When a common cold turns life-threatening

SmileNo one is born a parent. But when we have our first child, we somehow figure out how to clothe and feed him. We love him, tickle him and sing him lullabies. And then he gets sick for the first time.

As we lie on the floor next to the crib while that gorgeous baby of ours cries, how do we know whether to hold his hand and rub his back or get up and call an ambulance?

Erin and Dan Boudreau can tell you. They’ve been there. The rare scenario that makes for nightmares happened to them.

First just a cold, then pneumonia

In March 2013, when the Boudreau’s son Walker was 10.5 months old, he came down with a cold. He had a cough but no fever and was his usual smiley self, so the Boudreaus did nothing.

Then Walker’s cough intensified, so the Boudreaus took him to their local pediatrician. He still had no fever and was energetic – in fact he even crawled for the first time that day in the doctor’s office. The pediatrician took an x-ray and discovered a spot of pneumonia on his left lung. The Boudreaus left with antibiotics and instructions to keep Walker home to rest. “They told us to call back if he got a fever or if things got worse,” remembers Erin.

The next day, Walker was grouchy and lethargic. That night, he had a coughing fit that felt like it qualified as things getting worse. “I had this feeling in my stomach that something wasn’t right,” remembers Erin. “I never in a million years would have believed in a mother’s instinct before, but that’s what it was. It was a mother’s instinct.”

Erin and Dan made the decision that may have saved their son’s life. They took Walker to their local emergency room in New Hampshire.

The hospital had trouble accessing the x-ray from the day before, so they quickly took a new one and found that Walker’s left lung had collapsed. “Within 5 minutes of arriving, we were told that Walker should be transferred to Boston Children’s Hospital where they had the top pulmonology department in the world. I am thankful every day that they knew enough to step aside when they were out of their league.”

Erin rode in the ambulance with Walker while Dan and Erin’s parents followed behind. By the time they got to Boston Children’s two hours later, Walker was upset, tired and struggling to breath.

From pneumonia to life support at Boston Children’s

Pulmonologists first performed a bronchoscopy on Walker to see if he had aspirated something. He hadn’t. Then they placed a central line into his neck for nutrients and medications, and put him on a ventilator. The next morning, things hadn’t improved. His right lung started to show signs of collapse. Over the next few days, doctors watched and waited for improvement.

“Those days that he was on life support were so scary. There were moments when he was so borderline that we wondered if we were going to lose him,” says Erin. “But we had the doctors and nurses who always kept us informed and included us in all of the decisions. And we had our families and each other. Dan is a fantastic father and husband and was a great support system.”

With Walker sedated and immobilized, Erin anxiously waited and Dan kept busy memorizing medical terms and researching. Then the nurses – Kim LeBlanc and Joeann Guerrero – suggested something else to pass the time. They reminded the Boudreaus that Walker could hear voices, so Erin and Dan started taking turns reading book after book from the hospital’s library.

When Dan played the theme song from Walker’s favorite PBS show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Walker immediately started moving his head back and forth to the music. Worried that he would pull his breathing tube out, nurses had to ask Dan to stop. “I will never forget Kim and Joeann,” says Erin. “They were phenomenal. Joeann told us that she would take care of Walker as if he were her only child. What a relief that was.”

After 12 days at the hospital, Walker goes home

Slowly, the antibiotics and other medications kicked in and Walker started to improve. After 11 days in the Intensive Care Unit, he was moved to a regular floor, and a day later, he went home.

Two years later, Walker remains healthy. He is taking on preschool with the smile and enthusiasm he is known for.

The Boudreaus are excited for Walker to be more independent, but they will never forget that time two years ago when he couldn’t even breathe on his own.

“That experience is imprinted in my memory for life,” says Erin. “I’m so thankful that we trusted our gut because if we hadn’t, we could have had a very different story to tell. A cold could have killed my child. As a parent, people will tell you you’re overreacting. You always double back and second-guess things. I’m never second-guessing my instincts again. ”

“Having a child in the hospital is never easy,” says Walker’s nurse Kim LeBlanc. “The love and support this family had for their son was remarkable.”

Learn more about pneumonia in children.