David Ibuki looks like any normal, healthy, happy five-year-old. He is a bit shy when we first meet but quickly warms up when I start talking about Christmas.
His little brown eyes light up when he tells me he asked Santa to bring him a gold race car for his present this year.
I asked David if he was a good boy to earn his gift and he replied, “Yes!”
His smile fills the room.
I don’t know if David is any good. But I know he was very brave.
He sits on a bed in a specialized children’s ward at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington. David was moved here two weeks ago and admitted to the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit during what his mother describes as a “terrifying” ordeal.
David suffers from sickle cell disease. His mother, Paula Ibuki, watches him closely and when he tells her he’s in excruciating pain, saying his “bones are broken,” she knows his little body is under attack.
I took him to the local hospital, where the doctors diagnosed him with the flu. This meant that due to his underlying health conditions David was in excruciating pain and his health was under serious threat.
Paula told me, “He would never tell David if he was in pain, I would assume he was in pain. But as soon as David said my bones were breaking, I knew for sure something wasn’t right with him.”
Managing David’s condition could be difficult at the best of times, but the extra infection was making David very ill. It was a painful time for his family.
Paula described her fear to me: “It was terrifying, I can’t even hold back. I was trying, the nurses were doing their best to distract me, but I just look at my son lying there, helpless. It’s also really a lot any mother can go through.”
Doctors at West Middlesex University Hospital have turned to the specialist pediatric care team at St Mary’s for their expertise.
David is placed under the care of Dr. Liz Whitaker. She immediately realized the complexity of David’s condition and initiated an urgent blood transfusion to help David’s body fight off the infection.
“We’ve got lots and lots of kids coming in, all very sick, and there’s a shortage of beds,” Dr. Whitaker explained.
“We’re always concerned about flow, and we’re trying to keep everyone moving through the system so every child can get the care they need. We’ve created community therapy to make sure patients can get to the hospital.
“But November is always a stress point and anything we can do to try and limit the number of patients out there is a really good thing.”
Influenza cases in hospitals have risen 10 times over last year amid a ‘triple’ warning
NHS leaders worry more about this winter than any before
Influenza rates are rising again with young children being hit the hardest
“Children’s Winter” is in progress
Pediatricians say that “baby winter” is in full swing. November is usually when RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) cases spike.
They’re already seeing this in hospitals. Once cases of RSV drop, the flu begins to make a comeback. So there is no complacency for paramedics like Dr. Whitaker and her team.
Senior pediatricians tell me there is a severe shortage of pediatric ICU beds, especially in the south of the country.
At her hospital, Dr. Whitaker said he was “an outpatient, another patient”. Data from NHS England appears to show that there were 33 spare PICU beds available in the country last Thursday. This is lower than at any time this past winter.
Health analysts say this rise in respiratory infections in the winter was to be expected. Mitigation measures during a pandemic meant that influenza and respiratory syncytial virus did not have a chance to spread as they normally would. But this also means that most young children have not been exposed to these viruses before.
David is recovering well and looking forward to going home to spend Christmas with his family and looking forward to his gold race car.
But Dr. Whitaker and her team know David’s bed won’t be empty for long.