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  • Writer's pictureLiz Fehlman

RSV stands for Really Shitty Virus.

I know this because:

a) I'm a doctor. b) I've worked with electronic medical records for 8-something years. c) My kid had it twice before he was 4 months old. d) All of the above.

If you guessed D, you're mostly correct. Let's move on.

Cullen was born on January 14th - smack dab in the middle of a Colorado winter storm. Lucky for me, the storm started after I gave birth and didn't get too bad until we were safely home. Nonetheless, we bundled him up and drove the snowy streets back home to my mom who was tucking in a very runny-nosed, pink-cheeked toddler. Having just recovered from Bronchiolitis two weeks before, it was clear Carter was back on the Disease Train with something, and I remember standing in his bedroom doorway - with his two day old brother's immune system in my hands - and thinking, "well...shit."

With Carter asleep, I took Cullen into his room and began to make a plan. We'd play man-on-man defense...Donald with Carter, me with Cullen. Don't touch me, don't touch anything...lots of hand cute big/little brother pictures. Keep them as far apart from each other as humanly possible. I wouldn't kiss or hug Carter until he was better.

Well, any parent knows how this ended. The next morning, Carter ran straight into my arms, ran his germy hands through my hair, and kissed me on the lips while simultaneously sneezing in my face. I knew my ability to keep sickness at bay was a pipe dream, and we'd do our best to all stay healthy.

Six weeks later, I'm at the pediatrician watching them hook Cullen up to an oxygen tank. The next day we were at Urgent Care, then admitted for 3 days into Children's inpatient unit. He had viral Bronchiolitis, which in itself is not a big deal. Except when you're six weeks old and your nose is so tiny that even the littlest booger makes everything a big problem. Lots of tears, sleepless nights and snot-sucking later, we were discharged and I thought the worst was over.

The day after I went back to work, daycare called to let us know Cullen wasn't feeling well. I hopped on the city light rail back to my car and took him to Urgent Care. Things quickly escalated into getting him back onto oxygen. We were sent home with the instructions to watch for retractions in his breathing. I woke up every few hours to observe him and around 3 am, I felt like something wasn't right. I felt as though things had gotten worse - his belly pulled in around his ribs, his breathing was noisy and labored, and he seemed uncomfortable even though he was sleeping through all of this. I called the Children's hotline and explained the symptoms, and the nurse sounded on the fence as to whether I needed to head to the ED. I hung up, quickly packed a bag and loaded him into the car.

I remember being barely awake but still alert at the same time, as I drove down dark, icy streets to the CHCO's ED. They quickly triaged us to the ED and began assessing him - poking and prodding his labored belly and beginning to suction out his nose. People swarmed in and out - they were kind to me, but focused on him. I just kind of sat there and stared. What felt like eternity later, they let me climb into the hospital bed and hold him. The ED doctor came in the room and said, "Mom, you did the right thing. I know it's hard to know what to do in the middle of the night. You did the right thing. He needs to be here."

He didn't finish his sentence before I burst into tears - and I still do when I think about his words.

As a parent - and especially a new one - you don't know what hell you're doing. There's no manual they give you when you leave the hospital (and as my mom would say, "I'm still waiting for it!") and you do the best with what you have. It doesn't matter how much money you have, training you've been through, or kids you've babysat before. Parenting is 100% guessing and checking - it's more gut and heart than I thought it would ever be.

That night, my gut said "take your kid to the ED" and I did and I was right. I don't like to think of what could have happened if I didn't. He was diagnosed with RSV and a corresponding virus that is too complicated for me to have remembered, let alone spell. We spent 3 days in the PICU and 1.5 days in the inpatient unit. Every bit of it sucked. If there was any silver lining, it's that PICU nurses are THE SHIT and took such good care of me and Cullen that it almost felt like a tiny, super expensive vacation. At one point, a team of doctors, nurses and specialists came in to do their rounds. They completed their entire exam on Cullen while I laid there, passed out on the hospital bed like a fool. The nurse told me later, "you needed to sleep." I've never loved someone more.

So, here's why I felt the need to write this down.

  1. I didn't realize how traumatizing all of this was until we started approaching our second Cold and Flu season. And as we head into it, I'm scared...but less scared. I feel empowered and educated that I know what to look for in a sick baby or child, and I trust my gut now.

  2. If you're a parent, do your research. Understand what retractions in your son or daughter's breathing looks like. Know the symptoms of RSV. Do your homework before 3am. Know who to call in the middle of the night if you need to. And don't be afraid of being "that parent" who keeps your pediatrician on speed dial, or takes them in "just to check." If you have a good pediatrician, they won't care.

  3. If you're around a baby this winter, use your head. I don't know if Cullen got sick from me, from Carter, from a stranger, or from the universe and I won't ever know. What I do know is that I felt super self-conscious for asking people to wash their hands before holding him. I thought it was rude. But you know what's rude? MAKING A NEW MOM HAVE TO ASK YOU TO WASH YOUR HANDS. Just do it, or don't hold the baby at all. Don't kiss the baby. That's weird - it's not your baby. Make the mom dinner instead. Get her a beer. She'll appreciate that more, I promise.

May you stay healthy and happy this season, never doubt your gut, and use Cold and Flu season as a perfectly acceptable reason to seclude yourself in your basement while you binge watch This Is Us.

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