Thursday, September 19, 2013

Too Close for Comfort: Rahel’s Experience with Chicken Pox

It was a hard time for Pamela as it was. Her husband had just died, and she found herself alone with four young children, three boys and a girl. Her oldest, at six, had just started first grade. Her second son was in Kinder Garten, her third was three, and her daughter was still a breastfed baby, at seven months. The youngest two were home with her, and the focus on them helped, though she was lost and upset, trying to find some normality in a world turned upside down.
Baby Rahel was already sitting on her own and had just started pulling herself to a standing position.
And then it started. Says Pamela: “One day my oldest came home acting a bit 'off'. Later that evening, when I took his clothes off, I noticed a blister under his arm and at first thought that his clothes had rubbed against his skin. I have to add that my oldest is handicapped and has extremely sensitive skin, so that was also a possibility. Anyway, the next morning he was covered in blisters.”
The child’s fever shot up, “quite high”, Pamela said. During that second day, her second son started to get sick, followed by her three-year-old the following day.
All of them suffered substantially, says Pamela: “[the eldest] had blisters mostly on his torso and his fever went away after a few days, once the blisters started to dry up. [her second son, five years old] had it bad, the back of his knees was so covered he couldn´t even bend them and he also had blisters on the inside of his eyelids. [her third son], three, had a very high fever for several days and was covered from head to toe."

At first Pamela thought the disease spared baby Rahel – “we got lucky with her.” Pamela herself knew that a few years earlier, when her titers were measured, she had high levels of antibodies; she believed breastfeeding Rahel protected her against the chicken pox.
She was wrong. A few days after the boys were sick, as they were healing, “I woke up in the middle of the night to her whimpering. When I turned the light on, I was in shock: she was covered with blisters and had a really high fever.”
“During the course of the day, she got more and more spots and her fever got higher so we called our pediatrician . He came to the house (as he usually did in very serious cases) to check on her and prescribed some calamine lotion and something to bring the fever down a bit.”
The pediatrician was shocked. He was an experienced pediatrician – who took care of Pamela herself as a baby. He said that in his many years practicing, this was one of the worst cases he had ever seen.
Rahel was not getting better. After a little while, says Pamela, “there were more blisters on her than normal skin. It was awful, she had a raging fever, was so weak she couldn't even feed anymore and could only whimper. Her eyes were red and light-sensitive, horrible.” The pediatrician, asked to visit again, took one look at the baby and called an ambulance. Pamela and Rahel were taken to the hospital; Rahel arrived with a fever of 41 degrees Celsius, 105.8 Fahrenheit. They was immediately admitted to the isolation unit in ICU, where Rahel was attached to monitored and an IV inserted into her arm. She was given fluids and anti-viral medications and medication to reduce her fever. Pamela was very, very frightened.
The pediatrician said it was the worst case he had seen in his many years practicing. He asked permission to give Rahel a new drug that has just come out, explaining that without something to help she would die anyway, and that way, she at least had a chance. Rahel was not really conscious – but Pamela was both scared and distressed. She says: “It was horror. After losing my husband a month earlier, I thought, now I am losing my only daughter as well.”
Pamela and Rahel spent four days in ICU, and then several more days in the hospital. Recovery at home was long. Rahel, previously active and already pulling herself to a standing position, was so weak she could hardly lift her head. She had lost 15% of her body weight – a lot, for such a young baby. The blisters left on her body covered her all over, including her diaper area, kept getting infected and oozing, and had to be covered with antibiotic ointment. It took many weeks for her to get anywhere near normal.

Pamela feels very strongly about vaccination. Having been through such a traumatic experience, she cannot understand why a parent would not vaccinate their child against chicken pox. The disease might be mild in many cases, but it can kill (See, for example, here and here) or lead to seriouscomplications and suffering. The vaccine, on the other hand, is extremely safe (see also here), and although a child can still get chicken pox after it, it is almost always a much milder version:

Meme provided courtesy of the Facebook page Refutations to Anti-Vaccine Memes  

Rates of shingles among vaccinated children are also substantially lower than among unvaccinated children.
Pamela is clear: if she could at the time, she would have vaccinated her children against the disease. Her main reason for sharing her story is so that other parents realize how dangerous chicken pox can be, and take precautions to prevent their kids suffering through something like this. 

Acknowledgements: I'm grateful to Pamela for sharing her story and to Alice Warning Wasney and Clara Obscura for reading and commenting on my draft. All errors are, of course, my own. 


  1. Similar story in my family, in 1990. My cousin had a son in nursery school and was heavily pregnant with a second child. Right before the daughter was born, the son caught chicken pox. The day after giving birth, the mother came down with it. (She'd had chicken pox as a child but subsequently lost immunity. It happens occasionally.)

    The baby, alas, was already as exposed as it was possible for anyone to be. The doctor instructed the parents to rush her to the best hospital in the city at the first sign of illness. At age 1 week, my little cousin developed chicken pox.

    She was in the hospital for three weeks, treated with IV fluids and then-experimental antivirals. It was a very near thing, but she survived.

    A few years later, the chicken pox vaccine entered the schedule. Praise be!

  2. This event happening right after Pamela had lost her husband was quite scary. She must still be in trauma, so the timing was very unwelcome. Thankfully, everything is good now. On a different matter, you’ve raised a good point. Getting vaccines is a good way to prevent life-threatening diseases, and it has certainly come a long way in the past few years. Thank you for the reminder. Good day!

    Candace Hudson @ MedCare Pediatric