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Inside the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, a Family Fights Against a Rare Illness

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The Rudolf family sits around the hospital bed of 4-year-old Talia. She’s in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital.

“When we came in was just a totally perfectly normal, happy go lucky, no medical issues kid,” dad David Rudolf said.

When they got to the Pediatric Emergency Department on Sept. 1, 2022, it was Talia’s second time with COVID-19. Nurses were finishing a bag of fluids to treat her for dehydration.

“And she looked at both of us. She looked at my wife and blew her a kiss and she looked at me and blew me a kiss and Talia seized,” Rudolf said.

It was the first of many grand mal seizures. That day, Talia and her family made the pediatric ICU a second home.

The team later determined that her body was having a severe reaction in her fight against COVID.

“So the antibodies that she was producing to fight off the infection ended up continuing to fight her body,” said mom Molly. “And because of that, it started attacking her brain and causing these seizures to fire.”

We met them on their 138th day in intensive care.

“And so she'll have to learn how to eat again, swallow again,” Molly said. "She's learning how to breathe obviously differently,” she continued, pointing out the tubes around Talia’s neck and chest.

She was one of 17 patients who were there during our visit that day. The unit was near capacity.

In the pediatric ICU, the nurses have to be ready for anything.

“I can be in one room and have little baby, and in the next room have an 18-year-old,” nurse Sara Cicero said. “I can have a little baby who has an open chest and just had open heart surgery. And I can have an 18-year-old next to me who was just in a car accident and had major surgery on both his legs, is intubated and has a bleed in his head, all in the same day.”

That’s why the nurses here each have to be trained in multiple treatment specialties like oncology, neurology and cardiology.

“PICU nurses don't fall from the sky. So, it's a very specific criteria,” Cicero said.

Nurse practitioner Clair Dickenson says there’s often an emotional connection to the families here.

“I also think, when we have some really sick children who were here for maybe two or three months, you get to know those families so well. They know us, we know them we know their other siblings,” Dickenson said.

It’s a connection that goes beyond the hospital room.

“So some of the doctors and some of the nurses sent home letters to my other daughter and so she got to pen pal with some of them and say thank you,” Molly said.

Talia’s case is so rare, there’s little information on treatment, but mom says chemotherapy has been helpful.

Despite all the things that go on in the ICU, Cicero says her job is an honor.

“We really see them at their worst. So being able to make their worst day a little bit better, and or help them get out of here a little bit faster, there's no touching it," she said.

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