My Newborn Contracted A Virus––And Became Critically Ill–– During Our 'Safe' Holiday Gathering

by Kimberly Means
Originally Published: 
A mother approaching a newborn baby that has contracted a virus and became critically ill during a '...
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It’s 3 a.m., and I’m trying unsuccessfully to sleep on the pull-out couch at the children’s hospital. Suddenly, an alarm pierces the silence, and our door busts open as the night shift once again invades our sad little sanctuary. This time, I’m prepared for it: I scramble out from under the starchy blankets and into the unforgiving lights of the hallway. A cacophony of shouted orders, machinery squeals, and sneaker squeaks emanates from the bed in which my shriveled, limp, and beautiful nine-week-old daughter lies helplessly, as the medical team attempts to get her oxygen levels back up. I am frozen and useless to her, praying ceaselessly in my pajamas within the halls of what came to be my home for two weeks in the winter of 2009.

Three weeks prior, I had been blissfully tucked away in our home, awaiting Christmas with a newborn. I hadn’t felt comfortable going out to large family gatherings during the cold and flu season, so my husband said he would arrange for just a few immediate family members to drop by the day after Christmas to drop off presents. As it turned out, one family member had brought an extremely sick toddler into our home, thinking only of seeing the baby and exchanging gifts. I’d been preoccupied with the baby and noticed far too late that there was a feverish, miserable child in my house, and had been for hours.

My three-year-old became ill first, then the baby. I still remember pacing in the pre-dawn hours looking at the thermometer and listening to her tiny, ragged breaths. My husband was on a work trip, so I had to brave the ER alone, where they informed me that my newborn had caught a severe case of RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus), which typically presents as a cold in children and adults, but can be serious in infants, especially under two months.

Her RSV developed quickly into bronchial pneumonia, and typical treatments they applied were doing no good. My husband flew back from his trip and joined me in the hospital, horrified and numb, where we waited helplessly as she continued to decline.

After a full week inside of a tent filled with Albuterol and oxygen, as well as around-the-clock breathing treatments that wore out her little body, she finally began showing signs of life: she grew hungry and fussy again, and we were finally allowed to hold her.

Upon our release, the respiratory therapist told us we were very lucky, as her case could very easily have gone in a different direction. As all of the cilia in her lungs had been destroyed and would not grow back for another three years, we were cautioned to keep her from catching another respiratory illness until she was stronger and her lungs were healed. “Great,” I thought, “We have a preschooler and live in a destination city. How are we supposed to keep this child away from germs?”


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The weeks, months, and even years that followed were an endless blur of breathing treatments, sanitizer, and attempting, often unsuccessfully, to explain to relatives and friends that in order to visit with our family, they would need to be subjected to a barrage of health-related questions from me as well as fully sanitizing upon arrival. Some were understanding and sympathetic, as they recalled getting the numerous email updates from the hospital describing our nightmare ordeal and desperate pleas for prayers. Others scoffed at the request, declaring that we were “irrational” or “putting them out.”

I can see now how insensitive and gaslighting those moments were, but at the time, I couldn’t understand how a simple request to protect our child could be met with such negativity. Unfortunately now, I’m seeing this attitude seemingly everywhere, and it’s causing so many traumatic memories to once again envelop my psyche, bringing me back to those days where I couldn’t seem to protect my daughter from thoughtlessness, both when she contracted the illness and after.

When I see posts on social media from defiant or even just complacent people around me discussing gathering for birthdays and the upcoming holidays, my heart rate quickens and adrenaline surges. “Can’t they see that these gatherings are putting others in danger?!” my head shrieks.

You see, the more this virus spreads, the closer it gets to my children. My sweet girl, who still gets illnesses way more often and of worse severity than her sisters, whose perfect little body at times has an inflammatory response to certain invaders. Whom I refuse to sit beside for a second time while she struggles to breathe in a cold, impersonal hospital ward.

But apparently asking for masks and social distancing from friends, family, and neighbors is “irrational” or “putting people out.” Our relative who initially brought the RSV into our home and lives nearly twelve years ago is currently an anti-masker. Friends don’t understand why we’re so adamant about distancing during the current pandemic. My children don’t understand why so many people are seemingly uncaring regarding others’ health and safety.

I’ll keep staying my course; trauma-filled, sorrowful, and still possessing the tiniest bit of hope that perhaps we can look back on this moment in time someday and see the fervent need to take care of each other in a chaotic and turbulent world. In the meantime, you can count on me to continue to take care of you and yours.

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