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Laburnum trees - John C. Kirk

Jan. 30th, 2007

12:25 am - Laburnum trees

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I'm preparing for an SJA class night at the moment (topic: "Poisons, bites, and stings"), and I think that my anecdote about laburnum trees will be a nice way to start. I do have a page about this on my main website, but I've only just realised how short it is, so I think it's worth expanding that a bit.

This is a true story from my reckless youth, back in the early 1980s. It was a different time, and my hobbies were fairly low-tech; I'd typically spend my evenings/weekends playing hide-and-seek with the other kids in my cul-de-sac, rather than gathering around a PlayStation.

There was one particular occasion when I was about 8 years old, and I was playing "house" with the girl next door. We had a climbing frame structure in our back garden, with boards creating an upper floor, and plastic sheeting around it - this meant that there was basically a "fort" that we could sit in, even if it was raining. The basic premise of this game was that I would sit inside this fort while she went off to prepare dinner. I can hear the knives being sharpened as I type this, so I will just remind you all that this was a different time!

So, anyway, she went off, and then came back with some food, and said "Here are your peas". I couldn't see where they'd come from (due to the plastic walls), and they didn't look particularly appealing: rough and grey rather than smooth and green. However, my basic chivalry meant that I said "thank you" and ate them (about 5 pods full), rather than rejecting them. Possibly this was some kind of genetic memory that said "Do it, or you'll be sleeping on the sofa tonight!" After that, we continued the game, until it was time for her to go back home (i.e. next door), and I went off to do my own thing.

A bit later on, I went to see my mother, and said that I didn't feel very well. She asked me whether I'd eaten anything, and I said "Just some peas from the garden". She was quite surprised to hear this, since we didn't have any peas growing in our garden! So, we went out there, and I found the things I'd eaten. We then went back inside, and my mother looked up the relevant tree in her "Big Book of Garden Plants" (probably not the book's real name). This tree turned out to be a laburnum tree, and there was a handy note about the seeds it produces: "deadly poisonous - do not eat!" Oops.

So, off we all went to hospital. The doctors were able to get me to vomit, although I don't remember how; at the time, I associated it with my father rubbing my back, although he was actually just doing that to show moral support. Fortunately, we got there in time, while the seeds were still (mostly) in my stomach; 30 minutes later, and I would have died.

I stayed in overnight for observation, which was mainly a concern for me because I didn't have my Superman pyjamas there, so I had to borrow a pair of adult pyjamas from the hospital which were far too big. Obviously the doctors and my parents had more important concerns, so I only mention this as an insight; if you have to take a young child to hospital then they'll feel more comfortable if they have their own clothing or teddy bear with them. My first aid manual says that laburnum seeds can cause seizures, so I assume that the hospital wanted to check whether I had any problems like that, even after the imminent danger had passed.

Anyway, things worked out ok, and I certainly don't bear any ill-will against the girl next door; I'm sure that this was a complete accident on her part, rather than an actual attempt to kill me. (She didn't eat any of the seeds herself, so she was fine.)

From a first aid point of view, there are three important lessons to learn from this:

1. Get a history.

You need to know what happened, so that you can work out how to treat it. Bear in mind that the patient may not initially tell you the truth, for whatever reason. In some cases they might lie (e.g. if they've taken illegal drugs). In other cases they might be mistaken (e.g. I thought that I'd eaten peas, and a young child who'd eaten medicine might have thought they were sweets). You may also find that the casualty doesn't volunteer the relevant information right away, if they don't think it's relevant. In my case, if I'd just eaten a huge ice-cream then we'd probably all have assumed that I was feeling ill because of that; after all, peas are healthy, so they wouldn't cause any problems.

2. Give prompt, effective, and appropriate treatment.

As I said above, it was vitally important that I got to the hospital before it was too late. However, while the doctors were correct to make me vomit, this is beyond the purview of a first aider, so you should never try to do that yourself (e.g. by giving the casualty salt water to drink).

3. Prevention is better than cure.

After this incident, my father chopped down the tree from the back garden, to avoid any more accidents like that. More generally, I think it would be a good idea to know what plants are in your garden, so that you can be aware of the potential risks. I'd also advise parents to teach their children that they shouldn't eat anything from a garden unless they have explicit permission from the parents.

Similarly, I mentioned the scenario where a small child swallows some drugs, thinking that they're sweets; I certainly remember seeing tablets as a kid and thinking that they looked like Smarties. Nowadays, that type of medicine will probably be in a bottle with a childproof lid (or in some kind of pop-out sheet), but that won't help if you take the top off the bottle and then get called away to answer the phone/doorbell. It only takes a minute for an inquisitive child to stick something in their mouth!

I have a few other stories about silly things that landed me in hospital as a kid, but I'll save them for another time.

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From:susannahf
Date:January 30th, 2007 12:36 am (UTC)
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My mother was worried that my little friends might eat tablets or other things they found on the floor (fairly likely given the number Tim was on at the time). She had a great theory - every new child to visit was given the "lecture" - if you find anything that looks like a sweet on the floor, you take it to her and exchange it for a two whole boxes of sweets - one for you and one to share (eg. tube of smarties, milky buttons). This would be illustrated by showing them 2 groups of things: "sweets" and "tablets" (actually identical), and then great show made of throwing both away as my mum "couldn't tell the difference". No child ever ate any sweets or tablets that they found lying around - the economics just didn't work!
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From:johnckirk
Date:January 30th, 2007 12:43 am (UTC)
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That sounds like a good plan :)
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From:shuripentu
Date:January 30th, 2007 10:37 am (UTC)
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Did this result in sweet-hunting expeditions at your house? :)
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From:susannahf
Date:January 30th, 2007 10:51 am (UTC)
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Not for long. Although my mother is convinced that one of my friends smuggled in smarties...
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From:totherme
Date:January 30th, 2007 12:25 pm (UTC)
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Smart kid. You know what they're doing now?
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From:gaspodog
Date:January 30th, 2007 07:42 pm (UTC)
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Interpol does.
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