A 6-Year-Old’s Desperate Fight for Life After COVID
She loves mud pies, her chickens, and painting her nails rainbow colors. And she’s been battling just to breathe for a month.
Her mother tells people that 6-year-old Hattie Shell and her 8-year-old sister, Hazel, are “dirt balls with glitter on it.”
“Hattie loves to have her nails done and loves to have her outfits match, but then she’s going to go outside and climb a tree or carry a chicken around,” Kady Shell says of her younger daughter. “She has about 25 chickens at home. She carries them around like footballs… She has them in the house.”
Of the older girl, the mother says, “Hazel makes sure she has her jewelry on and her headband matches what she’s wearing, and then she’s playing in mud puddles and she’s scoring baskets and climbing the same tree as her sister.”
While Hattie cares for the chickens in rural Rosemark, Tennessee, Hazel tends to her two miniature horses.
“The rabbits are everybody’s,” Kady Shell said. “That’s what they say.”
If one of them is making mud pies, the other is making them with her.
“You don’t find Hattie without Hazel and you don’t find Hazel without Hattie,” their mom said. “They don’t even go to friends’ birthday parties without each other.”
The two had never spent more than 12 hours apart.
“Until this…” Kady Shell said.
The terrible story began when Hattie started running a fever in early August. Hattie is now separated from Hazel and fighting for her life because of a virus that too many people are still trying to say does not really affect children. The truth is that anybody who fails to do everything they can to limit the spread and accompanying mutation of COVID-19 is endangering children.
“They all have the right to a long and healthy life, and anything you can do to keep that is incredibly important,” said Dr. Sandy Arnold, head of the Division of Infectious Disease at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, which had seven children in the ICU with COVID-19 on Tuesday.
A fever seemed no cause for alarm when Hattie’s parents took her to urgent care last month. She tested negative for COVID-19 and for the flu.
“They said it’s probably viral,” Kady Shell later told The Daily Beast.
When the fever persisted, the parents called primary care and were told Hattie probably had RSV, respiratory syncytial virus, a cold-like infection that has been going around. They were advised that it would be better to keep her home than bring her in and risk exposing her to other things.
The following morning, Hattie seemed much better. But then her fever spiked and they brought her in. An X-ray indicated that she had a touch of pneumonia, which could be treated without her being admitted.
She was sent home, but began breathing hyper-fast that night. She was admitted the next day to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, which, like other health-care facilities, does not allow children to visit due to COVID-19. Hattie and Hazel were separated for the first time since the day Hattie was born.
“Mom, would you tell them that they should check her germs first?” Hazel asked, as her mother recalled on Facebook. “Like… have they washed Hattie’s hands? The next thing I would check… is... she’s not breathing very well. I mean… that’s what I would check first.”
The doctors checked everything they could. They even considered the possibility that Hattie had caught something from the chickens. But they were still mystified, and the need for answers was becoming critical.
“Around dawn, we had to make the decision to intubate and place her on a ventilator,” Kady Shell reported in an Aug. 9 Facebook post. “She is heavily sedated. They took X-rays during this process and discovered she had become septic, and the fluid in her lungs had drastically increased which is why she was breathing so fast.”
The mother went on, “The doctors described her increased respiratory rate like our girl had been running a marathon for three straight days, and she had also swallowed so much air that her stomach was impeding her ability to take deep breaths. They are draining the air from her stomach and suctioning fluid from her lungs regularly.”
The mother wrote: “Parts of today have been some of the most terrifying, sad, and anxious moments of my life.”
She posted an update on Aug. 10.
“Today has been a little ‘rollercoaster-y.’ [Hattie] spent all night in what is called the ‘prone’ position… (or what normal people call sleeping on her belly). This was to encourage blood flow to the top side of her lungs.”
She went on, “Around lunch time, it was time to turn her over to lay on her back. About 2 hours after that, she began to ‘desaturate’ which meant the ventilator oxygen had to be bumped back up… The team turned her back on her belly.”
The doctors still had no answers.
“They are running EVERY test imaginable. Our girl has been negative for everything so far.”
The mother reported a remarkable event that proved Hattie was still very much Hattie.
“During some of the chaos while doctors were adjusting doses of sedatives and paralytics, Hattie said ‘MOMMA’ over her breathing tube! How strong is this baby to be able to do that!?”
The mother’s Aug. 11 post began, “To say that this day started like hell on earth is the only way I know to describe it.”
“Around 4AM, the ‘balloon’ by Hattie’s ventilator tube burst,” she reported. “This balloon is used to fill the gap between the breathing tube and her esophagus to eliminate air leakage.”
When the team came to replace the tube, the mother was informed that Hattie would have to be connected to a more powerful ventilator.
“We were basically told that we were starting over with her ventilator goals and that today’s goal was to just remain stable,” she wrote. “Her chest X-rays continued to show little to no improvement.”
“To say I lost my mind, composure, ability to breath, or stand upright is only a glimpse of how terrified and anxious I felt through the early morning hours of today. As the morning went on—so did my panic attacks and crying fits.”
Hattie continued to be her remarkable self.
“But while I was panicking Hattie was WORKING! This girl surpassed all of her daily weaning goals for oxygen and pressure in a few hours rather than days. These small steps forward helped me catch my breath.”
At 3 p.m. the attending doctor came in.
“Our whole world changed,” Kady Shell wrote. “Hattie has been being treated for bacterial pneumonia, but no antibiotics seem to be working and no tests have come back positive. She has also been tested for every virus under the sun from HIV to tuberculosis to COVID, and all tests were negative.”
The doctor had decided to test Hattie for something she may have had without knowing it.
“All this leads to our baby tested positive for the Antibodies for the COVID variant,” the mother wrote.
The doctor told the mother that Hattie probably had asymptomatic COVID-19 six to eight weeks before she was hospitalized..
“In fact, we didn’t even know she had it,” the mother later told The Daily Beast.
A case of COVID-19 so mild it escaped notice had triggered MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children), a condition in which various body parts can become dangerously inflamed, possibly including the heart, lungs, kidneys, and spleen.
In the midst of all this, the mother had come to reconsider her view of what she had come to call “this awful virus.” She asked everyone who might read her words to do the same.
“As my angel lays in bed on a ventilator, fighting for her life from a COVID variant, I’d like to ask a favor,” she said. “I agree that this COVID thing is a huge mess. I think the way it got here is absolutely SHADY. I think various powerful groups are trying to use public fear to their advantage… and honestly before sitting in the pediatric ICU for a week with my own baby and seeing an entire hall dedicated to helping babies with COVID, I had written this whole thing off.”
She went on, “What I do not believe is that the local doctors and nurses here at lebonheur, regional 1, Baptist, or even your hometown primary care doctor is making up stories of how terrible this thing is.
“They have literally gained nothing and withstood sleepless nights, time away from their families, and severe illness watching people’s bodies be ravaged.
“So after all of this, I encourage you to make educated choices about how you and your families will respond to this pandemic.
“Please do not make choices based on a random Facebook post, something the checkout lady at Kroger said, or even what you saw on the news (any channel). Make an appointment with a doctor YOU TRUST and ask your questions.
“Above all, God is in Control. Sorry for the TED TALK.”
After eight days on a ventilator, Hattie’s condition improved to the point where she was removed from the ventilator and transferred from the ICU. She seemed to be doing well and the doctors spoke of a discharge plan.
“The next day she woke up and all her vital signs kind of tanked,” the mother told The Daily Beast.
Hattie was readmitted to the ICU. She may have beaten MIS-C only to fall victim to HLH (hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis).
“Which is basically your immune system goes into such overdrive after fighting a virus that it doesn’t know when to stop,” the mother wrote. “We started the day with the report that all of her blood work looks worse than it did. Her fevers have still been consistent and a whole host of other things,” the mother reported on Aug. 25. “She has had more blood drawn for lab tests than I knew was physically possible for a person her size. The CT Scan showed that the bottom lobes of both lungs have collapsed. She has been put back on a ventilator to try to re-inflate them.”
The mother ended by writing, “I don’t know what else to say or what else to ask for—just please pray for my baby.”
The next following day, Aug. 26, the mother noted that Hattie “is still responsive with head shakes, shoulder shrugs, hand grip, little thumbs up, etc, so we can ask her questions and she will non verbal answer us.”
On Aug. 29, the mother reported that Hattie was at that time awake and aware of what was around her even though she was intubated and could not talk.
“She attempts to mouth words even though no sound can come out around the tube. She winces in discomfort when she is jostled around and tries to say ‘ouch’ when they try to draw blood or have to give a shot. Her eyes water and she gags when they have to give her respiratory treatments and suction her lungs.”
The next day, Aug. 30, the mother wrote that, “The doctors consider Hattie ‘stable’ at the moment but that is relative to the rollercoaster ride from the last two days. We are still waiting on it to click back up, and we weren’t prepared for all the extra drops.”The mother reported, “Hattie’s abdomen is very swollen. She has fluid and gas contributing to this, but the main reason is her enlarged spleen. Apparently, issues with the spleen are a common complication of inflammatory responses of this magnitude.
“Her blood work continues to be a yo-yo of good and bad. The biggest challenge we are facing now is her platelet count keeps dropping. All doctors are confident this has to do with her enlarged spleen as it is probably consuming platelets faster than her body can make new ones.”
And the Memphis area was running low on platelets.
“There are only 2 bags that she can accept in the entire city right now. If we could be so bold, we beg any of you who are able to please go donate blood and/or platelets as soon as possible.”
She went on, “Then we have her respiratory status. It is ‘stable’ but not necessarily improving because the pressure from her abdomen is preventing her from being able to fully expand her lungs. Her fevers continue to spike higher than ever. She hit 105 yesterday morning.”
Le Bonheur was now working with doctors from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital directly across the street. The doctors were trying a new drug that St. Jude’s uses to treat hyperinflammatory diseases. They told the mother it would take 48 to 72 hours to see any possible impact.
“The waiting is torture, watching her wince in pain and try to mouth words is torture—all of this is pure torture,” Kady Shell wrote. “I have tried so hard to look for the good and focus on the wins, but after the last two days, I feel like I am dying. I am experiencing a level of heartache I didn’t know was possible.
“I can’t comfort Hattie without crying, which feels like I’ve lost the only thing I could do for her.”
The mother’s plea for platelets drew a huge response. Hattie and Hazel attend the Tipton-Rosemark School, which held an event involving two bloodmobile vans. So many people turned out that the vans had to come back the next day. Other people donated as far away as Chicago.
On Sept. 2 it seemed the new drug might be working.
“Hattie has been fever free for 25 hours! This is the first day in 6 weeks, this child has not run a temperature. I got to put a blanket on Hattie for a short while today. It’s amazing what a privilege it was to feel like I could provide some normal type of comfort to her. We have only been able to put ice packs and cold rags on her for almost a week.”
Hattie took a bad turn on Sept. 3.
“Today has not been stable,” the mother wrote. “Hattie had a spontaneous pulmonary bleed this morning due to low platelets and low clotting factors. This has made her very fragile and is affecting her ability to maintain her oxygen saturations. They also put an abdominal drain in to relieve pressure from the fluid in her abdomen and another midline for new blood pressure meds. A liter of fluid came out of our baby in minutes.”
On Sept. 4, Hattie was stable again.
“She is still fever free, and it appears that any internal bleeding has stopped,” the mother wrote. “Yesterday’s episode stepped her lung recovery back, but she is maintaining acceptable oxygen saturations and blood gasses today.”
On Sept. 6, the mother reported, “Hattie has continued to hold her own.
“I asked the Dr—do you think she is getting better?
“His words: ‘Yes, we are seeing very small but measurable improvements.’
“MEASURABLE IMPROVEMENTS, Y’ALL!
“Big or small—we will take them.”
Hattie has been transferred to St. Jude’s. Kady Shell was there on Tuesday night, doing her little girl’s fingernails as she lay sedated and asleep.
“We’re having fingernail time, just like at home, me and my girl,” the mother told The Daily Beast.
The mother was asked what color.
“All different colors,” she said. “She likes rainbows.”
The other dirt ball with glitter, Hazel, is waiting for Hattie to return.
“She said when we all get to come home, she wants to take care of sissy,” the mother said.