It all started with my oldest daughter. She had been playing with the neighbor children down the street and came home complaining that her eye was bothering her. It was definitely pink eye and in just a day her eyes became swollen and red. What followed was a cascade of various symptoms for the whole family. Anwen's fever, Lilia's cough, Anwen's pink eye, Lilia's fever, Lilia's pink eye, Rowan's cough. I changed remedies as fast as the symptoms changed. Aconite, Belladonna, Pulsatilla and Hepar Sulph homeopathic remedies. Chamomile and chickweed compresses for the eyes. Chickweed oil on the eyes at night. Breastmilk drops in the eyes. Eucalyptus essential oil on the feet and chest for the cough. “Cover your mouth please, honey.” and “Wash your hands.” became regular mantras. I started taking supplements proactively hoping some would come through my breast milk to protect little 10-month-old Rowan. Anwen got better, Lilia got worse and then a bit better. All that was left was Rowan. His croupy cough quieted down but he burned in and out of fever and slept most of the day. We rearranged our schedules as much as we could so one of us could sit and hold him all day.
Being a naturopathic doctor I never thought it would be something I couldn't handle. I have more herbs and remedies in my cupboards than I do food. I work with people every day making suggestions for how to help their little ones with their illnesses. I've also trained myself to know what to look for if things get serious. By Friday night, almost five days after the first symptoms came up, Rowan started to refuse to breastfeed. I had been watching for signs of dehydration. He had been throwing up every third feeding and had green watery stools. The two greatest dangers for infants are dehydration and difficulty breathing. Now despite everything I had been doing, Rowan was showing signs of both.
I pulled out all the stops. Probiotic implants, mustard plaster, herbal steams, homeopathics, Lobelia in his mouth, Lobelia on his chest, Lobelia in an enema, Tincture with mullein, horseradish, fennel and fenugreek dosed every hour. I held acupressure points. I did percussion on his little chest. I did energy work and I prayed. Finally, I had to admit that despite everything I was doing naturopathically, Rowan was not getting better.
I researched in between moments and figured RSV to be the most likely case. A really bad cold for most but potentially life-threatening for children under 2 if they can't breathe or become dehydrated. Rowan's bottom lip was getting dry. My breasts were getting full from not emptying. As he breathed his skin beneath his breastbone and at his clavicle sucked in, called retracting. His breath was coming in more than 50 breaths per minute. Time to swallow my pride. Time to do what I would tell my own clients to do. We went to Urgent Care first and were immediately referred to the ER.
Born at home, breast-fed, uncircumcised, unvaccinated. Not so much as a baby Tylenol had ever crossed my son's lips. I can't tell you how much I was dreading this. But I knew what he needed and I knew I couldn't give it to him. The one thing I try to tell my clients is that if youhave to go to the hospital, try to remember you are on their turf, playing by their rules. If you don't want to have problems then be nice. When the question of vaccines came up, I stated that we were planning on an altered vaccine schedule (not until the age of 2) with his regular pediatrician although we had not had a chance to schedule that first contact with the pediatrician we wanted. Not a complete lie. We were going to choose a pediatrician and had one picked out but were waiting for insurance paperwork to get settled. I do not intend to have my son vaccinated, even on an altered schedule, but I knew I might have more problems if I admitted that. Thankfully the only thing child services did during our visit was get us some baby books to play with.
They wanted to do a chest X-Ray. I didn't argue because I knew they wouldn't give me much of a choice. They needed to see his lungs to see what kind of danger he was in. If I refused they would consider it endangering his life and maybe call in CPS. They wanted to do a breathing treatment with Albuterol. They gave him Tylenol for his fever. Again I didn't argue. Oxygen I was prepared for. Intravenous fluids I expected. No arguing on what type of IV or what the ingredients were. I didn't want to be automatically labeled a weirdo anymore than I already was for not vaccinating. They were trying to help in the best way they knew how and I let them do it.
The X-ray came back positive for double pneumonia. They wanted to start IV antibiotics right away and admit him to the hospital. Because he was never vaccinated they needed to do a stronger broad spectrum antibiotic because he was supposedly more susceptible to a broader range of pathogens. Whatever. I disagreed internally but allowed it. I certainly know how to do damage control later.
We settled into our room. “We follow safe sleeping practices.” we were told. They wanted him to sleep alone, in a crib, on his back. He's never done that. We follow safe co-sleeping practices at home. We took shifts holding him on us in the chair trying not to fall asleep. He had three tubes connected to him: IV, oxygen, and a monitor on his big toe. He couldn't go far but he was too sick to care.
One of the doctors told us they were worried he might have Influenza too. They wanted to do a swab of his nose and run a panel to check for it and they wanted to start Tami Flu right away. More pre-emptive medicine than preventative if you ask me. I asked if we could wait for the panel results first before starting Tami Flu. The reluctantly agreed and said they would be back in an hour if it was positive. They never came back that night.
The next morning a new doctor told us that Rowan had RSV, which confirmed my initial suspicions. The pneumonia was a side effect of the viral infection. The antibiotics were useless against it so he wouldn't have any more. All they could do is support him with oxygen and fluids until his little body fought off the virus. I was okay with that. They came periodically to suction out his nose, which he hated, and to check his vitals. Rowan became wary of anyone who came in wearing a yellow gown and purple gloves but eventually his energy and smile came back.
I didn't bother telling anyone at the hospital that I was a Naturopath. It doesn't earn me any points in that kind of world. I'd be amazed if some of them even knew what a Naturopath was. I tried to keep a straight face as the doctor who was discharging us asked if I had a bulb syringe at home and if I knew how to use it. I was just relieved to have Rowan off of the oxygen, and IV. I think we were probably packed and leaving within five minutes of the okay to go.
Rowan is doing much better. He still has the cough and runny nose but he's no longer critical. Herbal remedies are helping him to get over it as well as helping to undo any side effects from "pre-emptive medicine". While the experience was a little surreal and scary it was overall still a positive experience. I am grateful to the doctors and nurses for doing what conventional medicine does best. They were kind, gracious, and helpful every step of the way. Everyone should be so lucky to have that kind of experience.
What I want to share the most is that many times when we are more natural-health-minded we tend to get very negative about conventional medicine. Kind of an us vs. them mentality. I'm guilty of it and I know a lot of others that are too. In the almost fifteen years since I began my education, this is the first time something has come up that I couldn't resolve completely with natural remedies. I know what kind of harm can come from conventional medicine, but we can't be afraid to call on conventional medicine when it is needed. Home remedies are awesome and amazing and can perform what seems like miracles at times but it is important to know when to treat at home and when to get some help. Whether you are just dabbling in herbs or are a naturopathic practitioner – know your limitations and don't be afraid to ask for help.
To Your Health... and Ours!
Kathryn Doran-Fisher, ND, CGP
Kathryn Doran-Fisher is a Traditional Naturopath, Certified GAPS Practitioner and owner of Elder & Sage.