COVID-19 and Cytomegalovirus (CMV): The decisions both viruses have left me to make

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As I write this, 9 March 2020, there are now 3 cases of community transmissions of COVID-19 in Ireland. Community transmission means that the person contracted the virus from an unknown source or person. This number will surely rise, and if the latest predictions are accurate, it will rise exponentially. We are a small island country with a shattered health service. If we get as many cases as predicted, we won’t be able to cope.

The government’s official response to the rightly-worried public is to repeat the message about washing hands thoroughly and frequently. While that is definitely great advice which should be followed (so please do!), it is not enough. Let me tell you why…

16 years ago I was thrown kicking and screaming and crying into the world of virology. I didn’t know it would happen. I certainly didn’t want it to happen. But, it happened all the same: Despite all my frequent hand washing. Despite constantly spraying disinfectant on the toys in my office as a Child and Family Therapist at a public mental health center. Despite not actually sitting on the toilet we therapists shared with the clients. Despite using paper towels to turn off the tap.

Despite all of my best efforts to remain healthy and not pick up any germs while I was pregnant, I picked up a common virus, CMV, – somewhere in the community – which then ravaged my developing son’s brain in utero and changed our lives forever. 

I learned everything I could about Cytomegalovirus (CMV) and a couple of years after my son was born, I phoned one of the world’s leading experts on CMV. We spent over an hour on that first phone call, the result of which was my establishing the first non-profit foundation ever dedicated to raising awareness of CMV and to support CMV vaccine research. I spent a decade at that work along side our Board of Directors, who were some of the most knowledgeable CMV and virology experts you could find. I learned all about IgG, IgM, latency, reinfection, reactivation, different strains, vaccine trial protocol, hygienic protocol, transmission methods…and so much more that frankly I wish to God I never had to learn about, but did.

Fast forward to today. Down the hall from me sleeps my teenage son. My handsome, wonderful, full of love and joy, profoundly disabled, medically fragile and complex son who is at great risk if he should contract COVID-19. Brendan Bjorn would not survive this new virus. After 16 years on this very challenging journey with my son, that is something I can say with certainty. He is far too fragile to fight a virus such as COVID-19.

Decisions to make.

It was easy for me to decide to take Brendan Bjorn out of school while Ireland, and indeed the world, watch to see how this epidemic (ok, it’s a pandemic as far as I’m concerned) unfolds. What isn’t so easy is the decision to take my other son out of school during this time and to have him do his school work at home. For now, though, that is my decision. Even just last week, Declan came home from school having picked up a cold. And yes, despite my constant hand washing and cleaning and keeping my distance, I still contracted the cold from him. Then Brendan Bjorn picked it up and the poor guy just can’t even handle a cold well. He’s still not over it fully.

So, decision made. All I had to do was imagine that cold was COVID-19.

I will end this piece by talking about guilt. Yeah, you heard me right, guilt. Among other things, one lesson I learned by my years of working with CMV-affected families across the world is that so many mothers felt guilt at having contracted a virus which adversely affected their unborn baby. The fact that we all contracted CMV unknowingly didn’t matter: a mother’s guilt at not protecting her unborn child is a real and powerful thing. 

I want to say this: There will be people who unknowingly transmit COVID-19 to a vulnerable loved one despite all of their best efforts. This is unfortunately the insidious and as I say, cruel, nature of viruses. Please don’t feel guilty. Please don’t blame yourself or anyone else. Trust me when I say that feelings of guilt and blame get you nowhere in this regard. Just do your very best to protect yourself from contracting the virus and keeping your loved ones, especially those most at risk like my son is, safe and hopefully those best efforts will pay off. Know that you did everything within your power.

And it is with that thought in mind I am going to do everything within my power to protect my son Brendan Bjorn. So a note to the doctors out there who may be downplaying the virus and fears of the people: Stop it. In many regards, you haven’t a clue.

( Learn more about COVID-19 here: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019 )

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