Can you help my mum please?
There was really only two options for this callout. ‘Child caller,’ the dispatcher had said. It was either a hoax or someone in a really bad way. Normally the hoax callers like to talk it up a bit with a ‘house on fire’ or ‘really bad car crash’. This one was too subtle for that.
‘Can you come and help my mum please? I think my sister is sick,’ was all the caller had said.
The house had a neglected look as we pulled up. The front yard was overgrown, a child’s bicycle lay on its side in the driveway with no sign of a car. The door was open and, despite calling loudly and knocking, there was no reply. Okay, not a good sign. The house was seriously untidy even for what we were used to. The lounge room we stood in was littered with children’s clothes and toys so much so, it wasn’t easily recognisable if there was carpet or boards on the floor. A small young girl sat on a pillow watching cartoons with the volume just a little too loud. Her dress had a giant red stain down the front, a legacy of some recent meal. She looked at us but had little further interest.
We continued in, still calling out to betray our presence. The kitchen was no better than the lounge with a multitude of saucepans on the stovetop and a stack of dishes on the kitchen sink. There were more plates on a table and a bowl of what had likely been spaghetti on a smaller plastic children’s table. One burner on the stove was alight and a pot of something that looked a lot like Bolognese sauce was simmering on it. It was nearly dry so we turned it off.
A child appeared in an open doorway. A boy, perhaps five or six years of age, stood facing us. For some reason his demeanour had an unnatural earnestness for a child that age. Dressed in a school uniform, his hair was tousled and unwashed as if he had just stepped from the set of a Charles Dickens story.
He didn’t ask who we were. I surmised he was the ‘child caller’ and was well expecting us.
“My mum is in here,” he said and pointed into a bedroom. He seemed calm as if he was used to this sort of thing. “She didn’t ask me to call you but I thought I had to. I told her I was going to.” He wasn’t making excuses, just explaining.
We followed his pointing finger and found his mother sitting on her bed. Unlike the young boy, her face had far more emotion, none of it good. She cradled a tiny form in her arms and was gently rubbing a cloth on its forehead. My heart sank, never ready for this. Crossing the room I introduced myself and gently asked if I could have a look at her child.
“She is hot and I can’t cool her down,” the mother said. “She has a cough too.” Her speech was slow, unnaturally so. She had to concentrate to speak and I had to concentrate to understand. Even then the words were difficult. There was an unnatural stiffness in her arms. All of these betrayed mum had some form of intellectual disability.
“Can I hold her for you and help her?” Dutifully she passed the child over. We asked her could we unwrap the little girl. As I did the shallow rapid panting within was evident. My fears of a child departed were unfounded and the surging anguish evaporated, only to be replaced by the clearness of a very unwell child. We asked her could we take her temperature and listen to her breathing. Rattly chest, lethargic, fever, all not good.
The mother explained, slowly, she had been making sure the little girl had been drinking fluid and had something to eat. The girl was perhaps one year old and still wore a nappy. Mum assured us the nappy was clean on. Her anxious eyes moved back and forth between her daughter and us seeking some answer to her dilemma.
“Can we take her to hospital for you to see a doctor?” we asked. A question but really a direction. Somehow despite not knowing how to deal with the crisis, it was equally clear this mum was doing her best to care for her children. The two observations did not seem incongruous at all. This was a great mum if you chose your measuring stick carefully and we wanted to help her not take over. She agreed that would be good. Could she come too? Of course. Is there time to pack some nappies and a bottle for her little girl? Of course. My partner helped her. Could her other children come as well?
“Is there anyone who can come and stay with them or somewhere they can go?” The picture of her entertaining two young children in hospital for hours on end didn’t sit easily.
There was no-one to come and help, her only friend the ‘department’ lady who visited during the week. The children’s father’s, plural, had not stayed with her long. Long enough I rued. She suggested packing some food for the children.
“Mum you know we already had dinner,” the young boy interjected. He was clearly used to being an adult in the house long before his time. Mum stayed focussed on them nonetheless. Had they had their fruit juice? Yes mum. Get a jumper in case you get cold. Yes mum.
We reassured her the hospital could provide something if they needed. A little anxiety was rising knowing the child I held was quite unwell. She gathered a few books and toys from around the house. Her son held the house keys and held his sister’s hand as we moved to the front door.
“Come on mum, we have to go,” the young boy said. Mum looked around her house, unsure. Gently I took her arm and held the baby between us. The boy was right, we needed to go.
“You can help me carry your daughter out to the ambulance.” She nodded and placed her other arm under the girl’s head. The mum, the young man, his sister in tow, poorly infant and a couple of ambos who could think of no place they’d rather have been right at that moment.
Jeff Kenneally www.prehemt.com