I had a mostly-healthy childhood, except for the summer I turned six. That’s when I fell off the basement steps and hit my head, and a short time later I was wrongly diagnosed with asthma.
My family lived in a ranch house that had a largely unfinished basement. The top of the steps faced the back door of the house: to reach the basement, one took four steps down facing west, stopped at a landing and turned, and took eight steps down facing north. The first four steps were enclosed by walls, but the other eight steps had only a handrail, with open space on either side. That is why, when I fell, I did not fall down the stairs. I fell off the stairs, landing head-first on the cement floor.
I do not remember the fall, so I don’t know what I was doing that caused me to fall off the steps. My mother was in the basement and heard me cry when I hit the floor. She feared a concussion and raced me to the hospital after leaving a note for my father. My sister rode to the hospital with us, and she remembers talking with me, making sure I stayed awake, because of a common misperception at that time that a person with a concussion would slip into a coma if he or she fell asleep.
I remember being in the hospital. I was in a ward for children, one with several crib-like beds. I must have been there several days, because I remember that my bed had become a rat’s nest including a few toys from home, hand-made get-well cards from my sister, and coins from well-wishers who I no longer remember. Across the room was a girl named Rosie. One day I scrawled a message to her and tried to toss it to her, but it fell short. She cried, but I remained calm. I pressed the call button and asked the nurse to pick up the message and hand it to Rosie. I remember her name because I named a toy for her, a pale blue rabbit with a rose atop its head.
I was home and convalescing when I had my next medical episode. I was playing with a toy called Rig-a-jig. (see image below) The plastic shapes could be connected in a number of ways, either by putting them sideways tab to tab, or by connecting two tabs with red plastic tubes, the shortest of which was about half an inch long. An almost endless list of projects could be produced by attaching the pieces together. But sometimes the plastic pieces got stuck to one another and were hard to separate. That was the case that day—one of the short plastic tubes was stuck on the tab of one of the colored shapes. Being six, I had the bad judgment to try to loosen the tube with my teeth. I succeeded, but the tube went down my throat. Once again, my mother rushed me to the hospital, where I was X-rayed. The plastic tube did not appear on the X-ray, so the doctor decided that it had gone into my stomach and would pass through my digestive tract without causing any harm.
No one connected that event with the fact that I almost immediately developed symptoms of asthma—the characteristic wheezing sound of asthma when I breathed, which worsened when I exerted myself and had to breathe more deeply. I was not allowed to play outdoors—even my first-grade recess times were spent in the classroom. I came home from school as quickly as possible, which meant that I was always wheezing strongly when I came in the front door. Tests were scheduled to determine which allergens were responsible for my symptoms. Only a couple days before the scheduled tests, I coughed out the plastic tube, and my symptoms disappeared.
When I brought the phlegm-coated tube to my mother, she at first accused me of swallowing a second tube. When I insisted that I was not holding a second tube, but that it was the first one that had disappeared down my throat earlier, and when she noticed that I was no longer wheezing, she called the doctor and canceled the tests. He asked if he could have the tube to show his colleagues. Evidently, I had inhaled the tube and it had lodged in a bronchus, from where it produced the noises that sounded like asthma when I breathed.
Children sometimes do foolish or careless things that cause them harm. I’ve been to the emergency room with my own children more than once. But none of them has ever inhaled a piece of a toy, I am glad to say. Repeating their father’s mistake would be doubly foolish. J.