The day 999 said no

Last week, while staying with my parents in Nottingham, Baby A woke up in the night gasping for air.

She was pulling her stomach in excessively trying to breath and and was making a high pitched rasping sound as if her throat was closing up.

I am used to dealing with asthma and allergic reactions but this was different. It was so sudden and severe, with no obvious trigger and I wasn’t sure how to help her.

I gave her 5 puffs of J’s Ventolin and some antihistamine and called an ambulance.

The call handler asked a series of generic assessment questions: Was she clammy? No. Was she blue around her lips? No. But nor was James when he was admitted to hopsital on oxygen. Then she said we we didn’t need an ambulance. A clinician would call  back in 60 minutes.

60 minutes.

When my baby was struggling to breath.

I was in shock. Too shocked to even argue.

I am ‘experienced’ in breathing difficulties. J has had six asthma attacks that have ended up with him in hospital and many more that we have dealt with at home. He has also been admitted for Broncholitis and an anaphylactic reaction.

In all those times I have only ever called an ambulance once.

We usually drive straight to A&E if he is deteriorating but Addenbrookes respiriatory clinic have strongly advised us never to do this. Their care plan says to call an ambulance. Never be worried about wasting their time. If your child is in respiratory distress they would rather be cautious.

This time, unsure what was causing the symptoms or how to treat it, I took their advice.

But 999 said no.

We gathered our things and headed to the nearest hospital where they saw us quickly and suspected baby A had Croup, which can apparently come on suddenly and severely at night.

After some monitoring and a large dose of steroids she was absoulterly fine.

But she could not have been.

Breathing difficulties can deteriorate rapidly. That’s why the official advice on the NHS website states:

In severe cases of croup, treatment in hospital may be required. Breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, are a major symptom of severe croup. You should dial 999 immediately for an ambulance if your child is struggling to breathe.

I now know, after further research, that the call handler assessed baby A as the lowest priority out of 6 possible categories. This document on the East Midlands Ambulance website labels ‘breathing difficulties’ as category 3 and in need of a face-to-face response.


Since then, I have questioned myself. Did I give the right information? Did I explain her symptoms properly? But I was scared, stressed and trying to look after my daughter while responding to the call handler. I know she could not adequately assess the situation as low priority by the questions she asked without seeing or properly hearing my daughter.

A clinician came on the line within a few minutes – I am not sure if this was luck or a response to our exasperation and disbelief at the call handler. She asked a few more questions and told us to take her straight to A&E as it would be quicker and she didn’t want us to wait.  This was, at least, sensible advice and we were already on our way.

I believe the call handler did not follow the guidelines properly and her actions could have put my baby at risk.

We have made an official complaint but unfortunately, this experience has left me feeling anxious and worried. What if my baby had deteriorated? What if we are in this situation again? I have always seen calling an ambulance as our ‘back up’ option and have felt reassured that we could could call for help if I felt we needed to.

I don’t feel like that any more.