My Worst Nightmare: The Common Cold

I’m currently sitting on my couch stress eating Fritos dipped in sour cream. We have no decent candy, so I’m considering digging into the Harry and David cherry preserves we were gifted for Christmas with a spoon. Why, you ask? Because Russell has a cold. Colds are my worst nightmare. It didn’t used to be this way. I didn’t used to fear the common cold like I do now. But my experience as a parent of a child with congenital heart disease has changed all of that.

Russell, miraculously, didn’t get his first cold until he was a little over a year old. It was Christmas eve, and my family was over for our annual celebration. Russell had had the usual cold symptoms earlier in the day, but as the evening went on, his breathing became faster and more labored. My mom was the first one to really notice. And as we continued to monitor him, it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to support him the way he needed at home.

On the way to the ER that night, I kept my hand on his chest, monitoring his breathing and reassuring myself that he was still with us. I had consulted with the nurse over the advice line from home. She informed the ER that we were coming and they whisked us back as soon as we got there. After about an hour with no response to breathing treatments and oxygen, they let us know that he needed extra support through intubation. We were escorted out of the PICU room as they inserted the breathing tube, and came back to my recurring nightmare: Russell depending on tubes and wires to survive.


When the cultures came back, it wasn’t some wild and scary bug, it was the rhinovirus. The common cold. The common cold put our active one-year-old on a ventilator for an agonizing week. We celebrated New Years’s Eve that year by watching the Portland fireworks from his hospital window as his ventilator worked steadily behind us. Once he was extubated, he suffered through narcotics withdrawal with all of the scary symptoms you read about, which kept him hospitalized for a second week. It was a nightmare I never wanted to relive.

But, unfortunately, this wasn’t just a one time occurrence. Russell has been hospitalized more times than I can recall off the top of my head. Mostly for boring old colds or symptoms connected to them. The kinds of sickness that most kids sail through. The kinds of colds that parents roll their eyes at as they shove their kid through the school doors, insisting that they’re not sick enough to stay home. If only they knew the panic they were causing. That my blood runs cold when I hear someone coughing anywhere near him in public.

Russ fighting the rhinovirus.

So, here we are again, 6 years after that first scary cold. Low grade fever, flushed cheeks, fatigue. All the things that make my stomach knot and rise into my throat. I wonder how far this illness will go. Will we end up in the ER again, or maybe just a check in with his regular pediatrician? Will this be a week of fever and coughing, or will it last for a month again, with symptoms fading and reappearing in a never ending spiral of illness? Either way, we won’t be sleeping. He often wakes up in a panic while sick, and it’s just easier to keep him in bed with me, kicking Adam out to the couch.

Sometimes my anxiety is for naught. The symptoms fade, he bounces back, and all is well again. But the ruts in my brain formed from PTSD are deep. When the river of fear runs, it takes the easiest course, through those well worn ruts, flooding my veins with the familiar ice water of fear in every circumstance that even hints of past trauma.

I wish I could say that I’ve learned to handle these common stressors with say, meditation, deep breathing and staying present in the here and now. But, I can’t. I’m still bad at coping initially as I picture how far each illness could go. This afternoon when I got the call that Russell didn’t feel well at the end of the school day, I immediately felt the urge to eat something to calm my nerves. And I’m okay with that for now. It’s serving a purpose while I figure out better ways to cope with the stress of the common cold.

So for now, I’ll be eating boujee cherry jam out of the jar in between checking Russell’s temperature and putting the advice nurse on speed dial if you need me.

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