With her 5-year-old dying and the family savings depleted, a paramedic must choose: continue working to feed him or stay with him until the end.
The world was shutting down, and Kendall Whitaker couldn’t see her dying 5-year-old.
Easton Whitaker weighed around 35 pounds and would never be healthy enough to go to kindergarten. But Kendall was a paramedic who can’t do her job from home.
Easton’s heart was failing. When he was in the womb, a doctor noticed an issue on a scan and sent Kendall to a specialist. The specialist sat down when she walked in the exam room – a bad sign, Kendall knew.
“I’m about to hit you with a truck,” the doctor said. Easton’s heart was so damaged it couldn’t keep him alive.
As soon as he was born, a breathing tube was snaked down his throat. Kendall didn’t see her son’s face for four months.
He was placed on a transplant list and got his new heart two months later, but his body was attacking the unfamiliar organ. Easton wasn’t eligible for another transplant. So when he went pale and limp in late February, the doctors gave him a pacemaker. There was nothing more to do.
Easton was referred to at-home hospice care. No one knew how long his borrowed heart would last.
But Kendall worked in one of the busiest ERs in Jacksonville, Florida, where more and more patients were showing up with symptoms of the novel coronavirus. She’d already taken more than a month off of work to sleep on a pullout bed in Easton’s hospital room. She was running out of money to pay the bills, but she couldn’t risk infecting her son with anything she brought home.
“The guilt that I would carry if I brought that home to him – I don't think I would ever make it through that,” she said.
So she had to make a decision.
Even though she loved her job, sometimes she wished she didn’t know so much about medicine so she could have the kind of big, bright hope she saw on the faces of other parents of critically ill children.
The patients she ran into at work who had symptoms like Easton’s were usually elderly. She saw them go into cardiac arrest, watched paramedics break their ribs performing CPR and tried not to think about the heart thumping weakly in Easton’s chest.
In late March, Kendall explained to Easton and his 7-year-old brother Elijah that she worked with some very, very sick people, and if she brought any of the bad germs home then Easton would have to go back to the hospital.
“But I don’t like the hospital!” Easton reminded her.
She had to go back to work or she wouldn’t be able to feed them. So Kendall sent the boys away.
Easton and Elijah made the seven-hour road trip north to McCaysville, Georgia, with their grandmother.
When they left, Kendall knew she was losing time. She missed that thing Easton does where he rubs his eyes with the backs of his hands while he sleeps. She felt like she was under the ocean.
Easton never liked to show he was sick. He took 15 different medicines, all liquid, all via syringe, twice a day without protest. He once complained of a bellyache and ended up on a breathing tube in less than a day. So knowing that he was tired and not eating much, even before he left for Georgia, Kendall was terrified.
One of her co-workers wanted to raise money so she could take time off work. At first, she rejected the offer.
“I’m so used to being like the mom, the helper, the paramedic,” she said. “I do the helping, not the other way around.”
But when she finally accepted his offer to start a GoFundMe, she was amazed. In a week, Kendall had more than $20,000 – enough to cover her bills for at least six months.
She left work and self-isolated with her cat, Rue, for 14 days. She had to be sure she wasn’t carrying the virus that she knew Easton wouldn’t see the other side of.
Every morning she woke up and wondered if that tickle was a sore throat or if she had a headache or the sniffles. She wondered whether she was developing allergies or there was dust in the air. She cleaned like a madwoman.
She bought the boys matching robot jammies and Toy Story toys since Easton’s best friends are Buzz and Woody. She was excited but nervous – it was hard to focus on the here and now when you don’t know how long it will last.
After more than two weeks of hiding from the world, Kendall’s mom packed the boys back into the car and headed down to Jacksonville. On April 20, they knocked on her front door with tiny fists and ran inside.
“Mommy!” Easton yelled.
She hugged them so hard she lifted them off their feet. After the duo ran off to find the cat, they all played Hot Wheels in the hallway for what seemed like hours. Their first few days were spent making pizzas, reading Harry Potter before bed and covering the sidewalk in chalk. Kendall called it bliss.
But Saturday, five days after their reunion, Easton started having a hard time breathing and ended up in the hospital with pneumonia.
Days before, his biggest worry was whether the rain would wash away his chalk house. Don’t worry, Kendall reminded him. You can draw a new one tomorrow.
Easton died Tuesday morning after spending his last week at home. His mother was with him.
This story was produced in partnership with the Media School at Indiana University.
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