They Know They Were Lucky: Guy and Rotavirus

[This story is from Israel] 
Guy was 9 months in December 2006, a sweet tempered,
mellow baby. A crawler. He was not very vocal – unlike his younger cousin, he
did not babble a lot – but he smiled frequently and was a very affectionate
baby. His mom, Lilly [name altered to protect anonymity], has just
recently returned to her work as a dentist.
It was Thursday, and his grandmother Sara picked him up.
Normally, she said, he would crawl straight over to her, but not that day: he
was somewhat weak, and she thought at first he had a fever – but he did not. He
refused his usual yogurt, refused to lie in bed for his usual short nap, and
just curled up in her arms, limp and unhappy, clearly unwell.
That evening, his parents took him to the doctor for the
first time. Lilly says: “I was a little concerned because he was a little
apathetic from the start of the diarrhea, even though we gave him as much
fluids as possible, to prevent dehydration.” The doctor diagnosed rotavirus.
“It has a unique smell,” explains Sara. “It’s impossible to miss”.  They took him home, and he seemed to be
The next day, Sara went to visit her daughter, Lilly. She
describes what she saw: “Lilly was sitting in her dining area on a plastic
chair, a bucket next to her, baby in her arms, and he was throwing up into the
bucket again and again, poor little guy, he was so miserable. He did not even
have the energy to cry.” They took him to the doctor again. Because it was
almost the weekend, the doctor prepared a referral to emergency room, so that
if the baby got worse over the weekend he could be hospitalized without delay.
Lilly describes Guy that Friday afternoon as alternating
between inconsolable fits of crying and episodes where he was completely
unresponsive and limp – “apathetic” – which frightened her even more. Worried,
Guy’s parents took him to the hospital. Lilly says “without hesitation they
hospitalized him and put him on IV.  It
took them a while to be able to find and access his veins because he was
getting dehydrated. And they hospitalized us and gave him fluids and monitored
him – no medication, because it’s a virus.” She called her mother from the
hospital, gave her the news and a list of necessities to bring – since Lilly
had packed nothing for a hospital stay.
Lilly stayed with Guy constantly in the same ward, sleeping
on a couch next to his hospital bed. She says: “Together with Guy there were
ten more babies in the same ward hospitalized because of rotavirus. The door
said “isolation”.  Every time someone
went in or out they had to wash their hands with anti-bacterial soap.  All the mothers were attached to their
babies. It was a nightmare.”
Sara visited her daughter and grandson the very next day.
She arrived just as Guy was being taken for an examination by the doctor, and
she carried the IV while Lilly carried the baby. She says: “he cried so hard,
it broke my heart. He was so miserable.”
After four days in the hospital, Guy was released.  On the way home in the car he started vomiting
and having diarrhea again.  Lilly says:
“when we got home it continued, and he looked bad – he looked pale, apathetic.
He could not cry, he was so exhausted. So we said, there’s no choice, let’s
take him back to the hospital. By then it was night time – 8-9pm.” Again, they
checked Guy in, again, the search for a vein to insert the IV into in the
dehydrated, miserable baby. And three more days of  the ward, with an unhappy baby hooked up to
IV, with ten other suffering babies, with bad sleep on a couch, with stress,
pain, and worry.
And then he got better, and they took him home, and this
time he stayed better.
Lilly and Sara also know they were lucky: living in
an industrialized country, with easy access to a universal healthcare system
and very good medical care, Guy got the help he needed quickly. According to
the World Health Organization, hundreds of thousands of children die from
rotavirus every year and millions are hospitalized, most – but not all –  in developing countries, though the numbers
are declining, thanks to the availability of a vaccine against the disease. In the United States, prior to the vaccine, “rotavirus infection was responsible
for more than 400,000 physician
visits, more than 200,000 emergency department (ED) visits, 55,000 to 70,000
hospitalizations each year, and 20 to 60 deaths.” See also here, for a previous story about and discussion of rotavirus.
Still, even with the best care, Lilly describes the
experience as “stressful, painful, worrying”. 
“I haven’t heard of rotavirus before this,” said Sara. “I raised four
children, and we went through several childhood illnesses – there was no
vaccines for some of them, and they had mumps, rubella, and a host of digestive
issues. They had diarrhea; I remember a night when my daughters were four or
five, and they went to the bathroom in turns for about 18 times, one by one.
But I don’t remember anything close to this bad. Since then, just hearing the
name “Rota” gives me chills. I think the vaccine Lilly was most eager to give [Guy’s
younger brother] was Rota.”
Lilly says, “but there was no vaccine available at the time,
if there had been one we would have given it to him. We made sure to vaccinate
our second child, there was a vaccine then, and it was never in doubt.”

Image from The Public Health Library, Provided by Dr. Erskine Palmer:

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Stacy Hillenberg, Clara Obscura, Meleese Pollock and Alice Warning Wasney for comments on drafts, as well as my interviewees, Guy’s mother and grandmother and his grandfather. All errors are, of course, my own. 


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