FEATURE — Even during a pandemic, when my boy came to me recently complaining that his stomach felt like it “fell out,” I wasn’t automatically panicking for a couple reasons.
One, my son’s proclivity for illness. Although he had RSV when he was about 3 months old and has been unofficially diagnosed by the pediatrician as having asthma, he’s not a frail child. But every cold goes to his chest, and he has spats of time where he seems to “feel bad” fairly often.
It’s hard being a parent and having to make these decisions of when you believe your child is actually ill (versus leveraging for something) and if so, to what extent. Needless to say, there are a few grains of salt taken around our household.
The other reason I didn’t immediately go to “coronavirus!” in my mind is that nausea and stomach discomfort aren’t the common symptoms.
But there was still a tinge of nervousness. It didn’t help that he felt warm and had a mild fever, but still we tried to keep calm.
This had all the signs of a stomach bug, and his grandfather had something similar not long before. Maybe even my wife, although the timeline of life has been fuzzy recently, and with everything else going on, all of our stomachs had felt unsettled to some degree over the past month.
So we gave him some Tylenol and sent him to bed.
The next morning his temperature was 101. And he just looked bad. When he said he was having a hard time breathing, that’s when the tinge of nervousness grew into a pretty persistent itch. COVID-19 was originally identified as a respiratory illness, and with the RSV and asthma, he was in a higher risk category than anyone else in our house.
And there was the article I had read just the day before about increasing cases of a childhood illness that the CDC says are associated with COVID-19 – even after it had initially seemed like kids might be spared. There didn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to it, but it was hospitalizing children, and it had killed a few at that point. And some of those symptoms did deal with the gastrointestinal system.
It was time to call the pediatrician. We aren’t the parents who call every time our kids get a cough or a fever, but these were extenuating circumstances. And it was a Friday, which meant if his symptoms ramped up over the weekend, our options were limited. Our pediatrician’s office had historically been pretty good about same-day appointments, but with everything else going on, we weren’t sure what to expect.
They didn’t ask my wife many questions before referring her to a “coronavirus hotline,” for lack of better terms, with the instructions that if they weren’t too concerned, she could call the pediatrician back for an appointment.
But after she repeated everything she had already told the nurse at the pediatrician’s office, including saying he was telling us he was having a hard time breathing and that he had asthma, I felt pretty certain I knew where it was going – or more specifically, where we were going.
“They want us to get him tested,” she told me after she got off the phone. She was staying pretty calm. I think we both still felt like it was a stomach bug, but this had elevated things.
When we told Jameson we were going to get the test, it was miraculous how quickly he perked up.
“I feel much better now,” he said, as he ran up and down the stairs a couple times. He did indeed look better, but it could’ve just been the Tylenol kicking in, and he was still visibly winded from the simple exertion. As he and I started driving to the InstaCare, it dawned on me why he was so concerned.
“Don’t worry, buddy,” I said. “They’re not going to give you a shot. They are going to put something in your nose kind of like a Q-tip, and it’s not going to feel great, but it won’t be as bad as a shot.”
Shots were the kids’ barometer around our house when it came to the level of severity of visiting a doctor. I will never forget the year I took them to get the flu shot at the grocery store and they took us into the backroom – more like a coat closet with no windows. My mistake might’ve been having my daughter get her shot first, but I thought if he saw how well she took it, he would be OK.
He scrunched himself into the corner and was freaking out. I had to practically restrain him to let the pharmacist give him the shot.
Once he knew there would be no shot this time around, he was feeling pretty brave.
I don’t recall that I was thinking about anything else that morning beyond getting past the swab. Even with the new childhood illness, as I drove to the InstaCare, I wasn’t thinking “What if he dies?” In that moment, that’s not how the brain works for most people, I don’t think. We go into survival mode when it comes to those we love, not for our own survival but for theirs.
And maybe it’s also a little bit of mental survival for ourselves. My wife has told me that when I had surgery for kidney cancer – and knew that if the procedure was unsuccessful, I only had a 15% chance of survival – she couldn’t even think about the possibility that I might not make it. She just couldn’t fathom it.
In this same way, I was more concerned about how Jameson felt in the immediate, both physically and mentally, and how he would feel when they stuck that swab up his nose nearly to the back of his skull.
When we arrived at InstaCare, I knew better than to take him in with me, at least not until I was given the green light. Although my wife said I was supposed to go the InstaCare, I had a suspicion they were just going to send us to the bright yellow tents next door where they had been doing drive-thru testing for the past several weeks.
Sure enough, as soon as I entered through the automatic doors with my mask on, I was stopped by a nurse before I could make it three steps.
“I need to take your temperature,” she said and stuck a digital thermometer in my ear. She then let me proceed to the front desk, and as suspected, I was directed back outside to the yellow tents.
Previous to that day, I had never wondered why there were two tents. Turns out the first one was the “information/prescreening tent.” A nice younger guy asked if we had already been screened and then gave us some information to read and sent us forward to the next tent.
I had already warned Jameson that people were going to be in “all sorts of crazy gear like space suits,” and sure enough, the young woman in the second tent who came up to our window was dressed in what appeared to be a full hazmat suit. Fortunately, the other people in the tent were simply wearing masks, which helped his anxiety I think.
The girl was nice. She knew how to talk to a 7-year-old. She showed him the swab, which was thinner than I expected – and the ends didn’t look nearly as soft as a cotton swab. Then she explained what they were going to do. The swab would be in for about 10 seconds, she said.
“Ugg,” I thought.
I told her the other guy had given me permission to get in the back seat and hold his hand, and she said – with a subtle undertone – that doing so was “probably a good idea.” Based on my experience taking him for the flu shot, I figured her tone meant it wasn’t necessarily for his comfort so much as keeping him from trying to knock her hand away once the swab was in.
Let me just say now that the test ultimately came back as negative, but I still get a little emotional as I relive the moment in my head. We never want to see our children in pain, especially if we can’t do anything about it.
When she put the swab in his nose, his immediate response was “ouch,” and then she pushed it farther, all the way back, before starting to count to 10. He was crying at this point, and he just kept saying “Ow, ow, oww, owww” while squeezing my hand. He didn’t even say “take it out” or try to fight me. I think he knew it had to be done, but I also knew it was hurting him.
That was a pretty long 10 seconds – for both of us, I’m sure.
Finally she took it out, and a huge wave of relief washed over both of us. All of the nurses in the tent started clapping, and the younger guy even walked closer to the car and hollered out “Great job, Jameson.”
At this point, I got a little choked up. It was a combined release from that 10 seconds of sitting with him – trying to stay cool while my parental instinct wanted to shove that girls hand away myself – and then to see their kindness and his shaky half-smile as he tried to be brave for their clapping. He even managed to give a thumbs-up to the younger guy.
On the drive home, he wanted me to tell his mom how brave he had been, so we had a little talk about how the dialogue would go.
“Do you want me to tell her about the procedure, or do you?” I asked him.
“You can tell her, and then say how brave I was.”
He slept off most of the afternoon, which meant something definitely had a hold of him. Usually when he’s sick – or at least tells us he’s sick – he just wants to watch TV, despite our best efforts to get him to rest and maybe even nap (especially if he had a rough night before).
Jameson is our high energy kid. So it felt different to have him sleeping on the couch. The house was very quiet. It was a little odd, but it felt mostly good. Sleep is the panacea, right?
He seemed to be better for it, and by the next morning, his fever broke. He was still a little worse for the wear, but aren’t we all after getting a virus, even if only a stomach virus? We still followed the doctor’s recommendations to quarantine ourselves until we had the official results.
They came in Sunday. It was officially negative. We already felt this would be the case even before we went to get the test, but it was good to hear.
In the days after, I realized the results actually provided a false sense of security. It was hard to put my finger on, but I ultimately realized it felt like he was now somehow immune just because we had taken one test that came back negative. But the reality is that most people in the medical community aren’t saying they’re sure people are immune even after they’ve had it and have the antibodies. And this might not have been the last time we would have to go through this with him.
So why should I feel so relieved, like it was all over?
Well, I guess you feel that way for every bullet you dodge in life, even if you know another one might be coming. Not all of my friends across the country have been so lucky. A couple of them – that I know of – have caught the virus, and I know someone who has died. This person was more of an acquaintance than a friend, but it was still a blow – and a reality check.
Hopefully we’ll continue to dodge the bullets with my boy.
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