HERSHEY, Pa. — Earlier this year, Karen Graham finally learned the name of the mysterious, rare disease that has been plaguing her son, Douglas, since he was born eight years ago.
Then, in early December, another disease came calling. It’s just as mysterious, but its name conjures nightmares the world over — COVID-19.
Douglas already suffers from Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes him to inflict harm upon himself. It has confined him to a wheelchair and robbed him of the ability to talk. There’s no cure.
When the pandemic struck, Karen worried. Douglas has a weak immune system, and chronic lung problems were part of the litany of symptoms he experienced as a baby.
When he started vomiting on Dec. 4, she prayed it was just a stomach bug, but got him tested anyway. Four days later, when she put him down to sleep, he stopped breathing. Karen called an ambulance, which took him to Chambersburg Hospital. That night, she received the phone call with the test result she already knew.
The next day, another ambulance took him to Hershey Medical Center, where doctors hooked him up to machines to help him breathe. Karen hasn’t left his side, sleeping on a couch in his room.
They joined a small, but tragic collective. While the popular narrative has it that the pandemic is primarily an old person’s disease, 49,179 children in Pennsylvania have contracted COVID-19. One-hundred-sixty-six have come through Hershey, from infants to 18-year-olds. And though the statistics may be less grim for children than adults, the tangents lead down dark corridors. Health care workers say eating disorders requiring inpatient stays have spiked among youngsters. Suicide attempts are skyrocketing among children. And a rare, potentially fatal illness doctors are still struggling to understand occurs almost exclusively in children and young adults who had COVID.
“The reality is, it’s affecting everyone,” said Jessica Masgay, a nurse manager in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Penn State Health doctors, therapists and nurses tasked with handling the crisis and its effects on children work hard to lift the spirits of both patients and families — all while grappling with their own emotional wear as the pandemic lumbers on into 2021.