A few hours after the birth of our second child, Parker Joseph, a nurse walked into the 300-square-foot hospital room at Baptist Medical Center wearing a long blue gown, face shield, gloves and an N95 face mask.
“Sorry it took me a while to get here after your call,” she told my wife, “but I had to get suited up in PPE (personal protective equipment) because you tested positive for COVID-19.”
“I’m sorry, what?” asked my wife, Adrienne, as she sat up in her bed, the needle from her labor-induction medication IV bag still stuck in her arm.
“The test you took a few hours prior to delivery came back positive for the coronavirus,” the nurse repeated.
As the heaviness of that statement filled the air, the light, happy feeling of having a perfectly healthy baby evaporated into a fog of fear.
By the time Parker took his first breath, at 4 p.m. on Oct. 13, the United States had 7.8 million confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 215,000 confirmed deaths related to the disease. Four months later, the United States caseload had more than tripled to nearly 28 million infections, and the number of deaths increased to 468,000.
Nearly everyone in America was required to wear a face mask in public, and state governments forced bars and restaurants to close indoor dining for extended periods of time. Signs posted outside businesses read, “Do not enter if you have recently had a fever, cough or feel sick,” and, “No shirt, no shoes, no mask — no service.”
The nightly news showed hospital ICUs filled with deathly ill patients, and refrigerator trucks parked outside hospitals served as temporary morgues in coronavirus hotspots across the country. At one point, an American died from the coronavirus every 20 seconds.
Knowing these statistics was hard enough; becoming a part of them was surreal.
My wife burst into tears as the nurse gave us the news. She had mild symptoms the night before Parker’s scheduled delivery but didn’t think much of it. A mild headache, sneezing and runny nose, she assumed, was a reaction to cleaning the dog beds earlier that day.
“We did everything to be careful,” Adrienne told the nurse as she wept. “We haven’t even had our oldest son, who is almost 2, in daycare since March. And now this. I’m worried about the boys and Mike’s mom.”
“It’s not your fault,” the nurse said. “You did do everything you were supposed to do. Don’t be hard on yourself.”
My mother, Luisa Bosso, arrived from Florida the night before Parker was born, and when I met her at the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport baggage claim, she had on two face masks and a face shield, conscious of potentially getting exposed to the virus on the flight. By the time Luisa landed, Adrienne was already symptomatic.
Given this, it was clear Luisa did not spread the virus to Adrienne. Furthermore, she had quarantined for 10 days before her arrival in Little Rock.
Some contact tracing made it somewhat clear, although not for certain, that Adrienne was probably exposed to the virus when an ultrasound technician checked on Parker three days before his birth. Parker hadn’t been moving like normal that day, and when we called to explain this to the on-call nurse, she suggested Adrienne come in for a checkup to be on the safe side.
Unfortunately, the ultrasound tech was experiencing a mild cough during the procedure, explaining it away to Adrienne as “just sinuses.” The baby, who at this point was almost a week past his due date, was perfectly fine during the checkup. He began moving and wiggling once the sonogram tech hooked the machine up. Little stinker!
After receiving news of Adrienne’s positive test result, our nurse told us that Parker needed to stay in a closed incubator to protect him from exposure unless Adrienne was breastfeeding. She also handed my wife an N95 mask with a filter, the kind that protects the wearer, not the people they encounter. Adrienne didn’t need a mask to protect herself — she already had COVID-19. She needed a mask to protect the baby and potentially me, although at the time I was certain kissing Adrienne after the birth of Parker gave me little to no chance of evading the pathogen.
The filtered N95 masks are banned on all airplanes as people wearing the masks can still spread the virus to those around them. To account for this, Adrienne put on a second mask.
The next few hours involved several phone calls and text messages to family and friends. My biggest fear, apart from Parker or me getting the virus, was my mother, Luisa, who was exposed to Adrienne the night before Parker’s birth when she arrived from Florida. Luisa was relatively healthy, but she was 67, an age the CDC considered high risk for having a severe case of COVID-19.
I called and gave her the news.
“Mom, I think maybe you should consider going back to Florida or getting a hotel in town,” I said. “When we come back, we don’t want you to catch the virus.”
“No way, Michael, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” she said. “If you guys are sick, how are you going to rest and get better while caring for a newborn and toddler?”
In retrospect, she probably was stuck with us anyway. She had already been exposed, so she would be banned from traveling on a plane. And since she was watching our 21-month-old son, William, while we were in the hospital, she had few other options. We needed her, and she was there to hunker down with us and ride it out.
The next morning, one of the doctors came in and said that Parker and I needed to also be tested for COVID-19. She could give Parker a test, but since I wasn’t technically a patient in the hospital, I would have to leave the hospital to get tested.
“Great, I will get tested at my PCP’s testing line this afternoon and come back,” I said. I had already received three negative tests in July after attending my brother’s wedding in Florida. I had also quarantined from Adrienne and William — who stayed at her parent’s house — after the July wedding as a precaution.
“Once you leave the hospital, since you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, you can’t come back in,” the doctor said.
“Well, I’m not leaving my wife and newborn here alone,” I said. “They need me. Can I just get a test here? The nurse who delivered Parker offered me a test, but I said I didn’t need one. I just assumed if Adrienne tested positive then I would also be positive.”
“Let me check on that,” the doctor said. “I don’t think they are offering husbands tests down in labor and delivery.”
The doctor came back a few hours later and tested Parker, whose results came back negative later that night. She said labor and delivery did not offer tests to husbands, and that I would need to get tested somehow. She said I could walk down to the emergency room; they had testing there.
“But it’s not an emergency,” I said, slightly upset now. “I will just assume I have it and act accordingly.”
“But we really need to get you tested,” she said.
I pulled my head back and exhaled, slightly annoyed, while also conscious of the fact the medical staff was doing their best given the circumstances.
A few hours later, a nurse came back and said I could leave the hospital to get tested if I promised to come directly back. She made a phone call and got me on the list at a location across from the hospital. Within 30 minutes, I had that horrible swab up my nose, tickling the front of my forehead from the inside. No bueno!
As I waited for the results, in the hospital room with my wife and newborn, the fear set in. What if I get sick and go on a ventilator, or worse, die? What if Parker gets it and must stay in the hospital for an extended period? Or my mom gets sick and goes to the hospital? What about hospital bills? My mom was on Medicare and had great coverage, but I did not have regular insurance. (I had a plan through Christian Healthcare Ministries, a medical bill sharing organization). I was aware having a baby qualified me for a special election period to get coverage through the Affordable Care Act.
I called the Obamacare hotline and confirmed this, but when they told me how much my insurance would cost — close to $500 a month — I opted to wait, against my wife’s wishes. (I did get coverage for Parker, however.)
“It’s OK, sweetheart,” I said. “If I get sick and need medical treatment, I can call them back and get coverage back-date effective to the day Parker was born.”
As the sun went down on our second night in the hospital, I attempted to help my wife navigate her fears while also attempting to navigate my own.
I settled on the little couch in our post-delivery hospital room, fully aware that COVID-19 viral particles were likely circulating in the air. The bright pink sign outside our hospital door probably best described it: “Confirmed airborne.”
The fear of the unknown and what the future held, compounded with lack of sleep and a poor hospital food diet, had me on edge. I had seen on television how perfectly healthy men my age died from COVID-19 after weeks in the hospital. The fear of not being able to breathe, as if I was swimming underwater from one end of the pool to the other, stuck in my mind like a barnacle on an old sailboat. There was nothing I could do, and nowhere for me to go, to evade this virus.
I had also not slept more than an hour or so in two days, and about the time my racing mind finally allowed me to doze off for a quick nap, Adrienne yelled my name.
She was up by the incubator reaching for Parker when it hit her, a quick lightning strike of cold chills. She rushed to her bed and threw her covers over her, and I grabbed my covers and threw on a second layer.
She was shaking violently and moaning.
I quickly called the nurse.
“My wife is shaking, can you send someone down please,” I said, apparently not clearly enough because I was asked to repeat myself.
Then I went to the incubator, grabbed Parker and moved to the other side of the hospital room, floored by what I was witnessing.
“Hang in there, babe,” I said. “The nurse is on the way. She will be here any second.”
I stood near the bathroom door in a state of shocked fear, holding a crying, 7-pound newborn, mouth aghast, trying to make sense of what I was witnessing. I froze in that spot — trying to be supportive — and watched as my wife’s chills dissipated.
The first set of chills lasted 30 seconds, and by the time the nurse arrived, Adrienne felt fine. Her vitals were OK, and she had no fever.
She experienced milder chills off and on for the rest of the night, but the initial onslaught was like nothing I had ever seen. It was much more intense than your typical cold or flu chills.
Still, it is possible the chills were related to the labor-induction drug Pitocin. After the birth of our firstborn in January 2019, Adrienne had chills as well, directly after delivery and for weeks thereafter. Doctors and nurses told her then it was normal and a sign of all the hormones of childbirth and the labor-induction medication exiting the body.
We got little, if any, sleep that night. My mind was racing, fearing the worst possible outcomes for me and my family. Every time I had felt this impending doom in the past, I thought of Mark Twain’s quote: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
The quote generally sets me at ease. People tend to worry too much, myself included, about potential dangers. The “what ifs.” But maybe this time something terrible would happen. I could not avoid this angst.
In the morning, we were greeted with a pleasant surprise. Our pediatrician, Dr. Aaron Strong, came in with the nurse, each carrying a breakfast tray. The food was not the pleasant surprise, no offense to the chefs at Baptist Medical Center.
Dr. Strong had a sympathetic smile on his face, greeting us as if we were family home for the holidays — minus the hugs and handshakes, of course. His soft-spoken tone was very calming to us nervous parents, something we had learned after taking our firstborn, William, to see him for checkups.
We immediately drew up a game plan, which helped ease our anxieties. For the next two weeks or so, Adrienne, Parker, William, Luisa and I would have to quarantine at our 1,800-square-foot home in Little Rock. We would need to get William tested, too, and Adrienne would need to isolate in the back bedroom unless she was breastfeeding or watching Parker. We needed to wear masks in the house unless we were showering or sleeping. We would not be able to bring Parker in for his first checkup at Little Rock Pediatric Clinic for at least two weeks, so we purchased a baby scale on Amazon and promised to call every couple of days to report his weight to the clinic. Furthermore, Parker’s bilirubin levels were slightly elevated — a precursor to infant jaundice — and if we left the hospital that day as we desired, we needed a plan to get his blood drawn. Since Parker was exposed to the coronavirus and we were all in either isolation or quarantine, nobody could technically bring him inside the hospital or to the pediatrician’s office.
Dr. Strong suggested we could have his blood drawn in the parking lot, as long as I social distanced from the nurse, and a couple of days later we did exactly that. It was slightly chilly — 50 degrees or so — and, like a good infant, Parker wailed the entire time the nurse took his blood. He sat bundled in blankets in his car seat in the back seat of my Hyundai Santa Fe, the cold wind whipping across his little face. I wanted to console him, but I also didn’t want to get too close to the nurse, so it was a difficult balancing act. His bilirubin levels, by the way, were fine.
The next two weeks were difficult, though. My first COVID-19 test came back negative on Oct. 15, two days after Parker’s birth. But a couple of days later, I developed a nagging cough, and when I couldn’t smell the dirty diapers, I knew I had the virus, too. A test I took four days later came back positive.
The only symptoms I experienced were a nagging cough and loss of smell for about a week. Adrienne had the initial stuffy nose, sneezing and headache the day before Parker was born, the chills the night after Parker was born, and no smell or taste for a couple of weeks. Both of us were super tired, but any parent of an infant will tell you that’s the norm anyway.
William and my mom had no symptoms of any kind, and both tested negative a week after Adrienne tested positive.
Meanwhile, a positive test result for Adrienne and me meant communicating with a contact tracer and filling out a daily symptom report.
Adrienne’s initial conversation with the contact tracer lasted at least an hour. Mine was much shorter. I explained to them that they already had my information from my wife, but for some reason, the contact tracer couldn’t find her in “the system.” This was strange because Adrienne had been filling out the symptom report online every day.
The contact tracer told us it’s possible another company contracted by the state to do contact tracing had my wife and another one had me, and the two didn’t cross-reference their cases. At any rate, I told the contact tracer that my contacts were the same as my wife’s, and she already gave hers to the nurse who contacted her.
I also agreed to fill out the daily symptom report, and the nurse told me to isolate from people for 10 days from the onset of my symptoms — in my case, the nasty cough that came about four days after Parker’s birth. This meant none of us in the house could go grocery shopping or even pick up dinner at a drive-thru. Thankfully, we have some amazing friends who brought us food and offered to go grocery shopping for us.
Thanks to family, friends, Wal-Mart and Amazon, we survived the chaos and were super-excited to be done with our quarantines and isolations.
The contact tracing company continued to call me. They interviewed me numerous times and asked the same questions; apparently, my initial conversations with them were not inputted in the system.
After a couple of days, I stopped answering their calls because I knew they had everything they needed from me. When I finally answered the phone at the end of my isolation period after numerous attempts to reach me, the nurse asked me how I was feeling and whether I had made it out of the hospital.
“I was in the hospital?” I asked. “I was there for the birth of my child not because of the coronavirus. I hope you didn’t have me listed as a hospitalization.”
“Oh, no I didn’t,” she said. “I have like 100 people I am calling. I must have you mixed up with someone else.”
“Oh, OK, great,” I said. “I had a mild cough, but otherwise felt fine. I was tired too, but that could easily have been from lack of sleep.”
The nurse was extremely kind and said the Arkansas Department of Health would email me a letter releasing me from isolation, the same letter they emailed Adrienne a few days prior.
We were through with the virus, and everyone was healthy. We were lucky, for sure. We still couldn’t understand how the children and my mom never tested positive or got sick. But this virus has been confusing health experts for more than a year now, so I am OK not knowing why.
I am also grateful Mark Twain’s quote still held true. None of the terrible things I feared actually happened.