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Esme’s Adventure with Foxgloves

The terrible tale of what happened to our two year old when she ate a foxglove leaf.

Updated 24/10/2020

I’ve struggled with whether or not to write this; there are so many things for parents to fear, I don’t want to be responsible for adding another, but given how rare it is, perhaps placing the possibility in people’s minds, could help a child one day. So I’ve decided to tell my story.

It was a clear October day, we’re country folk, it was a Saturday, and we needed to get some wood for the log burner. We own a field with trees in it next to the house, there was a pile seasoned and ready to be stacked. So we packed four bundled-up children into the car, attached the trailer, and off we went.

The youngest was only a baby, and it was his nap time, so we left him to sleep in the car. The three others, Oscar, who was nine, Polly, six, and Esme who had just turned two, were exploring.

I did a quick risk assessment; nowater to fall in, no drops to fall from, no people. They were just in an open field and having a lovely time well within view, so we started loading up the wood, keeping an eye on them as they played happily.

We were getting to the end of our packing, Oscar had gone for a wander on his own, and the two girls were sat chatting and laughing about twenty yards away.

I remember looking over at them and smiling, thinking how lovely they all were, and how I remembered wood-collecting expeditions from my youth.

It must have happened when I turned away, because neither I nor my husband, Andy, saw a thing. Then we were done.

I drove the car home with the baby in it, whilst Andy walked the short distance back with the other three. He then took them all inside to give them some lunch. It’d been a good, productive start to the day.

I left the baby with him too, stacked some wood and decided that the overgrown garden needed sorting whilst I was in the zone. I grabbed a sandwich and headed back out. There wouldn’t be that many dry days between now and Winter. It felt like a good time to get things tidied up. After another hour’s work, I staggered through the door bone tired and filthy ready for a long shower and a mug of hot chocolate.

There was a strange smell in the kitchen, but I was too exhausted to work out what it was.

Then Andy came downstairs. He said that Esme had been sick, he had some baby wipes in his hands. He said that it looked like she’d been eating leaves, he’d brought them down to show me. There were definitely leaves in there.

The adrenalin started at this point.

I called to Polly who was sat playing with Oscar in the living room. I asked her if she’d seen Esme eat anything,

“She ate a couple of Dock Leaves,” she said matter of factly. They know what Dock Leaves are because they are the magical cure to Nettle stings.

I whipped out my phone and looked them up. I had never heard of them being poisonous, but you never know. I was quickly assured that Dock Leaves were fine, not particularly edible, but not harmful either.

I felt my shoulders sag with relief, they were probably inedible enough to make her sick and now she’d be fine. She was going to be ok. I started upstairs to go and check on her, and if all was well, hop in the shower. I was covered in bits of sawdust and greenery and exhaustion. A shower sounded like the most wonderful thing in the world at that moment.

As I put my foot on the stairs a thought popped into my head, “Foxglove leaves look like Dock Leaves when they’re not flowering.”

I went back to the living room, feeling a bit surreal and Columbo-esque, with my “just one more thing, Polly… The Dock Leaves, were they the smooth shiny sort, or the furry, fuzzy kind?” I didn’t want to worry her or plant any ideas in her head, I just wanted to know for sure that everything was okay.

“They were furry,” she said with complete certainty, and turned back to playing.

“How much did she eat?”

“Only a couple of leaves.”

That was the point I stopped thinking and started acting. I called my eldest son down from the deep darkness of his teenage bedroom, and shouted for Andy. My parents were luckily already due to visit that afternoon; it was the Rugby World Cup, Wales were playing Australia, we’re Welsh- it was compulsory viewing.

As quickly and calmly as I could, I told my eldest that he would need to watch Polly and Oscar, Andy and I were going to A&E and would take the baby with us. He should call my mum to get her to come ASAP. Everything was fine, Esme would be fine,we just needed to make sure she was ok.

Esme was vomiting every fifteen minutes or so. If we hadn’t seen leaves, we would’ve assumed it was noro-virus, it was the season after all. We would have left her in bed to sleep it off. Instead we grabbed car seats, a sick bowl, a coat and ran for the car.

I sat in the back for the twenty minute drive. I remember trying to hide how much I was shaking, holding the sick bowl as she retched. She was alert. Chatty. My head was racing with the knowledge that foxgloves were poisonous, but not enough knowledge about how it all worked.

We got to the hospital, I jumped out with Esme and ran into A&E whilst Andy parked and brought the baby. There were people waiting, but when I said I thought she’d been poisoned we were rushed straight through.

She didn’t like being triaged; she objected to the stethoscope, to the ear thermometer, to being touched by strangers. She objected even more when they tried to demonstrate what they wanted to do by doing it to her penguin. How dare they try to touch her penguin?!

We were taken upstairs to the paediatric ward, and put in (what I now know to be) their high dependency room. We were asked if we knew for sure what she had eaten. We said no. We were asked if we knew how much. We said no.

They said they’d keep her in for 24 hours, and all being well we could go home tomorrow.

There was no urgency and I wonder if anyone really believed she had eaten anything at all. I don’t blame them – they knew we hadn’t seen anything and were relying on the description of a six year old. It took a while before she had charcoal. It was whilst I was giving it to her, and she was being sick, and I was giving her more, that she started to change.

She became very sleepy, it was all starting to take its toll. Then her heart rate started changing on the monitor; would slow right down and then pick up again a few minutes later. We didn’t know what we were looking at. Staff checked the sensor was attached properly and brushed it off.

This was a small regional hospital that has suffered cut after cut after cut, they have no resident Cardiologist, no children’s Intensive Care and poisonings like this are so rare that there was no manual on what to do.

Doctors came in and looked at her heart monitor, but we didn’t know what it was showing. A normal heart rate for a toddler is about 110 beats per minute. They said we were not to worry unless it dipped below 70 beats per minute. Then when it did, they weren’t worried unless it dipped below 60. Then when it did, they weren’t worried unless it stayed there for longer, or dipped below 50. My eyes were fixed on the monitor as it slowed the world around us.

I made the mistake of googling at this point, I knew I shouldn’t. The first article was about a botanist who had committed suicide by eating exactly two leaves of a Foxglove plant, because he knew this was a deadly dose. It was by all accounts a horrible way to die.

I didn’t tell Andy about the article.

I knew digitalis was in Foxgloves, I knew it affected your heart, I knew it could cause heart attacks and save people from them too, but I didn’t know enough.

Esme had an ECG, her tiny body covered in sticky pads and wires placed in some mystical pattern across her torso. Blood tests showed some Digoxin in her blood, but not an enormous amount.

We were later told that it got absorbed into her fatty, toddler tissues and was then released slowly, so they couldn’t predict when it would peak. Which was lucky because it meant that she didn’t get hit by the whole dose all at once. Googling had told me that there is a point of no return. All we could do was wait for them to start dropping and hope they didn’t get too high.

We were told there was an antidote, but that it came with its own risks. It was there and ready for if she needed it but they hoped she wouldn’t need it. The side effects were a vague and unclear threat. I don’t know if they were ever fully explained on that long night.

We were told that all test results were being sent to the Cardiology ward in Cardiff. They were now making the decisions remotely for Esme without ever having seen her. She was just a list of numbers and a heart beat to them and they held her life in their hands.

She was hooked up to a drip, with a cannula in each foot, one was to always be kept spare for emergency medicine. At her peak she had three in total. Her tiny limbs tide up like a puppet on strings.

At 9pm, after eight hours in hospital, we were told that the decision had been made to move her to Cardiff, a three hour drive away (on a good day). She would also be given the antidote now. If she suffered a reaction to it, they would treat that too.

We were told it would all be fine, everyone hoped it would be fine. She was gone now, fast asleep in her own world. In amongst the many poisons of the foxglove are various hallucinogens, so who knows what she really saw that night in her dazed world.

The plan was that a specialist team would drive up from Bristol – even further away than Cardiff – to take us there. They would arrive around midnight. We’d arrived at a time when the decision had been made to stop transfers by helicopter to save money. A month earlier or a month later we would have been under specialist care a lot sooner, but we had no idea and let the world rush us on in the direction it deemed best for our little girl.

The antidote was given and thankfully Esme didn’t react. One hurdle was over but her heart was still erratic. I now know that she was suffering Heart Block. The digoxin works by bonding with heart cells, it interrupts the electrical current that passes from cell to cell, telling it when to pulse. It interrupts the way the heart chambers beat in turn to move the blood most efficiently. It makes for lazy movement and a slow pulse, we could only hope it was enough.

My husband took the baby home to leave with my mother. I’d never left him before, she’d never had all my children at once, but there was nothing else we could do. Enormous choices were made quickly and firmly. We would be there for Esme and bring her home safe. Andy packed a bag of clothes for the three of us and hurried back to the hospital.

I would ride in the ambulance, and he would drive down and meet us there.

The team from Bristol arrived about 12.30am, a doctor and two nurses, all for us. I didn’t want to be any trouble, they were taking it all so seriously. The change in tension in the staff from when we had arrived with a chatty toddler to when we left with a silent girl was stark.

I was given a stern sheet explaining that if I were to go in the ambulance, I must stay out of the way in an emergency. I gripped it and read it slowly, digesting the judgement it made about what sort of parent I might be. I wondered what sort of people would get in the way and decided that those people in their panic probably wouldn’t listen to a piece of paper anyway.

Maybe it was just there to distract me as they strapped her bed into the back with all its machines and tubes and potions. Her heart monitor and drip were still attached. She was still vomiting and so pale and sleepy. She had a tube in her stomach to suck out any fluid, and so many gadgets around her.

I hugged my husband goodbye and cautioned him to drive slowly and sensibly. He set off on his three hour drive to Cardiff and I stood around waiting for us to be ready to leave. Her penguin was tucked under her arm and through all of it she held him tightly. I waved goodbye to her as the door closed but I don’t know if she saw me.

Then off we went.

I sat in the front with the driver. It was coming up to 2am (ish) and I still felt fiercely awake. He was lovely and told me all about his holiday home in Bulgaria as we drove through silent Welsh villages and along windy roads. He told me about finding a Praying Mantis in the garden and how all the villagers owned a sheep, and there was a resident shepherd who walked around every morning collecting sheep to take to graze, and every evening he brought them home and they all toddled off to their own house. He kept me sane with his meandering tales and fatherly advice.

It was a long journey. I started nodding at around 4am and we drove on in silence. My husband messaged that he’d arrived, found the ward, they were expecting us, and he would try to grab some sleep. We were still a long way away.

I’d been wondering why we had taken a slightly longer route down the coast, rather than the more direct route through the mountains. The ambulance driver explained that this way we would be closer to hospitals all the way down. If something happened we would drive to the nearest one for help.

There are vast swathes of mid Wales with no hospitals nearby. They’ve talked about closing our one for years. If they had, our twenty minute run to A&E would have been an hour and a half instead: all that extra time for things to go wrong.

So we moved from our cosy hospital room with the lovely local nurse, who knew my family, and held my hand, to this enormous, sterile, industrial intensive care for children with all these machines. I’m not sure if they really towered over us the way they seemed to, or if I was just so tired and shrunken that that is how they appeared.

The staff everywhere were amazing; they were so caring and positive and professional, but I cursed not being allowed to take a coffee on to the ward, it had to be drunk outside in the awkward kitchen. I hadn’t realised that when I made it, so I tipped it away.

We slept for an hour on a fold out bed in a treatment room. We were told that normally they would have a bed for us, as we’d come so far, but it being the weekend, whilst there was plenty of emergency care, there were no cleaners. So although there were rooms free, they were not ready for us. They hoped they could find something, but in all honesty it was so much more than we expected.

Sunday came and went sitting at her cot-side. She was so sleepy. I was told I could hold her if I was careful of her monitors and drip. So I did and she barely awoke before cuddling in to me. It was the most amazing feeling to hold her, she felt so far away in her industrial cot.

Then as we were kicked out for the shift handover, I was finally pointed towards a shower I could use. As I undressed I realised just how much of home I had brought with me. A confetti of sawdust and leaves fell from the folds of my clothes, sprinkling the sterile floor with an alien world. I stood still in the water and washed away the dust from a million years ago.

My ridiculously active, talkative, fun two year old, was quiet and still. When she was awake she stared and retched, but mostly she slept.

Consultants came and went, they were kind and explained things again and again, but I’m not sure how much I took in.

I knew we were monitoring, I knew her heart was still not right, I knew she was very sick. We were in the intubation section of the ward, which meant they were preparing for the worst. They were waiting to see if she would have a heart attack and all we could do was wait with them.

Twice daily we were kicked off the ward for nurse changeover. I called my mother and let her know everything was fine but they wanted to keep us in a bit longer, just to make sure she was ok. I spoke to the kids, they were enjoying their impromptu sleepover. I told Polly that she’d done such an amazing job to remember what the plant looked like, and she agreed that she had. They felt very far away in a very different world to mine.

My eldest wanted to know when we would be home – he adores his little sister, and she him – I said we’d been told maybe Wednesday, but there were no guarantees.

There were just no answers.

Consultants told us how rare a case like this is. Foxglove taste horribly bitter so most children wouldn’t eat it. She’d always been such a good eater, she would eat anything; now I wished she was just a bit fussier.

As she wasn’t intubated on the Sunday, we were moved down the ward to the “awake” section of intensive care. A TV was wheeled into her line of sight and they put Peppa Pig DVDs on. She stared at them.

Someone had the radio playing and the song ‘Wasn’t Expecting That’ by Jamie Lawson seemed to be be playing almost constantly. I cried. I can’t hear that tune now without crying. It felt so helpless being there – I really wasn’t expecting that.

My husband found it hard to sit still, so he took on the practical things. He fed us and got us drinks, he fetched and carried, whilst I sat and watched and waited.

We watched her pulse, but I didn’t know how to see right from wrong, which bit was normal, which bit was frightening? How could I help if I didn’t know?

On Sunday night we were told they’d found a room with a single bed in it for us to sleep in in a strange empty corridor of rooms in a building not far from the ward. We were so exhausted that we climbed in together, me and my 6′ 5″ husband cuddled up on this tiny bed, and managed to get a few hours’ sleep.

I awoke early and wanted to get back to the ward before the staff changeover. I checked the clothes my husband had packed for us. They were all wrong; too hot to sit on a stuffy ward, too tight, too itchy.

I was angry at the world and looking to pick a fight about something I had some control over, so we bickered about clothes – clothes that were fine, clothes that would do perfectly well. It’s a lot easier to be cross about clothes than a sick child.

Then I was sorry and he was sorry and we hugged and went back to the exhausting horribleness of doing nothing very tensely.

Her blood tests weren’t showing a drop in the levels of poison. They started giving her antiemetics for her vomiting, she was still on a drip and hadn’t eaten or drink anything since Saturday lunchtime.

Monday passed with Peppa Bloody Pig.

With the new week we were given a double room just off the ward to sleep in. It was so much more than we expected.

On Tuesday morning her ECG showed more normal rhythm, so they decided we could be moved to Cardiology; this was very good news.

A friend offered to bring supplies, we’d had so many kind offers from people I hadn’t seen for decades. I agreed just so I would have a reason to make me take a break. We drank coffee and I tried not to cry. Her daughter was running around just as Esme should have been. It was so good to see her, but so hard too.

Esme’s new room was right off the nurse’s station. It had a single bed in it, so one of us could stay with her, and its own bathroom. It was homely and warm and less clinical. The rules were less strict, the care was more human, this was a place to get better rather than just survive.

That afternoon they did another ECG. It wasn’t such good news and we wouldn’t have been allowed to move from intensive care if her contrary heart had behaved this way earlier, but it was decided that we would stay put.

That night I stayed with her and slept as much as possible in between obs. It was so nice to be near her and not be under pressure to rush back. My sleep wasn’t broken by checking my phone for missed calls from the ward for once.

I was woken at seven by the doctor wanting to take a blood sample and I jumped a mile in a comical fashion; and so another day of tests and waiting loomed.

She just lay there and barely objected to the needle, the fight in her that she’d had when we first arrived on Saturday was long gone.

We found a DVD player, she cuddled up on my lap, and we watched stupid films. She still wouldn’t say much but I managed to taunt her into saying a few words by showing her photos of her siblings and saying the wrong names. Her need to correct me overcame her sickness – it was such a relief to hear her voice.

In moments, bit by bit, she was getting better; she had her first drink of milk, she tried to steal a bite of my bacon sarnie, but couldn’t swallow it so chewed it like a cow chewing cud.

That night my husband insisted I get some proper sleep and offered to stay with her. Having pulled promises from him that he would call me if anything changed, I reluctantly walked the long corridor back to our room alone.

I slept badly, listening blankly to comedy downloads for distraction. It was Cabin Pressure that got me through; I didn’t listen to the words, but the familiar voices stopped my brain from whirring. I slept at some point. At six I leapt out of bed and headed back to the ward.

When I got there and asked the nurses at their station how the night has been, they paused and exchanged a glance. My heart skipped a beat as I walked to her door they began to explain that Esme was fine, it was Andy who had had a rough night. She was getting better and had demanded to sleep in Andy’s bed with him. Which meant he’d had no sleep at all as he’d tried to keep her from falling or twisting her tubes and wires in a tiny fold down bed, his giant frame twisted to keep her safe.

Every time he’d tried to move into a more comfortable position she had sternly said, “No! Daddy, sleep!” He was a broken but happy man. It was a good story to wake up to and I sent him off to bed with a smile.

She managed to drink some milk that day. All being well, we were told we might be able to go home on Friday. Another two days away.

Then came the real sign that things were on the turn; she needed another ECG and I had learnt that ECGs were things that just appeared when you needed them, but no! We would have to take her to another section of hospital and wait with all the other routine-test people.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to wait half an hour on a rickety chair, in a drab overcrowded waiting room. It was the biggest sign that she was getting better, and the marvellous NHS machine that had provided everything it could the second it was needed in an emergency, was now returning to a more normal pace.

That was the day she finally woke up. Six days of silence and then a very wobbly little girl, barely able to stand at first, demanded that her dad and I march her up and down the ward. Slowly, wobbly step by wobbly step, she pointed and we walked.

And that’s how she came back to us, all at once.

She still had heart block but there were longer periods of normality now. We were allowed home with a 48 hour ECG to monitor her. Her skin was burnt by all the chemically stickers she’d had stuck to her, her skin was pale and her muscles weak, the days had taken their toll on her, but she was back.

We drove the long journey home, through the rich Autumnal oaks of Wales. We got to see our children, and determinedly ignore the mound of washing and everyday things that desperately needed doing. We got to breathe again and sleep! Oh how I had missed my bed, my marvellous bed that is big enough for us all to snuggle in.

We were back down in Cardiff on the Monday. Blood tests showed Digoxin levels had fallen to safe levels – although zero is the normal level and anything above that is not as it should be. Her ECG over the weekend showed she was mostly in type one heart block, with regular periods of type two (worse) and occasional periods of type three (worst), but it was confirmed that she would be an outpatient from here on in. I was happier doing six hour round trips for appointments than staying in a moment longer.

From looking at her you would never have known there was anything wrong at all. By this point our little invalid was back to tearing around the place. There was no stopping her once she’d got her strength back despite the heart block, scans had shown her heart was strong; strong enough to keep things moving even when it wasn’t dancing in time to the music.

In November we got the all clear; blood. levels were finally back to zero, her heart was so nearly back to normal. It took a while to sink in; she was not only ok, but there looked to be no long term damage. She was one lucky toddler.

It’s traditional to find something deep and meaningful to focus on at times like this, something to make it all worthwhile, a message, a lesson, but all I felt was frustrated and angry. This stupid accident had happened for no reason. I’d let my baby down.

I wanted to listen to the Ambulance driver, whose sage words of, “Don’t let this change the way you parent, don’t stop her from living when she’s better,” still rang in my ears, but how could I not?

There are thousands of those leaves in the fields. It’s all organic so I couldn’t poison them if I wanted to (and I don’t want to) and there’s just no way I could dig them all up.

I would clear them from the garden, but I couldn’t clear the world. I could watch her, I could keep her close, keep her from harm, I could keep her in a push chair, instead of running in the grass, I could only go to paved areas, but even there… It’s the country, they’re in every hedgerow.

She has learnt nothing; the first time outside after it happened she reached down, picked up an oak leaf and went to put it in her mouth. It’s just who she is for now, all I can do is watch and leap. Watch and leap.

So, no, I haven’t grown as a person, I’m not more saintly, a better mother, a better human for sitting at her bedside. I’m a bit more traumatised, my husband and I prop each other up when need be. I’m trying not to be less optimistic – I like being optimistic.

I am so very grateful to the hospitals. I learnt that nurses REALLY like pens – but them the nice ones in lots of colours. I learnt that often the parents’ stock of tea and coffee is bought and paid for by the nurses and other staff – so many little kindnesses that made our lives that much easier were put there by those who were already doing so much for us.

Our accommodation was charity-run, even the heart machine that she was first hooked up to was a donation. Apêl Elain (www.apelelain.com) was set up in the name of a little girl with heart problems. If it hadn’t been, perhaps Esme’s heart issues would have taken longer to notice. They’ve raised money for all the things we used so if you fancy making a donation to an amazing cause, please do.

Bronglais may be a small hospital, but it’s the only one in Mid-Wales, the more funding is cut for places like that? Well it doesn’t take a genius to see that people will suffer.

And us? We’re mostly back to normal. I’m not sure I’m quite back to being on top of the washing, but that’s my fault for having five children, I probably never will be.

I have so much respect and admiration for all the families we met in hospital. Those whose children would be back there, again and again. They’re not special people, they don’t have a special reserve that the rest of us don’t have to deal with the horror that is having an ill child. They take from themselves, they use energy they don’t have, they just keep going because they love their child and will do anything for them.

I only got a glimpse of that world, they are so incredible for doing what they do I cannot find the words. Sometimes I think it’s easier to pretend that other people are more saintly, thar they have something we don’t have, because then we don’t have to think about their struggles as much. By putting them on a pedestal, we don’t appreciate the effort and stress that they go through, we don’t appreciate how hard their “normal” is, and we should, we should notice it. If we noticed it more, things like Respite Care would be funded better.

But the reason I finally decided to write this is I started wondering and thinking about how I would have acted if I hadn’t known that Foxgloves were poisonous; if I hadn’t known what they looked like when not in flower.

Had I not known then I would have put her to bed, I would have assumed she had a bug, I would have tried not to take her to hospital because noro-virus is so contagious. She wouldn’t have been given charcoal, she wouldn’t have been monitored, she wouldn’t have been given the antidote, she wouldn’t have been on a drip.

I couldn’t have seen her bradycardia (slow heart rate) or her Heart Block. Things would have gotten a lot worse before we went to hospital.

There are many poisonous plants, it’s worth knowing what they look like. It’s not about panicking anyone, just about being sensible. It’s just not worth the risk of having them in close proximity to small children. They may look stunning, but you could wait a few years before planting them in your garden, maybe?

If your child does vomit, and there are leaves in it, and they’ve been outside then it’s always better to be safe than sorry, but do remember that it’s very rare that any child is daft enough to keep on eating something that tastes utterly vile, it’s very rare indeed to have an Esme, and for all the difficulties along the way, I am so very glad that we do.

Two years on from the Foxglove Poisoning

Two years. Two years have passed since Esme’s Adventure with Foxgloves. Today is a similar sort of day, it’s warm and dry, just the sort of day for running around the fields catching falling leaves (if you catch one before it hits the floor you get to make a wish), but today I’m staying in. 

I might wander into the garden later, let the wind blow away the cobwebs, but for now I’m content on this side of the window. Watching the bluetits squabble over the bird feeder, and the red kite get tossed this way and that in the gusty sky. 

Today is the day that I can’t pretend. I can’t pretend that I don’t hold a deep-seated fear. I can’t pretend that I don’t sometimes look at Esme and think, “What if..?” 

I have been so careful not to fall into the dangerous trap of overprotectiveness. It would be a false-safety to never let her learn that the world is not all soft edges. She is hardy and sensible and brave. 

Her younger brother is now older than Esme was when she ate those Foxglove leaves. It almost feels like an invisible threshold has passed. I have so many blessings to count. So very many, but today it is ok to just sit and wallow for a while. 

We don’t take enough time to wallow. Someone always has it worse. We can always look for the good, but ignoring pain just lets it sneak up on you when you’re not looking. I still cannot listen to the song that was playing in Intensive Care without tears. It came on the radio the other day. It didn’t know better, it wasn’t aware that it shouldn’t have. Oh the tears. Not even crying, no heaving sobs, or gulping breaths, just a silent river of tears that have to take their course and wend their way. 

Two years ago Esme ate Foxglove leaves and became incredibly ill. Today she is healthy and happy with a head full of golden curls and an impish grin. 

Just as I was frustrated two years ago about the lack of meaning in such a horrible accident, I am frustrated now by the same. There is no greater meaning when bad things happen. There is no personal growth. I have not learned and become a better person for it. 

But, that doesn’t mean you can’t create meaning. People shared Esme’s story and maybe one day it will stop another accident happening. I have learned not to fight against my anger and pain, but to let it wash over me. I’d prefer not to have the anger and pain, but hey, you can’t have everything, and they are different with time added to the mix. Those ripples in the pond are becoming smaller with greater gaps in between. 

The world keeps turning, children keep doing ridiculously stupid things, we keep doing our best. 

And the happiness? The happiness is in the little moments. Morning elbow drops from small people, feeding the birds, making wishes on oak leaves. 

Today’s wish will be for more small happinesses. You can keep your flashy ecstasies, I’ll take running through sheets hanging on a line, or watching TV cuddled in front of a roaring fire, or looking for shells on a beach over your big stuff. 

Give me small moments, and give me lots of them, and you can have your occasional river of tears. 

The Foxgloves Return

    

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about Foxgloves. But today I went for a walk in the field where this blog all began with Esme’s Adventure with Foxgloves.

The foxgloves are out in force. Even more so than last year. They’re everywhere and they’re beautiful.

I thought I’d reached a point of coping with it all. I make jokes. I’m flippant. 

Sometimes people comment about how relaxed I am about it. I’m not. Beneath the surface I’m traumatised and frightened. The What-Ifs still haunt me. But less often than before.

This morning has made me somber.

Esme was with me on the wander. I held her hand and pointed at the flowers.


“Can I touch them?” I asked her.

“Yes.” She said, “Beautiful flowers.”

“Beautiful flowers, but they make you very sick. Don’t touch.” She nodded as though she understood. 

We came to another clump, “Can I touch these ones?”

“Yes.” She said firmly.

“No,” I repeated, “They make you sick. Ouch. Don’t touch.”


She nodded again.

Every time I asked if I could touch them, she said yes, and I despaired.

But she’s still only two. My tiny idiot is still small.

I’ve kept on top of the encroaching foxgloves in the garden. It hasn’t been easy. But they’re under my control now.

I don’t want to control nature. I don’t want to control the beautiful wildflowers in the field. I don’t want the bumble bees to stop bumbling into them. I don’t want the caterpillars to move on. I want it all to carry on as it did before it changed my world.

I want my tiny idiot to stick to her evolutionary programming that tells us not to eat things that taste that bitter.

But she’s decided to take a different path, and I’m going to have to parent the child in front of me.

As for her, she is great. She’s wonderful and perfect and infuriating.

It’s a bank holiday weekend, and we’re going to spend it outside, as so many will.

Can I just make one small request? Could you have one quick double check around the garden if you do have small children. Just a casual glance. 

If you’re planting foxgloves, I don’t blame you, they’re gorgeous, then just take a moment to think about putting them somewhere small children can’t get to them. 

Remind your children not to eat things they find outside. Don’t assume they remember you saying it last year, like I did.

Being rational and reasonable doesn’t mean avoiding all the risks.

Spring has well and truly sprung, and for the first time, after a long and water-logged winter, we are heading back out into the garden.

I am going to be honest and say it doesn’t feel as safe as it did. I think the children are now utterly sick of my quick reminders not to eat anything, or to let anyone else eat anything, or to tell me if they think someone might have eaten anything, or or or…

I’ve spent a bit of time checking there’s nothing immediately deadly where the children will play, but I can’t quite seem to be able to get rid of the niggling doubt that I’ve missed something.

I won’t be planting potatoes this year, or rhubarb. There won’t be any dangerous leaves in my vegetable patch. Not yet. Not until she’s bigger.

I know that fear stems from failing to spot the danger when it happened. I know that I was too blasé about the likelihood of any of the children eating a poisonous plant. Or perhaps I was right to be blasé and actually we are just a strange anomaly.

All parenting is risk assessment. We look at how likely a bad thing happening is, we weigh that against the benefits of doing things and the negatives of missing out. 

I’m sure the risk of me crashing whilst driving the kids to school this morning, far outweigh the risks of any of the children coming to harm playing in the garden. But the garden makes me feel more anxious, for obvious reasons.

In a car you reduce risk by driving sensibly, using appropriate child seats, there are ways to minimise risk.

And that’s all you can do. Minimise risk and then let your children live.

I keep telling myself that once Esme is a vaguely rational human, she will understand, and the fear will go. But until then I want to keep her safe.

The urge to strap her into a swing or a chair is sometimes strong. I want to wrap her up in cotton wool. For the selfless reason of keeping her safe, and for the selfish reason, that I want freedom from the fear.

But then she’d miss out. She wouldn’t get to feel the warm grass on her bare feet in the summer. She wouldn’t get to lie on her back and look for monsters in the clouds. She wouldn’t get to watch snails unfurl, or worms wiggle, or hunt for grasshoppers and watch them leap. She wouldn’t get to touch and feel and enjoy the world. Not until she was rational. Then maybe she’d be too rational to enjoy it at all.

How many two year olds worry about the consequences of digging in mud? How many adults wouldn’t bother because they’d have to clean up?

I won’t be having Foxgloves in the garden any time soon. But I will one day. The bumble bees like them, and I like bumble bees.

One day Esme will be sensible, but if she gets there by being restricted, if she gets there by not experiencing as much, then I’ve failed her. I’m not going to fail her again.

Which means for now I’ll have to watch her that little bit closer. I’ll be that little bit less comfortable. Because to choose not to let her live would be to take the wrong lesson from her experience. It would be taking a meaning from her hurt, that would hurt her more.

And that can only be a bad thing.

TIRED DOCTORS MAKE MUSKRATS

When we were in Bristol not so long ago, after a late night, feeling a bit sleepy, we decided to go out for a lovely meal.

On the way to that lovely meal, I saw a placard up in someone’s garden.

It said, “TIRED DOCTORS MAKE MUSKRATS”.

That’s nice, I thought, in my tired state.

Of course that’s not really what it said. It said “TIRED DOCTORS MAKE MISTAKES”. 

I’d made a mistake because I was tired.

Luckily I wasn’t responsible for looking after the lives of real people whilst I was tired. Luckily the consequence of my minor mistake was a chuckle, not someone’s health.

I decided, as much as I’d really like tired doctors to make muskrats, I’d much prefer awake doctors keeping people alive and well.

The Problem with Counting Your Blessings

The point of counting your blessings is to remind yourself of all the good things that it’s easy to take for granted.

But I think there’s a tendency to look at broad generalisations, and that takes away the poignancy, and misses the point.

I can be grateful for my loving family. I can see that I’m really lucky to have my loving husband and my brilliant children.

But that’s easily said and just as easily dismissed, so I don’t get to linger on the joys that those things bring.

Of course it’s difficult to be grateful when the baby is ill and grizzly, I’ve got a hideous cold, someone’s just left their Lego out, and I’ve trodden on it, or I’ve just had a call to say Andy needs to stay late for a meeting, when I’ve been holding on to my last shred of sanity by my fingertips.

But there are still plenty of moments. Not the big all-encompassing “I’m glad I have my husband”, but the smaller, more valuable, “I was just thinking I’d forgotten to get some milk, and would have to go out again, when Andy walked through the door with some”.

I’m glad I have my baby, Ru, but actually, that moment this morning, after a rough and grizzly night, when he smiled up at me and cuddled in, that was bloody lovely.

I can be grateful for my children.

Or I can notice that moment when Polly (6) told Oscar (10), that whilst she couldn’t give him a piggy-back now (because he is so much bigger than her) when they are both very old, she will give him a piggy back then, because she’d seen how people get smaller as they get older, so hoped they’d reach a time when it evened out.

If you ever see an 85 year old giving an 89 year old a piggy-back, you now know why.

Or when Esme (2) decided to line up all her animals so they were all facing her, then jumped up with a panicked look, ran to me and said, pointing at the menagerie, “They look me!”

As though she was being surprisingly stalked, and had no idea why any of them should be looking at her.

“They look me” indeed.

Or when my eldest, Sam, just throws me one of his smiles.

They’re good things to count. Moments in time that deserved to be noticed and picked out and remembered.

The week before Esme had her adventure with foxgloves, I’d put a post up on Facebook about happiness.

We’re all guilty of putting smug, trite crap out there sometimes. I put my hands up.

Here’s what I posted:-

So yesterday I was listening to the box set (is it a box set for radio shows?) of Cabin Pressure, with Ru on my knee and Es busily undoing my daily good work of putting it all away.

We got to a bit where Arthur is describing how happiness isn’t sitting on a moonlit beach with your loved one, because in those moments you’re always worrying it’ll soon be over. Happiness is jumping into a bath that’s exactly the right temperature, and going “ooh”, or throwing an apple back and forth between your hands until you reach a state of bliss.

Douglas starts humming “I’m busy doing nothing”, and they all start singing it, and so did I.

Ru looked up at me in surprise and burst out laughing.

Es stopped what she was doing to come and laugh at Ru, and we all just sat there for a good minute, laughing at each other.

And I thought, “right now I’m really happy”.

I’m writing this not in some smug sense of “my life is perfect”, but as a reminder not to murder either of them today for only letting me have two hours’ sleep last night.

Hopefully they’ll live out the day and we can have more of our simpleton moments.”

Little did I know that just a few short days later, I would be facing what we faced.

Little did I know how fragile and small that happiness would seem a week later. How I would mock myself for being happy when I didn’t know what was to come. How stupid I seemed. How arrogant.

But even in that week, when Esme ate foxglove leaves, and ended up in intensive care, there were moments.

The time when I showed her a picture of Polly and Oscar, and told her it was a picture of Esme and Ru, and she spoke for the first time, because she couldn’t resist correcting me.

The day before we were finally allowed to go home, when she stood up in her cot, stole the stethoscope, that had been left on the end all week, and grinned at me with mischief in her eyes.

The week before, that stethoscope moment would have disappeared in the mix, but that week it was a headliner.

Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing. There are no little moments to be grateful for. But there always there.

When things get really bad, they hide in the little things. A stranger noticing you’ve only got a few bits of shopping and insisting you go in front of them at the checkout. Stopping to look at an iridescent beetle and the way it shines as it scuttles. The rain stopping for the 2 minutes it takes you to get to the door (even if it poured on you when going out in the first place).

When we were still waiting for the all clear for Esme, I had a bad day one morning taking the older kids to school. It wasn’t terrible. It was just bad.

It was horrible weather. It was one of those mornings when everything seems to take forever. No one’s shoes were where they left them. No one’s bags had what they needed. It was all messy and disorganised before we’d even left the house.

It was a gray day. I was in a gray mood. Everyone was bickering.

I dropped the first two at their school, and then was carrying on to drop off the eldest at college.

It was my right of way, so I drove, but a skip-lorry driver decided that I should have let him out, and gestured unpleasantly at me.

I was surprised, and whilst my son was asking what the man’s problem was, I then spotted the speed camera. I didn’t think I was speeding, but I’d been trying to get out of the way of the lorry as quickly as I could, so it was possible. So I worried about that, and I worried about my son seeing horribleness, and I worried about everything.

It wasn’t a terrible day. Compared to a couple of weeks earlier it was a walk in the park, but for some reason I couldn’t shake off this feeling of uselessness, hopelessness, grayness.

I dropped Sam at college and turned around to go back home with the two littlies.

Everything was bad.

Then I thought about how it wasn’t bad. It was barely an irritation. What was bad was in me. I was filtering the world.

On my way back something had changed. It was like all the lights had been changed from red to green. People kept smiling. Or rather, I noticed that people were smiling.

Not everyone, far from everyone, it was 9am on a weekday. That doesn’t make everyone smile.

I put the Radio on, and they played Bat out of Hell, by Meatloaf. I sang along. Loudly. And as I passed a white van coming the other way I saw he was singing too.

And I smiled.

Because that was one of those little moments.

So I have lots of things to be thankful for. One of which is “strangers who rock out to Meatloaf at just the right moment”.

We can’t all be positive all the time. We shouldn’t be. That should be the reserve of American Chat Show Hosts and not us mere mortals.

But don’t miss those good bits. Notice them. Notice more. If you realise you haven’t seen any lately, get a top up. Look at something closely. Notice a cloud looks like a turtle with a hat on. Overhear a ridiculous conversation.

It’s why people like cat pictures on the Internet. They’re looking for those moments that make them smile. They’re hoping someone else can manufacture them.

But it’s much better when it’s your cat that falls off the back of the sofa.

We’re all made up of our own moments. Enjoy them.

If ignorance were more socially acceptable perhaps we’d all be a lot more knowledgeable

I can’t always talk about foxgloves. In fact I didn’t really mean to start a blog. I wrote an article. An article that was important to me. That I needed to share. That I wanted the world to know about.

Or at least the parts of the world with Foxgloves in them.

And then I found I’d started a blog, sort of accidentally. It was a quick way to share information.

Before I knew it another article appeared. It was linked to the first. It was about the trauma. It fitted.

Now for me it’s only the first that needs saying. The extra bits, the continuations, they’re just the conversation behind the big neon sign of what happened.

I won’t always talk about foxgloves.

But I’m going to today. I’ve had so many responses from the tens of thousands of people who viewed my blog in the 4 days since I started typing.

They’ve slipped neatly into three categories
There are the, “Everyone knows this. Why say it?” People. There aren’t many of these. They know about poisonous plants. They can list many common or garden hazards. They are knowledgeable on the subject.

But they’re wrong.

Not in a horrible way. In a lovely way. They believe that because they know something, that everyone else does.

It makes me think that maybe we should sometimes check on our general knowledge base. Because there’re lots of things I don’t know (like how to set up an aesthetically pleasing blog – I suspect the answer is “don’t be lazy and do it all on your iPhone, turn on the damn computer”), but it’s not fun admitting that.

If ignorance were more socially acceptable perhaps we’d all be a lot more knowledgeable.

Sounds wise doesn’t it?

Back to my categories. The second group, larger than the first, maybe a third of people who messaged me, didn’t have a clue. They had no idea that foxgloves were poisonous.

The lack of knowledge frightened them. Not the foxgloves themselves, just the fact that they maybe had them in the garden, in close proximity to a small child, and had no inkling that there was any kind of hazard present.

The third, and largest group, knew that foxgloves were poisonous, but had no idea how dangerous they were. They thought that they would maybe cause some nausea.

And then of course there were those who don’t get a category of their own, who felt that I should have explained about all poisonous plants. Since foxgloves alone isn’t dealing with the issue. Of course they are absolutely right that foxgloves are not the only dangerous plant in the garden.

I assure this lot that the second I have first-hand experience of this, I shall blog about it. The way Esme’s going, she’d be happy to oblige, but I hope it’s ok that I do my utmost to stop her.

Because I’m not just talking about poisonous plants. I’m talking about my daughter. I’m talking about the days when I didn’t know if she would ever wake up again.

But use this opportunity to embrace your ignorance! There’s a great website called The Poison Garden.

Www.thepoisongarden.co.uk

Study it. It’s brilliant. And then don’t panic. Just file it away for if you ever need it.

Or visit them in Alnwick and hear their stories whilst they show you the plants. I think my children need to go.

I also think that Foxgloves have a very specific draw to children. They’re tactile. They’re fuzzy. The flowers are little hats, or fit perfectly on fingers. They grow at child-height. They’re abundant in the summer, when you’re out in the garden. They’re beautiful.

All in all they’re a bit of a perfect storm.

So why don’t poisonings happen more often?

Because most children, no matter how young, are clever enough to stop eating nasty things.

I keep hearing the, “why bother?” Question though.

Because it’s the question I struggled with for three months before posting.

And the answer always comes back to, if this is very rare, that doesn’t mean it will never happen again.

If it happened again, and the parent didn’t know, because we thought they knew, so we didn’t tell them, then that would be the wrong decision.

I try not to think about the hypotheticals of what not knowing may have meant to Esme.

That way bad thoughts lie.

Dealing with the Aftermath

When you’re trundling along, then your world is turned upside down, how do you learn to trundle again?

I’m not a psychologist of any kind. I have no great insight or magic cures. In fact I’m right in the middle of trying to work this out for myself right now.

So think of this more as musings than a How To guide.

In the week when Esme got sick, I got angry.

Of course I was sad. I was stressed. I was waiting for the worst to happen. But I was also very angry that what had happened was so pointless.

I was angry with myself for not protecting her.

I was angry with the fact that there was no magical cure.

I was angry that I was powerless.

When you’re angry and you have nothing to blame, the easiest thing is to turn it inwards.

I couldn’t be angry at the foxglove. I couldn’t be angry at a just-turned-2 year old who liked eating things. I couldn’t be angry at the hospital who were doing everything in their power. There was no focus.

I could be angry at myself for not reminding the older children that morning of the dangers of plants. I could be angry at myself for not checking where they were sitting for foxgloves. I could be angry at myself for not watching them every second. I could be angry at myself for not seeing it happen when it happened. I could be angry at myself for not getting to a hospital the second she’d eaten them. I could be angry at myself for being so helpless.

But none of it was helpful.

Anger is a normal and natural reaction to something bad happening. In the short term it can fuel you. It can keep you going when you’re exhausted. It can keep you putting one foot in front of the other when you are so tired.

But there comes a point where anger drains you. Where all it does is takes your energy away from the good things.

There comes a point where you have to let it go.

But how?

People say things happen for a reason. I don’t believe this. I’ve never believed this. Things happen. Full stop. And then you have to get on with your life and try to deal with what happened.

People tell themselves stories. They say “if this bad thing hadn’t happened, then it wouldn’t have led to this good thing”.

Stories genuinely help. They are in our control. We can decide on the story.

This blog is part of my story.

At first I thought everyone knew foxgloves were dangerous, so I couldn’t help the world by spreading the word.

But we met many medical professionals who didn’t know. Many friends who admitted in the same situation they would never have been able to suggest a plant to doctors.

So maybe I could create a point, create a purpose. Maybe Esme’s bad experience would lead to a greater awareness. That someone else’s child would be saved the ordeal.

I had to balance that with the fact that I don’t want to cause panic either.

This is rare!

It’s nowhere near as dangerous as an un-netted trampoline or a hanging blind-cord in your living room. Was it necessary?

I’ve had some responses saying that they can’t see why I’d point out what is public knowledge.

I’ve had far more responses saying that people either didn’t know that foxgloves were poisonous at all, or that they hadn’t realised they could be fatal.

I think that it’s easy to assume that just because you know something, everyone else does too.

There are many poisonous plants. But there’s something particularly enticing about foxgloves. They’re soft and they’re furry, and the flowers look like fairy hats.

So I decided sharing the story would become a part of my healing.

Telling people about a traumatic event is always a good thing. Be it your husband, your friend, your GP or counsellor. There’s something about taking the words out of your head and saying them aloud.

If you can’t find the words yet, start to write them. Put them on paper. Just for you. Just empty your head.

Sometimes people try to help by telling you how lucky you are. It’s true that I’m lucky. I am ridiculously lucky. I have so many things to be grateful for.

But focusing on the positives when I’m trying to deal with the negatives has always been problematic for me.

It’s really important to think about the good things. It’s vital. You must. But you need to make room to think about the bad things too.

Not all the time. If you find time has passed and all you’re thinking about are the negatives, then please talk to a GP. It’s what they are there for. No one wants you to struggle alone.

But if you find that you’re mostly ok, but sometimes need to shout, “It’s unfair. It is unfair. IT IS BLOODY UNFAIR.” Then in those moments, let yourself feel what your brain is trying to make you feel.

People may say “life’s unfair” or “well, yes, but we all have unfair things happen”. None of that is relevant. It’s dismissive. It’s belittling. It’s basically not listening.

It’s important to say to yourself that yes, it was unfair. Find a way to accept that.

It wasn’t some karmic justice. Karma doesn’t exist. It’s a nice thought.

Bad things happen to good people.

It’s not fair.

But it’s not the end either. We all get to choose. We get to choose the story we take forward. Everyday you get to write it in little ways. It’s not about trying to forget. Because that never works. It’s about acknowledging what happened, and moving on to new things.

Sometimes I still get angry. I blame myself. I say it’s unfair. I worry for the future.

When those times happen I give myself a bit of time to feel those feelings.

And then I get back to living in the now. I look at my beautiful family, I listen to the birds, I appreciate the moment I’m actually living in, and ignore the ever-growing pile of laundry, and it gives me some peace.

I quite like the analogy of my life as a lake. Someone chucked this huge rock into the calm waters. I’m still riding the ripples.

The more time goes by, the smaller the ripples, and the farther apart they are. When those moments come, if I try to fight them, then I make them bigger. But if I let them wash over me, accept them, talk to someone if I need to, I get back to the calm water.

One day the ripples will be so small I’ll barely notice them. Maybe a thought. A brief memory.

Maybe one day I’ll see a foxglove and just think “how beautiful”.

For now I’ll just ride the ripples.