It was 6am and I had drunk too much wine the night before to enjoy any part of being awake this early. Unfortunately there was a sobbing child standing next to my bed with a croaky voice telling me she didn’t feel well. I stared at her for a few confused moments before her entire body shuddered with a hacking, throaty cough. My brain instantly zapped back to those panic-stricken, croupy nights of her babyhood and, just like that, all traces of wine-fug disappeared. We were five days into our family holiday in Norfolk, about to embark upon a busy weekend of carefully planned celebrations for my brother-in-law’s 30th. Britain’s South-East was buckling under a heatwave. We were five months into the Covid-19 pandemic.
I took B1’s temperature while Hub gave her water and settled her onto the sofa with her favourite teddy and a blanket. 37.5. A smidge high, but only a smidge. We gave her Calpol and cancelled our plans for the beach. A few hours later the patient was tucking into bacon and eggs happily, though the cough interrupted from time to time. She thought she might have a little nap – something for which, in her entire six years and 11 months on the planet, she has never once volunteered. She coughed a few times in her sleep and woke around 1pm, pale and with a temperature raging at 39.6.
Half an hour later, Calpoled up and cheerful once again, B1 sat in the back of the car, peppering me with questions as I nervously drove through unfamiliar streets to our nearest test centre on the outskirts of Norwich. Hub had made the appointment minutes after her latest temperature reading and we’d been given a slot between 2 and 2.30pm. We’d calmly tried to explain what was going to happen to B1, who, fortunately, has always been a pragmatic and sanguine sort not particularly prone to anxiety. Her only real moment of concern was when she misheard Hub explaining that she was going to have her nose swabbed and thought we were going to swap it. My phone, battling the 32C heat from its perch on the dashboard, periodically swerved between giving directions and informing me that it was too hot to function.
At the test centre, a re-purposed Park & Ride establishment, instructions were given to me via signs held by be-masked, apron-wearing individuals (who, incidentally, looked a bit like they shared my phone’s sentiment). I had to confirm my identity with my driving license and hold up a QR code for someone to scan through the window to check B1 in, then we were directed to another area. A sign was held up with a phone number for me to ring on my protesting mobile so I could speak to a person on-site, who told me what I needed to do for the test. I was then permitted to lower my window just enough to be handed a test pack before being directed to reverse park in a bay. So far, so efficient. Apart, of course, from my growing nervousness that I was to be the lucky, grossly-underqualified individual tasked with the mission of swabbing my daughter’s tonsils and nostrils for the deadly virus currently bringing the world to its knees. I was beginning to wonder at this point whether swapping them would be less trouble.
The test looked fairly straightforward. I read the instructions several times over, making sure I pretty much knew it by heart because I really didn’t want to be faced with the awkward situation of having to consult a pamphlet mid-swabbage. Besides, it was now 34C in the sun, my windows were closed and my engine (and, therefore, AC) were off. I could literally feel the sweat beading on my temples. Swab both tonsils for at least 10 seconds, make sure you don’t touch the cheeks or tongue, then insert it up the nose until it will insert no further and swirl it around there for another 10 seconds. Then what? Then put it in a little tube of red liquid and close the li… But where was my little tube of red liquid? We had no tube of red liquid. Christ, it was hot.
The CV-19 testing guidelines advise that for young children, a spare adult should come along where possible so that one of you doesn’t have to clamber into the back seat. It also advises that no unnecessary extra people/siblings travel in the car with the symptomatic individual. Figuring that the easiest solution all round was for just one of us to transport and test B1, I had at least had the foresight to remove one of the baby boosters from the back seat. Therefore, though I’d already clambered into the backseat and then back into the front to summon (via my hazard lights) a cheerful masked man for our elusive red liquid vessel before scrambling back henceforth, I was thankfully not faced with the reality of trying to wedge myself into the one-year-old’s car seat to actually administer the test.
“Try and make it a game,” advised the booklet. “Pretend you’re tickling their tonsils.”
I don’t know what kind of games the makers of these booklets like to play with their children, but needless to say we won’t be replacing Junior Monopoly anytime soon. B1 tried to keep her mouth open. She tried very hard not to gag or cry as I rubbed the cotton swab against one and then the other tonsil, telling her it would be over soon and hating the world and its virus with every word. To be honest, I don’t think we managed 10 seconds. We might have clocked six. In any case I did what I could before I judged the risk of her vomiting, clamping shut or wrenching her head away bigger than the prospect of retaining an intact sample. Next, I poked the same swab up her nose – which seemed relatively gentle in comparison, which probably means I did it wrong – and, finally, plunged the bugger into its tube of liquid. Both of us pouring with sweat, I climbed back into the front seat and switched on the hazards, the engine and the AC in one movement.
“I didn’t like that, Mummy,” remarked B1, unhappily, as we delivered the sealed sample into a bin of similar-looking specimens from the car window.
I didn’t like it either. In fact, as mum experiences go, it was right up there with jabs and holding a four-month-old B3 down whilst doctors tried to get a blood sample. But, like all of those things, it was necessary. And, all things considered, the test itself was quick and relatively painless. Then again, B1 is an easy-going, rational, neuro-typical almost-7-year-old. Heaven help us if we ever have to test our 3-year-old.
Retrospectively, the funny thing about the whole experience was that we didn’t get B1 tested for CV-19 because we seriously thought she had it. I mean, she might have, but the chances were pretty low. We tested her because she had two of the symptoms (though the cough was far less frequent and more wet and croupy than the one we’d been warned about) and we were going to be seeing loved ones, some of them fresh off the shielding list, over the next few days, as well as visiting several family-friendly attractions. We knew that a negative test result would mean a hell of a lot more than us saying, “It’s probably just a cold.” On the other hand, a positive result would have spelled disaster not only for our holiday but for that of the friends and family we had already seen at that point… We didn’t think it would be positive. But, as at least three of my past pregnancy tests will tell you, sometimes these things are, however unexpectedly. As it happened, this time we were right. B1 took it easy for a day or so and was back to her usual self within 48 hours, nary a hack in sight* and, that particular day aside, we went on to have a bloody great holiday.
So there it is. It’s wasn’t the great Antiguan Chicken Pox Debacle of 2018. It wasn’t even the Mercifully Short-lived Meningitis Scare of Cornwall 2019**. But I didn’t share this story for the dramz, I shared because this time next week my children will, like most of the nation’s, be going back to school/nursery. I’m sure I’m not the only one worried about the torrent of bugs which we’ve come to expect from the first few weeks of term, and what that will mean this particular September. What counts as a sniffle and what means we have to self-isolate and get tested? How much time off work will that mean? Is any cough the wrong kind of cough? Oh yeah, and what if it actually is Covid-19?! I don’t know any of this, but at least I can say what it’s like to take a child to get tested. If that helps anyone worry a little less… Well, then it’s worth sharing a relatively unexciting blog post with a relatively-unexciting-but-hopefully-clear, searchable title.
*We are, however, still dealing with the legacy of the Great Covid-19 Scare of August 2020 in the form of Torrential Snots still emanating from the nostrils of B2 and B3. Bloody wish we could swap those.
**I’m beginning to wonder if maybe we shouldn’t go on holiday anymore.