x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

'Don't panic' often means the opposite when it comes to children

There's a sound no parent wants to hear. It is the noise your child makes when he or she is in terrible pain.

There's a sound no parent wants to hear. It stands out from the humdrum cries and screams; it rises above the day-to-day yells and demands; it is terrifying and alarming: it is the noise your child makes when he or she is in terrible pain.

I heard the sound last week when Astrid cut her foot. We were playing in a swimming pool in a hotel in Jordan, when suddenly she let out a cry and started to howl. It is difficult to pinpoint what made the noise so different and so chilling. The intensity and the volume perhaps. It was a primal scream followed by unfettered wailing. Despite never hearing her make the sound before, I knew exactly what it signified.

I scooped her out of the swimming pool and hurried to one of the flimsy plastic chairs. Blood was streaming from her right foot. She sat cradled in her mummy's arms, while I grabbed a handful of napkins and pressed them around her toes. Astrid was crying all the time. Not just crying, but howling.

It seemed as if she'd been crying in this manner for her entire life. It was as if this state was her default. The chemicals that your body squirts out in response to emergencies and stress - cortisol and other hormones - have a strange effect on your perceptions of time. This event at once seemed to occupy a split second and an eternity. The chemicals heighten your awareness of each second, so seconds seem like minutes, minutes seem like hours. Yet each second stacking up - tick, tick, tick, one after another - is another moment of the same dreadful situation, which gives the simultaneous impression of it lasting for such a long time.

A few people, who had been languishing poolside, gathered around. One of them asked if she could help. More tissues. Something better to stem the bleeding. Did someone say "panic"? There's something about the word "panic" that triggers more hormones to be released around your body. "Don't panic", it turns out, is a phrase that provokes the exact opposite of its meaning. This discrepancy can't be coincidence. It must be born of some primitive intention, some kind of safety mechanism embedded deep in the syllables, to ensure you do, in fact, take fright when someone instructs you not to.

Astrid had calmed down slightly. Her crying crescendo over. She sat in a lull of heavy sobbing. I decided to inspect the injury. Peeling back the blood-smeared napkins, the first impression was horror. The pad of her middle toe had split like an over-ripe peach. You could see innards, dark pink matter, which under normal circumstances would never be exposed to daylight. Her fourth toe was badly gashed as well. I pressed a fresh napkin over the wound. We needed to go to a hospital.

Madaba's hospital, a three-storey building on the edge of this small Jordanian town, had small rooms with chain-smoking doctors and grimy tiles. Given the choice, I would not have taken Astrid there. But I had no choice. A doctor stubbed out his cigarette and glued up and bandaged her wounds. The hotel's owner, who had driven us to the hospital, took us back to the hotel. Astrid was able to walk and was quickly running around again despite the seriousness of the injury.

While Astrid was asleep, I went back to the pool to see how she had hurt her foot. It was a broken step, unfastened at one end, with sharp edges of metal exposed. I had noticed it when I first arrived, but had forgotten to mention it again. I felt like I should have been angry - at myself, at the hotel owner - but in fact I was relieved. I was thankful Astrid's terrible crying had ended and that she was going to be OK.