PALM BEACH, Fla. — On Wednesday, Erica Whitfield will cast her vote on whether to send Palm Beach County teachers and students back to the classroom amid a pandemic. The school board member says the choice has been anything but academic.
COVID-19 snuck into the Whitfield house in April despite her family’s best efforts at distancing and mask-wearing. Their caution was driven by the need to protect the littlest Whitfield, a miracle baby who arrived 11 weeks early and was still in the hospital more than a month later.
Erica and her husband, Brent, didn’t want to walk the deadly coronavirus into the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. Now they suspect the hospital — maybe the cafeteria — is where Brent picked it up and then gave it to Erica and their 12-year-old daughter Noelle.
What followed was close to three weeks of isolation, in which mommy and baby connected only in rare video chats or once from four floors of separation, Whitfield gazing up from the parking lot as a nurse held baby Nora to the window.
While their symptoms never rose far beyond the discomfort of a bad cold, Whitfield said the weeks-long infection and its consequences were nonetheless traumatizing.
In recent years, Whitfield has had her share of knocks. Three Christmases ago, she broke her back on an ill-fated hoverboard ride. The following fall, she discovered she had colon cancer — and beat it.
Then this year at age 42, she discovered she was pregnant. It was an unexpected gift for the couple who thought another baby wasn’t in the cards, but it too came with a cost. Whitfield was diagnosed with a life-threatening case of preeclampsia, a complication of pregnancy that tampered with her vision, cranked up her blood pressure and began to shut down her kidneys and lungs.
The condition was remedied when her daughter arrived Feb. 23, far short of her May due date.
As Whitfield recovered, the shifting response to the coronavirus played out before the couple’s eyes.
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In the days after Nora’s arrival, the Whitfields invited extended family, grandparents and more, to visit her in the hospital. COVID-19 was still something that happened in nursing homes in other states. Florida did not have a single confirmed case. But as the virus made further inroads, only Nora’s parents could visit her. Then, only one of her parents could visit on a given day.
And then Brent Whitfield was diagnosed with COVID-19. No one could visit anymore.
The baby who had gone through six surgical procedures on her paper-thin lungs was moved into isolation, nurses checking in only to feed and change her and give her medicine, according to her parents.
Whitfield said she was relegated to delivering milk to the hospital’s front doors and watching Nora from home via an in-room baby cam that wasn’t always trained on her.
A bit of a sore throat
The surprising bit, though research shows it shouldn’t be too surprising, is that the virus was so covert in its taking of the Whitfield home that it probably would’ve gone undiscovered if it hadn’t been for Brent’s annual checkup.
COVID-19 was a thing by the time the exam date rolled around, and Brent Whitfield called ahead to make sure his doctor was still seeing patients. The receptionist asked if he had a cough or fever. No? Come on in. That was the first Tuesday in April.
They drew blood, checked his temp, and then Brent’s doctor asked how he was feeling. Brent said he was getting over a cold that had surfaced two days earlier. It had given him a bit of a sore throat and some headaches.
“The doctor was standing in front of a sign, ’The symptoms of the common cold and coronavirus,” Brent said. He recalls thinking, “Oh look, on the chart, it says I’m fine.” The doctor wasn’t so sure. Out came a nasal swab.
Erica Whitfield recalls teasing him about it that evening. “I even said, ‘They wasted a test on you. You don’t have it. You don’t have any signs or symptoms.’”
A breast milk conundrum
How could he be sick? They’d been so careful.
Whitfield did not stop working, but worked remotely, dialing in to board meetings since late January when she was put on bed rest for her pregnancy. After Nora came, she was back online. The one board meeting Whitfield missed was when she was in the hospital for the baby’s emergency delivery — an arrival so unexpected the couple needed three more days to firm up the newborn’s name.
Brent, an engineer at a small local firm, recalls visiting the office maybe four times in the three weeks prior to his diagnosis. The only other time anyone left the house was for a food run, and then it was done with mask and gloves. Except for all those visits to see Nora.
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Two days after being swabbed, Brent felt better, but the test came back positive.
But that same week, Noelle ran a mild fever for maybe eight hours, Whitfield said. Also, the now-mom-of-two experienced an intermittent stabbing pain in her lungs. Whitfield figured the jabs were the residual effects of preeclampsia, but when she told her doctor that Brent tested positive for COVID-19, the doctor prescribed hydroxychloroquine, the drug promoted by President Trump as a potential COVID-19 cure.
Whitfield continued to pump the breast milk she’d been delivering to the hospital. But she had to dump every batch because the drug made it unfit for the baby.
Fortunately, Whitfield said she banked so much milk before beginning the medicine, she delivered 17 days’ worth without interruption. And because she kept collecting the milk, even while taking the drug, her body never stopped making it.
‘Doctor was very scared’
Two weeks after Brent’s diagnosis, the coronavirus had exited his system, but Whitfield and their 12-year-old tested positive.
The virus wasn’t completely benign.
Whitfield’s lungs had been compromised by the preeclampsia.
“My doctor was very scared for me,” Whitfield recalled. “She said, ‘Make sure you can take a deep breath,’ but that’s the one thing I couldn’t do. I’d feel stabbing pain.”
Her doctor told her if she couldn’t hold her breath for 10 seconds, she had to go to the hospital. “I would test myself every day for probably a week,” Whitfield said. “I was really tired. Exhausted. And so, so depressed not being able to check on (Nora).”
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Soon-to-be seventh grader Noelle described fever and a little coughing. “Mostly the biggest symptom was congestion. I had a headache and a sore throat, but it was really mild. It really felt like a regular cold. It didn’t seem like anything different.”
When the virus was just something people talked about, Noelle said she didn’t think she’d get it — until her dad did.
“It’s really infectious, so I figured I was going to be sick or was already,” Noelle said. “I had heard it was better with kids. I was more afraid of giving it to other people. My mom had just been pregnant and been at the hospital.”
The virus did not excuse her from online school work. In fact, mom says, Noelle excelled.
“Noelle had amazing teachers and they did everything right and she got good grades — and she still hated it,” Whitfield said. “If it was bad for her, what about others?”
What about those who come to school for food, mental health services, to get out of abusive homes? “There’s just so many things that we mitigate.”
Until last week, those concerns drove Whitfield, formerly the district’s wellness director, to be the loudest voice on the school board in favor of returning to the classroom this fall — until the tidal wave of illness convinced her that would be too soon.
“I really wanted to do hybrid learning. I was really on board with it,” Whitfield said of allowing parents to choose whether to send their child in person or have them work remotely. Noelle is “so upset” that isn’t going to happen.
Noelle continues to lobby to get back to middle school and friends and teachers. And unlike most moms, Noelle’s mom holds one of the keys, Whitfield said.
Aching to be with baby
For Erica, the tests were more painful, both physically and emotionally, than the virus.
“It took me five weeks to get a negative test. I kept trying and trying,” she said. “I needed to know I was negative to go see the baby.”
In the end, the doctors didn’t wait that long. They sent Nora home with Brent on April 28. It took another two weeks before Noelle and then Erica were declared virus-free. It’s possible some of Erica’s immunity has passed through to Nora in the mother’s milk.
Antibodies haven’t solved every problem. Scheduling Nora’s visits to cardiologists and other specialists has been a challenge. It seems that saying you’ve recovered from COVID-19 still gives receptionists at those offices pause, Brent said.
He said he’s had to bring Nora to see some doctors after hours and outdoors.
Now 4½ months old, Nora sometimes breaks into a smile and she’s on the verge of accomplishing that milestone baby maneuver: rolling over.
Born under 3 pounds, she has grown past 11 pounds. (Not being due until May, she’s still fairly petite, but she’s at least landed on the pediatrician’s standard growth chart, Whitfield says with glee.)
Whitfield still aches thinking of the weeks when her daughter was alone in the hospital.
“The nurses tried their best, but she was in isolation. She was getting left alone for weeks,” Whitfield said. “We’ve been trying to make up for it ever since. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.”
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: COVID separated this mom from preemie. She’s against reopening schools