My toddler got COVID-19. It turned our lives upside down

Commentary: For a few hours, we were flirting with a worst-case scenario for my youngest, who isn't even 2 years old yet.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
5 min read

My son's visit to the emergency room after testing positive for COVID-19 had me fearing the worst. 

Roger Cheng/CNET

I was sitting at a hotel restaurant in Manhattan at noon when I got the call that my youngest son had tested positive for COVID-19. By 8:30 p.m., I was parked outside an emergency room, frantically stressing about his condition.

Things started innocently enough a little more than a week ago. My youngest, who isn't yet 2 years old, woke up around 3 a.m. with a fever. Having gone through this a few times over the last year and a half, my wife and I thought it was a simple bug. 

It wasn't. 

A positive test result came back late in the morning. For the rest of the day, our son was sluggish. His high temperature continued despite Tylenol. He refused to eat. More worrisome: Rashes developed on his stomach and head. He isn't yet verbal, so we worried when he began touching his chest in discomfort, fearful that he was developing breathing issues. Later in the evening, his lips swelled as he struggled in obvious pain.  

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That last symptom convinced his pediatrician that he should go to the emergency room to get it checked out. The doctor was worried the combination of symptoms could signal an early indication of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, a rare, but potentially deadly outgrowth of COVID-19. My wife, having done research on COVID-19 and children, was already aware of this scenario. So while our doctor was acting out of an abundance of caution, we were already charting out the worst-case scenario and freaking out. 

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. The doctors explained that the rashes and swollen lips were a reaction to viruses in general (although an unusual one for COVID-19), and that he didn't show key indicators of MIS-C, such as persistent vomiting, trouble breathing and conjunctivitis. It's also a condition that typically develops over weeks and not at the onset of infection. Over the next few days, his symptoms slowly faded and his energetic and curious disposition returned. 

The scare, however, served as a potent reminder that a small percentage of children develop some COVID symptoms that are severe enough to be fatal even though most kids have proven resilient to the disease. The numbers are low. A study from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children made up between 1.5% and 3.5% of hospitalizations in 23 states and New York City. Deaths ranged from 0% to 0.26% in 43 states, New York City, Puerto Rico and Guam. 

But how would you feel if it was your child defying the odds? With the advent of the more infectious and dangerous delta variant, the risk is even higher. 

My family's experience also serves as more evidence -- as if any more was needed -- to get vaccinated. (Nearly 58% of New York is fully vaccinated.) Children under 12, like mine, aren't yet eligible for the vaccine, so the responsibility is with everyone else. (For the record, both my wife and I are vaccinated.) Beyond that, we've been vigilant about wearing masks and social distancing over the last year. We still rarely go outside and almost never stay anywhere indoors for long. Yet even after all that time, our youngest son ended up getting infected. 

The memories of that evening are seared into my brain. I remember scrambling to figure out what I needed in the frantic rush to pack our go-bag. I remember waking up our other son, just a few years older, and carrying him out to the car as my wife bundled up our youngest in his car seat. The short drive to the children's hospital felt like eternity as I played out the various scenarios in my head. None of them was comforting.

My wife took our youngest into the emergency room while I waited right outside in the car as our other son slept. All I could do was sit in the driver's seat, staring at the hospital in silence as I wrestled with a potent mix of fear and guilt. 

Social media, which has garnered its fair share of justifiable criticism, ended up being a saving grace for me. I've retreated from Facebook and Twitter over the past year, but in despair and frustration, that night I tweeted about the situation with a reminder to wear a mask and get vaccinated. 

I wasn't expecting a reaction. I was largely venting about a situation I felt I had little control over, and needed to do something about the pit I was feeling in my stomach. But the response was both quick and overwhelming. It elicited Twitter DMs, Slack messages, text messages and more as friends, acquaintances, co-workers and family asked about my son's situation. 

Amazingly, there was little trolling. (One person accused me of being a horrible parent for exposing him, and another tried to make a bizarre analogy comparing the coronavirus to getting sunburned. But that was it.). 

The words of support kept me going for the next three and half hours, until my wife texted me that the doctor had given our son the all-clear. 

Ultimately, our pediatrician's call to get him checked out proved valuable because the second doctor's diagnosis removed any lingering concern that our son had MIS-C and gave us peace of mind. 

His condition forced us to isolate my youngest and my wife on one side of our apartment, with my older son and me on the other half, separated by a plastic sheet covering the connecting doorway. (To my relief, we had both tested negative.) While the rashes continued for a bit, none of the more severe symptoms showed up. His fever subsided and his appetite eventually returned. 

The worst part was not being able to actually hug my son for the next 10 days. Instead, we FaceTimed even though we were just yards apart in the same house. 

While both my wife and I have been vaccinated for months, she developed breakthrough symptoms from being so close to our son, resulting in us flipping the quarantine procedures to isolate her now. (My older son is the odd one out with no antibodies and the inability to get the vaccine yet.) 

It's all a hassle and continues to be stressful, but that ER visit is a constant reminder that it could've been far, far worse. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.