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Patient Stories: Carlos Don

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A healthy 12-year old athlete from Southern California who died of pneumonia caused by an MRSA infection.

My name is Amber Don, and I lost my son Carlos to methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) on Feb. 4, 2007, only 15 days before his 13th birthday. Carlos was the person I loved most in this entire world. He was my life.

Carlos was the picture of health. He was very involved with sports, and anything he tried came naturally to him. He fished, played football, raced motocross, and tore it up on the skateboard. Football was Carlos’ best sport. His coach compared him to a gazelle. Carlos could outrun anyone.

Carlos left for 6th-grade camp healthy. I was with him that morning and watched him get on the bus. He had no fever, no sniffles, not even a cough. I had no reason to think anything was wrong with him. My husband picked him up from school when they returned four days later and immediately called me at work. His exact words to me were, “Amber, he's sick… he looks like death.” Carlos was ghost white and running a 104-degree fever. He had all the symptoms of a bad flu, so we gave him ibuprofen for the fever and Gatorade to keep him hydrated. The next morning, he started coughing, and he was lethargic. We literally had to carry him to the bathroom. I took him to urgent care, where he was diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia.

I remember sitting in the waiting room at urgent care knowing something was very wrong with him. He hadn't held my hand in public for at least 5 years, and here was my 12-year-old son, sitting on my lap with his head on my shoulder, too weak to walk on his own. We were sent home, and I was told he would be fine once the antibiotics kicked in, and that it was just the pneumonia making him weak. I listened to them instead of my heart, and I will never forgive myself for that.

I rushed him back to urgent care the next day when he started hallucinating, per the on-call nurse’s instructions. They immediately called an ambulance because his oxygen level was so low. He was taken to Pomerado Hospital and immediately transported to Children's Hospital for an overnight stay in the ICU. His breathing was becoming more and more labored by the minute, and they wanted him in ICU for the night for precautionary measures. I remember him lying there on the hospital bed as they were preparing him for the ambulance ride to Children’s. He was petrified, but was trying to be so brave. I lied to my son for the first time in his life at that moment. He asked me if he was going to die, and I told him no. I told him he was going to be just fine, squeezed his hand, and gave him a kiss.

Once we arrived at Children's we were told they were going to induce a coma and put him on the ventilator to give his lungs a rest and help him recover. I gave him a kiss in the ICU room and told him I would see him shortly and that I loved him. He told me he loved me too. Those were the last words I ever heard my son say to me.

We waited for hours when we had been told it would only be a 45-minute wait. I can't even begin to explain the fear that started working its way into my heart. I was scared something had gone wrong, but I wasn't prepared for exactly how wrong things were. We were called back into his room, and my son was hooked up to so many machines and had so many people surrounding him, we could barely see him. His lungs weren't working anymore, and he was dying. No one could tell us what was doing this to him. All they could tell us was that they didn't think he would make it through the night. Those are words that no parent should ever hear.

He did make it through the night and was placed on a heart assist device the following morning because his heart also began to fail. His body had been working so hard to fight this unknown invader the last few days that it started giving out. It had no strength left and machines were the only thing keeping him alive. Blood flow had stopped to his arms and legs, and they were dying as well.

We had an answer that afternoon: MRSA. A disease I had never heard of was killing my child. Antibiotics were administered, and all we could do was wait and pray he recovered. For two weeks we watched Carlos deteriorate before our eyes, praying for a miracle with every X-ray taken of his lungs. We never left the hospital, and we never gave up hope. I stood over his bed day after day thinking the same thing over and over again: He is only 12 years old, and he doesn’t deserve this.

Dialysis machines were brought in, and he was put on a stronger ventilator while his body shut down one organ at a time.

At the end of our two-week stay at the hospital, it was determined that his lung tissue was dead, killed by this disease, as well as his upper intestines. His heart was too weak to function on its own as well as his kidneys. There was zero chance of survival, and we were left with the decision of removing him from the machines.

Carlos left us Feb. 4, 2007, at 2:20 a.m. while his father and I held his hand and told him over and over again how much we loved him. Our lives will never be the same. I miss him every single minute of every single day. Pictures and memories are all I have left of him, and you can't give those hugs or tuck those in bed at night. The day I picked up his urn from the mortuary I also picked up my daughters from school. While waiting in my car for the girls, I sat and watched my son's friends laughing and playing around outside the school. While they were doing what normal 12-year-olds do, my son's remains sat in a box in the back seat of my car. He should have been out there laughing and playing with them.

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