This post was going to be about food. But that can wait. Because we had a valuable experience this week, and I want to write about that instead. We spent much of Thursday night in hospital with Gabriel. It was a lung infection. The doctors and nurses did their jobs. And did them very well. I’m just not sure we did ours.
It started with a cold and a cough. Katie noticed a rattle in Gabriel’s chest, so we took him to the GP, which is just up the road. That was Wednesday. The GP diagnosed a chest infection and prescribed antibiotics. The following day, Gabriel’s breathing was laboured. He seemed worse. So we took him back to the GP. A couple of hours later we were in the hospital. Heartbeat, oxygen levels and breathing were monitored. Bronchiolitis was diagnosed. A steroid inhaler was administered. At midnight we were finally allowed to go home.
Gabriel is now on the mend. His little body has risen to the challenge and is in the process of fighting the infection. In actual fact, it would have done this without any of the diagnosing, monitoring or prescribing. But having such dedicated medical attention was reassuring. It gave us the confidence that nothing really bad was going to happen. The whole thing was frightening. Listening to babies struggle for breath in their sleep is disconcerting. You lose perspective. The medical process brings with it peace of mind and a sense that everything will be alright. Gabriel is now coming through it. Everything is alright. Or is it?
We needed the doctors. The GP and the specialists in the hospital. We needed their expertise in deciphering what was wrong with Gabriel. We needed to know whether or not he was in any real danger, and if he was, that they could do something about it. This they delivered on. Expertly. None of this actually helped Gabriel directly. But it helped us, psychologically. And, if I’m honest, we needed that. The things that were supposed to help Gabriel directly were the drugs. They, however, did not deliver. The antibiotics were prescribed to kill the infection. The steroids to combat the inflammation caused by the infection. The infection, though, turned out to be viral. We were told that at the hospital. The day after commencing the antibiotic (bacteria-fighting!) treatment. So the antibiotics were completely unnecessary. The steroids gave some short-term relief to Gabriel’s pipes, but were largely ineffective. OK, so what’s the problem? He had a small quantity of drugs. It was worth a try, right? It brought some reassurance, didn’t it? Unfortunately, drugs aren’t like the diagnostics and the monitoring. They bring downsides. Which can be significant, but are usually ignored.
Steroids are a synthetic version of cortisol (our chief stress hormone), and are designed to suppress the immune system and reduce inflammation. They can be life-saving in some cases, but they are generally used to address the inflammatory symptoms of less severe illnesses. Long term use can lead to dangerous side effects, mainly associated with a compromised immune response. Very short term use, like with Gabriel, is probably not too much of a problem. But I can’t help feeling that even the slightest bit of immune suppression cannot have been helpful when his body was trying to shore up its defences against a virus.
Antibiotics are a different story. Even acute, short term treatments are way more damaging than we realise. Especially to young children. Gabriel was prescribed Amoxicillin, a broad-spectrum antibiotic. This means that it kills a wide range of bacteria. It’s indiscriminate. As well as killing the target infection (if that infection is bacterial, of course!), it kills pretty much every other bacterium in the body, which mainly resides in the gut (the gut microbiota). This is a problem because our gut microbiota is very important. It influences immune function (70% of our immune system is located in the gut), metabolism, nutrition, detoxification, inflammation and body weight. Research shows that even a single course of antibiotics can have a devastating effect on the gut microbiota, which takes years to resolve. Antibiotic use has also been linked to inflammatory bowel disease in children (an illness to which my children are likely predisposed).
So, if we are aware of the risks, why did we agree to drugs so quickly? We initially pushed back on the antibiotics. The GP seemed genuinely reluctant to prescribe but insisted they were necessary to halt the progress of the infection. We were conflicted. But our concern for Gabriel’s immediate health won out over our awareness of the longer term consequences. The initial diagnosis turned out to be wrong. And the antibiotics were, in the end, completely unnecessary. We weren’t to know this. Apparently it’s a tricky diagnosis – in the early stages it’s hard to tell if the culprit is a bacteria or a virus. So antibiotics may have been necessary. But why did we give them so soon? We were then told he needed steroids to calm the inflammation in his lungs. This was supposed to improve his breathing. By this point we agreed quite readily. Even though the doctor didn’t seem convinced it would work.
The truth is we lost sight of Gabriel’s amazing ability to fight for himself. We momentarily ceded control to pharmaceuticals. Because we were scared. We wanted the reassurance of medical supervision and too readily accepted the other things that come with it. We didn’t advocate for Gabriel’s health as well as we perhaps should have. His sensitive, developing gut and immune system have been dealt an unnecessary blow. An impact we now need to address.
Gabriel only had two days of antibiotics. Less than 30% of the course. But there will still be a reasonable amount of damage to his gut and immune system. On top of the ordeal from the infection and the additional knock from the steroids. Luckily Gabriel’s diet is already well suited to gut and immune healing. His main source of calories is still breast milk, which, of course, is nutrient-perfect for infants. On top of this he has a variety of vegetables and fruits, with naturally-raised meat and wild fish (in puree and solid food form). We will place more emphasis on organ meats and bone broth over the next few months for their gut-healing properties, and supplement with a good probiotic (we like OptiBac) to replenish his gut bacteria. He’ll be back firing on all cylinders before long.
Please don’t misunderstand me, this is not an exercise in self-loathing and flagellation. I’m not saying we did something really wrong. I won’t live in regret. But I am saying we can do better next time. We can learn a lesson from this. And that lesson is: Don’t be railroaded by fear. Don’t rush into interventions that relieve our anxiety but may not best serve our child. Remain present and aware and make an informed decision. Next time, we will seek medical advice quickly (as we did this time), but then aim to adopt a “watch and wait” strategy. To make sure the diagnosis is correct. And to give the body a chance to stand up for itself, before sending in the mercenary drug reinforcements known for their friendly-fire risk. I can guarantee next time won’t be perfect. We’ll do what feels right at that time. But hopefully we will have the presence of mind to remain objective, to question and challenge, and to do the best we can for our child’s health.
Own your health.