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A 4-year-old got sick and was flown 350 km for an ICU bed. One family’s ‘terrifying’ journey


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A 4-year-old got sick and was flown 350 km for an ICU bed. One family’s ‘terrifying’ journey

As the airplane swung onto the runway, Stephanie Rutherford felt paralyzed with fear.

Her four-year-old son, Remy, was on a stretcher, two critical-care paramedics at his side.

Remy was limp and feverish. His hands felt cold. Monitors strapped to his chest were tracking his vital signs, and IV lines snaked into his little arms.

Rutherford couldn’t believe her happy, energetic son was so pale and still, or that he was on an Ornge aircraft getting ready to fly to a hospital 350 kilometres away.

Hours earlier, she had called 911 for an ambulance to rush to their Simcoe home. At the local hospital, doctors quickly realized Remy was critically ill from a bacterial infection and needed specialized care in a pediatric ICU.

Typically, an ambulance would race 75 kilometres to McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton. But that hospital, overrun with respiratory infections, had no space in its ICU. The second closest children’s hospital in London was full.

Kingston General Hospital — one of five Ontario hospitals with a dedicated critical care unit — had a bed. So Remy became one of hundreds of infants and children this fall to be transported across the province by land and air because there was no room in their nearest hospital.

“It was absolutely terrifying to be on an airplane going somewhere else for care because your child is that sick,” Rutherford says.

Three weeks later, Remy is still at Kingston General, part of Kingston Health Sciences Centre. There hasn’t been a bed for him closer to home.

Rutherford is grateful for the doctors and nurses at Kingston General. They saved her son. They offered comfort during long, often scary days.

But she’s also angry. She’s angry that Remy and so many others have been forced to travel far for hospital care. She’s shocked her severely ill son had to fly past two other children’s hospitals to find space in a third.

“Children deserve better. There shouldn’t be a bed shortage. There shouldn’t be a Tylenol shortage. There shouldn’t be a nurse shortage.

“We live in a country with the best medical care, the best hospitals. … We shouldn’t be in this situation.”

In Ontario, kids are regularly transferred between hospitals, usually from one in the community to a children’s hospital or one offering specialized pediatric care. In northern Ontario and rural areas, sick and injured kids often need to be flown to cover vast distances.

But figures provided by Ornge, Ontario’s air ambulance and medical transport service, show a sharp rise in the number of kids needing transport this fall.

In the nine weeks between Oct. 1 and Dec. 2, the service transported more than 544 children under 18, a significant increase from a similar period before the pandemic. Kingston General has taken in more than 25 kids to help offload overcrowded pediatric hospitals on top of their own local pressures.

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Rutherford knew the viral season has swamped hospitals and caused record ER waits, cancelled surgeries and overcrowded pediatric ICUs.

“It sounds bad,” she says, “and you worry, but you never think it’s going to happen to your kid.”

On a Tuesday in mid-November, Remy came home from school more tired than usual. That evening, he spiked a fever. Two days later, after he couldn’t stop vomiting up food and water, Rutherford took him to the hospital.

The doctor prescribed Tylenol — local pharmacies had none — and said Remy would recover at home from what seemed to be a viral infection.

But Remy kept getting sicker. When he started to cry out in pain and could no longer walk or sit up by himself, Rutherford called 911.

Remy had a group A streptococcal infection, or Strep A. The common bacterial infection causes a range of illnesses, including strep throat and scarlet fever, and is normally easily treated with antibiotics. Rarely, as in the case with Remy’s illness, Strep A can lead to sepsis, a life-threatening infection that can cascade through multiple organs.

Doctors told Rutherford that if she had waited longer to call an ambulance Remy would have died.

At Kingston General, doctors ran further tests.

They diagnosed Remy with childhood hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis. The rare condition causes a buildup of a type of white blood cell that can lead to organ damage and can be fatal. Tests revealed that Remy also had another serious condition that causes abnormal blood clotting.

Remy spent a week sedated and on a ventilator in the critical care unit. His body was painfully swollen, and blisters resembling third-degree burns erupted wherever he’d been poked by a needle for bloodwork or an IV.

Remy’s father, Adam, stayed in Kingston two weeks. He’s returned home to be with their six-year-old daughter, Kenzie, who had been staying with grandparents. Kenzie had been struggling; she’d never been away from her mom and dad that long.

A few days ago, as Rutherford waited in a hallway while Remy was getting an X-ray, she saw another Ornge helicopter land at Kingston General’s helipad. Paramedics pushed a gurney carrying a sick child. The mom was walking alongside holding her kid’s hand.

“I just wanted to reach out and hug her, because I knew exactly how she was feeling.”

In a few days, Remy will be transferred to the burn unit at Toronto’s SickKids. Doctors have said he’ll likely need skin grafts on his arms to help him heal from the painful blisters followed by intensive therapy. They think Remy will need to be in hospital at least another month.

Rutherford says they can’t change the fact that Remy got so sick. But being in a closer hospital would have eased their family’s stress. Kenzie could have visited her brother. Remy’s grandparents could have brought his favourite snacks to him. And she could have gone home in the evenings, leaving Adam safely at Remy’s side.

“Sleeping in our own beds and snuggling with the dog and reading stories to our daughter … Being closer to home, it would have made all the difference.”

Megan Ogilvie is a Toronto-based health reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @megan_ogilvie

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