From the depths of isolation: A mother sees COVID-19 from the frontlines

Byram. A Byram mother with a very sick infant learned first-hand what the COVID-19 crisis means, not only for those who are sick with the virus, but for everyone depending on the valiant healthcare workers who are learning as they go.

Byram /
28 Apr 2020 | 01:01

The news is full of horrific COVID-19 stories, stats, and warnings. One mother witnessed it from the inside: the inner sanctum of the virus’s blunt realty.

Brittany, a Byram resident (who asked that we use only her first name) and her seven-week-old son were quarantined inside Morristown Medical Center for a week. Except for visits from one designated nurse, and communicating with doctors and nurses by means of an iPad they gave her, she waited in isolation with her infant to learn whether he had contracted COVID-19.

The boy was extremely sick with respiratory complications and needed high-flow oxygen. But if he did have COVID-19, administering the treatment would be risking the life of his mother, the nurse, and both of their families.

It all started on March 24, when the child developed a high fever. The family called their pediatrician.

“At that point, with everything going on, even though he was only seven weeks old, the doctor prescribed a Tylenol suppository,” Brittany said. “It did the trick until the next day, when he started having trouble breathing, wasn’t nursing as much, and slept the entire day.”

She took the infant to the Morristown Medical Center Emergency Room, where he was diagnosed with metapneumovirus.

“It’s basically just a respiratory virus that kids typically get,” Brittany said. “I think he got from his older sister. Most kids can recover at home.”

But things got worse.

Waiting in isolation

That night, in the ER, a chest X ray revealed that the infant's condition progressed into pneumonia.

“With COVID-19 going around, and based on how the chest X ray looked, plus the Tylenol not controlling it, he was admitted to the hospital as a ‘COVID rule out,’” Brittany said. “Looking at whole picture and not knowing if COVID-19 could coincide with the virus he had, he would go into isolation. He was kind of being seen as if he did have COVID until test results came back, so all precautions needed to be taken.”

The child and his mother went into isolation, where they were to remain until the results came back.

“It was quite the experience there,” Brittany said. “They put us into this room, and, behind us, the door was locked because they don’t want anyone leaving."

A single nurse named Jess was assigned to the case. She came in with a face mask, two sets of gloves, hair covering, and other protections, Brittany said. She was assigned a "spotter" named Kelsey, who brought her what she needed to minimize her coming and going from the room.

Nurse Jess set Brittany up in the room and told her she would not be back for four hours. Brittany was told, “If anything happens, FaceTime me," using the iPad.

“Over the next few hours, sometimes monitors would go off,” Brittany said. “Instead of someone coming in, we would FaceTime."

Various doctors and nurses would ask Brittany questions and have her position the iPad so they could see what was going on with her son.

"I tried to keep myself upbeat, so thought, ‘I can’t believe I have to pay a co-pay, I’m being the nurse here,'" she said. "Then I’d remind myself, ‘This is for everyone’s safety.’ Every single nurse I talked to had kids at home. Just being there, they were putting themselves and families at risk.”

A dangerous procedure

After a while, the baby's oxygen level went down. He was now working harder to breathe.

“There were more and more FaceTimes, and more and more doctors FaceTiming in,” she said.

After 10 hours, her son was breathing very hard. The nurse came in.

“She told me that he needed high-flow oxygen, but the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) does not allow them to give this to COVID rule out or COVID patients,” Brittany said.

That's because the procedure would spread the virus over the room.

"I knew that as much as I knew my son needed it, he couldn’t have it, as it would mean putting myself, my family, the nurse and her family at risk if he was positive," Brittany said.

The conversation turned to treatments that wouldn't expose anyone. The only option was a ventilator.

“I FaceTimed my husband and daughter,” Brittany said. “This was a very difficult time for all of us.”

A respiratory therapist came FaceTime to walk Jess through the procedure.

“I asked her if she had ever done this before, and she said no,” Brittany said. “The respiratory therapist was basically training her as they went along. Jess told me, ‘I come in so all of these specialists can teach me through FaceTime. This way fewer specialists have to come into the isolation.’”

Waking from a dream

With her baby on the ventilator, an exhausted Brittany finally got a few minutes of badly needed sleep. When she awoke, she thought she was dreaming.

“All of a sudden there were cheers and claps,” she said. “The whole team of all these doctors I’d been FaceTiming with were on the screen, and two were in room with less protective gear.”

Her son’s results were back: he did not have COVID-19. He could immediately go on the high-flow oxygen he needed.

“They were very honest with me,” Brittany said. “He did not get the high-flow oxygen in typical time. It had taken longer, so his condition had deteriorated faster. They put him on a high dose then slowly pulled it back. Finally, he moved to a regular oxygen mask, and then, for him to be released, he had to be in ‘room air’ for 24 hours.”

This all took a week. Brittany and her son stayed in the pediatric intensive care unit during that time.

Then, something ominous occurred: the unit started transforming.

“It’s was like the news, but worse,” she said.

She realized the pediatric ICU was being transformed into a COVID-19 unit right before her eyes.

“It was surreal to see them putting all the hot spots in, moving equipment in and taking other equipment out," she said. "They were reworking the unit.”

Brittany’s son was discharged on March 31.

“Technically, we should have stayed in the hospital longer, but it was safer that we go home,” she said. “They told us some signs to watch for, and if they occurred, we’d have to return to the hospital. But they did not foresee this happening.”

Brittany said her message, after going through all she did, is to inform parents of the reality of what is going on and to urge everyone to stay home, limit their movements, and practice social distancing.

She said the team at Morristown is "amazing and really wanted him to succeed, but were constantly checking if what they were doing was approved by the CDC and deemed safe for everyone involved.

"I grew incredibly close, through a glass barrier, with a nurse that owed my son nothing, but gave everything she had for 12 hours, staying well past her shift to make sure my son was doing the best he could under the circumstances. At any moment’s notice -- if this had continued to spread -- I could have been asked to leave my seven-week-old in the hospital with just the nurses.”

"I grew incredibly close, through a glass barrier, with a nurse that owed my son nothing, but gave everything she had for 12 hours, staying well past her shift to make sure my son was doing the best he could under the circumstances. At any moment’s notice -- if this had continued to spread -- I could have been asked to leave my seven-week-old in the hospital with just the nurses.” --Brittany