Thirteen-year-old Ethan was not supposed to get COVID-19.
Just ask his mom, Sierra.
She thought the whole coronavirus thing had been overblown.
“The ’Rona,” as she referred to it, was not likely to impact her family – certainly not her healthy, athletic son, she thought.
“We live by faith, and I thought it was crazy that everybody was living in such fear,” Sierra says. “I just thought, ‘What am I missing?’”
But late last year, the virus came closer to home. The family learned of friends who had become seriously ill with COVID-19.
In early December, just as Ethan was getting used to a new private school in St. Petersburg, he began experiencing symptoms.
“He had all the symptoms of a walking, talking COVID patient,” Sierra says.
A test confirmed her son had COVID-19.
It was an awakening, of sorts.
Yet it didn’t seem so bad.
Within a week, Ethan got better.
Then – he got worse.
Ethan first noticed problems when he tried to reintegrate into sports activities at school. He thought he’d put the virus behind him, but, at basketball practice, he was quickly fatigued and out of breath.
Soon after that, the body pains began. His fever came back.
“I was in quite a bit of pain, especially in my gut,” Ethan says. “I just really didn’t feel good.”
What was the matter with Ethan?
His doctor examined him and thought he might have appendicitis. She immediately sent the family to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Emergency Center.
After tests and scans ruled out appendicitis, doctors sent Ethan home to be monitored while they waited for more lab results.
Then, a late-night call from the Emergency Center would change everything – and perhaps save Ethan’s life.
Some markers in Ethan’s tests showed he may have a condition known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). With MIS-C, multiple organ systems in the body can become inflamed and even shut down.
It’s the body’s natural immune response going into overdrive.
It can be life-threatening.
“With MIS-C, the body’s response is triggered by the COVID infection,” says critical care physician Ashley Siems, M.D. “It does the job. It clears the infection. But then the usual cues that tell the immune system to calm down don’t get heard. Inflammation revs up.”
Ethan would return to the hospital to be admitted right away.
“It was such a roller coaster of emotions the entire time,” Sierra says.
At the hospital, an ultrasound revealed Ethan’s heart was failing. The complex diagnosis of MIS-C was confirmed.
There was no time to waste.
In basketball terms, Ethan’s illness would be met with a full-court press.
“With MIS-C, we get almost all of our specialty teams involved,” says Siems. “Our immunology team, our infectious disease team, our cardiac team and others come together to agree on a treatment plan.”
Doctors treated Ethan with steroids and intravenous immunoglobulin therapy (IVIG) to calm his body’s immune response.
Within days, some encouraging signs.
Lab results revealed the inflammatory markers indicative of MIS-C were showing improvement. Ethan’s fever had gone away. His heart was working better.
He was getting well.
“There were so many specialists looking after him and taking care of him,” Sierra says. “We were comfortable that we were in the place we needed to be.”
Sierra has always taught her children to be grateful, and as Ethan’s health improved, he recognized how extraordinarily fortunate he was.
He was grateful that doctors caught his MIS-C early enough that he could recover relatively quickly.
He was grateful for the new school friends who rallied around him (from a distance), who prayed for him and checked on him.
He was grateful for the Child Life specialists who offered encouragement and helped make his treatment easier.
He was even grateful for the phlebotomist who helped him overcome his aversion to needles.
Before Ethan left the hospital, he took notice of something that touched him deeply.
Not all the kids on the unit had a parent who could stay with them. Some were alone, except for the clinical staff caring for them.
“I was so lucky to have my mom with me, and I could binge on movies,” Ethan says. “But I felt bad for the little kids who aren’t big enough to work the TV.”
Ethan and his mom were inspired to help. After he was discharged, they got busy organizing a toy drive. Johns Hopkins All Children’s Foundation helped the family set up a donation page – and things took off.
Friends, family and schoolmates came through – donating some amazing new toys and funds for the cause.
“All of this has strengthened my friendships,” Ethan says. “I’m happier now.”
Recently, the hospital received a special delivery from Ethan and his family … a great big haul of toys to make life a little better for sick, hospitalized kids.
“It took a community of people to get through all of this,” Sierra says. “Not just the time in the hospital, but with our toy drive. We learned we’re truly not meant to do life alone.”
Ethan never thought he would get COVID-19.
He is wiser now.
He hopes sharing his story might help other kids realize that while bad things can happen … some really beautiful things can come from the experience.
Free COVID-19 Vaccine Clinic for Kids 12+
Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas and the Juvenile Welfare Board are joining together to help support a free vaccine clinic for kids ages 12 and up. Staff at the three sites will administer the Pfizer vaccine. Families must make an appointment by calling 727-824-6931 and minors must be accompanied by their legal guardian.
The clinics will be held at the following locations from 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m.:
Largo High School: first dose June 22, second dose July 13
Gibbs High School: first dose June 23, second dose July 14
Pinellas Park High School: first dose June 24, second dose July 15