As RSV surges through Minnesota, journalist Jana Shortal shares her son’s story

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Jana Shortal is a reporter and host of Breaking the News on KARE 11. But she had to call in sick this week because her son Zeke caught RSV. It stands for respiratory syncytial virus. The number of children in Minnesota with RSV tripled during the month of October.

Most of the time, it causes mild, cold-like symptoms, but the CDC says two out of 100 cases can become serious. It is hard for these very young children. This puts a strain on families and the health care system. Jana Shortal joins me now to talk about her experience. Welcome to Minnesota now.

JANA SHORTAL: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Yeah. It’s good to have you here. Thanks. So I said RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. But in your Twitter post yesterday, you said that RS stands for “really sucks.”

JANA SHORTAL: I’m not a family’s wordsmith. My wife is. But that’s what I felt yesterday in the waiting room at the Children’s. We were at the end of three days of real debate, should we tax our health care system? And yesterday morning, I hit that wall– part of it being just sadness for my child.

And I don’t have any other kids, so just the nervousness of “Am I not checking a box here? Am I not making sure he’s okay?” And then try again to protect our healthcare workers because I know they are overwhelmed with so many families who need help right now.

When I was sitting in this waiting room and he was wheezing and trying to fall asleep on my chest and all these kids were coughing in there…RS, really sucks.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: I bet all the parents out there right now are like, uh huh. What were the symptoms you observed in your son that worried you?

JANA SHORTAL: I think the way you described it is really accurate. My child goes to daycare so his parents can work, so we figured it was the daycare cold. And that was almost a week ago. And then Friday night, we noticed this kind of wet cough, and I would say that’s what changed it.

And then Saturday, Sunday, when he started not eating much, if at all, he was eating formula, but no food, and he’s a very healthy eater. His eyes turned red and watery, then this wet cough. He couldn’t sleep. So at that point you know he’s crossed the threshold into the cold, into something else.

And again, because of the work I do, I was like, this absolutely adds up to RSV. But the problem with RSV is that you can go to the doctor, you can go to the hospital. And unless your child is one of those two who must be admitted, there is nothing you can do. They just have to go through it, which then goes into the “How do we take care of ourselves as a family? How do we, as middle-aged parents, become parents for the first time – how can we figure out how to stay healthy?”

As you can see, my voice is a bit muted. It’s hard because you have this side effect of getting sick. I think it’s circulating. I have heard of families who have been going through this for weeks and weeks, especially if they have more than one child.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Yeah. How old is Zeke, if you don’t mind me asking?

JANA SHORTAL: 10 1/2 months, so exactly in the RSV age range.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Tiny. He is small. Did you hear it was circulating? You said you probably heard it at work.

JANA SHORTAL: Oh, yeah. We made so much RSV fuss. And honestly, over the last couple of years we’ve all been conditioned to fear and react and understand when COVID is a threat, and then RSV jumps into the limelight here this very early fall. And it was like a wave crashing.

It happened so fast here in Minnesota. I mean, like I said, my son is in daycare, and it’s so contagious. And it’s kind of like a disease coming from behind you that you didn’t expect before winter because you were always so COVID-aware.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: So tell me about emergencies. You waited. What did the doctors tell you when you arrived? How do they check it?

JANA SHORTAL: Yes. So I didn’t go to the emergency room. Children’s Minneapolis has one of the few walk-in clinics – at least to my knowledge – where you can get a same day appointment for sure. And it was so early in the morning that I couldn’t call a pediatrician. And we’re still figuring this all out as first-time parents.

So a very dear friend of mine, Dr Angela [INAUDIBLE] said, go to this place at the Children’s. And that’s what I did, and I was probably the first or second person there. And just when I was waiting–because they take appointments first–I guess at least 200 people showed up.

Like parents, kids, whether they have appointments or trying to get through – at least twice the waiting room was completely full while he and I were still waiting. It took about an hour and 45 minutes to be seen. The support was great. I mean, think about it.

I don’t know how many doctors or nurses were there, but just as many people are in their waiting room. They just can’t keep up. But the treatments were amazing, and they were so, so kind. They immediately tested him for RSV, COVID and influenza. And within an hour, they tested positive for RSV.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Oh, wow. So now what is the treatment? What are you doing?

JANA SHORTAL: I mean, hope. Go to Twitter and ask people for advice. Basically, like any round – you find yourself really open to anything at this point because it’s so small. He cannot take Benadryl or NyQuil. I mean, you can’t do that to a baby.

So we did everything from going to the bathroom, closing the door, turning on the very hot water and trying to calm his chest cough. Stick them on a humidifier and try to get the snot out. Shake it. Love it. Take him on really long walks to get some fresh air, and you just try to get through it.

As you mentioned, I was unable to go to KARE 11 yesterday simply because my wife, in my opinion, hit a wall. Because she’s up with him more at night than I am, because they try to set aside a few hours for me so I’m healthy enough to report. But it’s just… all bets had been off for five days.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: What did the doctors say about how long this might last?

JANA SHORTAL: I mean, I don’t even want to say it out loud.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Really?

JANA SHORTAL: Yes. I mean, they said some kids… I mean, if you’re like a miracle baby, five days old, but it’s day six now. And he’s better than two days ago. The weekend was the worst, and yesterday was pretty bad. But it can take up to two weeks in terms of contagion and/or seeing this after effect.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: So what are you and your wife going to do about work?

JANA SHORTAL: Fortunately, she is currently on sabbatical due to her job as a teacher. And I really don’t like missing work because I think I’ve never been able to escape the part of the culture that tells a parent they can do anything. And I even fear that I will miss a day when I will be replaced.

The tax on moms that we have all suffered, if we are not there, someone else will be able to take our position without having a child to take care of. It may be unrealistic, but it’s a very big anxiety that I have. And historically, that’s true.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Yeah. You are not inventing anything.

JANA SHORTAL: No, it’s not made up.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: So do you have any advice for other parents who are going through this as well? There are a lot of parents in these shoes.

JANA SHORTAL: One of the things…because they can’t prescribe medication or predict how it’s going to go, but one of the last things the medical team at The Children’s told me before Zeke and me leaving the exam room was to find iota of grace you have within you for how difficult this could be and prepare yourself emotionally for it to last longer than you think.

That’s not to say it’s going to happen, but it was advice I never got from a doctor that I should emotionally prepare myself for something. I mean I guess in our lived experience I’m the first to say that it’s been a lot harder for my wife than for me because she’s home more important to him than me at this point in his life. And so it just needs to be held.

But I think it’s enough to pay attention to your child. Just because my child wasn’t admitted doesn’t mean yours doesn’t need to be. Urgent care and walk-in clinics, though crowded, are there for a reason.

I’m grateful I went, although maybe I didn’t have to. I just needed this for me as a first time parent. Practical advice – for my part, I went to the walk-in clinic at the Children’s.

Go first thing in the morning the minute they open. Do not wait, because often this also happens in urgent care. If you have the chance, go first in the morning as they sometimes close late morning as they get so busy. They have enough people in their waiting room at 9:30 am to get the day done.

Don’t worry…as I was told for my child, make sure he drinks. If they don’t eat, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes we don’t like to eat when we are sick either. It will get better. It just takes a little time.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Well, we wish you, Zeke and your wife good health and a speedy recovery.

JANA SHORTAL: Thank you.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: And thank you for coming today. Appreciate it.

JANA SHORTAL: Thank you. Zeke is a huge MPR fan. He wakes up with Cathy in the morning. He has Minnesota Now at noon. I mean, he’s connected.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: She’ll be back next week. Let him know. She will come back.

JANA SHORTAL: OK, that sounds good.

MELISSA TOWNSEND: Jana Shortal is a journalist at KARE 11.

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