Mom warns COVID-19 is still ‘serious’ as her 1-year-old fights the virus

Andrea Bell

(ANN ARBOR, Mich.) — As COVID-19 vaccines have rolled out and the world begins to slowly reopen, a Michigan mother is encouraging others to continue living with caution as her child fights the virus.

“This is serious and it’s killing people,” Andrea Bell told Good Morning America. “Maybe you’re not at risk, but I sure bet someone you love is.”

“I never thought in a million years that I’d be sitting here,” she added. “I never thought we’d have to experience COVID this closely, but I was wrong. I think people are tired and they’re craving normalcy, but there’s nothing normal about your child on ECMO.”

ECMO stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — a treatment in which blood is pumped out of the body to a machine that removes carbon dioxide and sends oxygen-filled blood back to tissues in the body. It’s used to help the heart and lungs heal, according to Mayo Clinic.

Bell, of Ann Arbor, is currently in isolation with her daughter Fiona. The 1-year-old is being treated at University of Michigan’s CS Mott Children’s Hospital. Fiona is breathing on a ventilator, sedated and is on ECMO.

Fiona was diagnosed with spina bifida in utero and hydrocephalus — a condition which causes a buildup of fluid in the brain. Fiona had a surgical procedure where a shunt was placed in her brain to release the fluid and pressure.

Fiona also had a tracheostomy last summer. Bell said that because of Fiona’s medically-fragile airway, she and her husband Kirk had their “home in lockdown” since the start of the pandemic.

“The severity of what’s happened to Fiona is not because of her spina bifida, it’s because COVID basically ate through her right lung and that’s what put her on ECMO,” Bell said. “It’s more so related to the tracheostomy. Any kid that has a trach is at a higher risk for respiratory things.”

On April 2, doctors suggested she bring Fiona to the emergency room for evaluations after she struggled with respiratory care. Hours later, Fiona spiked a fever and was having trouble breathing. She then tested positive for COVID-19.

Bell said she’s not certain how Fiona contracted the virus, though said she had been to her rehab clinic and hospital for therapies.

Kristen Padilla is Fiona’s pediatrician at Mott Children’s. Padilla said Fiona has been a “fighter her entire life” and has undergone multiple surgeries before she turned 1.

“She’s a remarkable little girl who always greets you with a smile and her family has played it incredibly safe throughout the pandemic,” Padilla told GMA. “We discussed that a COVID-19 illness could be serious, however, we never expected this.”

She added, “In Fiona’s case, the only thing that could have been done differently was to make sure every person she ever came into contact with was vaccinated. It is my hope that people will see this beautiful toddler and realize that their actions can affect others. Receiving a COVID-19 vaccine and following pandemic precautions are the only ways to protect our most vulnerable, like Fiona.”

In March, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their COVID-19 vaccine is 100% effective against the virus in children ages 12 to 15.

They also launched a global COVID-19 vaccine trial that will ultimately enroll 4,500 children between the ages of 6 months and 11 years old.

Their vaccine is currently authorized — under the federal drug administration’s emergency use authorization — to be distributed in the U.S. for use in people ages 16 and up.

Earlier this month, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told ABC News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton that kids 12 and up might be able to get the vaccine starting “mid-May,” pending Food and Drug Administration authorization for that age group.

Younger children will come later.

Bell said Fiona will receive the vaccine once it becomes available and her doctors give the go-ahead.

Fiona is in stable condition. Her chest X-rays have improved, and as of Thursday, she was able to sustain her breath on the ventilator, Bell said, adding that she’s confident she will be bringing Fiona home soon.

“What’s really incredible about Fiona is she will wake up from brain surgery and be smiling,” Bell said. “She’s so feisty and sweet … it sounds like a cliche, but she lights up the room.”

As Fiona continues to fight, the Bell family has been receiving cards, picture books and artwork from kids around the world, which Bell hangs in Fiona’s hospital room. Bell said Fiona’s favorite color is yellow.

Mail can be sent to: C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, Attn: Fiona Bell Pediatric Intensive Care Unit 10 East 1540 East Hospital Drive Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109.

Bell said she encourages people to continue wearing masks. She hopes Fiona’s story inspires others to get the vaccine, she added.

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