TRAVERSE CITY — A photo can capture a moment in time, but it can so quickly become a reminder of everything that came after — even just minutes later.
Brianne Pawloski knows that all too well.
Pawloski and her husband, Pete, along with their then-4-year-old son, Aiden, were in their pontoon boat, headed from Traverse City up to Leland for ice cream and Village Cheese Shanty sandwiches in late July 2019. Pawloski’s brother, his wife and daughter, as well as a family friend, joined them on the summer excursion north.
The photo Pawloski and her husband recall so well was filled with beaming and smiling faces — and a happy Aiden sitting on the ground.
“You look at that picture and you just think, ‘Wow, everything just looks so normal,’” Pawloski said. “Two minutes later, our entire world was crashing down.”
Aiden began to complain of pain in his back. The pain was so bad, he told his mother he couldn’t finish his sandwich.
“What do you mean, your back’s hurting?” Pawloski said as she got down next to her son.
Aiden reached his hands toward his back to point to where it hurt. That’s when the world started breaking apart.
Aiden’s body went rigid. His hands curled tight. His eyes rolled into the back of his head until all Pawloski could see was white. He fell into unconsciousness.
Pawloski tries to be careful when she talks about what happened when her son is in earshot.
“He asks very pointed questions like, ‘Have I died before?’” Pawloski said. “That’s very unnerving to answer.”
Aiden lives with a rare condition called heterotaxy syndrome, having been born with some of his internal organs formed abnormally, in the wrong position and, in some cases, missing completely.
Most of Aiden’s heart is malformed. Only one side of it works, and there is no pump going to his lungs. The myriad of congenital defects has Aiden in a constant state of heart failure and waiting for a heart transplant.
While he awaits a new heart, Aiden has a mechanical valve surgically implanted to help it function as properly as possible.
The valve makes a now-familiar and oddly comforting click, click, click, click, click.
Pawloski didn’t hear that click as she watched Aiden turn bluer by the second on the floor of the boat.
She stopped, looked at her husband, and said one word.
Pete floored the boat as fast as the pontoon could go. Pawloski, who is a registered nurse, began CPR. She had the training. She knew what to do.
“But when it’s your own child ...,” Pawloski goes silent and tries to brush away the thick memories of that day, but the emotion is too much and her voice breaks. “He’s so rigid that I can’t even get any breaths into him at all.”
After a couple of minutes of chest compressions, Aiden regained consciousness. A rapid atrial flutter sent his heart into a fury at 300 beats a minute. The heart simply cannot send blood through the body that fast. There was no time for Aiden’s heart to fill. No blood was getting to his lungs or his brain.
Pawloski sat up a still-dazed Aiden.
“You’re going to be OK,” Pawloski said.
But as soon as she stopped compressions, Aiden slipped away again.
Aiden went back and forth between responsiveness and unresponsiveness as Pete whipped the boat whipped through the narrows of Lake Leelanau. An ambulance waited for them as they arrived. Aiden, who had regained consciousness and was breathing on his own again, was taken to DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.
“You’re so far away from anybody who has any idea how to help you. You’re just thinking that this will be the end,” Pawloski said. “I’ve thought that before.”
Four times before.
The last time, before the incident on the boat, Pawloski and her husband had to watch as doctors and nurses performed CPR on Aiden, who was just 4 months old, for 54 minutes. Hospital staff tried to get Pawloski and Pete to leave and go to the waiting room. They refused. The mother and father would give the doctors the space they needed to work, but there was no way they were leaving her son.
“The whole time they’re doing that, it’s this internal struggle of when do you tell them to stop and just let you hold your child?” Pawloski said. “But they didn’t. They got him back.”
Pawloski never wants to experience that again. It is something she would never wish on any parent.
That is why Pawloski has become a staunch advocate for universal masking in schools, as a way to protect her child and others who are medically vulnerable and immunosuppressed — including adults — from the potentially fatal COVID-19 pandemic.
For those against masking, Pawloski tries appeals to their humanity — to get them to see that wearing a mask has nothing to do with fear. Wearing a mask is about compassion and care for others.
Aiden, who was also born without a spleen to help filter out encapsulated bacteria, has severely low blood-oxygen levels. A healthy blood-oxygen level is anywhere between 95-100 percent. Anything that dips below 90 percent is cause for concern.
Aiden, with even the slightest physical exertion, can drop into the 60s. Pawloski said he can get into the 80s at rest and can occasionally reach 90 when he is asleep.
“When people talk about wearing masks and not being able to breathe, I just have a really hard time swallowing that pill,” she said. “Here’s my child, and yet he stills wears a mask — without complaint.”
Pawloski made it clear she doesn’t want to take away choice. Instead, she wants to shift the responsibility for those choices away from the most vulnerable children who already have so much to deal with. Homeschooling, virtual education or moving to a different school district should be for those who don’t want to follow the mandates that “are in place for the greater good,” Pawloski said.
Pawloski attended a recent Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education. She planned to go there and just listen, but Pawloski could not stay silent after hearing person after person speak out against masks and talk casually about the number children dying from COVID as “not that much.”
Even one preventable child death is too many, Pawloski said.
“If you think it’s no big deal that your child has to be intubated, wait until you hear people screaming, ‘Get the breathing tube! Get the tube! Get the tube!’ And you’re just praying that they get it there fast enough,” she said.
“To think that something like that happening to only a few people is not a big deal ...” Pawloski says, stopping before finishing her thought.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance in July that recommended wearing masks in any indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status. The CDC also recommended universal masking in school for all teachers, staff, students and visitors.
Both Dr. Stephanie Galdes, a pediatrician at the Kids Creek Children’s Clinic, and Dr. Ben Lamphere, an internal medicine and pediatric physician at Munson Medical Center, said the biggest benefit to masking is not necessarily personal protection, it’s preventing an infected person from spreading the disease.
“This is about empathy. This is about protecting others, doing something that can help protect others,” said Galdes, who is Aiden’s pediatrician.
Transmission is significantly decreased through mask wearing, Lamphere said. The coronavirus is contained within droplets, so Lamphere said protecting yourself and others from those droplets is the key.
“When you sneeze, the source is controlled within your mask and preventing the droplets from going airborne,” Lamphere said.
Those against wearing a mask see it as a personal choice, Lamphere said, adding that they’re not concerned about themselves getting sick because even if they do, they believe it is unlikely they will be hospitalized — especially kids and people without co-morbidities.
“Chances are they won’t get significantly sick, and chances are they won’t be hospitalized. But that is not the reason to wear a mask,” Lamphere said. “It’s to prevent unknowingly transmitting the disease to others who are more vulnerable. The time when patients are most contagious, is often before they’re symptomatic.”
Although children have been less affected by COVID-19 compared to adults, children can be infected with the virus and be an unknowing transmitter of the disease. Heart conditions, including heart failure, and having a weakened immune system can make you more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19, the CDC states.
That is why Tim Nance had to pull his daughter from kindergarten last November when he was diagnosed with B-Cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The 35-year-old Traverse City resident and coach at Traverse City West Middle School underwent a stem cell transplant to fight the blood-borne cancer, receiving blood and bone marrow transplants from his sister.
The treatment is meant to help healthy cells grow until there is no more infected blood or marrow, but it comes at a price. A stem cell transplant of blood and bone marrow is a complete reset of Nance’s immune system, knocking down all of his built-up natural defenses.
Nance is also taking immunosuppressants to stop his immune system from attacking healthy cells and tissues. That also lowers his defenses.
“It seems like the anti-mask people always say only X-amount of kids will die if we don’t wear masks. That’s insane just by itself. But a lot of kids have parents and grandparents and caretakers who are in my position,” Nance said. “No one is really considering that.”
Two of Galdes’ patients — one whose mother is awaiting a kidney transplant and the other whose sibling is a severe asthmatic — are in a similar situation to Nance’s daughter. They have to wear masks to protect their loved ones.
That is a huge amount of pressure to heap on a child’s shoulders, especially if they are at a mask-optional school, Galdes said.
“They’re wearing masks, and they’re the only ones in their class wearing masks,” Galdes said. “It’s creating this whole level of stress they don’t need. The need to go to school and learn and feel safe.”
Asking for help
Pawloski does not understand why so many are waging a war against what she calls a minor inconvenience — one that would allow for her son to experience some sense of normalcy, something as simple as going to school and being with friends.
“It’s so frustrating when people say, ‘If your kid is at risk, just keep him home from school,’” she said. “My kid has already suffered so much. You want to take yet another thing away from my child? After everything he’s been through? It’s not fair that my child has to get the short end of the stick — again.”
Humanity seems to be gone, Pawloski said. She wonders if any of the anti-mask contingent could actually look Aiden in the eyes and tell him he doesn’t deserve to be in school.
“I don’t have the energy for this. I don’t have the energy to spare for this battle,” Pawloski said. “I have enough battles in my life. He has enough battles in his life.”
People — especially those questioning why Aiden should be in school given his condition — don’t seem to understand that “invisible illnesses” like Aiden’s are more common than many believe, Pawloski said.
“You can look well and be ill — quite ill,” Pawloski said. “So this is not just about Aiden. The population of children at risk is much higher than you would think. Their disease is not always visible. This is about them, too.”
Aiden did homebound kindergarten last year, but Pawloski enrolled him in kindergarten again this year because he was only getting two hours of instruction each week. He had his first day of school at Willow Hill Elementary last Tuesday.
Although he was exhausted by Thursday, the resilient 6-year-old sported a smile under his mask when Pawloski picked him up Friday. The squinted eyes and thumbs up were a clear sign of what was safely tucked away behind his turquoise mask.
“It’s about allowing kids to have a life,” Pawloski said. “They deserve at least that much.”