Christmas day, we loaded my toddler into the car and drove across town to my aunt’s house. Cruising down the festively decorated street, we parked in front of the only dark home on the block. Her husband hadn’t had the opportunity to put up their decorations. He passed away that morning from COVID-19 complications. His van was still parked in the driveway. I slipped a bouquet of street-corner flowers through their gated entryway and cried. I longed to hug my aunt and share in her bereavement, but that was out of the question. This isn’t how she expected to spend Christmas this year, a widow. It isn’t how any of us anticipated spending Christmas.
It has been ten months now since my son has experienced any sense of normalcy. He has been homebound since the first stay-at-home-order went into effect in L.A. County. I took an unpaid leave of absence from work in order to stay home with him, to protect him. He is vulnerable to COVID-19. He has viral-induced asthma. This means that he doesn’t tolerate viruses well. A common cold can cause him to go into respiratory distress.
He has been to the emergency room more times in his short three years of life than my husband and I combined. He has required so many rounds of oral steroids to keep his airways open that his baby teeth have literally crumbled away, requiring extensive oral surgery. Being sick with a virus means round the clock nebulizer treatments for days, and when that is ineffective, a trip to the hospital and another round of oral steroids.
I don’t live in fear because I am adhering to COVID-19 mandates. My fear began prior to 2020, and it will outlast this pandemic. Our lives changed indefinitely when my son was four months old. He had been crying incessantly for days. He wasn’t sleeping, demanding to be held upright through the night. The pediatrician blamed it on colic and the irrational anxieties of a new mother. As I folded tiny socks from the clean laundry basket, the strenuous screaming ceased. I glanced toward his direction, a little bundle of furry propped upright in his bounce chair, and noticed his mouth was blue.
I ran into the emergency room cradling his limp body against my chest, yelling at the receptionist, “Something’s wrong with my baby!” They admitted us back immediately. His tiny form looked so small laid out on the adult gurney. He was connected to chords, the machines beeping with alarm. A respiratory therapist rushed in to begin his first dose of life-saving albuterol nebulizer. A nurse administered a pink oral dispenser of liquid steroid. His body was wracked with tremors as the medication coursed through him. The nurse pulled me aside to scold me for not calling an ambulance. “Cyanosis can be very serious,” she informed me. “He could have stopped breathing.” My new mommy heart broke in a way that no other heartbreak can compare to.
I switched pediatricians after that. We were referred to a specialist who formally diagnosed him with asthma before his first birthday. He was started on a daily maintenance steroid twice a day. When he was sick, it took the two of us to swaddle him tight and hold him down to administer his treatment every couple of hours 24/7. He’d scream and try to tear the mask off his face. Screaming is good, I told myself. It means he’s still breathing.
Now, at the age of three, he doesn’t fight me anymore through his breathing treatments. In fact, he now knows to ask for his inhaler when he feels the first signs of an asthma flare-up. He can also speak now, and tell me how he’s feeling. This is how I know what it feels like to have an asthma attack. He tells me it feels like he’s dying.
I pray you never have to experience the sheer panic and terror of watching your child struggling to breathe as you rush them to the hospital. My son relies on efficient emergency medical services to keep his airways open during an asthma attack. I’m faced with two very real consequences of this pandemic. The first, emergency services are overwhelmed, understaffed and experiencing supply shortages. Secondly, I would be exposing him to the virus by bringing him to the hospital. As a mother of a medically vulnerable child, my anxiety is at its breaking point.
Last night, my son crawled into bed with me. “Can I cuddle with you, Mommy?” he asked. I closed my laptop and tucked his compact body into my arms. “Have the germs gone away yet?” He asks me this every night. He misses his cousins, the pang of being an only child. “No, baby, not yet. Soon though,” I lied. As he fell asleep, I tucked a pillow on his side so that he wouldn’t roll off the bed. I can’t protect him from everything in this world, but I can keep him safe for now.
In closing, dear friend, if respecting the sanctity of life is against your religion, I beg to challenge you. If you love me, please do what you can to protect those who are the most vulnerable from this devastating virus. They are not expendable. My son is not expendable. Wearing a mask doesn’t make me a Karen – it makes me a mom.