By Mary Beth Sallee
From the loss of life to the downfall of the economy, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused much worry, panic, and damage across the country.
It has also brought about, among other things, a great debate concerning the use of face masks. Proponents of face masks say that wearing them are a must to help stop the spread of the disease. Others are refusing to wear them, citing lack of comfort and even infringement upon their rights.
But for mothers like Tabatha Ballard, the concept is simple: wear yours to protect hers.
Tabatha’s son, Walker, knows what it’s like to wear a mask nearly every day of his young life. The six-year-old was born with a severe heart defect known as hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS).
“The left side of Walker’s heart didn’t form properly. He had half a heart,” Tabatha said. “He underwent three open heart surgeries and a heart transplant before the age of three. He had a stroke around the time of his second open heart surgery at four-months-old.”
“He has a lot of health issues from being so sick during his first few years of life,” Tabatha continued. “We found out a few years ago that Walker also has a cyst in his brain that is pushing on his pituitary gland. This is causing him to have an adrenal gland insufficiency, a growth hormone deficiency, and for him to be hypoglycemic.”
Walker is currently on 18 daily medications of which he takes at different times throughout the day.
“He gets poked on a daily basis with blood sugar checks and growth hormone shots each night,” Tabatha said. “Walker also has a feeding tube that he gets food and medicine through. At times, it feels like our day revolves around meds and tube feeds.”
With Walker having had a heart transplant, he takes two different medications daily to weaken his immune system in order to keep his body from rejecting his new heart.
“Of course, when you weaken your immune system, it makes you more susceptible to catching anything and everything,” Tabatha said. “It’s also much harder for you to recover.
With Walker also having an adrenal gland insufficiency, his body doesn’t make the adrenaline that it needs to help him recover from illnesses. So, it’s extremely hard for him to get over everything and takes him twice as long.”
In January of 2019, Walker contracted the flu, RSV, and adenovirus. After two weeks of attempting to recover at home, he was admitted to the hospital in Columbus, Ohio for an additional three weeks. Pneumonia was added to his list of illnesses at that time.
“It took him months to get back to his baseline, and he missed over two months of school,” Tabatha said.
Illnesses such as the flu or a common cold can be deadly to Walker and others with similar medical issues. Therefore, Walker is in the at-risk population category for the COVID-19 disease that is caused by the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
“There is not a lot of research that has been done on transplant recipients and COVID-19 due to the fact that this is all so new,” Tabatha said. “But knowing Walker has a weakened immune system, he would be more likely to get COVID-19. It would take him longer to recover from it, and who knows what type of lasting effect this would have on a child. I have personally seen my child on a ventilator, and it’s not something that I want to see again.”
Tabatha and her entire family are taking every precaution to keep Walker safe. In the last two months, he has not been anywhere other than the hospital and to have blood work performed. Walker’s siblings have not been in a public place since schools were closed in March, and his father is also not working in order to minimize contacts.
Now and even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of face masks have played an intricate role in Walker’s life.
“Walker wears a mask everywhere that he goes during cold and flu season, everyday to school, to all his weekly therapies, all doctors appointments, and every trip to the lab for blood work,” Tabatha said. “Walker has been wearing a mask for almost four years now, and it has just became part of his everyday life. At times, he forgets that he’s got it on. It takes some getting used to, but it’s now a comfort item for him.”
With the COVID-19 illness being widespread in communities across the country and even locally, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that people wear face masks to cover their nose and mouth while in public settings such as grocery stores and pharmacies. This is to protect one another as people can have COVID-19 and be asymptomatic, meaning that they do not show any symptoms but are still able to spread the illness.
“The purpose of wearing a mask is to keep your droplets to yourself, thus protecting others who may be near you,” said Sharon Rock, a registered nurse. “The coronavirus is transmitted through droplets that are emitted when we speak, cough, sneeze, and laugh. Since some people can be infected but asymptomatic, it is important for everyone to contain droplets that occur naturally during interactions to prevent the spread.”
Since face masks are now recommended to be worn, many are asking why they were not recommended during the start of the pandemic. At that time, experts state, it was not yet known the extent to which people with COVID-19 could spread the virus before symptoms appeared. Therefore, the CDC updated its guidelines to recommend widespread use of face masks to help prevent the transmission of the disease.
Common sense also suggests that some protection – such as wearing a face mask in public – is better than none. Face masks should be used in addition with social distancing and hand washing, not as a replacement for either of those practices. Taking all necessary precautions will help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Sharon said that wearing a face mask in public goes beyond common sense. It’s common courtesy.
“During a pandemic, wearing a mask while in public is the neighborly thing to do,” Sharon said. “It shows that you care about the community and are willing to make a contribution to keeping others safe.”
“Although there are conflicting viewpoints, I consider wearing a mask in public during this time to be a common courtesy while in public areas,” Sharon added. “Any mask that fully covers your nose and mouth is sufficient. However, I recommend finding a facial covering that is most comfortable for you. Otherwise, you will be less likely to wear it.”
As for those who are refusing to wear face masks, Tabatha said it is very disheartening to see their lack of consideration for others.
“I feel that if it was their loved one who was high risk, they would do whatever they could to keep them healthy,” Tabatha said. “I understand that masks are annoying, and they are hard to breathe in. But the at-risk population such as the medically fragile, immunocompromised, cancer patients, and the elderly need you now more than ever. Wearing a mask is a small price to pay to keep someone healthy.”
Walker has been wearing a face mask since the age of two. Tabatha said that if a child can wear one, so can adults.
“It wasn’t easy at first, but now it’s no different to him than wearing shoes,” Tabatha said. “A mask will be part of Walker’s life for the rest of his life. He will always be immunocompromised . If he can do it for the rest of his life, we can do it for a few months.”
Until a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19 is discovered, face masks might be the most important tool that everyone can use to help in the fight against the disease. The other guidelines – staying at home whenever possible and staying six feet away from people when in public – remain the best strategies.