The newscast turned my blood cold.

While my 3-year-old daughter, Carolyn, played beside me, I watched the television as Dr. Keith Van Haren of Lucile Packard's Children's Hospital at Stanford told reporters: “The disease resembles but is not the same as polio. But this is serious. Most of the children we've seen so far have not recovered use of their arm or their leg.”

Van Haren was talking about a mystery illness that has caused polio-like paralysis in at least 20 children in California. Doctors don't know yet what has caused this “rare phenomenon,” and while not widespread, the health scare still ignites fear in most parents — not because it will happen to our children but because it could.

With my own health, I need to be in agonizing pain or practically coughing up a lung before I will visit the doctor.

With my kids, especially the toddler, every sniffle, cough and thermometer reading that creeps past 100 has me dialing the advice nurse. I've insisted my daughter's preschool teachers call me the second she says, “I don't feel good. I need Mommy.”

As a 23-month-old, Carolyn fell down while playing. An hour later, her head lulled to the side and her eyes closed at the dinner table. My husband and I rushed her to the emergency room — where the doctor told us it's common for young children to fall asleep while eating.

I overreacted then. I would do it again. Without apology, I'm one of those super vigilant, borderline hypochondriac parents.


From my own mother, I learned the value of trusting that visceral gut reaction that is so aptly called a mother's instinct.

My mom worked as a neonatal nurse before her marriage; yet, it wasn't nursing experience that told her something was seriously wrong with my brother when he was 3 months old.

Brian slept only a few hours a day and cried almost incessantly. Whenever my mother held him, he cried, and these weren't the wails of a colicky baby but a child in pain.

Twice, my parents took him to the doctor. Twice, they were told it was just a virus.

Then one morning, my mom sensed something was deeply wrong. Even with a snowstorm raging outside, she insisted they take Brian to the hospital. She refused to leave until they definitively determined what was wrong with her baby.

The next eight hours were excruciating. The hospital staff made my mom hold him down as they did a spinal tap. The results were negative. Nurses, doctors, even a security guard told her to go home. She refused, even when they threatened to call social services on her.

A shift switch came, and because of the snowstorm, the regular on-call pediatrician was unable to reach the hospital. Instead, an orthopedic pediatrician was called in. He suggested they take an X-ray of my brother's hip. And because Brian was so small, that X-ray also caught an image of his knee — and the septic arthritis festering there.

Septic arthritis, especially in an infant, can have severe consequences: complete destruction of the articular cartilage, dislocation of the joint and loss of the growth plate. The doctor told my parents that Brian's condition was so advanced, that had it gone undetected even one more day, his right leg would have been permanently shorter than the left.

A mother's instinct essentially insured my brother would walk, play soccer and coach ice hockey.

And that brings us back to the mystery polio-like illness affecting California children. It's rare and hard to detect. It starts off looking like a benign cold, leads to loss of sensation in a limb and eventually turns into what is seemingly permanent paralysis in children.

It likely won't touch my daughters, but that won't stop me from paying close attention or overreacting at the first sign of potential trouble.

I have the advice nurse on speed dial, for those moments when I need to answer the call of my mother's instinct.

Life Stories is a rotating column by staff writers, editors and critics. Ann Tatko-Peterson is the Bay Area News Group's digital features editor. Contact her at Follow her