All Ears

This weekend, we confronted an old and familiar enemy–the ear infection.


I’ve written before about how Sam dealt with monthly ear infections from roughly the time he started attending daycare until we got ear tubes put in when he was about eighteen months old. He inherited this physical annoyance from Kyle, who had so many ear infections when he was a kid that his ears are permanently scarred and ringing. One time when he was visiting me, he suspected that he had an ear infection, and so we went to the ER. The doctor looked in his left ear and remarked, “Wow, yeah, you’ve got some really bad scarring in here,” to which Kyle replied, “I know, but I came in to see you about the other ear.”

After Sam started daycare, we slipped into a frankly obnoxious routine: Sam got a cold that turned into an ear infection. He’d spend a good week recovering from the cold and ear infection, ten days on antibiotics, and then have about a week of decent health, only to get another cold and ear infection immediately thereafter. We went through so many bottles of the pink stuff that you’d think we’d invested in it. Kyle and I lost so many days of work because Sam couldn’t go to daycare when he had an ear infection, not until he’d been on antibiotics for twenty-four hours.

The worst ones sneaked up on us; they happened when the fluid built up so much in Sam’s middle ear that he got carsick. And at his age back then, carsickness couldn’t be avoided by a small voice from the backseat whimpering, “Mommy, my tummy feels sick.” We’d just hear him start coughing, and before anyone could grab anything to catch it in, he’d puke all over himself and the backseat. And then we’d have to turn around and drive home with that delightful smell permeating everything.


At Sam’s eighteen month appointment, his pediatrician brought up the idea of ear tubes to us. “It’s a really quick procedure,” she said. “He’ll be in and out in time to have a perfectly normal day, though you’ll want to keep him home so that he can rest and heal.”

After a few more doctor visits, Kyle and I found ourselves in a surgical center with a groggy baby. The surgical center was, for some reason, located in a pretty seedy neighborhood. It was under construction, and large pieces of plywood covered the windows, spray painted to direct us to the front door around the corner. In broad daylight, this would have been discomfiting, but we arrived at the center before sunrise on a mild December day, and that just made the whole thing worse.

A handful of families were already there, all of them with carriers holding sleepy babies. The nurse who’d scheduled the surgery explained that they liked to do procedures in descending order by age, and so we knew that the two babies called in ahead of us must have been really, really young.

Sam was game for the whole thing, at least at first. He toddled around the waiting room in flannel pajamas, tried to go through the doors to the recovery area, tried to sneak into the nurse’s office. Gradually, however, he began to remember that he was hungry; after all, you’re not supposed to eat before surgery. We’d been in the waiting room for about an hour when he started to whimper; by the time they called us in at two-plus hours after we’d arrived, he was howling.

And he didn’t stop. I couldn’t blame him, though; surgery is a weird thing when you’re an adult, and I imagine it must be even weirder when you’re a baby. He begged the nurse to take the blood pressure cuff off him (inasmuch as an eighteen-month-old can beg: “Off please?” he asked her with fat tears rolling down his cheeks). He said “no” a lot. He didn’t listen at all when I pointed out that the six-year-old sitting across from us was taking this whole experience in stride. And eventually, he clung to me as we made the trip down the hall and to the surgical suite where he’d get the tubes put in.

He didn’t like lying down on the table, but the nurses distracted him with some spinny, glowy toys that made a pleasant whirring sound. That said, my son is not one who will be distracted for very long if something Strange is happening, and sure enough, when the anesthetist came to knock him out, he started howling again. This was particularly difficult to watch, at the anesthetist was approximately 500 years old with palsied hands and the bedside manner of a midwinter bear. He held a mask over Sam’s face with one shaking hand and, with the other, pressed Sam’s jaw shut. Sam screamed for a beat and then was sound asleep, a furious expression still twisting his features.

A nurse took me out to the waiting room, rubbing my back as she did (nurses are awesome). “It’s always harder for the moms and dads than it is for the babies,” she promised. “The surgeon will be out to get you in a couple of minutes.”

I sat down next to Kyle, both of us bleary-eyed and wishing that we were the ones getting a dose of sweet, sweet knock-out juice. Not fifteen minutes later, the surgeon came to get us, as promised. “He’s in recovery. The procedure went really well, and the tubes should last him about six months to a year.”

We followed a nurse to the recovery room where we found Sam very much awake and twice as angry as I’d last seen him. He didn’t stop howling until Kyle administered a large bottle of apple juice; Sam isn’t usually a juice kid, but he was so hungry that day that he’d probably have chugged a bottle of black coffee if we’d offered it (author’s note: black coffee is nasty y’all). And he didn’t really calm down until we gave him donut holes at home (because if your kid has surgery, they have a right to enjoy sweet treats afterwards). He then slept for five hours and returned to normal so quickly that it almost defied belief.

And then, no more ear infections! Oh, it was a gift. Granted, Sam still got sick sometimes, but far less frequently than he had before and with far less severity. The tubes functioned beautifully, and they stayed in for another year and a half, all of that time blissfully infection-free. It’s been wonderful, it truly has.


But then Saturday happened.

Sam and I have both been dealing with a cold all the last week, and it’s a doozy. It started for both of us with a nasty migraine, and that was followed by horrendous head and chest congestion. For me, it’s mostly involved a lot of wishing that I had less to do this week so I could afford to take a sick day and sleep. For Sam, however, it’s involved a lot more physical bleh.

He’s had a headache pretty much all week, and though Tylenol keeps it at bay, it doesn’t make it go away entirely. He was in this state Saturday, after his nap; Kyle brought him downstairs, and he was whining and whimpering and cuddling, clearly not feeling well. I went to lie down for a little while myself, also feeling gross, and I’d only been up stairs about half an hour when I heard Sam start screaming. He’s three, so this isn’t entirely abnormal, but what was abnormal was Kyle coming upstairs and informing me that Sam was complaining of ear pain.


We took him to the urgent care clinic, and long story short, it looks like he’s managed to perforate his eardrum. This isn’t the end of the world; Kyle’s had it happen to him more often than he can count. We guess that the tube in the infected ear fell out but that the hole didn’t have enough time to heal before an infection set in, leaving it vulnerable.

The good news is that Sam isn’t in any pain. It hurts like a BEAST when you rupture or perforate your eardrum… at least for a couple of minutes. Once the eardrum is actually perforated, the pressure alleviates and the pain goes away. Sam was back to his usual hyperactive silly self by the time I’d thrown jeans on and gotten down to the car on Saturday; with the help of the pink stuff and ear drops, he’s doing just fine.

As for me, I’m just hoping we can get a new tube put in before we return to the old pattern.

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