Illness changes mind on school
Board member once favored hybrid model
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 sneaked 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 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 weekslong 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.
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,her parents say.
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.
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 whether he had a cough or fever. No? Come on in. That was the first Tuesday in April.
They drew blood, checked his temperature, 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: “I even said, ‘They wasted a test on you. You don’t have it. You don’t have any signs or symptoms.’ ”
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 Donald 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.
Two weeks after Brent’s diagnosis, the coronavirus had exited his system, but Whitfield and their 12-year-old tested positive.
Whitfield, formerly the district’s wellness director, was once one of 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.
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 12-year-old Noelle and then Erica were declared virus-free.
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.”
The Whitfield family – Brent, Noelle, Nora and Erica – are home together after Nora’s premature arrival.