Protect The Airway

I woke up in the middle of the night convinced I was dying.

I couldn't breathe. Not regularly. Not easily. I was gasping for air and it felt like there was a giant vice grip around my neck, choking me. I couldn't swallow because I had apparently swallowed a dozen large marbles and they were just sitting in my throat.

It's weird the thoughts you'll have as you are busy convincing yourself death is near.

All I could think, as I struggled to draw breath was, "Oh my God, I'm a bloody liar." For years, since my son died suddenly and unexplainably in the middle of the night, I have told anyone and myself I wasn't afraid of dying because I'd already lived through hell. 

Turns out, when it's 3:35 am and I can't breathe, I'm damn scared of dying.

A memory broke loose, like air escaping an old rubber tire.

"Protect the airway."


It had been ten days since the birth of my newest son, Skjel, and only two since a team of medical professionals had announced casually to me, the way one would declare the sky grey or the wind to be chilly, that my baby would never move the muscles in his face, not to smile, not to cry, not to anything. 

A doctor stood in front of me explaining the latest surgical procedure my infant child needed to endure. I was having a hard time understanding the mechanics of what he was saying. Chalk it up to shock, chalk it up to ignorance, but my brain could not process the words coming out of the man's mouth.

"You want to do what? With a BUTTON?" I asked him to re-explain, again, for what seems the umpteenth time.

"We need to stitch his tongue to his bottom lip, and we'll stabilize it using a couple of buttons. Imagine a hamburger. The buttons are the bun holding the patty in place."

It was crude and inelegant but it painted a picture I understood.

"But why?" I asked, still horrified by the visual.

"To protect his airway.

Skjel, buttoned for two weeks, with a successful tongue-lip adhesion.


I crawled out of bed, the air whistling in and out of my chest and tried gargling warm salt water as I boiled water for tea. Clutching my mug, I sat down and opened my laptop, squinting at the brightness of the screen as I googled 'how to prevent your throat swelling close'. 

Honey and lemon. 

It didn't help.

I told myself I was being ridiculous as I crawled back to bed with my laptop in my hands. My anxiety was raging out of control. 'Get a grip. Take control of the situation,' I told myself.

I coughed suddenly, causing the marbles lodged in my airway to shift and I suddenly couldn't breathe at all.

In bold red letters at the bottom of the screen it flashed:

"Always protect your airway."


All that stood between my son finally being discharged from the hospital and coming home, almost a half a year after he was born was a plastic dummy.

Twice a week, for weeks, my husband and I had to play with that dummy. 

I hated that dummy.

We practiced our life saving skills on that dummy, until they were rote. Hours were spent in a tiny room, learning all the various ways we could save our son's life when we would bring him home, until we were finally deemed competent enough to handle any medical emergency our son may encounter.

I saved that dummy more times than I could count. I protected that dummy's airway like my son's life would one day depend on it, not realizing four years later, it would.

"Protect his airway," my husband and I repeated like a prayer for protection, all the years my son was alive.


With every breath increasingly harder to draw, I called my husband. My anxiety was making the situation worse and Bruce is my voice of reason. He has always been able to restore order to the chaos and I needed this as badly at the moment as I needed air.

He listened to me struggle to breathe and to talk and within moments he told me to hang up and call our province's health line. Sometimes the only thing that works with my anxiety is a simple set of directions. So I did what I was told.

As I waited for a nurse to answer my call, an electronic voice reminded me that if this was a medical emergency to hang up the phone and dial 911. I ignored it until the nurse finally answered.

With great effort, I explained my situation to this anonymous woman, and waited for her to have some magic remedy to make my middle of the night emergency go away. Instead, she mimicked the digitized voice and quite urgently told me hang up and call 911.

I told her I was rural and I couldn't use medical resources that way. It would take them away from someone who actually needed them.

She stopped me mid-sentence and explained I was that someone who needed those services.

"Your airway is becoming obstructed. You have to protect your airway. Or you'll be dead."


I didn't call for an ambulance.

My husband instead called his mother, a retired nurse.

She whisked me to the hospital, where there was much rushing around, waving of arms and declarative statements made.

By the end of the day, I was home, exhausted, terribly ill, but the marbles in my throat smaller and more manageable, even if they do remind me of their existence every time I swallow.

I'm left with prescription medicine and the residue of memories trudged out from the dark corners of my memory, where I had hoped they would rot away into nothingness.

I wonder why my airway was saved and his wasn't. The arbitrariness of life hurts and haunts, an infection of spirit I know will never fully be cured. 

The demons that escaped in the middle of the night are refusing to be shuttered away and not even the bright light of dawn will scatter them.