Foxgloves in Flower. The flowers are also poisonous.
One of many ECGs
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 4 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 9, Polly, 6 and Esme who had just turned two were exploring.
I did a quick risk assessment. No water 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 20 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, Andy walked the short distance back with the other 3.
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.
After another hour’s work, I staggered through the door bone tired.
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.
I felt my shoulders sag with relief. 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.
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.”
So 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.”
“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 (17), and Andy. My parents were due to visit that afternoon. It was the Rugby World Cup. Wales were playing Australia. We’re Welsh. It was compulsory viewing.
I told my eldest that he would need to watch Polly and Oscar. We 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. She would be fine. We just needed to make sure she was ok.
Esme was still vomiting every 15 minutes or so. If we hadn’t seen leaves, we would’ve assumed it was noro-virus, it was the season after all. We grabbed car seats, a sick bowl, a coat and ran for the car.
I sat in the back for the 20 minute drive. I remember trying to hide how much I was shaking. Holding the sick bowl as she retched. She was alert. Chatty.
We got to the hospital, I jumped out with Esme and ran in to 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.
I don’t think they really thought she’d had much. I don’t blame them. 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. It would slow right down and then pick up again a few minutes later. We didn’t know what we were looking at.
This was a small regional hospital that has suffered cut after cut after cut. They have no resident Cardiologist. No children’s Intensive Care.
Doctors came in and looked at her heart monitor, but we didn’t know what it was showing. They said we’re not worried unless it dips below 70. 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. Just to put that in perspective, her usual heart rate is around 110.
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 2 leaves of a Foxglove plant, because he knew this was a deadly dose.
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. But I didn’t know enough.
Esme had an ECG, blood tests showed some Digoxin in her blood, but not an enormous amount. We were later told that it got absorbed into her tissues and then released slowly, so they couldn’t predict when it would peak.
We were told there was an antidote, but that it came with its own risks. That it was there and ready for if she needed it.
No one had come across a child who’d eaten foxgloves before.
All test results were being sent to the Cardiology ward in Cardiff. They were now making the decisions remotely.
She was hooked up to a drip, with a cannula in each foot. One spare for emergency medicine.
At 9pm, after 8 hours in hospital, we were told that the decision had been made to move her to Cardiff, a 3 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.
A specialist team would drive up from Bristol to take us there. They would arrive around midnight.
The antidote was given. Esme didn’t react. One hurdle 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.
My husband took the baby home to leave with my mother. He packed a bag of clothes for the three of us.
I’d never left my baby before. But there was no choice.
I would ride in the ambulance, my husband would drive down.
The team 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.
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 wondered what sort of people would get in the way. I decided that those people in their panic probably wouldn’t listen to a piece of paper. It was something to think about anyway.
She was still vomiting and so pale and sleepy. She was packed onto a trolley, with a heart monitor and drip. She had a tube in her stomach to suck out any fluid, and so many gadgets attached. My husband set off on his 3 hour drive to Cardiff. Her penguin was tucked under her arm and through all of it she held him tightly.
Then off we went.
I sat in the front with the driver. It was coming up to 2am (ish). He was lovely. He told me all about his holiday home in Bulgaria, and 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.
It was a long journey. I started nodding at around 4am. My husband messaged that he’d arrived, found the ward, they were expecting us, and he would try to grab some sleep.
I’d been wondering why we had taken a slightly longer route. The ambulance driver explained that this way we would be closer to hospitals on the route. There are vast swathes of mid Wales with no hospitals nearby. They’ve talked about closing our one for years.
If they had, our 20 minute run to A&E would have been an hour and a half instead. Doesn’t bear thinking about.
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.
The staff everywhere were amazing. They were so caring and positive and professional.
I cursed not being able to take a coffee on the ward. 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. 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.
Later I grabbed a shower and finally washed away the sawdust from a million years ago.
My ridiculously active, chatty 2 year old, was quiet and still. When she was awake she stared and retched. Mostly she slept.
Consultants came and went. They were kind and explained. 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. They were preparing for the worst. They were waiting to see if she would have a heart attack.
And we waited with them.
Twice daily we were kicked off the ward for nurse changeover. I called my mother. I 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 happy and cheerful. I told Polly that she’d done such an amazing job to remember what the plant looked like. She agreed that she had.
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 we may not be.
There were just no answers.
Consultants told us how rare a case like this is. Apparently Foxglove taste horribly bitter.
She’d always been such a good eater. 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. A TV was wheeled into her line of sight. They put Peppa Pig DVDs on. She stared at them.
Someone had the radio playing. That song, “Wasn’t Expecting That” by Jamie Lawson came on. I cried. I can’t listen to it now without crying. It felt so helpless being there, I really wasn’t expecting that.
My husband found it hard to sit. So he took on the practical things. He fed us. Got us drinks. Fetched and carried. I sat and watched and waited.
We watched her pulse. I didn’t know how to see right from wrong. Normal from frightening.
On Sunday night we were told they’d found a room with a single bed in it for us.
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. Too tight. Too itchy.
I was angry and looking to pick a fight about something I had some control over. So we bickered about the clothes. The clothes that were fine. The 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.
We were moved to a double room just off the ward. 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.
That afternoon they did another ECG. It wasn’t such good news.
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.
I was woken at 7am by the doctor wanting to take a blood sample. I jumped a mile in a comical fashion. And so another day loomed.
She just lay there and barely objected to the needle. There was no fight in her.
We found a DVD player, she cuddled up on my lap, and we watched stupid films. She still wouldn’t say much. 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 bring herself to swallow it.
That night my husband insisted I get some sleep. He would stay with her. So I reluctantly walked the long corridor back to our room alone.
I slept badly. I listened to comedy downloads for distraction. It was Cabin Pressure that got me through. I slept at some point.
At 6am I leapt out of bed and headed back to the ward.
They’d had a rough night. Not because Esme was any worse, but because she was getting better. She’d demanded to sleep in Andy’s bed. Which meant he’d had no sleep at all as he’d tried to keep her from falling or twisting her tubes and wires.
It was a good story to wake up to. I sent him off to bed.
She managed to drink some milk that day. All being well, we were told we might be able to go home on Friday.
Then came the real sign that things were on the turn. She needed another ECG. 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.
She was getting better! And the marvellous NHS machine that had provided everything it could the second it was needed, was now returning to something more normal.
That was the day she woke up. 6 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. We got to see our children, determinedly ignore the mound of washing and everyday things that desperately needed doing, and breathe again.
We were back in Cardiff on the Monday. Blood tests showed Digoxin levels had fallen to “safe” levels (although zero is the normal level). The ECG showed she was mostly in type 1 heart block, with regular periods of type 2 (worse) and occasional periods of type 3 (worst). But she would be an outpatient from here on in.
Not that you’d have known there was anything wrong from the outside. 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.
In November we got the all clear. Blood levels were finally back to zero, heart was so nearly back to normal. It took a while to sink in. She was not only ok, there looked to be no long term damage. She was one lucky toddler.
It’s traditional to find something deep and meaningful at times like this. 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 organic, so I couldn’t poison them (not that I want to), and there’s just no way I could dig them all up. I would clear the garden. But I couldn’t clear the world. I could watch her. Always 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 learned 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 person 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 did learn that nurses REALLY like pens. Buy the nice ones. Buy lots of colours. I learned 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.
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 what they live. They are so incredible for doing what they do I cannot find the words. Sometimes I think it’s easier to pretend that they are more saintly, they are “better”, 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 wouldn’t be cut the way they have been.
But the reason I’ve shared 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 was ill. 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). I couldn’t have seen 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 (like in your garden). 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. Very rare indeed.