SEFFNER — Mariah Perera’s infant daughter was struggling to breathe.
During a bath on the evening of Jan. 3, it looked like the 2-month-old’s chest was caving in.
“I could have grabbed her ribs with my fingers and held onto them,” Perera said.
Lailani had tested positive for respiratory syncytial virus, commonly known as RSV, on New Year’s Day. Now, she was gasping for air.
The pathogen usually produces mild coldlike symptoms, but for babies, it can cause severe illness — even death.
Perera and a friend rushed Lailani to a Brandon emergency room, then an ambulance took her to AdventHealth Tampa.
It was the start of a weekslong ordeal for Perera and her daughter, who would be sedated, hooked up to a breathing machine and transported to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in a helicopter.
“Am I going to lose my daughter?” Perera wondered. “Is she going to make it?”
Nationally, up to 80,000 children under age 5 are hospitalized for respiratory syncytial virus each year, according to federal estimates. As many as 300 die. Those at high risk include premature infants and babies with congenital heart disease or weakened immune systems.
The virus follows a seasonal pattern, typically spiking in Tampa Bay through the fall and winter. The infection is common, and most people recover in a week or two. But it can be dangerous, including for seniors. Roughly 14,000 U.S. adults over age 65 die from it each year, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
The state saw an unusually high number of outbreaks in summer 2021 after COVID-19 disrupted normal virus trends. But local transmission is back on schedule this year.
“This is probably the first typical season we’ve had since the pandemic began,” said Juan Dumois, a pediatric infectious disease doctor at All Children’s.
About 1% of infected kids require hospital admission, and a “very small minority” must stay in an intensive care unit, Dumois said.
That’s where Lailani ended up on Jan. 6.
The baby was flown to the medical center in St. Petersburg around 2 a.m. Perera, a single mom who works at Wawa, drove from Tampa, crossing the long span of the Howard Frankland in silence.
Lailani couldn’t keep her eyes open because of the sedation. She was brought to the pediatric ICU, where the sickest kids receive treatment.
It looked like a science fiction movie. A small tube snaked into her mouth and down her throat. She was attached to a ventilator, a machine that blows air into the lungs.
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The virus causes inflammation that leads to excessive mucus production, which can block babies’ tiny airways and prevent them from getting enough oxygen, Dumois said.
Lailani couldn’t breathe on her own.
Perera, 31, took an unpaid leave of absence from Wawa, staying overnight on a couch in Lailani’s room. She stopped eating because of the stress. She barely slept.
Her mom brought her clothes from Seffner. She read a book about mermaids to Lailani. She talked to her.
“You’ve got to get better.”
“We’re going to make it through this.”
Lailani was given antibiotics to combat pneumonia. She was also administered steroids and fentanyl.
Steroids decrease inflammation in the lungs. Painkillers sedate a patient and reduce the discomfort of having a tube in their mouth, Dumois said.
The treatment worked. Lailani’s brown eyes started to blink open. Perera fit a tiny hat adorned with sunflowers over her head. She was taken off the ventilator.
After more than two weeks, she was discharged. It was safe for her to go home.
Perera is unsure where her daughter caught the virus. She and her 12-year-old son, Joseph, never got sick. Lailani doesn’t go to day care and stays with Perera’s mom during work hours.
Until a Tampa Bay Times reporter mentioned it, Perera said she hadn’t heard of the inoculation for expectant mothers.
Lailani got her routine 2-month-old vaccinations in December, but not the respiratory syncytial virus antibody drug called nirsevimab. Her pediatrician didn’t want to administer the shot while she received other immunizations, Perera said.
The infant, with no underlying health conditions, fell ill before Perera could schedule an appointment to get the drug.
Perera said she hopes her experience raises awareness about the virus.
“Keep the babies home. Wash your hands. Change your clothes,” she said. “I tell people I want to douse them down in Lysol.”
Since being discharged, Lailani has enjoyed watching the Disney movies “Moana” and “Frozen.” She likes the colors and songs. But she’s also been fussy. Restless at night. Tossing and turning while coming off medications from the hospital.
Perera wonders if she’s having nightmares.