Baby boy struggles with virus that's filling up children's ICUs

October 17, 2022
Liam Robertson lies in hospital bed. The 7 week old boy has tubes in his nose and going to his chest. His eyes are closed.
Liam Robertson, 7 weeks old, in the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital's intensive care unit being treated for for respiratory syncytial virus. Photos by Cory Robertson

A tiny boy from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, developed a big problem with his breathing due to a virus that’s causing a surge of cases across the country. His family’s harrowing story begins with a big sister who came home from day care with the sniffles. Fortunately, it has a happy ending – but not before a nerve-wracking stay in the intensive care unit, which included putting Liam Robertson on a ventilator to help save his life. His father, Cory Robertson, gave this first-person account in hopes of helping other families stay safe.

A seemingly routine beginning many families can relate to

Our son Liam just turned 7 weeks old. My daughter goes to day care. She’s almost 3 years old. About two weeks ago now, she started developing some symptoms. We didn't know if it was just another cold. She's been getting sick a lot through day care.

It was only a matter of time before we all ended up getting it. My wife got sick. Liam started to develop some symptoms. I felt run down.

Liam and Aurora Robertson. Liam, a baby, is lying in Aurora's lap. He's wearing a green onesie. Aurora is wearing a princess dress and smiling. 
Liam lies in big sister Aurora's lap before their illness.

My daughter, Aurora, was quite sick. She had a fever. It was rough.

But it was even worse for Liam. There were a couple of nights we were just about ready to run to the emergency room. It ebbed and flowed. Right when we were getting ready to go to the hospital, his temperature would drop a couple of degrees.

Seven-week-old Liam gets sicker

Then Liam began to develop some congestion, and his condition got worse. So we gave it a day, and then my wife was like, “Well, I'm definitely taking him into the pediatrician.”

They didn’t test for RSV at the pediatrician. I wish they had. They tried to make him feel better; then my wife Sara and Liam came home.

Note: RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. It’s on the rise across the country in young babies, who are especially susceptible because of their tiny airways, reliance on nasal breathing and immature immune systems. Elizabeth Mack, M.D. division chief of Pediatric Critical Care at MUSC Children’s Health, has more details on RSV in this related story.

A day or two later, last Sunday evening, I was outside. When I came in, my wife said, “Liam’s really laboring to breathe right now.”

We were seeing his chest kind of flex, you know, do a little bit of a caving in. And he was just working hard to breathe, and that really concerned us. We knew that was serious.

Sara and Liam Robertson. Sara sits in a chair wearing a white top with a visitor sticker on it holding baby Liam, who has a tube in his nose. 
Liam's mom Sara holds him while he's being treated for RSV.

My wife took him to an MUSC after-hours urgent care in Mount Pleasant by where we live. They gave him a number of breathing treatments, which helped and got his oxygen up.

I was home with our daughter.

Sara brought him back that night, and she was up with him all night. We were suctioning the mucus out with the bulb and all that. He had just a lot of congestion.

The next day, he was still having a hard time. We had been told, “Hey, if there are more problems, take him down to MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children's Hospital.” So we packed up and came here quickly on Monday morning, got him into the hospital.

From hospital admission to the intensive care unit – and a ventilator

We’re so glad we got him in when we did. They gave him some oxygen right away. But they still wanted us to stay that night, which surprised me. In hindsight, I’m so glad he did.

While I took my daughter home to go to sleep, my wife stayed in the hospital with Liam. That Monday night was just a really bad night. He went downhill. They enhanced his oxygen support, and they tried a couple of different things. They used a CPAP (a machine that uses continuous positive airway pressure to help with breathing).

But Liam was still upset. He was very agitated. He was just not getting the oxygen he needed.

Liam Robertson lies in a hospital bed with a tube in his nose. A dinosaur blanket covers him. 
Tubes in Liam's nose help him breathe.

So in the middle of the night, the doctors decided, “Hey, we need to get him on a ventilator right now.” My poor wife was here for that. I listened to it on the phone. It was horrible.

I was so worried about the ventilator because I’d heard about all these things with COVID where people were getting on a ventilator, and then they couldn’t get off. All these horror stories.

And it’s really scary to see your 7-week-old hooked up to a ventilator. It’s terrifying. But when I asked the specialists about it, they took the time and really explained it. We had a guy who was in here with us for an hour one night, answering all of our questions. He said this was setting Liam up so that he didn’t have to work so hard on breathing, and he could just heal.

Support pours in, including from a well-known name, and Liam makes progress

I called my dad in Minnesota the night Liam went on the ventilator. He bought an airplane ticket and flew down the next day to help watch our daughter. So my dad’s been with her all week, and we’ve been here at the hospital.

The doctors and nurses have been amazing. Liam has slowly started to progress. They started to slowly wean him off certain things, and we've just had an outpouring of support from family and friends that's been amazing.

I actually work with Shawn Jenkins (namesake of the MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital), and he found out that we were here. He called me to extend his support, which was really nice of him to do. It's kind of ironic we’re here because I'm working on a documentary for the Children's Hospital with him right now and have been for a couple of years. I’m grateful to him for reaching out.

So the medical team took Liam off the ventilator Wednesday morning. He continued to do well. The doctors prepared us for the possibility he’d have to go back on it. But he's done really well. He's still getting some oxygen support, but it's a pretty minimal amount.

Learning about the virus that temporarily upended the Robertsons’ lives

I wasn’t very familiar with RSV before all of this. When we found out Liam had it, I looked it up because I'm one of those people who wants to understand everything. But I also wanted to be ignorant to some degree because I learned it can be really dangerous for little kids.

The doctors have been telling us how RSV is really prevalent right now and going around and a problem for a lot of kids, and it's definitely nothing to take lightly.

Cory and Liam Robertson. Cory is sitting in a chair holding his newborn son. 
Cory Robertson holds newborn Liam.

So our advice is if you have an infant like us, take every precaution possible until they get a little bit bigger. We've always felt like we're careful, but we’ll be even more so now. Until he gets a little older, let's not expose him to things if we don't have to.

And don't feel weird about being careful. It's important. You don't want to end up dealing with something like this.

Also, if there is any kind of sign whatsoever that your child is seriously sick, take action because I think the timing can be really critical. I'm so glad we got him in here when we did. If we’d been home like Monday night when he had that stuff happen, he might not have had as good of an outcome.

I cannot even put into words how grateful I am for the care, for the people who are up all night long checking on him, sucking out his mucus, making sure he's OK.

But having your child in intensive care is just a scary thing. It makes you feel powerless because I'm not a doctor; I'm not a nurse. But I was confident that he was in the best place he could be. We’re just grateful that we had him in here when we did, and that he's getting better.

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