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As my baby struggled with COVID in hospital, I wondered about our impossible choices as pandemic parents

This First Person column is written by Bronwyn Bragg who lives in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

It turns out it is actually difficult to tell if your baby is just congested or if he is having trouble breathing. 

This is something I learned when my 10-month-old, Robin, struggled to breathe at bedtime. 

When Health Canada first approved vaccines for children under five years old, I was cautiously optimistic. This was the moment our family had been eagerly awaiting; the added layer of protection for children who we felt had been left behind in the rush to “return to normal.” By July, other provinces were rolling out their vaccine programs for that age group, but we live in Alberta, which was slow to create a plan. 

The day before vaccine bookings opened up in our province, on Aug. 1, my three-year-old son, Henry, tested positive for COVID-19. Two days later, his brother, Robin, developed a fever and also tested positive with a home rapid test. 

While Robin’s fever soon passed, his congestion went from bad to worse. 

We consulted the mom hivemind (texting and calling various mom friends) and decided to take him to the hospital. After a three-hour wait in the emergency room, a doctor confirmed that Robin had croup and he was, in fact, struggling to breathe

His difficulty breathing was treated with an oral steroid and two doses of epinephrine, which is administered by strapping a tiny breathing mask over the infant’s face and holding it there as the medicine vents into their nose. My husband and I had to restrain Robin as our baby fought, screamed and cried while trying to remove the mask. 

Because he is the youngest member of the family, none of us can avoid prefacing Robin’s name with the word baby

Unlike his big brother who leaps from couch to floor, Baby Robin is still only learning the pleasures of pulling himself up to stand, of half-crawling, half-dragging himself across the floor to the dog dish to splash water, and of smooshing blueberries into his face. 

“Chill baby,” say people who notice his calm energy. 

In the hospital, despite the intrusions of breathing masks and X-ray machines and many unknown strangers in masks and protective medical gear, Robin continued to be a mostly chill baby. At one point, he gently offered his stuffed bunny to the nurse. A peace offering of sorts. As if to say, “I know you’re taking care of me, perhaps you’d like this bunny?”

Baby Robin will be OK. We were eventually sent home after he responded well to the medication and he is back to his baby busy work. 

But holding the loathsome but necessary face mask over Robin’s mouth and nose, seeing him struggle and suffer, I felt like I was in a tunnel revisiting the choices we had made as parents in the last two years. 

First the choice to keep Henry out of daycare, then the choice to send him back, the choice to have a second baby, the choice to keep Henry in daycare as public health protections dwindled to almost nothing when most Canadian adults — but not all children — were vaccinated. 

Nicholas Ruder and his three-year-old daughter, Caroline Ruder, are pictured as Jean Guo, a physician assistant, administers the Moderna Spikevax mRNA COVID-19 vaccine approved by Health Canada for children under five in Toronto. (Sabah Rahman/CBC)

Sending Henry to daycare was both a financial necessity and crucial for his social-emotional development. But it also meant, inevitably, that we would get COVID-19. Not sending him, as we did for the first 14 months of the pandemic, meant that we might be protected from COVID-19, but that we might still have a kid who ran away from other kids on the playground, shy and introverted. 

I thought of how silly it was that I was sad that I had choices. “Be grateful,” I told myself, revisiting a familiar refrain of the last two years: “At least we have choices.” 

I thought about the email from our daycare in early July informing families that it was no longer required that COVID-positive kids stay home. While “recommended,” it is not a requirement anymore. 

I thought of all the competing messages I have heard for the last two years: 

“Kids don’t have severe outcomes from COVID.”

 “It’s just a cold!” 

“We’re all going to get it eventually.” 

“Daycares are full of germs; it’s good to be exposed early to build immunity.” 

But also: “Wear a mask if you’re in a crowded indoor place.” (Has anyone making health policy been to a daycare recently?). 

“Long COVID is a real thing.” 

“There are pediatric fatalities from COVID-19.” 

And so on. 

Then I thought how silly it was that I believed that my choices would make a difference; that the decisions I made were somehow the right decisions. 

The myth of the last two years has been that we as individuals, exercising our “personal responsibility,” can protect ourselves and our kids. 

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously said that there is “no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” For the last two years, it has felt like Thatcher’s impoverished and unimaginative idea of our collective responsibilities toward one another have come true. 

It is one thing for a family like mine, with our many privileges, insulated against the worst extremes of all manner of calamity, from COVID to violent acts of racism to poverty to homelessness, to “manage our risk.” It is quite another to have a policy apparatus that downloads all risk management onto individuals and families, telling them, in turn, that the calamities that befall them, are their fault. 

Because this is what happens when you have a sick kid — you wrack your brain for the things you could have done differently, that might have led to a different outcome, as irrational and impossible as that is. If only, if only, if only…

Do you have a similar experience to this First Person column? We want to hear from you. Write to us at firstperson@cbc.ca. 


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