Ill­ness changes mind on school

Board mem­ber once fa­vored hy­brid model

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Sonja Is­ger Palm Beach Post

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.”

CAR­RIE BRADBURN/CAPEHART

The Whit­field fam­ily – Brent, Noelle, Nora and Erica – are home to­gether af­ter Nora’s pre­ma­ture ar­rival.

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