About a year-and-a-half ago, when I was knee-deep in fertility treatments, Jackson contracted COVID from an exposure at his daycare. Back then, the 10-day quarantine was a daunting task, as I was forced to marry my full-time job with entertaining a 2.5-year-old solely on our property, mostly by myself, as Ashlee went to work and night classes. Fast-forward to last month, when Jackson, our 9-month-old twins, Ashlee and myself all contracted COVID, and handling just one sick toddler would have felt like a breeze!
Just a few days into our five-person quarantine this time around, the stress was so high that all we could do was laugh — and Ashlee said, “I hope you’re keeping track of this sh*t for your next PGN column.” So, I went back and started documenting the fun that we parents have when stuck at home with sick little ones in this COVID world. Here’s a snapshot:
To celebrate my aunt’s birthday, my family and I took the kids to Franklin Institute to see the Harry Potter exhibit. All day, the twins slobbered on my family and Jackson doled out lots of sloppy kisses. On the way to dinner after the museum, I got a message from Jackson’s daycare that a kid in his class had tested positive for COVID.
We have been on this road many times before so I wasn’t particularly concerned about Jackson, healthwise; out of maybe 10 exposures, he’s tested negative for nine. Instead, I went right into parent planning mode: cancel Avery’s homecare nurse, cancel August’s eye doctor appointment, reschedule a work interview. Annoying, frustrating, but isn’t that what we’re all used to in this pandemic? While the daycare gave us the option to test Jackson daily, we decided to just keep him home to avoid any further possible exposures; with micro-preemie siblings at home, we figured it was best to be safe.
Being stuck home with three kids while working is not for the faint of heart. After about an hour, when my mom called and offered to take Jackson for a couple hours, I knew I should have said no, just in case he was positive, but he had no symptoms and I was panting running from kid to kid dealing with diaper explosions, spilled cereal, vomit messes. Take him!
Around 2 a.m., Jackson woke up screaming bloody murder. It’s not uncommon for Ashlee and I to get this lovely wakeup call about drama like a misplaced blanket, dropped tissue or desperate thirst for water. But this time, Jackson had an awful, bark-like cough that came out of nowhere. He was standing on his bed, screaming “Make it stop!” every time he had a coughing fit. Oh crap, I thought.
With a feeling of dread, we decided to wait until the next day to test to be sure and gave Jackson a “sick day” pass: lots of laying on the couch, violating our limited screen time rules. Jackson opted for monster flick “Rumble” while hacking up a lung throughout the day, as I crossed my fingers that he’d get another negative the next day.
Alas, about 30 seconds after the droplets hit the test card at 7 a.m., Jackson got a positive result. A few minutes later, we heard August wake up with the same unrelenting, barking cough (we later learned the Omicron variant has been causing this particular cough in many kids). After many whispered expletives in the kitchen, we got to work.
First was telling Jackson we had to cancel his birthday party, which he took surprisingly well; I think this generation of COVID kids is fairly used to rolling with the punches. Then it was starting a schedule of pain meds for the two boys every four hours and planning for the week: Ashlee stealing away upstairs to study for her nursing school final in three days and me trying to work ahead for all the work I knew wouldn’t get done come Monday.
Overhanging the boys’ positives was the fact that Avery, all 12 pounds of her, was still seemingly healthy and we were terrified that would change. But trying to keep a baby away from her twin and big brother in one not-so-big house is near impossible. I whisked her off for dog walks as often as possible and we left her for longer than we’d like lazily batting hanging toys in her Pack and Play just to put some distance between the kids and ease our minds that we were at least trying to keep the unhealthiest of the bunch healthy.
Throughout that day, August’s fever was climbing to the point that it was 103 at bedtime and the poor kid could barely open his eyes; we put a call into the pediatrician but ultimately got tired of waiting and Ashlee took him to the ER. To stay distracted, I decorated our dining room in Marvel’s Avengers for the birthday party that wasn’t going to happen the next day. Thankfully, August returned home after about four hours; and by midnight, after 90 minutes of rocking, an entire Spotify list of baby music and many butt pats later, that delirious kid finally fell asleep.
Cheering up a sick little one is always a feat. Doing it on his birthday is even more challenging. And doing it after a night when both Ashlee and I started feeling sick overnight made it near impossible. With the pressure to make Jackson’s fourth birthday fun nearly as high as the building pressure in my head, we helped Jackson tear through presents — keeping the babies on opposite sides of the room from each other— and made him a special pancake breakfast he didn’t eat. Throughout the day, which August almost entirely slept through with a wet cloth on his head on the couch, family and a few friends came by and passed presents through our door, which I would have thought would have made Jackson sad but he seemed to actually enjoy the weirdness of it.
Though the mess made me cringe, that we had piles of new toys was a blessing, as we went from game to coloring book to puzzle and back for something to do all day. We took a break to take a few whacks in the backyard at the Batman pinata I had stuffed for his party and to dive into some birthday cake. And, of course, to watch some more “Rumble.” We also started a not-so-fun tradition of taking the boys to sit on the floor of the bathroom and read for 20 minutes with the hot shower going; reading 10 books to sweaty, snotty, cranky kids while you yourself are having trouble breathing and swallowing is an experience I’d like to not have again.
Ashlee tested positive that morning, and mine came up negative (though, as my symptoms built alongside everyone else in the coming days, we figured this was a fluke!).
Monday rolled around, and we started to get into a routine: steam bath, toy time, “Rumble,” toy time, steam bath, and Ashlee and I tagging each other in so I could work and she could study. August slept through this day as well and still not a peep from Avery so we were starting to breathe a sigh of relief. But, that afternoon, I heard a slight cough from her Pack and Play during her nap and whipped my head around. By that night, that familiar bark had arrived and she too had a high fever.
While we were intensely worried that her health complexities could make her the next one to have to go to the hospital, we were fortunately spared too much worry time by the pace of the chaos. At dinnertime, August vomited his squash all over my shirt. Before I got the chance to change, I was hooking up Avery’s G tube and realized I left the cap off, as her stomach contents came spraying all over both of us and her bed. While I was trying to clean that up, Ashlee had Jackson pinned down trying to squirt Ibuprofen into his mouth; in response, he vomited all over her and went sprinting away, only to vomit more when he saw it on his clothes. I abandoned Avery’s clean-up to assist Jackson, but slipped in his pile of throw-up, pulling him down with me into it as I fell. So, I ended this beautiful night covered in all three kids’ throw-up, not sure whether to laugh and cry, and ultimately doing a bit of both.
The stress turned to scary when, while changing Avery, we noticed her chest retracting (pulling in under her ribs), a red flag that a baby is having trouble breathing. We’ve grown so accustomed to whisking Avery down to the children’s hospital in Delaware that Ashlee got her bag packed in record time and hit the highway.
Jackson started getting bored with his new toys so, to pass the anxious hours while Ashlee and Avery were at the hospital, we broke out the swimming pool in the backyard and melted a bunch of chocolate to make the world’s ugliest, yet fairly palatable, chocolate-covered marshmallows. I was rummaging through closets to see what other household things I could turn into a game when Ashlee texted that Avery was being admitted. So, she stayed in Delaware and I managed the two boys. “Manage” is a loose term here, as, while changing August’s diaper on the couch, I turned around to respond to Jackson’s 100th “watch me” exclamation, and August fell, naked, headfirst onto the floor. I scooped him up to comfort him, only to be covered in pee two seconds later. As Jackson collapsed into giggles over this, I knew he was starting to feel a bit better.
The fun thing about COVID is that it meant none of the kids slept. I spent the night up every hour, going from August’s room to Jackson’s and back as both kept waking up with severe coughing and a sore throat. Meanwhile, Ashlee spent her night trying to comfort Avery in her hospital room, as alarm bells dinged all night. Jackson rebounded from his bad night quickly and was quite literally bouncing off of the walls with cabin fever, as I feverishly tried to work and entertain a cranky, sick baby, with my patience just about shot. Like any bored 4-year-old, Jackson started turning to mischief for amusement; I spent my daily work meeting on Zoom silently praying he wouldn’t moon my co-workers, as he started doing through the front door to passersby.
That afternoon, Ashlee drove home from Delaware, we talked for about two minutes and I hopped in the car for my own hospital trip, blasting Bruce Springsteen with the windows down on the hour ride to keep myself awake. COVID patients at the children’s hospital are kept in isolation rooms. You have to be escorted to their room by security and can’t leave until you’re leaving the hospital. So, I spent a lot of time getting to know the four walls of Avery’s room that night.
She got the full COVID treatment: a nasal cannula pumping air to keep her lungs inflated, steroids for lung function and the antiviral Remdesivir. By this second day in the hospital, her breathing was worlds better than when Ashlee brought her in but the doctors still weren’t pleased with how hard she was working to breathe. And with a baby with as complex a medical history as her, they thankfully weren’t wanting to take any chances. Watching her hooked back up to monitors and tubes, lying bored and swaddled in a bed all night was a sobering hearkening back to her NICU days.
Despite nurses coming in for vitals and meds every hour or two, and Avery setting off alarms frequently, I was able to catch a few hours of sleep and woke up excitedly ready to order my (free!) breakfast to the room at 7 a.m. There’s little else to get excited about in an isolation room. Ashlee and I switched shifts again that afternoon (after my way-too serious security escort back to the exit).
Back-to-school day for Jackson! Lugging a sick and exhausted baby, I excitedly walked him into preschool; while I love my time with our oldest, we both were ready for a return to routine that involved more than our living room.
With just one kid in the house that morning, I felt like a work superstar. I could actually answer emails without stopping nine times before hitting send! That went out the window (though, thankfully) when Ashlee texted me that the doctors were pleased with Avery’s progress and she was getting released shortly. By that afternoon, after a happy homecoming and a quick trip to pick up Jackson, things started to finally resemble our old normal: two babies screaming simultaneously (not interrupted by too many coughs!); a preschooler talking and moving a mile a minute, pausing only for “Why?”, “No!” and “Can I have a Hershey bar?”; and two weary parents, equal parts ready to jump out the living room window and relieved to have all of our kids under one roof, driving us there.