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Patient Stories: Simon Sparrow

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In less than 24 hours, 15-month-old Simon passed away from an undiagnosed MRSA infection.

My son Simon was a tranquil baby until he was 15 months old when he started getting sick with various illnesses, such as ear infections and asthma. In April 2004, doctors prescribed antibiotics and steroids so Simon could breathe better after a throat infection. He seemed to be recovering fine until one morning he awoke with a terrified shriek and fever and my husband, Jim, took him to the emergency room.

Doctors ran the standard battery of tests and decided Simon was asthmatic. When I joined Jim and Simon at the ER an hour later, Simon was sleeping on my husband’s lap looking angelic. But given how irritable he was, I knew something was wrong. Jim noticed Simon’s lips were blue as we left the ER. The doctors measured his oxygen level but said it was normal. We gave Simon albuterol via an inhaler. His eyes rolled back into his head, but we told ourselves, “He’s sick like any other kid his age. He’ll be fine.” 

That afternoon Simon vomited the little milk he had had that morning and lay limply in my arms. He kept asking for “agua” (water in Spanish) and drank about four cups, only to vomit all of it. His cheeks and forehead were cold and his lips were turning blue. His nostrils were flaring, and he was breathing heavily. I called the doctor and she told me to call 911. The EMTs applied an oxygen mask and said his oxygen level was fine. His eyes were wide open, and he was looking around, but was not moving. I tried to convince myself that Simon was okay, but as soon as he was wheeled into the ER, I kept hearing, “Your child is very, very sick.” I became hysterical. Simon kept looking at me with his chocolatey-brown eyes and long eyelashes, repeating, “Agua.” 

Simon was brought to the ICU to be intubated to help him breathe and connected to what seemed like 100 tubes, in addition to being given broad-spectrum antibiotics. I noted his eyes were open and asked the doctors if that was a good sign. I knew something was seriously wrong because the doctors seemed confused, scared, frantic, and helpless. They took me to a room where one of the doctors told me Simon had an infection, but they didn’t know the cause. Simon’s blood pressure was dropping and then went into septic shock. One doctor encouragingly said, “Most kids leave the ICU.” Later she admitted Simon was going downhill. 

By the time Jim returned to the ER, I knew Simon was dead. We gathered around his bed with many doctors. One said putting Simon on ECMO (the “heart-lung machine”) was “his only chance.” Jim and I desperately prayed for Simon to come out of his septic state. Doctors told us, “We’re not sure if your son is going to make it.” Simon became bloated, and his skin turned purplish and scab-like. He did not look like himself. Late the next morning, Jim and I decided to take Simon off of the ECMO machine, as he was not responding at all, and he was pronounced dead at 12:45 p.m., without a precise cause of death. The autopsy later confirmed that Simon died from community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA). Neither my husband nor I had ever heard of it. MRSA is a virulent antibiotic-resistant bacterium. MRSA is only treatable with vancomycin – but first you must have a diagnosis of MRSA. 

It seems unfathomable that a healthy, hearty and beautiful little boy could have been infected with a deadly bug and be gone in less than 24 hours. MRSA took my son swiftly. Now I have a window into what so many families experienced 50+ years ago: the death of a child caused by a bacterium or virus. It is ironic that the same advances in science that helped us live healthier and longer lives led to the creation of bacteria that no longer respond to antibiotics. As long as we do not treat antibiotics as a precious resource only to be used in the most extreme cases we will continue to have a false sense of security in medicine.

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