Surviving COVID-19: A Breastfeeding Mother's Story
Updated: Jul 8, 2020
By Catherine Kosasih
It started with fatigue and aching muscles, but things deteriorated quickly as my fever soared.
I knew I had to go to hospital.
I knew what the symptoms meant, but I hoped I was wrong.
I called 999 and very quickly medics in protective gear appeared, taking me in an ambulance to our nearest hospital for a chest x-ray.
The radiologist said there were white spots on my lungs. My heart sank, my mind raced, I was distraught for my family and I feared what might happen next.
There were no isolation rooms so I was sent on to Hong Kong’s Yan Chai Hospital where I was immediately put in one. There they did a nasal and deep throat swab.
The results came after 15 hours of waiting, confirming all my fears.
I was preliminary positive for the novel coronavirus.
It was a shock and I was scared, but I felt glad to have called for help quickly, as it could have stopped the virus spreading to my husband Juergen and our daughters – aged just four months and 21 months old.
That didn’t ease the heartache of being apart, or the intense anxiety over our fate.
I had left the house suddenly and now had no idea how long it would be before I saw the most important people in the world to me again.
I worried about so many things: About them being quarantined, what would happen if they got sick, and how we would feed the baby — I had some frozen breast milk in the freezer but I knew it would not last long.
The isolation ward had a prison-like feeling, with strictly no visitors allowed.
Even contact with doctors and nurses is kept to a minimum and all staff wore protective gowns, face shields, and gloves.
I saw the doctor in person only once, on my second day.
He said the were a few white spots on my right lung and the only option was a course of antiretroviral therapy – usually used to treat HIV – to help fight the disease.
The rest of my stay the doctor only contacted me on my mobile.
From the outset, I told the doctors and nurses that I was still breastfeeding and needed to pump milk every few hours. I wondered if they could keep my milk, but they insisted it was not possible.
They tell me the hospital has no obstetrics department and they aren’t sure how to keep breast milk safely. They also tell me it’s better to dump it because the HIV medication may pass through it to the baby.
I was heartbroken.
I wondered how Juergen would manage. I wondered how my babies were coping. I missed them terribly.
My COVID-19 battle brought so many emotions, so many ups and downs. There were good days and there were terrible days.
Time seemed to stretch on endlessly.
Nurses came in every six hours, and to deliver medication. The most interaction I had was with the care-taking staff – who came in twice a day to do a deep clean of the room. They are also the ones that deliver the meals.
Even in hospital, staying connected was easy. So I could FaceTime and see my family often, helping to wake up the girls or see them have dinner. They were small things but they eased my loneliness.
It felt like things were finally looking up and mentally that was a huge boost.
But then came the news my baby was allergic to formula.
It was like a body blow.
She had such a strong reaction that Juergen considered calling the ambulance. I felt desperate.
I was distraught we had no way of feeding the baby.
I posted in Hong Kong Breastfeeding, a social media support group, for help finding alternatives and response left me in tears.
Within a day more than 15 litres – enough to feed the baby for two weeks – had been pledged.
It was incredible that in less than 24 hours people contributed so much to this milk collection. It helped me so much to know, that people were helping while I was stuck in hospital. That my baby was going to be okay.
I still can’t believe so many mums pumped for my baby – a stranger’s baby.
There was a local milk drive on Lantau, the island we live on, and also mothers across other parts of Hong Kong offered their pumped milk, which was collected and delivered by motorbike.
My partner was very emotional when he received the milk. It was dropped on the doorstep to stick to quarantine rules but as soon as we had it, it was such a weight off our minds.
I felt enormous relief knowing our freezer was filled with milk
It was just so reassuring and one less thing for me to worry about in hospital.
Things seemed to improve each day after that.
They soon brought someone else into to my room because as case numbers increased in Hong Kong – up from around one hundred to close to a
thousand – they ran out of isolation rooms.
In a way it was nice to have company
But I was glad it was just one extra person. I’ve heard of ‘isolation’ rooms being filled with eight or even ten patients with COVID-19, which would have brought it’s own risks.
There was more good news after doctors found my lung scans clear on day seven. Most patients are released between 14 and 21 days after admission, so I knew I was doing well at the half way point.
The first week seemed to last forever, but into the second I got a negative swab result, which got my hopes up for being discharged sooner rather than later.
Breastfeeding was a persistent worry though, I had spent a long time away from my baby and the impact of stress, pumping in difficult conditions, and the antiretrovirals caused my supply to drop.
The doctor told me I should not breastfeed for three months after the last treatment, which really shocked me and was a huge blow.
I felt like I’d lost precious time with my babies.
I also feared I would be unable to return to nursing after such a huge gap.
It felt like maybe the virus had taken a bit of my motherhood journey from me.
The doctor later revised his view, saying I’d ‘only’ have to wait maybe one or two weeks, which still seemed very long given the time we had already been apart.
I really wanted to re-establish our nursing relationship.
Juergen called the Australian Breastfeeding Association, whose advice was that it’s possible to nurse 24 hours after the last treatment.
I mentioned this to the doctor who handled my case, who did some research on it as well. He called me on my last day in the hospital and confirmed we could resume 24 hours from last HIV treatment.
The virus is still new, so I guess they didn’t have enough information to hand and were being cautious, but I am glad I persevered.
This experience showed me how much breastfeeding mothers still have to advocate for themselves, for their babies. It showed me how much we still must double check rules, regulations and guidelines because often advice given is not based on the latest research.
I was allowed to return home after a second negative swab. It was an incredible feeling.
We are all back together now and I am so thankful that we are healthy and came through it. It is baby steps rekindling breastfeeding, my supply is still not what it was, but I am determined to push through.
The virus showed me that we all should all be more grateful in life. I will be forever thankful to all the people who helped us. It’s wonderful to know that there is still a healthy amount of community spirit out there.
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