I'll never forget the day my son's school saved his life

Ranjana Srivastava
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

“We might have lost the pulse.”

“Let’s give the adrenaline.”

This quiet exchange might just as well be discussing whether to order the entrée or the main; that I am listening to this conversation is unsettling enough but what makes my legs crumple is the patient in question is my child whose premonitory words a moment ago were, “I feel tired.”

He screams at the jab, but his pulse returns strong, the blood pressure climbs. I breathe, the paramedics remain inscrutable.

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“You’ll be OK,” I reassure my son but really myself, for what else is there to cling to mid-emergency? He looks small, flushed and ill in a trolley twice his size. There is talk about intensive care “swinging by” that jangles his parents’ nerves. Minutes turn to hours; day into night. We wait and watch – and then, it looks like he will be OK. He proves it when his nurse asks if he has any questions and he responds, “Why doesn’t the remote work?”

In the pandemic, with so many people facing trauma and tragedy, the words “lifesaving” and “doctor” have often gone hand in hand, but this time, the heroes are the class teacher and the school nurse whose quick action literally saved a life.

He leaves for school with my usual unheeded admonition, “Be good.” After a morning break, his teacher notes his swollen eyes and assumes he has been crying. She wants to know more but the more she insists, the more he assures her that he has not been in a fight. A fit, athletic boy with no medical history, he has no idea that a mere piece of a shared cookie is brewing a storm inside his body.

But the teacher’s instinct refuses to budge, so encouraging the class to read, she persists. Now she hears altered breathing and a deep sigh. She calls the school nurse to say that at the risk of overcalling it, she is sending over a child who just doesn’t look right. The large government school has one nurse who never sits still. Minutes later, I receive the kind of phone call every parent dreads but believes will never happen.

“He is unwell, and I have the EpiPen ready.”

An EpiPen contains adrenaline, an emergency drug used in cardiovascular collapse. From this I glean that the nurse has made a clinical diagnosis of anaphylaxis, a medical emergency. Australia is an allergy-prone nation with 20% of the population having at least one allergy. Hospitalisation as a result of anaphylaxis has quadrupled in 20 years.

In my years of practice, countless people have recalled the moment they received bad news, but it is only now that I truly understand their descriptions: I was shaking; everything went still; I couldn’t think. Now, with the phone glued to my ear, I feel more dumbstruck than the worst of them, my medical knowledge instantly terrifying and utterly useless.

But hoping that the illusion of calm might instil calm, I say, “You are there, do what you need.” She gives the adrenaline and calls an ambulance. When the paramedics arrive, one drives and the other makes small talk to keep him awake and engaged.

I race to the hospital at the mercy of impassive lights. He waves but just as I think the worst is over, his vital signs drop. How could a nut fragment be so vindictive?

His symptoms are controlled by several doses of adrenaline, one of the world’s earliest-discovered hormones, and a worthy recipient of the Nobel prize it never got.

By the time a doctor even lays eyes on him, he is broadly OK.

Late in the evening, his teacher calls, sounding woebegone. She and her husband (who has never met us) have fretted all evening. She can’t sleep without directly hearing that he is safe. The sound of my son’s voice, tired but cogent, is her balm.

The bread and butter of school incidents involve cuts, bruises and accidental fractures. As someone who undergoes mandatory life support training, I know that no online course or practising on a mannequin replicates the stress of making actual decisions. Every doctor I meet praises the school’s agility.

My son spends a restless night in hospital, tired from the interventions and attention. Experts worry about patients being discharged from hospital without an EpiPen or a clear follow-up plan; thankfully, we receive both. And then, just as suddenly we arrived, we leave the safety of the hospital to sort out the emotions and the practicalities that come with having a child with a “condition”.

Following a moving message from a friend who borrows his dad’s phone to say, “We stopped playing since you left”, he returns to school to a rapturous welcome. One of the blessings of childhood is an oblivion to grave events that tear down adults.

For days, it feels as if someone has opened a tap to drain my energy. His doctors are great at the medical aspects; one even asks how I am doing, which shouldn’t seem like the big deal it does. I make a mental note to never ever forget to ask after relatives who have witnessed a traumatic event.

“If you could be anything in the world, be kind.” The school lives up to the expectations it sets its students. But just when I thought I had received every kind of thoughtful message on his first day back, my phone rings with an unknown caller. It’s his class teacher using a different phone so that I wouldn’t panic at seeing the school’s number. She is calling to relay that all is well, he has eaten his lunch, stayed hydrated, and she’s keeping a close eye on him. “It’s what any mother would want to know.”

All teachers work hard, but public school teachers inherit a disproportionate share of disadvantaged children in a highly segregated Australian school system.

From portable classrooms to inadequate equipment, these teachers face significant constraints, incessant scrutiny and unfair comparison.

At the end of a long online year, when teachers are tired and overworked, it takes commitment to be alert to unexpected events. Their quiet confidence and professionalism is the stuff of gold and we owe them a debt of thanks. I had always imagined this would be for a good education, but indelible in our family’s memory will be the day our school stepped up to save a life.