post, I found myself overcome with strong emotions.
As parents we are all going to have these moments where we get that feeling of dread. In the moment we do everything in our power to react and act calmly, but underneath we are a seething cauldron of fear and panic. This is human nature and while I haven't quite been able to let go of this experience yet, I am comforted in my belief that like all the other times the feeling of dread has struck, this too will fade.