(March 9, 2020 beside Mateo’s bed at the Children’s ICU at KK Hospital, Singapore. By Joanna Blanding.)
I write while watching Mateo soundly asleep in his bed. The nurses move with precision around me. There is no room for error. He is heavily intubated. It's his eighth day at the ICU. How we got here is a blur. But I can't leave the events of the last few days unmentioned, let alone unprocessed. For my mental health, I need to recount them. For our spiritual gain, we need to talk about them.
"We Need You."
In bold, I typed these words to the prayer group on WhatsApp that involves 202 people now.
"We boldly ask you all, please don't give up. We need you."
I am an asker. I often rally for help for other people's sake. Doing so energizes me.
As a family, we live simply. So there's not much we really need to ask for from other people.
That has changed in the last eight days. We find ourselves knocking loudly to ask for help from people. Prayers and encouragement most especially. That knock has been so loud from day one of the battle. That traumatic memory is still so vivid.
I Could Have Broken That Window.
I rushed Mateo to the emergency department at 7:30 am on March 2 for high fever, vomiting, and strange fixed staring. Doctors said he might be having seizures—not the type that makes the body convulse, but seizures nonetheless. In my head, Mateo displays all forms of discomfort conservatively.
By 8:30 am, he was being wheeled into Ward 46, a special ICU facility at KK Hospital. They had put us in isolation because of our recent travel history. We had just come back from a trip to the Philippines as a family two days prior. In light of the worsening statistics of COVID-19, a deadly infectious virus that's shaken all parts of the world, we were met with strict SOPs. "Could it be coronavirus that's making Mateo ill?" I had thought for a second, but not my utmost worry then. He didn't have any cough after all.
I was in the room with him, separated by four doors from the outside world. The docs took every form of liquid samples from him for testing—urine, blood, and spinal fluid. They also did a swab test to understand if it is, in fact, COVID-19 or not.
I asked again, "How did we get here?" I never imagined our very healthy baby to be this sick. While staring at his frail quiet body, he started groaning, eyes still closed. He did it again. And then again. The monitor started beeping. His heart rate was climbing up fast. I pressed the emergency button. I looked out the double-door room for anyone. Five seconds had passed. Panic-pressed the emergency button again. His heart rate went up some more. Something's wrong. I banged the window to get attention. Two nurses took notice, and the look on their faces showed they knew the numbers on the monitor were gravely concerning. They hurriedly put on their gowns, then masks.
Then the dreaded continuous beeping. Flatline.
The nurses scurried for help. Quickly, two, then four, then more doctors and nurses rushed into the room. I was quickly pushed to a corner by the wave of people. I dialed Mike who was outside the building. Only one guardian was permitted to come in; that was why we were separated. "Babe, please pray, he's flatlining!"
Tears of worry and fear made my body shake. I plugged my ears to hear the voice of my husband calling out "Jesus! Help Mateo! In Jesus' name, save Mateo!" I was escorted out of the haste, trembling and gasping for air. I stood there watching gowned and masked medical aid rush in and out of the room, some twenty of them.
Mike continued on to pray over the phone, not stopping for a breath. "I need you here, babe. Please beg to let you up." The nurses called down to security for a special admission for Mike. Waiting to see my husband and hold his hands while watching the backs of people trying to resuscitate our youngest child was dizzying. My hands were shaking and all I could do was keep praying.
Those 45 minutes of resuscitation felt like the longest wait of my life. Finally, someone came out to say his vitals have stabilized. My heart plopped on my chest, "Thank you, Lord." That wait was going to be short compared to the many waiting we didn't know yet was going to be up ahead.
Tracing Back Our Steps
"We'll need to do an MRI fast."
The doctors can only guess at that point that something wrong was going on in Mateo's brain. Frankly, it crossed my mind that maybe him having COVID-19 was a better bargain. Singapore has been excellent so far in nursing victims of the virus back to health. The country is being regarded as gold-standard for the way it's been fighting the outbreak. There have been no deaths from it. But a brain issue? I hoped against all threats of it being the case.
Results of the COVID swab test came out. Ruled out. Thank God. Please, not a brain issue either.
Three hours after he was taken for the brain scan, results showed he has brain and blood bacterial infection.
Of course, the first question was, "From what?"
Not enough time to process what we were just told, a doctor from the Center for Infectious Diseases started asking us a host of questions about Mateo's whereabouts in the last few days.
"Was he exposed to live animals, like in the zoo?" No.
"Has he gone swimming recently?" No.
"Anyone seriously sick he was exposed to in the last few days?" No.
"Any congenital disease in the family?" No.
"Has he been a sickly child?" No.
Everyone else who talked to us in the following ten hours had questions related to what Mateo was exposed to. They were still waiting for the blood cultures to show what bacteria would form. Still, any answer from us that would lead to potential bacterial suspects can help them identify more targeted antibiotics that his body urgently needed.
Amidst all that was happening, Mike and I needed to think sharp. We had to trace back our steps. In the process, I was feeling the guilt and blame accumulate and they were growing up to my throat. How could have I not protected our child from what's trying to kill him right now? It was an ordeal inside.
Mike was quick to call my thinking out. We've learned that blame and condemnation is not from God.
"There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." Romans 8:8.
The exercise of tracing back our steps seemed futile. Then I received an insight. Mike and I had all good reasons to fly to the Philippines that week before all this happened. We wanted the rest of our family to meet Mateo. And we wanted to strengthen our marriage. Well-nurtured family ties and a stronger marriage are both God's will for us.
I need to stay sharp and focused. Without God's word from the Bible, I would have lost it at that moment.
So Many Uncertainties
There were so many things not known to us even towards the end of the first day at the ICU. It would take another day or two for the bacterial cultures to produce a result. What nasty bacteria it was that so quickly immobilized Mateo was still a mystery.
At least we knew it isn't COVID-19. Later that day, we were released from the special ICU unit to be transferred to the Children's ICU of KKH on the second floor. Here, there's no need to put on robes and special facial gear for coverage.
Mateo was already profusely intubated at this point. Antibacterial medicines were being given, antibodies, other medicines to prevent further damage to his tiny body, and his special feed on IV. They had already accessed the central line which goes from his groin. Something felt like being kicked on the chest with a foot.
I can't remember how I ended our first day at the ICU. It was for sure very unlike any of our nights.
We surely ended the night with so many uncertainties.
How long is this trial going to be?
Should we also have André tested if it was something he also was exposed to that attacked Mateo's body?
How will Mateo survive this?
How will we survive this?
Tell me, where do you get answers to questions like such? The doctors? They themselves are hypothesizing at every turn. They don't have the answers. And they are already some of the best doctors in the land. Our friends? But they can have varying opinions. Few of them have had a life-and-death situation like this.
Mike and I can only hang on to one thing at this point—God's word.
We need something that's unchanging. We need something that's not based on someone's emotions or hypothesizing. We need something that has authority.
As hard as it is to believe in God's word during a time like this, as it is driving in heavy rains in the middle of the night, it is a better choice.
What would it look like to choose not to believe in God during a time like this?
• We will be frantic about every medical procedure being done to Mateo. We will continuously worry when there is any action from the medical caregivers that we read as "not being on top of their game." We will be paranoid thinking that Mateo's life is all in the hands of the doctors and nurses on his case. I've experienced this here and there during the last few days. I need to constantly focus and believe that Mateo's life is not in the hands of one or even many people. It is in God's hands eventually.
• We will keep blaming ourselves and others. When I'm not careful about where my mind rests, I quickly get into the rabbit hole of blaming myself and other people for what's happening to Mateo. None of that is healthy and helpful.
• Our actions will be hasty and hateful. I used to have a terrible temper. This doesn't show now but that's because God has changed me as soon as I surrendered to Him my temper issues. I can lash out to people when my way is not accommodated. I can simply use the ticket "We have a son in the ICU" to get my way. I've seen myself attempting to do that a few times. I needed to step back from my own attempts to solve things and let God move.
I have so many other thoughts. Allow me to write them another day.
It was a challenge to write my thoughts at first. I just didn't know where to begin. This feeling is probably like the first step Mateo will take in the future. It will be unnerving at first, but once taken, there is no stopping the strides.
The #MightyMateo Legacy lives on.
Our little Mateo was highly involved in our efforts to fight online sex trafficking of children in the Philippines during his seven months of life. We believe that he'd love for us to continue this legacy.
#MightyMateo's parents document their journey through grief towards healing.