Chester was seven weeks when he was admitted to hospital with Covid-19. Photo / Supplied
As her 7-week-old baby lay in a hospital cot sick with Covid-19, tubes coming out of him, the worst came to Rachael Helsby’s mind.
“It was just horrendous because I feel like you are told all the time, babies don’t really have symptoms for Covid.
“So it was like ‘s***, this is going to get really bad, he’s going to be one of those one-in-a-million babies who dies from it or something’.”
Helsby’s own Covid symptoms were starting to get worse and her fiance Joseph Burns was even sicker at home, helplessly peering into his family’s tiny quarantined hospital room via video calls.
Helsby, 34, who was born in Rotorua but lives in Wandsworth, south London, had already had one jab of the Pfizer vaccine when she was pregnant, and still has no idea how they contracted the disease. They had met groups of friends on the weekend of July 24 and 25 but neither group tested positive after the couple told them of their diagnosis.
At one of the events, a chicken wing festival, it poured with rain. Burns started to have cold symptoms but they initially put it down to getting caught in the bad weather. Helsby was feeling exhausted but put it down to having a newborn.
Two days later and still feeling poorly, Burns got a Covid test and received a text the following day to say it was positive. Helsby then got a test and had the same result.
It is likely they contracted the highly-contagious Delta variant which is dominant in the UK and if detected in New Zealand, would force the country into a level four lockdown at short notice, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said this week.
Younger people are bearing the brunt of infection of the variant. This week, the number of daily Covid deaths in the UK reached its highest level since March at 146, despite more than 75 per cent of adults receiving two vaccine shots. To date, the country has reported more than six million cases and over 130,000 deaths.
After his test, Burns started to lose his sense of smell and taste and was having night sweats. By the following Saturday, their baby Chester had started throwing up outside of feeding times, which wasn’t like him, and his temperature was rising.
Helsby called a non-emergency health line who called Chester’s GP practice who eventually told them to get to hospital and be prepared to stay the night.
“So we panic-packed a bag. I didn’t really pack any supplies for myself… I thought it would only be one night, ‘Let’s just get to A&E’.”
Burns dropped the pair off to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
“Because of the Covid situation, they couldn’t have mum and dad, they could only have mum. That really sucked. He literally just dropped us off and it was like, ‘Okay, well I guess I’ll let you know if we survive’.”
Mum and baby were immediately taken to a separate waiting room once Helsby told them she had Covid and they got seen a couple of minutes later. Chester’s temperature was checked and a urine sample taken as well as blood.
He was started on antibiotics and because he was so dehydrated, fluid was administered via an IV in his hand. A feeding tube was also put in and a Covid test taken.
“They put so much fluid into him. I was thinking, ‘Can that even fit in him?’
“I cried so much. You can tell that he just wasn’t right and he was really sad and I thought, ‘Oh my god, what is this going to mean?’.
“That first day, with all the poking and prodding and him crying so much and I couldn’t cuddle him or pick him up and comfort him because they needed him to be on the bed, I cried lots during that.
“When they put the tube in nose, they were like ‘You don’t have to watch this, we can get another nurse who can be here and hold him’. And I was like, ‘Nope, I want to be here for it all’. And then I cried more.”
The pair were eventually taken to a room on the children’s ward which was isolated from other patients.
“The only time I could leave was to go to the toilet which was dedicated and closed off to me.”
But she would go three days without a shower.
Every time anyone would enter the room, they would put on new personal protective equipment and Helsby would wear a mask. Staff delivering meals and emptying rubbish bins nervously stayed on one side of the room and she was given disposable crockery and cutlery.
Her symptoms were getting worse and she started to get night fevers. In her haste, she hadn’t packed any paracetamol and doctors couldn’t give it to her as she wasn’t the admitted patient.
Through his own sickness, Burns was able to pack another bag which he put inside a plastic bag, doused in sanitiser and left at the bottom of the stairs of their apartment building for Helsby’s sister to collect and drop off to the hospital.
“I’m sure there are other babies who have had a way worse situation but being a new mum and not having any idea, it was really scary,” Helsby said. “Also, I’ve never stayed in hospital apart from when I had Chester.”
After three nights, doctors were happy with Chester’s temperature and he was discharged.
The couple can only guess where they picked up the disease; was it when Burns went to the gym,
Helsby went to the supermarket or when workers replaced windows in their building? One of them had been coughing and may have touched the banister.
Helsby estimates she was sick for about five days but it was longer for Burns and a throat infection followed. She now still suffers a dry cough.
When the pair got home they had to finish 10 days isolation (starting from when their symptoms started), which ended last week.
Helsby, who suffered a job loss due to Covid and has been through three lockdowns, didn’t tell her family back in New Zealand (her parents live with their respective partners in Tauranga) until they were better so as not to worry them. With borders closed, they have not yet been able to meet Chester.
“My mum is so desperate to be here.”
Helsby was due to get her second jab of the vaccination the day after Chester went into hospital but has rescheduled for a couple of weeks’ time.
“Before, I was thinking Joe and I just need to get our double jabs because babies don’t really get affected by Covid. And there’s Chester getting affected by Covid and whenever someone’s affected by Covid who shouldn’t be, normally it’s really bad.
“Joe and I are pretty healthy… So it really doesn’t matter how healthy you are. That’s something I’ve learned.”