I had to be honest. "Possibly not", was the best answer I could come up with.
How do they do it? How do kids always know to pick that one moment? The split second sometimes when the adult's gaze is averted, their attention diverted, is the exact moment that their child decides to do something dangerous.
A year and a half is a long time in the life of a toddler. Long enough to fill them with a sense of adventure, a love of excitement, a curious wonder, and no fear of danger whatsoever. Milly was a typical 18-month-old girl, waddling and toddling from one new find to the next. This time, the next find happened to be a marble. Well, a bag of marbles, but one marble in particular was to be the cause of all the excitement over the next few minutes.
The bedtime routine was more or less adhered to. Milly and her big brother Dan, had dinner at six, bath time at half past, story at seven, lights out at quarter past. Their parents split their nights, taking it in turns to make sure that both of them read to each of their elder children on different nights. Milly and Dan's baby sister, only two months old, didn't yet believe in timekeeping and routines, and during this one bedtime decided to scream, just after bath time. Milly was left in pyjamas and ready for bed, whilst mum went to tend to her sister. Her dad was just sorting Dan out upstairs. It was a perfect time for Milly to go discovering her big brother's collection of marbles.
As mum was dealing with baby and dad was settling Dan, Milly started to cough. A strange cough, one like Milly's mum and her intuition had never heard before. She rushed back in, baby in arms, and saw Milly struggling to breath.
"Tony! Tony, get in here now!"
Dad ran downstairs, saw what was happening, picked Milly up and looked in her mouth, hooked a finger in to see what he could find, and then tipped her upside down to see if he could dislodge whatever it was.
Mum was on the phone to the Ambulance Service.
Milly continued to struggle for breath.
Parents were frantic, Dan was scared to the point of tears, when all of a sudden, after a lifetime of being held upside down and patted harshly on her back, Milly coughed once more, screamed, and cried.
At that point, we walked in. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when called to a choking, the call will downgrade whilst we're on the way. What will start as a call to a non-breathing patient will often, through the wonders of the human body and its capacity to fix itself, turn into a post-choking, now breathing normally call. This time, it didn't happen, and until the second we walked into the house, we were on the way to a child still choking. Five minutes from the start of the call until the second we clambered over the building site of a driveway and into the house.
As I stepped across the threshold, I heard her scream, and breathed a sigh of relief. You can't choke and scream at the same time. It's physically impossible, so I knew Milly was no longer choking. The look in Milly's parents' eyes told the story. There was a mix of fear and panic, along with tears of relief welling up, threatening to burst their banks.
"She must have picked up a marble when we weren't looking. That's all I can guess, because they weren't all over the floor before".
I left Milly in dad's hands whilst I listened to her lungs, and checked that her breathing was completely back to normal.
Dad started to tell me what he did. "I just picked her up and stuck my finger in her mouth to see if I could find anything, but there was nothing there!"
Alarm bells rang. "I don't mean to tell you off, and I certainly don't want to scare you, but please don't do that again. If you blindly put your finger in, you could push whatever is there in the wrong direction, which could be the worst thing to do". He looked shocked.
"And then I tipped her upside down, and patted her on the back, and then you came in and saw what happened." Now, that's a better idea.
"Can I ask you a question?" said mum. Questions always welcomed, I just hoped I had the answer.
"If she'd have kept choking, and you'd have been another couple of minutes, would you have been here in time?"
I had to be honest. "Possibly not", was the best answer I could come up with. "But that's where you come in. That's why control give you the instructions, to give us the extra time to get here. You need to be able to help us to help you".
On the way to hospital, we talked about how kids are there to scare us as parents, how, even with all my training as a paramedic, I still hate it when it's one of my kids that's unwell or injured, and how MrsInsomniac has the luxury of panicking whilst I deal with whatever crisis may arise. Except, obviously, when I'm not there.
"So what can I do?" Milly's mum asked.
"Well, a first aid course would be a great start". It's something I strongly believe every parent should be offered and something I recommend regularly to all parents I meet in the line of duty.
It's true. First aid courses can't prepare you for every eventuality, but they can give you the confidence to know that what you're doing is definitely going to help, at least until the ambulance arrives. Whether it be CPR, how to deal with burns, with injuries, or, just like in this case, with a choking baby. Those few minutes of immediate care can make all the difference. They could change the outcome, they could improve survival chances, and they could even change my answer to Milly's mum's question, and in fact, the question itself.
Instead of saying "probably not" to the question she asked, she could ask a different one, a question with a very different answer.
"Could I be the one to make the difference?"
With just a little bit of training, even of the very basic kind, very probably.