A Virus Caused My Son Brain Damage In Utero

by Jaclyn Greenberg
Originally Published: 
Jaclyn Greenberg

Almost eight years ago, I caught a virus. I was pregnant with my second child, I didn’t know I was sick, and when our son was born, we learned the virus had caused brain damage.

As you can imagine, shock and guilt barely begin to describe the feelings my husband and I faced when we learned of our son’s impending disabilities (he is unable to walk or talk), and the cause (a virus called Cytomegalovirus, or CMV). We are hygienically clean, take vitamins, eat well and exercise. “Bad luck” or “struck by lightning” were the decidedly un-medical terms the doctors used for our experience.

Exactly one year after his birth, and after confirming I had CMV antibodies, I was thrilled, yet terrified, to be pregnant with our third child. So many questions flooded my mind, and I was steadfast I would not make the same “mistake” twice. Should I quit my job and sit safely on the couch all day? Wrap my body in bubble wrap? Should my husband care for our three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son alone? Should I not kiss my husband or other family? Skip children’s birthday parties? Fear overwhelmed my sense of reason as I tried to control the direction of my life.

Courtesy of Jaclyn Greenberg

I found a new gynecologist for my third pregnancy. The doctor who delivered my first two didn’t seem comfortable managing my concerns, and I definitely needed a fresh start. I will never forget how my new gynecologist described my situation. “You are a mouse in a maze,” he said. “You knew the road and how to navigate the path to get to the cheese because you traveled along it before. Now the road has changed; the cheese has moved. You are scared to forge this new path and will tread lightly with each step, but you will arrive, and you will be fine.”

Courtesy of Jaclyn Greenberg

This doctor was my lifeline. I texted the poor man in the middle of the day to ask if it was safe to eat a sausage and pepper sandwich. I texted him to ask if I could catch a virus from squatting over a public toilet. I texted to ask if it was safe to exercise. I texted him so often I thought he would block my number. But he didn’t. He held my hand and performed ultrasounds and reassured me that my baby showed no signs of a virus or brain damage.

After a lot of thought, I decided to continue working. I sat at a desk with Clorox wipes in my drawer, and promptly cleaned the mouse anytime someone, without asking, decided to use my computer. I regularly cleaned my phone, chose not to eat at buffets, passed on the gym and getting my eyebrows threaded and used gloves when I changed my children’s diapers. I watched other parents share food with their children before dumping them into ball pits and bit my tongue. No one wanted Debbie Downer to give them advice.

Nine months later my third child was born as expected. I did have issues during my pregnancy, but none were related to a virus.

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Over time, my fears subsided and I learned to find balance. Some of my neuroses faded, and some stuck. I kiss my children on the head instead of on the cheek. I avoid parties at “touch me” museums. I carry a pen in my bag for signing receipts and always have hand sanitizer in my purse. I hug relatives when I greet them instead of kissing. And I never touch door handles with my bare hands. I learned very quickly how to enjoy life while still exhibiting extra caution. Fool me once…

One day, when my third child was a toddler with a bad cold, he walked over to me and promptly sneezed in my face. I recoiled and threw my head back, but it was too late; germs had been shared. I couldn’t yell at my son. He didn’t do anything wrong and was too little to understand otherwise. This memory holds sharp in my mind because, that was the day some of my guilt faded — the day I realized that we can control our lives to a reasonable extent, but life will still happen. And we need to live and enjoy.

During the COVID-19 pandemic all of these “rules” are becoming the norm. “Wash your hands.” “Don’t touch your face.” I personally haven’t been in another building in over a month. My husband picks up our curbside delivery. We go for walks in our neighborhood. I imagine my favorite stores as they were because it saddens me to know how different the world is, for now.

Courtesy of Jaclyn Greenberg

I hold strong and bide my time because I know there is another side. I trust that doctors and researchers will find a cure and a vaccine so we will be protected going forward. I look forward to the day when I can visit my mom and give her a big hug and share a meal in her home. I can’t wait for my kids to get back on their school bus and socialize with their friends again. I will take a deep breath and trust that we will have control over this, and will move forward together. And I will continue to wash my hands and avoid touching my face.

It’s strangely comforting to know that, this time, it isn’t just me; everyone is going through the same thing. Maybe, going forward, when I give someone a hug instead of a peck on the cheek, they won’t take offense.

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