“It’s what?” I gasp down the telephone. “What did you just say Ben’s got?”
“Yes, it’s salmonella, I’m afraid,” repeats the doctor calmly. “But please don’t worry – his own defences are coping very well. But there are a few things you have to do.” And he reels off a list of instructions.
Stunned, I put the phone down and try to process what the GP’s just told me. You can’t treat salmonella, it seems – things have to run their course. I must observe strict hygiene (which, in all fairness, I already thought I did) and, of course, inform the surgery immediately of any change.
The doctor wants to see Ben regularly until he’s clear of the infection – which, he warns, may take up to two months. In the meantime, I’m to send in a stool sample every fortnight, and until we obtain a negative result Ben must avoid contact with those for whom salmonella poisoning can prove dangerous – other babies, the elderly, the unwell and pregnant mothers. (Perplexingly, this list seems to exclude a large percentage of the human race, and certainly the majority of our relatives and friends.)
So, what – you may ask – had led up to this point? What, indeed, were the symptoms that had alerted me to my baby’s plight? That’s a good question. There weren’t as many as you might expect.
I’d taken 5-month-old Ben to the surgery because he’d started producing (and if you’re of a squeamish disposition, look away now) very peculiar-looking diarrhoea, mainly greenish mucus and blood. Other than that, he seemed perfectly well. He was his normal bouncy, cheerful self, with no temperature, loss of appetite, rash, grouchiness or other signs of general off-colourness.
The doctor had looked Ben over. “It’ll probably turn out to be gastro-enteritis,” he’d said, “so I’d keep the little chap off solids until we identify the strain.” (The Little Chap, I have to report, took a pretty dim view of this.) Then I was presented with a specimen phial containing a teeny-tiny spoon which I had to send to the Pathology Lab in the fullness of nappy. Which I’d duly done. And now the result was back, prompting the GP’s phone call.
Salmonella! My mind was racing. Wherever did Ben pick it up? This was – and still is – a mystery. We hadn’t really been anywhere over the vital period. The rest of the family were fine, and remained so. And I’m always careful with the whole sterilising/washing/cleaning routine. How dare some vile germ infiltrate our defences and attack my baby!
I’m relieved to find the strange-looking nappy contents clearing after a few days, and although Ben’s diarrhoea continues a little longer it’s at least a normal colour. However, as salmonella is potentially so serious, an environmental health officer contacts me to arrange a home visit.
The night before he comes, I have a dream. One hundred scientists in radiation suits are taking swabs from my work surfaces and from under the furniture, unearthing an embarrassingly comprehensive collection of dust-bunnies, sweet wrappers and pieces of Lego. “Aha!” they cry triumphantly, scribbling on their clipboards. “Caught you! You don’t vacuum under the sofa every day! You don’t clean the bath often enough! Look, you left a used teacup out overnight!” I start disinfecting everything, and wake up, rather unsettled, just as I’m trying to sterilise the cat in Milton. This is stupid, I decide. They’ll just have to take me as they find me.
Which they – or rather he – did. Mr Watson is very nice, and not in the least concerned about the sticky patch with fluff in it on the kitchen floor. All he wants is information to help identify where the infection might have come from. “I always hope for a cluster,” he explains, “several cases which can be traced back to the same product, shop or restaurant, for example. Although usually,” he continues, rather disappointedly, “the source is never located.”
He snaps his laptop case shut. “And don’t feel guilty,” he reassures me, “salmonella isn’t a slur on your housekeeping.” So that’s all right, then. And he gives me another specimen bottle.
Later that day, my husband expresses quite an interest in the process of taking samples – mainly, I suspect, because he isn’t the person taking them. “I’m sending the stool away tomorrow,” I explain, whereupon 3-year-old Michael suddenly crumples, unaccountably, into tears.
“No, Mummy!” he wails. I’m at a loss. Then realisation dawns. “Nobody’s taking away your special chair, darling!” I say, soothingly. “A stool specimen is … is … something else.”
There follows a meaningful pause. “What is it, then?” Michael asks, brightly. “It’s er … well … it’s … you tell him, Daddy.” Which Daddy duly does, because I’ve managed to think of something pressing I have to do. Right Now.
And so begins the business of Keeping Low Profile. I feel a fraud, skulking around with a baby who looks and feels absolutely fine, a baby who is slightly confused and wondering where all his friends have disappeared to and whatever can have happened to Toddler Group.
Our trips to the doctor become the (somewhat unpredictable) high point in our largely-empty diary. You know what it’s like – on one occasion, you’ll be in and out in ten minutes, yet the next time you’ll crawl home two hours later with one loudly-protesting infant and a splitting headache. And a specimen bottle.
As I gaze around the waiting room, I wonder whether the doctor’s realised that (barring myself and the receptionist) everyone in it is, by definition, a person with whom Ben should not really be consorting.
And then, at last, it’s our turn. The doctor, delighted at how his star patient is doing, asks whether the diarrhoea has stopped. After a week or two (and a week or two is a long time in a baby’s life), I confess that I’ve quite forgotten what a normal nappyful looks like. Would I recognise it when (and if) I see it again? “You’ll know,” says the doctor sotto voce, handing me another specimen bottle.
And then, this morning as I was feeding Ben, it happened. A faint grunt, a stiffening of his chubby little limbs and a certain pinkness around the eyes, and … yes! We have it! After two long months, a real poo!
The end (literally and figuratively) is, I am delighted to report, in sight.