That First Trip To A&E

18 Apr 2023


 There’s a certain feeling when stepping out of the house at half three in the morning. A stillness, like everything is cloaked in an extra layer of quiet. I have been awake many times at half three in the morning since my son was born but within the confines of a dark room, not in the chilly middle-of-the-night air. It reminds both my husband and I of leaving for family holidays as children. 

Unfortunately, we’re not leaving the house in the middle of the night to catch a flight or drive a long distance. We’re leaving the house after being sprayed with vomit, seeing ‘40.5’ flash up on our thermometer and a call with NHS 111.  

The inaugural trip to A&E. Weather-worn parents had warned us it would come but that didn’t make it any less unpleasant. We don’t actually know we’re going to A&E yet, at the moment we’re heading to an out-of-hours GP appointment which will result in a referral to paediatric A&E. I’m sat in the backseat, holding my son’s hand. He has immediately gone back to sleep with a slight huff, like this is all incredibly inconvenient for him. I am not panicking; I have a gut instinct that whatever is wrong with him is not one of the Big Scary Ones. I actually have this strange sensation that I’m going to look back on this almost fondly one day. Not him being ill or driving to hospital in the middle of the night on less than three hours sleep, but that feeling that he needs us, that feel of him cuddled into my chest, the sensation that – whilst very worrying – we as his parents can try and solve the problem.

Addenbrookes is an enormous hospital and trying to figure out where the hell you need to go amongst all the dark buildings in the middle of the night does feel a little like the start of a crime drama. We being the unlucky victims that don’t survive the opening credits of course. My son is awake, wrapped in a blanket and looking around in a bemused fashion. If he could form the words, I’m pretty sure he’d say: ‘what the hell is going on?’. As it happens the only words he currently can say are ‘oh dear’ which feels pretty apt. 

We find the clinic and sit in a jarringly-brightly-lit waiting area. We are the only ones there and I am forcibly reminded of the last time we were in this scenario, in the same hospital, only I was on my knees, making mooing noises and forty-five minutes away from delivering a baby, and my husband was frantically trying to find someone to let us into the maternity unit. Not as bad as that, I think. We are seen by the GP only twenty-five minutes after our appointment time – I was expecting longer – and we answer the questions we have already answered three times to various people over the phone. She gives him a thorough and kind assessment and decides that his raised heartrate and the way his belly sucks under his ribs as he breathes is enough to have him reviewed by the paediatric registrar. 

Paediatric A&E is right next to the usual A&E, only it’s a small, grey door and doesn’t have the shining red sign. It is also locked. So, we have to brave normal A&E which is busy but silent and is the first time I have the thought I would really like to be somewhere else now. A&E – at least from the perspective of the patients – must be one of the most depressing places in the country and I feet for the weary-looking woman in blue scrubs who heads towards us, automatically pulling out the red priority wrist band as she does so. She sends us back out to the security guard who can let us through the grey door, and he is the one who warns us it is unlikely they will let both parents in. 

I get the reasoning, I really do, but separating one parent from their sick child and leaving the other to cope alone is highly stressful for all involved. I am left alone with my sick toddler in one arm, overflowing bag in the other, trying to keep the blanket around him, trying to open doors and not drop his cup which he keeps desperately sucking water from. I am also trying to fish my phone out of my pocket so I can be ready to keep my husband updated as much as possible. I’m then asked to fill out a form which means contorting my spine in an unnatural position so as to bend down to the desk and not drop my child. Honestly, I’m amazed there aren’t more mothers in A&E with mum-back syndrome. Surely it must be a thing? 

We’re shown to a bay, and I gratefully drop the bag and sink into the chair. My son, who tries to go back to sleep every time we stop, drapes himself across my front again and closes his eyes. I wrap my arms around him and wish I could do the same. I lean my head back and wonder when the last time I wore a facemask was. Surreal to think it used to be all the time. I’d forgotten how easily they make your glasses steam up. 

We are reviewed by a nurse, then by a paediatric registrar. My son screams loud enough to wake up half of Cambridge whilst being gently fed ibuprofen but doesn’t bat an eyelid when something is put in his ear. Go figure. I try and take in all the information – ear infection, inflamed throat, upper respiratory tract infection – but I know I’m going to forget details later. I know he is okay though. That I remember. 

My husband and I text from different ends of the hospital with updates, dealing with practicalities (I’ve messaged my line manager, the shop is coming at 9, reckon your parents can go over and collect it) as well as the important details: 

There is a mini shopping centre here… Costa, M&S, The Body Shop… Reckon I could sneak you in a pain au chocolat? 

I snort and vow to go get a pastry the moment they tell us we can go. Which they do, surprisingly soon. And then I have antibiotics in my pocket and am looking at croissants in M&S as the sun rises over A&E. 

My son’s fever breaks in the car on the way home, his silky hair messy with sweat, and my husband declares that he is quite happy to spend the rest of his life pottering about coffee shops. Which is mostly what we do these days. Exhausted parents, clinging onto the first sip of that hot drink, wondering when we stopped talking about exciting trips and started repeatedly talking about a small person’s bodily fluids. 

But when you have a scare, when you spend the night in a hospital holding onto your sick child, you realise there is such privilege in the mundanity. In the hot drink that you can afford and the healthy child trying to eat other people’s crumbs off the floor. I’ll take that any day. 


  1. Thanks for sharing your experience, hope your soon feels better soon :)

    Nic | Nic's Adventures