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Shannarose Martinez said for the rest of her life she’ll have nightmares about the moment she laid her son, 1-year-old Matteo Baca, on a table so doctors could intubate him.
She gets emotional picturing him reaching out for her as the tube went down his throat, and when she recalls “being dragged out of the room” as doctors swarmed her son to try to revive him when his breathing deteriorated.
Matteo, who is now 15 months old, is one of 215 children under 5 in New Mexico who have been hospitalized with COVID-19, according to state epidemiology reports. He was the first from that age group in the state to be put on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, to give his tiny lungs time to heal.
The very young are the only age group not yet eligible for vaccines, and there has been an increase in hospitalizations of children under 5 during the most recent surge.
While many youngsters who catch COVID have only a mild case, some others are not so lucky. Matteo spent more than a month at the University of New Mexico Hospital and needed intense medical interventions. He has since returned to his home in Albuquerque and is back to his normal, playful self, Martinez said.
“COVID does not discriminate. You could be healthy, you could be sick, you could be young, you could be old, rich or poor. COVID doesn’t care,” she said. “COVID doesn’t care if you have this healthy, beautiful baby. It doesn’t give a damn.”
Matteo’s medical team also described their efforts to save the boy. They said determining which children will get seriously ill from COVID and which won’t is a shot in the dark.
“Unfortunately it’s kind of a lottery draw,” said Dr. Gloria López, who admitted Matteo to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. “We don’t know which kids are the ones who are going to progress and be as sick as Matteo and who are the ones who are going to recover at home from a bad cold. That’s what makes it so scary.”
Martinez, who lives in Albuquerque, said her son caught COVID the weekend after Thanksgiving and was diagnosed on Dec. 1. Contact tracers determined how he caught the virus, but Martinez said it’s become a difficult subject within her family and didn’t want to discuss it.
The diagnosis came as a shock.
Martinez and her father are immunocompromised, and she said her family was extremely cautious throughout the pandemic. She frequently wore two masks, limited trips to the store, got fully vaccinated and shied away from family gatherings.
But the night of Nov. 30, Matteo started to get fussy and cough.
“Every time he coughed he cried so much,” she said. “He just wasn’t himself.”
She took him to UNM Hospital, where he was ultimately admitted because of a high heart rate and low oxygen levels.
“My heart dropped. I felt like I failed. I felt like I did something wrong and didn’t protect him,” she said, describing how she felt when her son was diagnosed. “It was extremely devastating.”
Originally treated in the hospital’s pediatric ward, Matteo continued to get sicker.
“When he was decompensating in the pediatric ward … it was clear he was going to need a much higher level of support, which is what he got,” López said.
Matteo was hospitalized for more than a month. On Dec. 9, doctors had to intubate him. On Dec. 12, he was put on ECMO until the 20th, and he was taken off the ventilator on Dec. 24.
Agreeing to have her son placed on ECMO was terrifying, Martinez said. She originally declined, but said she agreed to the procedure when Dr. Alia Broman told her that while there was no guarantee he would survive, it was the only treatment left to offer her son.
“She basically said if I didn’t do this I was going to lose my son,” Martinez said. “I had to put all my faith in them and trust their decision.”
‘He saw his mom’
Doctors described the machine as a sort of pump where big tubes transfer blood out of the body and through a machine where carbon dioxide is removed, the blood is oxygenated and then pumped back into the body. Essentially, the machine replaces the heart and lungs and gives the patient time to recover.
“We like to think of it as a dialysis machine but instead of using it for the kidneys we use it for the heart and lungs or both,” said Dr. Senan Hadid, a pediatric critical care specialist. “This machine has saved many lives in the past, of all ages and from many diseases. But it carries risks. Because there is a procedure where really big tubes need to be inserted into the body and complications can happen from this procedure at any time.”
Eventually doctors weaned Matteo off ECMO. On Christmas Eve, López said Matteo’s eyes opened wide when she took him off a ventilator.
“You don’t need language, you don’t need words,” López said. “You saw he saw his mom, grabbed her hand and didn’t let go. It was one of those moments where you say, ‘OK, this kid is going to be OK.'”
Matteo returned home on Jan. 6.
The omicron variant, which recently ripped through New Mexico but is now on the decline, appeared to pose more of a threat to young children than previous variants.
During omicron’s peak, about 15 children under age 5 were hospitalized with COVID throughout the state per week, according to state pediatric hospitalization reports.
That’s about a threefold increase compared with the previous peak of hospitalized young people, which happened during the state’s initial coronavirus surge in late 2020, according to reports.
Hadid said there are likely two reasons for the increase. One, vaccines are only approved for people over the age of 5, so no one in the youngest age group is vaccinated. He also said the latest variant is likely more of a risk to children.
During prior surges of COVID hospitalizations, Hadid said it was rare to find a child with COVID in UNMH’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. But during the latest surge, he said young children were taking up as many as six of the unit’s 20 available beds.
“I think the variant has something to do with the increase in the kids who are hospitalized that we are seeing right now,” he said.
There have been a total of 507 children under the age of 18 who have been hospitalized with COVID in New Mexico. Of those hospitalizations, kids under age 5 account for more than older children. That age group accounted for 42.4% of the child hospitalizations, while 5- to 11-year-olds made up 18.3% of those hospitalizations and 12- to 17-year-olds made up 39.3%, according to pediatric case reports.
It’s not yet known when a vaccine will be available to the youngest age group.
“The worst part of all is not having a vaccine available for that age range as well,” said Broman. “Any kid getting COVID that’s not eligible for a vaccine, that shouldn’t be happening. That just means they were exposed to someone who probably was eligible and didn’t get the vaccine.”