It’s been a five days since our family has emerged from a COVID-19 fuelled hibernation; five days since the tears have stopped flowing every time the lights went out at night. As parents, our one job is to protect our children from the evils of this world, and despite doing everything right, I failed to keep my babies safe from the clutches of the virus.
According to The John Hopkins Hospital and Research Center in the US, generally, COVID-19 symptoms are milder in children than in adults, and some infected children may not have any signs of being sick at all. However, in rare cases, children can also become very sick and die from complications.
Practical advice is all very cut and dry, but the reality is far removed from the emotionless number crunching that researchers whip out with their statistical data. And it’s this reality that strikes fear in your heart every time your baby struggles to draw breath.
Becoming parents during a pandemic
For those of us who have become parents during COVID-19, giving birth in the midst of a global pandemic, taking precautions almost becomes second nature. My twin baby girls, born at 34 weeks, had a collective weight of 2.5kg. Their frail, delicate bodies, survived weeks in the NICU before finally reaching a healthy discharge weight of 1.8kg each to make the short trip home.
In the months that passed, a COVID-generated new normal became a part of our daily lives. While my friends returned to brunching and colleagues gradually went back to the office, the premature status of my twins kept my husband and I firmly indoors and the grandparents at bay, all at the behest of the doctors.
Deliveries of orders were sanitised, outings were limited and even when people were finally welcomed into our homes, it was with safety reassurances and minutes spent at the basin, scrubbing any possible germs away. Which is why it threw us off balance when we first noticed that something might be amiss.
COVID-19 quarantine with kids: A diary
Day Zero: The first signs
It had been 24 hours since the husband had returned from receiving the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine when symptoms started to show — body pain, fever and the makings of a cough. At this point we thought it might just be the side effects from the vaccine, but as it turned out he must have already been exposed to the virus prior to getting the vaccine or just afterwards (a COVID-19 vaccine cannot make you sick with coronavirus). It would still be another 24 hours before the symptoms would latch on to me, starting out as a throbbing ache in my legs that left me feeling like I had just run a marathon.
Day One: Fever strikes
By now, fever had me firmly in its grip, creeping up to 102 degree Fahrenheit. Meanwhile the husband’s cough only seemed to worsen, as did the pain in his body. We had both done the PCR test, but it would be another 24 hours before we would get the results. Our fear, though, was on account of the twins. The girls, just shy of seven months, had to be protected at all costs.
Dread had yet to give way to full blown panic, but a sense of helplessness was creeping in as we scrambled to figure out how to take care of the twins if both of us were positive. Shall we send the kids to their grandparents? Do we call on friends to help us? Do we ride it out? I was still nursing the babies — was breastfeeding still possible?
Day Two: PCR test results arrive
This morning’s PCR test results would spell the dreaded word: positive. The first thing we did was book a tele-consult with the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) and figure out how we could limit exposure to the children. My husband’s cough had taken on the ferocity of a freight train overnight and it was decided that he would isolate in another room until DHA shared some guidance.
Armed with two masks, gloves and bottles of sanitiser, the nanny (who had also tested positive) and I took shifts to care for the babies, ensuring neither one of us collapsed in the process and got enough rest to carry us through the quarantine period. Google research had unearthed some tips: double masks, maintain a three-meter distance, use gloves when handling babies and if possible, the mother isolate with the children in a room.
With my own body battling the virus and its very real symptoms, that night passed with nary a moment’s rest as I struggled with fever, fatigue and pain, while juggling feeding, burping and soothing two confused babies, who would have no way of understanding why their mother wasn’t picking them up anymore for long, warm cuddles.
Day Three: The babies fall sick
I remember it was an hour before the tele-consult when the first symptoms showed up in one of the twins. There was a hitch in breathing, wasn’t it? Or did my exhausted mind just imagine that? No, there it was again, an almost whistling sound that seemed to be emerging from the baby’s chest every time she drew breath. As I stared at the younger twin, her face started to turn red, crumpling into tears as she attempted to breathe.
Clawing down panic and unsure of how to handle her plight, I straightened the baby so her chest wasn’t compressed and rang the paediatrician and DHA for guidance. Thirty minutes later, which felt like the longest half-hour of my life, a treatment plan was in place, medicines had been ordered and DHA had assured me that Latifa Hospital was equipped to handle COVID-19 cases in infants.
At 7 months, the twins were still too young to be tested, but going by the videos I had sent over and the symptoms recorded, including mild fever and a runny nose, the twins were now to be treated as COVID patients themselves.
Day Four to 10: In the thick of the virus
The days went by in a blur of exhaustion. Mask up. Sanitise. Gloves. Feed, maintain a safe distance and yet, play with them, monitor their fever, their breathing and administer the medication prescribed to help with their COVID symptoms. All the while, ensuring that even though you want to, you are not at liberty to fall apart just yet.
When the babies would finally rest for the night, the tears that were kept at bay through the hours, would finally overwhelm. Today, if you ask me, I can’t truly answer whether it was just the fear, their plight, the sheer exhaustion, the loneliness or feeling like a failure as a parent that broke me. Perhaps it was a combination of all of the above.
To kill time and entertain the babies from afar, Botim and Zoom became our best friends once again and our only connection with the outside world. But five days in and even the calls started to feel like a chore — I mean, what more can you experience stuck in the confines of four walls?
The fever that had plagued the babies finally let up by day six. The breathing cleared up the following day. Yet, another consult with the DHA pushed us to maintain NICU-level hygiene at home, with a nebuliser on standby should either of the twins face a relapse.
Day 11 to 14: The road to recovery
With our symptoms finally abating, I was impatiently counting down the days when the mask would come off and allow me to kiss my babies again. My husband remained in isolation on account of his cough, but the rest of us were finally on the road to recovery, ending a dark and lonely chapter in our lives.
The parental guilt has yet to shake off. We still don’t know how we got COVID. Was it a wayward delivery? A trip to the office by the husband? Standing too close to someone in a line? Irrespective of how we contracted the virus, the fact still remains that the pandemic is still very real and extremely dangerous. Meanwhile, we as parents draw comfort from the fact that our babies have come through healthy and will go on with no recollection of these trying two weeks in our lives.
Day 20: Reflections
It’s been 20 days since this ordeal began and the fatigue, the nagging guilt and the emotional trauma has yet to shake off. Even as I count my blessings, it is with a sense of fear that this nightmare could have had a very different outcome. Yet, every time I slip into the abyss, I draw strength from my babies by slipping in a dozen more cuddles and kisses, much to their frustration.
Parenting is hard. Parenting twins, even harder. Throw in a pandemic and a health crisis and it really allows you to take stock of what really matters in life. For those of you out there who may find yourselves in a similar situation, my one advice is: Stop and take a breath. You got this. Fall back on your friends and family to help you out, even if it’s something as simple as popping up on a Zoom call, running an errand or dropping off a meal on your doorstep. And when the crisis passes, fall apart. There is nothing like a good cry to give closure to your grief and celebrate life.
The COVID crisis is real. It is dangerous and it is a long, lonely road to recovery. If you are eligible, get that jab. If not for yourself, then your kids at home. They deserve a safer world to grow up in.
- SOCIAL DISTANCING: While it is hard, health authorities have advised to maintain a three-meter distance with babies when not feeding. Use external distractions such as baby swings and jumpers to entertain the kids, thus limiting physical contact with babies over long stretches.
- SANITISE: Wash your hands and keep sanitisers handy. I kept two to three sanitisers in every room.
- BABIES STAYS WITH THE MOTHER: Despite getting conflicting advice from people, DHA served as the final authority who advised us to keep the babies in the same room as the mother.
- BREASTFEEDING: DHA and advice online states that there is no evidence that babies cannot be breastfed even when the mother tests positive for COVID. In fact, mother’s milk is known to have antibodies that helps build your baby’s immunity. If you have a machine, pump into a bottle and feed your baby if that makes you more comfortable. If you are breastfeeding, clean the area with soap and water before and after you feed the baby, while keeping your mask on at all times.
- CREATE A BIO-BUBBLE: We were asked to limit the movement of the babies, thus forcing us to create a bio-bubble of sorts. The living room served as a play area, while the bedroom served as a place to sleep. Both rooms were sanitised on a daily basis by soap and water and sanitiser sprays.
- INVEST IN SOME MEDICAL EQUIPMENT: Following DHA’s recommendation, we purchased an oximeter to monitor our O2 levels, along with buying a forehead thermometer and a nebulizer for the babies, with separate masks for each.
- FOOD: Yes, food. One needs to be practical and slaving in the kitchen while battling COVID and caring for babies is not practical. Find a meal service that can deliver on your doorstep.
- INVEST IN DISPOSABLE CUTLERY: Use and throw paper plates and spoons, thus limiting your scope of area being possibly infected and avoid spending time in the kitchen slaving away in cleaning dishes.
- DOWNLOAD THE DHA APP: Book yourself into tele-consult as soon as you test positive to allow a doctor to guide you and give tips on caring for your babies.
- SELF-CARE: I was so caught up in caring for the babies and the husband, I forgot to look after myself and was close to falling apart from sheer exhaustion. Sleep when the babies do, if someone can stay with the kids, even for 30 minutes, then take the time to rest. And stock up on multi-vitamins and Vitamin C to ride you through the COVID crisis.