The COVID-19 pandemic has forced people around the world to distance from their loved ones.
For a South King Fire and Rescue lieutenant, the risk of an infectious disease reaching his family led to a difficult but necessary decision of living at a fire station for six weeks during the pandemic.
Chris Mathis, a firefighter with South King since 2008, and his wife Justine Mathis, a registered nurse in the orthopedic unit of Providence St. Peter Hospital, have been married for almost five years.
When their baby was born at just 24 weeks and five days in December 2018, Chris, 43, and Justine, 31, knew they would need to take extra precautions throughout their life in order to protect their baby boy, Barrett.
Even if it meant spending weeks apart.
On Dec. 6, 2018, Justine and her mother were in Oregon to do Christmas shopping when Barrett decided to make an early entrance to the world. Cutting their day early, the two started their drive home as Justine began to feel progressively uncomfortable.
Reaching out to family members in Longview for suggestions, Justine and her mother pulled into PeaceHealth Medical Center in Vancouver, WA. Justine checked into the emergency room around 9 p.m. and Barrett was born at 10:54 p.m.
Meanwhile, Chris was still in Federal Way at a meeting when Justine said they were going to stop in Vancouver — “and that’s the last thing I heard from her.”
Without any updates, Chris hit the road and drove straight to Vancouver, arriving around midnight.
“That drive was the worst I’ve ever had,” he said. “Because I didn’t know [what was going on].”
Barrett had already been taken to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) after an emergency C-section and the couple didn’t see him until after 3 a.m.
Barrett was born weighing 1 pound and 15 ounces at 13 inches long. When his parents finally got to see him, he was intubated, his skin was nearly transparent, he had a mask over his eyes and a bilirubin light cast a strange blue glow. The couple couldn’t touch him, hold him or talk to him in the NICU.
“Then the doctor came in and basically gave us the head to toe of what’s going on with him and what the potential problems could be in the NICU,” Chris Mathis said. “That was another tough thing to listen to.”
Barrett’s arrival was a surreal experience, the couple agreed.
After seven days, Barrett received a head CT scan and doctors discovered he had a Grade 3 brain bleed on one side of his head and a Grade 4 brain bleed on the other.
“That was devastating to us,” Chris Mathis said. “While both of us are in the healthcare profession, you know, thinking about a head bleed like that for an adult is devastating to that person. And to think about your brand new child having the same thing is a little rough.”
The first-time parents began commuting from their home in Tumwater to Vancouver every three days, only coming back to work a few shifts before returning to Barrett’s side. They stayed in a hotel for the first month.
Connected through a friend of a friend, a firefighter with the Vancouver Fire Department offered his basement apartment to the couple to stay free of charge.
Barrett’s stay in the NICU lasted 115 days and he remained on oxygen support for almost two months. He also underwent five blood transfusions.
“By the time we left, he had no more blood in there. He had a fully developed brain,” Chris said.
However, doctors warned Chris and Justine of the heart and lung complications that may arise soon after he left the NICU, or other complications that may not be apparent until years later.
“Usually babies on that type of support for that long have some sort of lung disease,” Justine said. “So far we’ve been really lucky.”
During a regular flu season, their pediatrician emphasized the importance of keeping Barrett healthy. That is why when an infectious disease began to take over Washington by force, the couple knew extreme measures had to be taken.
The couple talked about their options, and Chris looked for various places and parks to keep his trailer. He then asked several South King Fire chiefs about the option of living on site. The plan was approved as a trial run in case additional SKFR members needed locations to quarantine separate from loved ones.
Justine took a leave of absence from work for almost three months to stay home with Barrett while Chris, who would be in contact with several of COVID-19 positive patients over the coming months, moved the family’s 39-foot trailer to the parking lot of Station 66 in Des Moines.
The parking lot served as Chris’s home for about six weeks spanning from March 25 through May 5.
Chris would go home once a week to go to the store for Justine, drop off the groceries and say hello to his wife and baby through a glass window or from across the garage — then return to his bunker on wheels.
“Life in the trailer is fine, it’s easy,” he said, but “I miss my family. It was hard. I was ready to go home.”
For weeks, Justine and Barrett did not see anyone or go anywhere except for walks outside. The weeks of no breaks and no companion to vent to was a struggle, she said.
The couple didn’t know what benchmark infection rate they were waiting for to have Chris return, but nearing additional time off from work, he packed up and went home only to be met with some unforeseen and unintended consequences.
“Because he had been home with her for five and a half weeks, he wanted nothing to do with me,” Chris said of Barrett. “He thought I was a total stranger.”
Eventually after a few dedicated father-son days, the two rebonded. Despite this, the couple knew they had made the right decision, he said.
“Even though he’s almost two now, it’s still nerve-racking to think about him getting [sick]. I don’t like when he gets sick in general, let alone something like this,” he said. “It’s still stressful.”
Today, Barrett is a healthy and happy baby. Some staff members of PeaceHealth visited the family to celebrate his first birthday in December 2019.
“[Our pediatrician] said ‘when you first brought him to us, we would not have expected the outcome that I see today,’” Justine said of their recent checkup.
The couple is hoping they don’t have to go through it again, but Justine Mathis said she is nervous.
“It’s going to be a rough season overall for flu, and for COVID-19, and for babies like Barrett who have the potential of getting RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus),” Justine said.
If a second swell of COVID-19 infections hit the area later this year, Chris said he will do what he must for his family.
“I know the option for me to do that is here,” Chris Mathis said. “But I don’t want to do that. I want to stay. [But] keeping these guys healthy is the most important thing. If it comes down to it and I have to do it again, I’ll do it again just to make that sacrifice to take care of the family.”