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If you need to cry, walk away

An Arizona mom searches for answers when her 7-year-old comes down with the novel coronavirus.

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Auriel Elmore and her daugher, Dillon, pose in their yard during the shutdown, before Dillon got sick.

Courtesy of Auriel Elmore

She slides a digital thermometer across her asthmatic daughter’s forehead and looks at the number. It can’t be right, she thinks, her blue eyes a mixture of concern and genuine surprise. It can’t be. So she resorts to a traditional thermometer under the tongue, past the gaps in the 7-year-old’s last baby teeth, and waits. Still 106 degrees. 

Auriel Elmore’s kids hardly left the house during the pandemic shutdown — not even to the grocery store. “They were miserable,” she says. But after Arizona lifted its stay-at-home order in mid-May, she took them to Mansel Carter Oasis Park in the Phoenix suburbs, where “social distancing is inevitable because it’s just so gigantic.” They wore masks. Now she wonders whether it was a mistake.

She was tucking Dillon into her flowery bedspread with a stuffed rabbit called “Pink Bunny” when she first noticed that her daughter felt warm. But Dillon said she felt fine, and she seemed to be acting normal. The next morning, Dillon didn’t feel so good. She had a 102-degree fever. “In an adult, that would just wipe them out,” Auriel says. “But in a child, that’s not super bad.”

Within three days, Dillon developed a red, blotchy rash all over her body, as if someone had spattered paint onto her porcelain skin. And her fever hit 106. Auriel nurses her through the night with Tylenol and ibuprofen.

The next morning, she can’t believe her eyes. It’s still 106.

So she calls the pediatrician’s office. She’s told to bring Dillon in through a back entrance, where she skips the usual pleasantries of standing on a scale and checking her height. They take her temperature several times. “They couldn’t believe it,” Auriel says later.

The doctor arrives in a white hazmat suit, a mask and a face shield, with white rubber gloves covering his blue rubber gloves. He won’t go near Dillon. “She has COVID,” he says, but to make sure, he sends them to get tested at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. He says he’s seen a couple dozen cases in the last few weeks. 

The diagnosis is a shock. Dillon had no respiratory symptoms. And it’s especially frightening for Auriel, who’s had COVID-19. Or at least she thinks she did. 

Back in January, she came down with a mysterious respiratory illness. Doctors tested her for strep throat, flu A, flu B — nothing. She had pneumonia, but two rounds of antibiotics and steroids did little to help. “I thought I was gonna die,” she says. “I’ve never been that sick in my entire life.” She lost her voice from coughing, struggled to breathe so much it made her feel faint, and hacked up “solid chunks of mucus.” She didn’t feel normal for two months. And now she wonders what her daughter will endure.

After getting her nostril swabbed, Dillon cries in the back seat. Auriel cries, too, but turns the rearview mirror so Dillon can’t see her. She can’t let Dillon see her fear. Her husband, “the voice of reason,” reminds her that crying is OK, but if she needs to do it, “just walk away.”

“So I did a lot of that,” Auriel says. For the next four days, waiting for Dillon’s fever to break, she sequesters her 4-year-old son and makes him wear a mask in the house. She wipes her daughter’s neck with a cold washcloth and places wet socks on her feet at bedtime. She brings her Pink Bunny, fresh out of the dryer. She watches and waits. And sometimes, just for a moment, she walks away.