It’s normal for toddlers to get ear infections. But, in pre-verbal children, the severity of the infection is sometimes only revealed by a sudden, febrile seizure—the remedy for which is contingent on waiting months to see a specialist.
When my then-18-month-old son Emile awoke from his nap one afternoon last April, he felt hot. Way hotter than when I’d picked him up from daycare a couple hours earlier due to yet another out-of-nowhere fever. With my wife out of the country and me single-parenting for the first time, I dialled Telehealth for advice. Then, while rummaging in the medicine cabinet, I felt a sharp tug from the toddler perched on my hip.
Emile’s head and torso had curled back, his eyes rolled up and his tiny body began convulsing. The phone crashed to the floor as I grabbed E with both hands and tried to bring him out of this sudden seizure. I kept saying his name. He kept shaking. I held him, and somehow held myself together, for what was about three to five minutes but felt endless. The fear was indescribable.
The nurse sussed out the situation and, after calling for paramedics, rang back to explain what had likely happened. It was a febrile seizure, she said, brought on by a sudden spike in body temperature. My paediatrician later elaborated that young children’s brains are hyper electrical—that’s why they can absorb so much information in such a short period of time—and if their fever gets too high too fast, they can basically short circuit and shut down.
While waiting in Emergency, as Emile’s exhausted body curled across my chest, I researched febrile seizures. They affect three to five per cent of children, mostly toddlers, and though they don’t cause permanent brain injury, seizures can cause a child to vomit, bite their tongue, smash their head if standing or even stop breathing. And a third of children who have had one febrile seizure will have another.
The thing is, Emile has a lot of fevers. All last winter he was booted from daycare on the regular because of chronic ear infections that are surprisingly common amongst toddlers. Daycare is basically a Petri dish and, though ear infections are not contagious, they’re caused by cold germs that are—and they lead to fevers while the body fights off the infection, which gets your kid at least a 24-hour suspension.
E had seemed fine that April morning, but around noon his temperature began climbing. He’d probably been sick for a few days but until the fever kicks in, the only sign of an ear infection for pre-verbal children is fussiness. And Emile is almost never fussy. Not until it’s too late, anyway.
We’d suffered through his ear infections all winter, taking day after day off work to care for him. We already feared the impact of such a young child ingesting so many courses of antibiotics, but now the chance of seizure had raised the stakes.
When he got another ear infection in the summer, the doctor finally suggested we get a simple operation—Tympanostomy Tube Surgery—that would prevent Emile’s ear infections by draining the mucus that builds up in his middle ear and provides breeding ground for bacteria, painfully inflames the eardrum and interferes with hearing, and possibly affect speech development.
But though the tube insertion takes less than 15 minutes—yes, minutes—it took well over three months just to see a specialist, who last week proceeded to tell us they could operate on Emile. In March.
There was no opportunity to find another specialist—you need a doctor’s referral and it would take even more months just to get an appointment—and therefore no way to find a surgeon who might be able to spare 15 freaking minutes in less than five months from now.
And so, as the weather gets cold and the germs begin their annual onslaught, we and all the other worried parents on the waiting list must dose our kids with antibiotics and pediatric ibuprofen while waiting for a call about a cancellation, hopefully before it happens again.
Universal healthcare may be a wonderful thing, but sometimes only in theory. Yes, the system worked when Emile was in crisis, but when we tried to prevent another one, it simply seized up.