If you had 90 seconds to save your child, would you know what to do?
I can hardly bear to look at this snap of my gorgeous daughter Genevieve – as it was very nearly the last photo of her.
It was taken on a family day out, moments before she almost choked to death and just seeing it still brings the terror flooding back.
We’d been enjoying Cotswold Wildlife Park and had stopped for a picnic lunch.
It was getting chilly so I decided to supplement our sandwiches with trays of warm chips from the cafe. But after biting into the first one, Genevieve was in trouble.
There was no coughing or gagging, her mouth just froze open and her face started to turn red.
I scooped her up and patted her back, sure that the chip would come flying out. But it didn’t.
There was just silence and her face got redder. In the middle of the wildlife park I knew there was no time to call for help so, pushing Genevieve forward over my arm, I ran a few steps towards the cafe building while whacking her back harder.
But when I turned her over again, her mouth was still frozen open.
Could I pull the chip out? Frantically I checked inside her mouth, but it was lodged too far down to see.
From memory, I knew she had 90 seconds at most before falling unconscious so the only thing I could do was keep whacking while struggling with the very real possibility that my daughter was going to die in my arms because of a chip. Then, suddenly, another hard whack brought it flying out.
Genevieve finally started crying and shock set in at how close I’d just come to losing her and how woefully unprepared I was.
I’m not alone. Around 900 people choke to death ever year while every day 40 under-fives will be hospitalised after choking. Tragically one a month will die – it’s the UK’s third highest cause of accidental death for children.
Despite this, according to St John Ambulance, pretty much half the population wouldn’t know how to save their lives.
More concerning is that one in ten people would do the wrong thing and try to remove the blockage by sticking their fingers down the patient’s throat.
But according to Clive James, training development manager at St John Ambulance, this could actually prove fatal.
He explains: “This is actually likely to push the obstruction further down and make it even more difficult to remove.
“With choking, time is of the essence. Without oxygen, brain damage will start to occur within three to four minutes.
“Basic first aid knowledge can help you deal with choking quickly, without panic, and can make the difference between a life saved and a life lost.”
Anyone is at risk of choking but according to Jo Bullock, of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, very young children are particularly vulnerable because they explore the world around them by putting objects in their mouths.
On top of this, they have narrow airways and no or few teeth, so small objects pose just as big a threat as food items.
RoSPA advises things like coins, buttons, marbles, pins and batteries are kept well out of the reach of young children.
Jo says: “Parents need to be mindful about toys belonging to older siblings or visiting children and check any toys given to your children are age appropriate.”
She suggests parents also get on their knees and look at their homes from a child’s perspective – what could they grab hold off? What looks appealing from that height?
Parents should also be particularly cautious with certain “obvious” food items like frankfurters, whole grapes, chopped fruit, boiled sweets and nuts. RoSPA is also against the marketing of sweets containing toys because children can mistakenly eat the toys.
Jo says: “Parents should be wary of multi-pack bags which carry a warning, but this can become separated from the contents.”
It’s a sentiment shared by the family of Francis Dean. Their two-year-old choked to death when a hard-boiled lolly he was eating came off its stick.
The multipack of Swizzels lollies did carry a warning that they were not suitable for children under 36 months, but there was nothing saying so on the individual wrapper.
His devastated parents David and Dawn Dean, from Manchester, have called for manufacturers to change their policy.
But mum Casey Bradley says putting warnings on food items or even banning them from children will not stop kids choking, adding: “Children can choke on anything, so how can you decide what to put warnings on?”
Her own daughter Lyla was two when she died in November 2008 after choking on a piece of toast.
Casey, 26, patted her back when she spotted Lyla struggling to breathe.
She recalls: “Her lips started turning blue. I’d seen the Heimlich manoeuvre – where you clench your hands into a fist around their waist, quickly pulling in in an upward direction – on TV and attempted it six or seven times. She didn’t respond so I went back to back slaps and then, panicking, called 999. My husband Gareth, who’d just got home, took over the phone from me and relayed instructions to breathe into her mouth.
“The police arrived and drove her at top speed to hospital but I knew I’d lost her.”
Later that evening, her organs started to fail and doctors said switching her machine off was the kindest thing to do.
“She had no brain activity at all as she’d been starved of oxygen for too long and her body was shutting down”, says Casey.
In the months that followed Casey struggled when she saw other parents letting their children run around while eating.
“I just wanted to tell them what had happened to Lyla but I knew they wouldn’t like being told what to do,” says Casey.
After Genevieve choked, I too had to fight the urge to whip carrot sticks, apple chunks and lollipops out of the hands of toddlers in restaurants.
Every meal I prepared for my daughter was finely blended or chopped until my health visitor pointed out that toddlers need to develop their gag reflex to prevent them choking in future.
I was terrified it would happen again so to build my confidence, she sent me on a first aid course where I learned how to start with back blows and move onto abdominal thrusts – the Heimlich manoeuvre.
Eight months after Lyla died, Casey got pregnant again and her son, Jude, was born 18 months ago. She also signed up for a private first aid course at home.
“I would urge all parents to do a first aid course. You think it will never happen to you, but if it does you need to be prepared,” says Casey.
“Lyla’s death was an awful accident but I really hope sharing her story and warning parents will help to save another life.”