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A Nova Scotia mom whose baby spent Easter Monday in the hospital with COVID-19 is sharing her story to show that the disease can affect anyone.
“We keep hearing that it’s very mild in babies, but … it is happening,” said Stephanie Norman.
Norman said her eight-month-old baby, River, had been teething recently, so him being feverish over the weekend didn’t seem out of the ordinary.
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But overnight Sunday, River’s fever got worse and he ended up having a seizure as he lay beside her.
Norman, the founder of Halifax Mermaids who is also known online as Raina, is trained in first aid and knew that febrile seizures – seizures brought on by fevers – aren’t uncommon or especially dangerous in young children.
“But all of that, it doesn’t matter. You can’t rationalize it when it’s your baby in your arms, violently shaking,” she said.
“It’s very scary.”
River also wouldn’t nurse and hadn’t wet his diaper recently, which indicated he was dehydrated. Norman took his temperature and it was 103 degrees, which she first tried to reduce with medication.
After staying with him all night and only seeing his condition worsening, Norman gave River an at-home COVID-19 test and it came back positive. She took him to the IWK Children’s Centre first thing Monday morning.
When Norman got to the hospital, there were at least 10 other babies already waiting who appeared to be “extremely sick.”
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“These babies were all very listless, many had rashes, you could tell they were dealing with fevers, nurses were handing out electrolyte drinks with syringes,” she said.
“It was just very, very sad, and it shocked me that so many were sick.”
River was triaged quickly, but it was about a six-hour wait before they could see a doctor. Then, he was given more medicine and the doctor gave Norman more information about how to handle seizures, what symptoms to keep looking for and how to medicate him.
The doctor, who Norman described as “fantastic,” also checked River’s throat, and noted that it was so raw it was a little bloody.
“That was probably the reason why he wasn’t eating,” said Norman.
Luckily, River decided to nurse about an hour before seeing the doctor, which came as a relief to his mom.
Now, River is recovering at home.
Norman said Monday and Tuesday were “quite rough,” but there was some improvement on Wednesday, though he continued to fight his fever.
By Thursday, River’s fever had broken and he seemed almost back to normal, though he still has a “barky cough.”
“Not a lot of sleep in our household right now,” Norman said.
She still doesn’t know where River might have caught COVID-19. She said her family has been especially cautious as River’s great-grandmother is a lung cancer survivor, and everyone he has come into contact with is vaccinated.
The child also didn’t appear to pass the illness on to his parents, though Norman noted she had it in early March and may still have immunity from that.
While Norman managed to not infect her baby or husband during her bout with COVID-19, she said she still struggles with symptoms weeks later.
“I’m hoping he bounces back better than I did, but of course, the fear of long-term issues is there,” she said.
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A first-time mom at 36, Norman described River as her “miracle baby.”
She said she struggles with infertility issues and suffered through two previous miscarriages, so when River came along, he was an “unexpected but welcomed” addition to the family.
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But confronting the trials of motherhood for the first time during a pandemic has been extremely isolating, said Norman.
“It’s just been very difficult to establish the village that helps you raise the baby,” she said.
Norman said she is appreciative of the work Premier Tim Houston and chief medical officer of health Dr. Robert Strang have done during the pandemic, but said information for new parents has been lacking.
Norman said it would have been easier to deal with the stress of a sick child if the province had provided the sort of guidance she received during her trip to the IWK.
“The first time your first child gets sick is going to be a panic regardless of what they’re sick with, and it’s just a double-whammy that it was COVID,” she said.
“I just hope that they will listen to my words about how new parents and babies have fallen through the cracks in terms of information.”
More children, babies getting COVID-19
Dr. Kirstin Weerdenburg, a pediatric emergency doctor with the IWK, said lately the hospital has seen more children presenting with COVID-19.
“I think that’s just a reflection of how much COVID we’re seeing in the community. Our numbers are higher than they have been before,” she said.
According to numbers from the Nova Scotia Department of Health, so far there have been a total of 42 children under the age of 18 admitted to hospital during the latest wave of COVID-19.
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Of those, half — 21 — are children under the age of five. There were nine people aged five to 11 who have been hospitalized so far and 12 aged 12 to 17.
Fewer than five children under the age of five were hospitalized during the third wave, and fewer than five children were hospitalized under the age of 12 during the fourth wave.
In a statement, Department of Health spokesperson Marla MacInnis said age is the most significant risk factor for severe outcomes from COVID-19.
“Severe outcomes are highest in those over 65 and lowest in those under 18,” she said.
“Vaccine provides an important layer of protection – but there is no vaccine for children under 5. That’s why it’s so important for everyone who CAN get vaccinated to do so — to help protect those who can’t.”
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Weerdenburg said she is aware of children with COVID-19 who have required oxygen, but was unable to say if there has been an increase over previous waves.
She said physicians are especially concerned about viral illnesses in infants three months or younger, who would have typically only had one set of routine immunizations.
As well, younger children and babies have had less of an opportunity to develop their ability to fight diseases like COVID-19, Weerdenburg said.
“The rest of their body is developing and growing, so is their immune system,” she said. “So we want to be more careful with them because we know their immune system isn’t really strong enough yet to fight infections on their own.”
She noted that since babies and children are smaller, when they aren’t getting enough liquids it doesn’t take as much for them to become dehydrated.
Weerdenburg said if an infant is three months old or younger, they should be brought to the hospital if they have a fever. Those over three months should be brought in if their fever persists for three or more days, she said.
As well, parents should pay attention to their child’s breathing and take them to the hospital if they are having difficulty getting air. Signs of difficulty breathing include grunting sounds, flared nostrils and signs of exertion.
“So, what you would look like if you’re exercising, and they’re doing that at rest, is worrisome,” she said.
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Weerdenburg also said dry lips and mouth, lack of tears while crying, urinating less and dry diapers are all signs of dehydration.
She added that febrile seizures are usually benign, but said a child who has one should be taken to hospital anyway so physicians can rule out other potential causes.
“We want them to be seen, just to make sure they’re OK,” said Weerdenburg.
“And then we also want to provide guidance to parents about what to do if they have a seizure again.”
Meanwhile, Norman continues to care for River as he recovers and is sharing updates through her Twitter account.
When she first tweeted about her son having COVID-19 on Sunday, the tweet went “incredibly viral” after it was shared by an Ottawa-area doctor.
While it received mostly positive responses, Norman said it also attracted the attention of internet trolls, conspiracy theorists and anti-maskers.
“It was a bit intense. I find it very funny that I perform for children as a mermaid and that never goes viral, but my one COVID tweet blows up,” she said with a laugh.
But Norman is focusing on the positives. She said since sharing her story, she has heard from other parents who have gone through similar situations.
“In the end, even though it did create some stress for me and I got a lot of mom-shaming, I’m glad I shared our story because it validated a lot of parents,” she said.
“It made me feel less alone.”
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