RICHMOND — Over the past nine months, Melena Davis has spent more time at the hospital than at home.
She only leaves her 9-month-old daughter, Kaia, once a day to make the 20-minute drive to her home in Henrico to shower and eat.
The rest of the day, Davis holds Kaia and reads to her as a ventilator pumps air into the baby’s lungs through the tube in her neck. She sleeps on a pull-out sofa in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at VCU Medical Center to be with her at night.
But now, whenever Davis leaves Kaia’s side, she’s afraid. She worries that walking too closely to someone in the hospital hallways or the parking lot could expose her to the novel coronavirus, making her a potential carrier to Kaia and the other babies in the NICU.
Kaia, who has a genetic disorder and a congenital heart defect that obstructs her breathing, has been particularly vulnerable to viruses for as long as she’s been alive.
Last week, state and local officials banned large gatherings and urged people to keep 6 feet away from others in an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that has infected more than half a million people and killed more than 23,500 worldwide as of Thursday afternoon, according to Johns Hopkins University. Davis was distressed that some healthy people seemed not to be taking public health advisories seriously.
She saw friends and acquaintances posting about traveling unnecessarily and hoarding supplies. In the days since then, Gov. Ralph Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney have tightened restrictions and gatherings and scolded people for congregating.
A week ago, Davis decided to post to her Facebook and Instagram pages.
“Pleading with everyone to PLEASE take this pandemic seriously! Not to panic about it, but just use common sense and don’t think you are above this virus. It may not affect you directly, you may be fortunate with healthy lungs to overcome it BUT that’s not the case for everyone. Babies and the elderly with compromised lungs are really at risk!” Davis wrote. “Kaia is here at VCU, and I am here every day with her. I CANNOT afford something like this to happen. If my daughter even catches a cold, it could send her into a coma (not exaggerating) with some life support measures not possible as she’s already been there, done that.”
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that evidence shows that children, in general, are not at higher risk of serious illness than adults as a result of COVID-19, it says that people of all ages with severe, chronic medical conditions are.
Kaia, who was born more than two months premature on June 10, has a genetic disorder called Noonan syndrome that prevents normal development. Her heart is unusually thick, causing it to press up against her left lung and making it difficult for her to breathe on her own. She relies on a ventilator and a breathing tube in her neck to survive.
Across the country, experts fear that there will be an extreme shortage of ventilators as more and more COVID-19 patients with severe symptoms need them.
Davis said that she and her family have been taking extra precautions to protect Kaia from germs since before the coronavirus was a concern because Kaia’s immune system is easily compromised.
The Davis family has been even more careful as VCU Medical Center and other hospitals have tightened restrictions on hospital visitors to prevent spreading infections within the hospitals.
Kaia’s dad still comes to visit, but other family members — including Kaia’s grandmother and 9-year-old brother — are no longer coming to the hospital. Kaia’s brother is staying with Davis’ mother, who lives in Richmond.
“It’s my paranoia, not wanting anybody in here with her,” Davis said. “That has definitely affected our family dynamic.”
Davis had been hoping to bring her daughter home soon. But for now, she feels safer with the health care workers at VCU Medical Center, even as she knows the hospital is treating COVID-19 patients in a different area — isolated from other patients.
She said she received a lot of positive replies and support on social media in response to her post, which was shared dozens of times.
Davis hopes her message will encourage people who can stay home — a luxury that she and Kaia don’t have — to do so.
“If I could bring my baby home and stay inside my house, I would do it in a heartbeat.”