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Poisoned by an ice pack

Nicola Mellare has a warning for all mothers.

Nicola Mellare, 32, Seaham, NSW

It was an August afternoon and my son Dominic, three, was skipping around the kitchen. 'Do you want some lunch?' I asked, stirring a pot on the stove. 'Yes, please,' he smiled. I switched off the stove and went to the fridge. As I did, Dominic headed towards the stove. Before I had time to yell stop, he'd put his hand on the hotplate. 'Ouch,' he whined.

'What did Mummy tell you about the stove?' I said sternly, inspecting his red finger.

I opened the freezer and pulled out a soft blue icepack I kept there for accidents like this. 'Here you go,' I said, wrapping it around his finger.

After lunch, it was time to pick up my daughters Estella, eight, and Sabrina, five, from school. I packed Dominic and my other son Vincent, one, into the car. On the way Dominic was unusually quiet.

'What's wrong?' I asked, looking in the rear-view mirror.

'I have a sore throat,' he replied. 'Just rest, sweetie,' I said, thinking Dominic had caught the cold we'd all had. By the time we got to school, he was asleep.

'It's strange for Dominic to sleep in the day,' I said to my husband Luke, 35, who was there to greet us when I pulled into the driveway at home later. Luke opened the car door and tried to wake him. 'C'mon, mate,' he said.

But Dominic seemed dazed. Luke tried pulling him from the car, but he just lay limp in his arms. I started to panic.

'Dominic, what's wrong?' I asked. But he didn't answer.

'I'm calling an ambulance,' I said. 'He looks drunk,' the ambulance officer said as he examined Dominic soon after. 'Could he have found any alcohol?'

'No way,' I said knowing it was locked away. 'Have you been bitten by anything or bumped your head?' he asked Dominic.

Dominic just shut his eyes and put his head in my lap. 'Dominic,' I whispered, but he was asleep again.

They rushed Dominic and me to John Hunter Hospital near Newcastle while Luke stayed with the other kids. Pulling up outside, a team of doctors were waiting. That's when I knew something was dreadfully wrong.

They wheeled Dominic into emergency and covered him in tubes and drips. 'What's happening?' I sobbed to myself, as I waited by his bed. He looked so pale and tiny.

Just then a doctor came in.

'What's wrong?' I asked. 'At first, we thought it was a brain disease, like meningitis,' he said. 'But his blood tests show high levels of a toxic chemical. We'll have to fly Dominic to Sydney and have a poisons expert look at him.'

I called Luke. 'It's bad,' I choked. 'They think Dominic's eaten something poisonous.'

'But all our medicines are kept locked away,' Luke stammered. 'I know,' I sobbed. 'Even the doctors are confused.'

Luke promised to meet us in Sydney. 'I'll leave the kids with your mum and drive down there now,' he said.

In the meantime, a helicopter flew Dominic and me to The Children's Hospital at Westmead. We arrived at 3.30am and Dominic was rushed off for tests. The results showed that he had ingested a chemical called ethylene glycol. 'It's used as an antifreeze and sometimes in toothpaste,' a specialist explained. I frowned. 'He wouldn't have eaten toothpaste.'

Close to tears, I wished Luke would hurry. Sitting alone in a waiting room, I got a call from my mum Kerry, 57.

'I know what's poisoned Dominic,' she stuttered down the line. 'It was an icepack.'

'What?' I gasped. 'I just opened the freezer,' she said. 'There was blue dye from a leaking icepack all over it. Didn't you say Dominic burnt his finger yesterday and you gave him one to put on it?'

'Yes,' I gasped. 'He must have put it in his mouth.' It was the only thing that made sense. 'Thanks, Mum,' I said, hanging up and racing to find a doctor.

Nodding as I told him what Mum said, he scribbled a request to have the icepack tested. 'They're meant to be non-toxic, but we'll check,' he said. 'At the moment, Dominic's critical.'

He told me the poison was forming crystals in Dominic's body. They could cause renal failure or even brain damage. 'We're trying to flush them out with dialysis and we've put him in an induced coma,' he said. Just then, Luke came into the room. 'Thank God you're here,' I sobbed, hugging him.

Over the next 24 hours, we kept a vigil by Dominic's bed. The doctor kept us updated. 'We're still waiting for test results on the icepack,' he said. 'We don't know yet it was that for sure, but it's the only thing that makes sense.'

'I can't believe an icepack could cause this much damage,' I said angrily to Luke.

As the hours ticked by, Dominic started improving. On the Saturday, two days after his ordeal began, he opened his eyes. 'Dominic,' I whispered. 'Can you hear me?'

Finally, Dominic smiled and relief swept over me.

Luke beckoned a doctor over.

'You're lucky you brought him in as soon as you did,' the doctor said. 'I've never seen a child survive this type of poisoning, but Dominic's going to be okay.'

It was hard to comprehend how close we'd come to losing him. Dominic spent the next week in hospital. Three weeks after it happened, there was confirmation of what we all suspected. 'It was the icepack which poisoned your son,' a doctor said on the phone.

Now, four months later, Dominic is only just returning to his normal self. We still don't know the exact damage, as all similar cases have ended in death. I was shocked to find that the manufacturer of the icepack, imported from Taiwan, had swapped the safe chemical propylene glycol with the cheaper, toxic ethylene glycol.

I'm now campaigning on the issue of imported products. I want screening to be tougher and companies punished for putting people's lives in danger.

It would be terrible if another child suffered the same fate as Dominic and wasn't so lucky.

Poison precautions

In Australia, 3500 under fives are hospitalised each year due to poisoning. Medicines cause 67 per cent of all accidental poisonings, so store them out of sight and reach of children. If you suspect poisoning, don't try to induce vomiting. Call Triple-0 or the National Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26.

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