For three days, my 1-year-old grandson Monroe was treated for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in an empty infusion room in the emergency department of a large children’s hospital.
Like many in Colorado, the hospital was at full capacity due to the unexpected outbreak of the common but highly contagious childhood disease.
With no available rooms, my daughter and her husband took turns staying with Roe in a cramped, overly lit space with a glass window facing the ER. Next to the metal hospital crib was one old reclining chair, but nowhere for an adult to sleep overnight.
On the first afternoon, my daughter texted that several children with RSV had been brought in on stretchers. The news shook me, but I tried to stay calm. Our little guy will be OK would quickly become my mantra. “Our little guy will be OK.”
Since the pandemic, young parents can’t get a break
My daughter’s next text was about another family being moved into their small quarters, another set of parents and a small daughter fighting RSV. Another lethargic child was hooked up to an oxygen machine. The comparison to COVID-19 wasn’t a hard leap to make. Another viral outbreak affecting a vulnerable population. No hospital beds were available. Some classrooms were all but empty, and the social isolation after the diagnosis.
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During those three days, my husband and I (nonretired grandparents) didn’t visit our grandson. We didn’t bring food or toys. We didn’t take a shift in the uncomfortable recliner. We were home taking care of Roe’s siblings: his fraternal twin and a precocious 3-year-old brother. In between playing with blocks and trucks, we fed, diapered, washed, changed and soothed as best as possible. And we waited for more texts and worried about Roe.
Experts have been warning about a triple pandemic this year, and COVID-19, influenza, RSV and other respiratory viral infections all have similar symptoms, especially in adults. But while RSV infections happen annually, this year health care providers have noticed a surge in young children being hospitalized with the virus.
The toll it takes on parents
If your infant has RSV they might be irritable, have a poor appetite and drink fewer fluids, have fewer wet diapers; they might wheeze, seem short of breath or have low oxygen levels. Some children are especially at risk for severe disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – including premature infants, young children with congenital heart and lung problems, young kids with weakened immune systems and children with neuromuscular disorders.
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When I had a moment, I thought about the rippling effects of this potent virus following so quickly in the wake of COVID, and the extreme toll it has taken on so many millennial parents. Not only have my daughters and their peers already endured parenting in isolation and the constant fear of infection, but they also had full-time jobs that suddenly became virtual and almost impossible to perform with children at home full-time. They lost “the village” that should have been their sustenance, the friends and fellow parents pitching in during hard times, dropping off a meal or meeting for coffee.
I never had to experience anything like this as a young parent. Beyond the usual ups and downs of the economy, geopolitics and the dawn of personal computers, there was never a disruption of the companionship and solace of our friends, the community that anchored us, the children who played with our children, and my weekly Friday afternoon “Moms and Margaritas” gathering.
There is some good news: Pfizer recently announced that its RSV vaccine showed 82% efficacy against severe lower respiratory illness in infants through the first 90 days of life.
Pfizer plans to submit an application to the Food and Drug Administration by the end of the year, which could allow its vaccine to reach the public before next year’s RSV season. It typically starts in late October.
Masks are off. Now what?
Yes, the masks are off and many work situations have eased. Friendships are resuming and celebrations occurring again. Even so, as my daughter bears witness, the now fierce and gritty millennial parents are worried once again as RSV rages. They worry about the number of sick days they’ve claimed to stay home with sick kids and the ramifications of missed work.
They wonder whether their bosses and leaders are even aware of what’s happening. They worry about their children’s classrooms and child care situations closing as teachers and caregivers miss work to take care of their own sick kids. And, without a doubt, they worry about the medical bills that follow hospital stays.
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Luckily, little Roe is home now, with a portable oxygen tank and the promise of recovery. Our daughter and son-in-law have (needlessly) thanked us for helping, for being there. Loving our grandsons is the easiest and most rewarding task to take on during a crisis, and my daughter is heartbroken for friends who have no family close by to help.
She repeats a million times, “We couldn’t have gotten through this without you. I don’t know what we would have done.” Then, she starts planning a meal she’s going to deliver to friends whose child is still in the hospital after too many days. She’s bone weary but determined to try to resurrect the village one dinner at a time.
Get your little ones tested if you are worried they might have come down with RSV, and don’t hesitate to take them to the hospital if you’re concerned about their breathing.
It might just save their life.
Colleen Hubbard is a mother, grandmother, freelance writer and owner of Plank and Pearl, an Etsy online shop specializing in vintage items sourced in the Rocky Mountains.