Last month, Keri Graham knew her son Tyler, who was struggling to breathe, needed more help than the antibiotics he was prescribed.
Within 36 hours of arriving at the emergency room at the local hospital, the Oakville, Ont., mother's son was loaded into an ambulance — lights on, sirens blaring, tearing down Highway 401 to London, Ont., where the nearly three-year-old would stay in an intensive-care bed for five days.
"If I had just trusted what was being delivered to me by the doctors and the health-care system, I would have been in trouble," said Graham, who is now sharing her story so other parents know the warning signs of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is surging in many parts of Canada.
"His breathing was incredibly short," said Graham, who first monitored Tyler at home for a day and a half. "He was taking very shallow breaths and his abdomen was working very hard for each breath.
"It was horrible, to watch your son who is typically very active and talkative, to watch him lay there pretty well lifeless for days," she said, choking back tears.
What happens with RSV
RSV causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract, and symptoms typically mimic the common cold, but in some instances, it can prove far more dangerous.
Tyler spent two days at Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital in mid-October before his doctors said he required more specialized care somewhere else.
This virus is absolutely no joke. Trust your mother's instinct. Watch your kids more closely than you would through your typical flu season. - Keri Graham
"They had maxed out their capacity to help him and he wasn't responding, which as a mother was terrifying to hear a doctor say," said Graham.
Doctors were about to transfer Tyler to a hospital in Buffalo, N.Y., said Graham. But at the last minute, a bed opened up at the nearby Children's Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre, so Tyler was rushed there by ambulance.
"In 36 hours, we went from being in the emergency room in Oakville to fully rush-transported, lights and sirens to the pediatric ICU" in London, she said.
The doctors had experience with RSV and knew what to expect, said Graham. "He [the doctor] prepared us that he will get worse before he gets better. RSV typically peaks around Day 5 to 7, he had said."
Tyler was only on Day 2.
Know the signs
It was a scary few days.
"For a mother to sit in an ICU bed, not seeing their otherwise active, happy child looking at them or speaking to them, it's really hard to grasp and understand that one day he's just going to turn a corner and be OK," said Graham.
But eventually, he did.
Tyler was discharged on Oct. 28, his third birthday, the first day he no longer needed oxygen.
Today, he is 'totally fine,' said Graham.
"At least 50 per cent of our ICU population is made up of patients that have the same sort of symptoms," said Dr. Cory Anderson, interim fellowship program director, pediatric critical care medicine at London Health Sciences Centre and one of the doctors who treated Tyler.
Colds, flus and RSV are the big three culprits, he said. Anderson expects cases will continue to rise and peak in January and February, when cold and flu season is typically at its highest.
Already, ICUs across Ontario are operating at 120 to 150 per cent capacity, he said.
"It's a lot of Tetris, a lot of mental gymnastics and sometimes physical gymnastics to you make sure that we can provide space for these patients."
For most children, RSV is a mild infection. "But because it clogs up the the airway secretion, younger kids and kids with things like asthma or pre-existing lung disease tend to get affected a lot harder," said Anderson.
Not sure if it's time to bring your child to the hospital? Anderson suggests watching for a number of signs:
The child is coughing so much they're not drinking and is dehydrated
A fever has lasted longer than five days
The child's breathing is laboured, and can only speak one- or two-word sentences
The child has blue lips or blue fingernails
The child has no appetite
Graham's advice is clear. Pay attention.
"It can progress quickly," she said. "This virus is absolutely no joke.
"Trust your mother's instinct. Watch your kids more closely than you would through your typical flu season and just pray that everybody makes it through this season well."
WATCH | Keri Graham details the 'horrible' journey of helping her son Tyler make it through RSV: