Lexington family encourages vaccines as medically fragile 5-year-old daughter recovers from COVID-19

Posted at 7:49 PM, Sep 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-17 19:49:52-04

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — A COVID-19 vaccine for children under the age of 12 is still being developed by scientists.

Lexington mom Cari Whalen said she plans to have all her young children vaccinated the moment one gets approved, especially her five-year-old daughter Emma.

“She’s our world. She’s our miracle. I’m going to do anything to help protect her,” Whalen said.

Emma was born in 2015 with complex congenital heart disease and chronic lung disease. She was rushed into open-heart surgery when she was only 18 hours old.

In the past five years, Emma has earned enough ‘Beads of Courage’ to make a necklace stretching several feet long. Beads are given to children with congenital heart disease to serve as physical markers of all the moments of courage they experience while facing treatments and hospitalizations.

Whalen explained at the beginning of the pandemic, they pulled Emma out of in-person learning before the state shut down because they worried about the risk her health conditions put her in.

The family masked up, stayed home, and those who could get the vaccine got it. Whalen said they wanted to protect themselves and Emma.

On Aug. 23, Emma came down with a fever and tested positive for COVID-19 three days later.

The entire family of six tested positive in the coming days.

“This has been our worst fear for a year and a half,” Whalen said. “She had a really bad cough and she was just completely lethargic.”

More than 5.3 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the most recent data from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

A new study also suggests nearly 20 percent of American children who go to the emergency department with COVID-19 were hospitalized. 21 percent received care in the ICU.

UK HealthCare has more than 150 patients with COVID-19 currently. 15 are under the age of 18, according to the hospital. Pediatric coronavirus cases make up 15 percent of their ICU.

Whalen did not have doctors admit Emma into the hospital while they were testing her. She explained after a lifetime of caring for Emma’s medical well-being, the family felt it was in their full capacity to monitor her oxygen levels and treat her symptoms from home. They also wanted to limit their daughter’s exposure to other sick people as the hospital was nearing capacity.

As long as Emma’s oxygen levels didn’t drop and she didn’t develop pneumonia, she had a fighting chance.

“I had a bag packed for the hospital the entire week,” Whalen said. “She did better than expected. Honestly, I can’t tell you why. I don’t know how she didn’t get pneumonia. I don’t know how one of her lungs didn’t collapse.”

Whalen said Emma still has a cough, but she seems to be recovering well.

At least they think so.

“Part of me thinks she has beaten the odds, but part of me thinks we don’t know her future,” Whalen said.

Emma continues to be at a disadvantage against the coronavirus. She’s too young to be vaccinated and she’s medically fragile.

“I don’t want to keep her in a bubble. I don’t want to keep her in a cage because she’s lived in hospitals for months,” Whalen said. “She can’t protect herself.”

Whalen is encouraging those who are eligible and remain unvaccinated to get their shot and continue wearing masks.

If not for themselves, then she says for kids like Emma who have limited options.

“It’s simply a shot and mask to help people get better and help protect our children,” she said. “I want to get back to normal just as much as everyone else and this is a huge step in how we can do that. So, let’s do it.”

Whalen said her family will continue taking measures to protect themselves, especially as Emma continues participating in in-person learning, as they wait for a vaccine to be approved for younger age groups.

You can follow Emma’s journey on Facebook.