[Editor’s note: Dr. Anna Zimmermann is a mom of three, a neonatologist and the voice behind Mighty Littles, a blog and podcast about NICU families. When her own son contracted COVID-19 her blog and social media posts about his illness went viral. Excerpts from those posts have been republished here with her permission.]
When I started Mighty Littles, I never intended to write about my children being in the hospital. I planned to write about the resiliency I see in parents in the NICU, how parenting changes over time, and how big events shape who we are as parents. However, seeing as how the world has been taken over by COVID-19, and now so has my family, I need to write about it. I have to write about it. COVID-19 has consumed my thoughts and fears for the last week, and I’m not the only one.
As a physician, I followed the outbreak of COVID-19 in China and Italy closely. Although no state or federal mandate was in place, we pulled our kids out of Jiujitsu and swimming lessons early, because we believed this virus was dangerous before many people started to take it seriously. The kids continued to go to preschool and kindergarten, and their last day at school was March 12th. The state of Colorado closed schools starting March 16th.
Since March 12th, the kids have not left the house. My husband went to Costco once. I went to Target once. My kids never went on a playdate. I wouldn’t let them go across the street to talk to their neighborhood friends. We adopted the stay-at-home recommendations early and stuck to them. We did everything right.
But Lincoln got sick.
On March 21st, Lincoln sneezed a few times, I thought it was allergies. The following day he got a stuffy nose and slight cough. He didn’t have a fever and I wasn’t super worried, I assumed he picked up a little cold. On March 27th, he got a fever—a high fever to 104.5. He looked miserable and pathetic. I started to worry.
We saw the pediatrician first thing in the morning on March 28th, got a diagnosis of pneumonia after a viral illness (totally reasonable) and we did oral antibiotics and oxygen at home for the next 48 hours. He had moments where he looked totally fine, and other moments where he looked sick. But overall, I thought he was okay.
By Monday, March 30th, he was needing more and more support and oxygen and was admitted to the hospital.
I knew walking into the hospital that we would be there for a few days—I thought three, maybe four. I knew that he would be placed on a “COVID rule out”—where they treat him as if he has it until the testing comes back negative. And because I am familiar with hospital policies on COVID, I knew that I would not be able to leave his room until his testing was negative.
So walking into the hospital, I had one sick 4-year old, two near-empty oxygen tanks, and three bags—one for our clothes, one for his comfort items and snacks and my computer bag. I also had four hours of built-up anxiety rolling around in my head wondering what was going on with my son and why he was quickly getting worse.
The admission was smooth and we got settled into our room: IV, labs, swabs, meds, oxygen all got done by the wonderful staff. At the time of admission, he needed 2 Liters (L) of oxygen. That same night, he progressed up to needing 4L. By the next day, he was on 6L and then 9L.
He was working so hard to breathe—using all of the muscles in his chest, abdomen, and neck to help him breathe. As a doctor, I knew he was working hard to breathe. The medical terms used to describe respiratory distress—seesaw breathing, nasal flaring, grunting, retracting, tachypneic—he had them all.
As a mom, it was torture watching him struggle.
Over those first two days in the hospital, labs and information started coming back. His Complete Blood Count (CBC) didn’t show classic signs of COVID infection. His other measures of infection—CRP and Procalcitonin—were not significantly elevated. His chest X-ray looked pretty good. He was changed to two IV antibiotics—Ampicillin and Azithromycin. He started receiving Albuterol treatments. And viral testing was pending.
During that first two days, he just continued to get worse. His labs and Xray didn’t look like Coronavirus, but he was just getting worse quickly.
At about 7 pm on our second night in the hospital, we got the news. The nighttime doctor came in and introduced herself and took a look at Lincoln. Then she told me—Lincoln had tested positive for COVID-19.
I just started crying. He was getting worse quickly and now I was scared.
His timeline didn’t fit. His labs didn’t fit. His X-ray didn’t fit. We took all the precautions.
How did this happen? Why did this happen? I don’t understand.
How sick is he going to get? How long will this last? How long will we be in the hospital? What if the rest of my family gets as sick as Lincoln?
I did everything right. I was supposed to keep my family safe and I failed. And, yes, I know I didn’t. But how can those thoughts not go through your head when your little boy has the scariest virus in on the planet right now?
How did this happen? How? I still don’t understand. I cried for nearly four hours off and on that night. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t turn my brain off. I was terrified.
At the same time, I was relieved. If his COVID test had been negative, I would be terrified to go home and constantly be wondering “what if he gets COVID now?” At least now I know he has COVID. And I know he shouldn’t get it again.
After five days in the hospital, Lincoln is starting to feel a better and after seven days he was finally discharged.
Being in the hospital was completely isolating. I wasn’t allowed to leave his room. No one was allowed to come into his room. The nurses and physicians came in to assess him wearing all their personal protective equipment (PPE), but they minimize the number of times they entered into the room to preserve gear.
My husband was at home with my girls. We can’t hug each other. I can’t hug my girls. My family is split up and we feel so far away.
Despite the isolation here in the hospital, all around me, there has been a huge outpouring of support from our community. Both of our employers have been nothing but supportive. Our school community put together a meal train to deliver dinner to Chris and the girls nightly—which turns out to be a Godsend since they can’t leave the house. Our neighbors dropped off healthy fresh berries at the house and sent a care package to me with shower wipes, face cleaning wipes, and dry shampoo. Did I mention I don’t have a shower???
We live in a world where people are becoming more and more separate. More divided—by social status, by wealth, by politics, and by religion. If one thing is positive about our COVID journey, it is that our community came together to support us. People we barely know. People we don’t know. Friends of friends of friends.
We are forever grateful and blessed because our community supported us. And no one blamed or shamed us for our son testing positive. I hope that this sense of community will persist after we move back towards our daily lives after COVID.
Please stay safe. Please stay healthy. Please take this virus seriously—it is no joke. And please reach out to your friends and neighbors and friends of friends who are struggling through this pandemic.
Lincoln was released from the hospital one week after his admission. He remains on oxygen at home and Dr. Zimmermann will continue to update her blog and social media sites about his recovery over the next several weeks.