Last week, Stephen Balka found himself living a parent’s nightmare. His 2-month-old son Adrian was struggling to breathe, sometimes going as long as seven seconds between gasping breaths, the father said.
“It’s a very terrifying situation,” Balka said. “It’s one of my biggest fears.”
After rushing Adrian to the ER, Balka and his wife were told their son had RSV, a common respiratory virus that some doctors say is spreading at unusually high levels and can cause severe illness in some infants, according to the CDC.
The Balkas took Adrian back home after initially getting cleared by doctors. But the infant’s labored breathing quickly returned. Once again, they hurried to the ER, where they waited for hours before being transferred to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, the father said.
Adrian has been hospitalized for a week in the hospital’s intensive care unit, where Balka said he is making significant progress.
“If we would have waited any longer, or we would have just taken him home, you know, and kind of just gave him a little medicine, he probably would not have made it on his own,” Balka said.
More than 40 children are hospitalized at Texas Children’s Hospital with RSV, including at least 10 in the ICU, according to Dr. Melanie Kitagawa, director of the hospital’s pediatric ICU.
Kitagawa said the hospital is seeing an unusually early surge in patients with RSV, which typically spikes around December or January in Texas.
“It’s terrible to, to have any family or any child have to go through this,” she said.
The Houston hospital is one of several children’s hospitals that are seeing abnormally high numbers of RSV cases this season. Some doctors have told CNN they are overwhelmed with the unexpected flood of hospitalizations, some of which require several days of supportive care for more severe cases.
Most children will catch RSV before they turn 2, according to the CDC, and the cases are typically mild. But in young infants and other children with weakened immune or respiratory systems, the illness can be dangerous, causing dehydration, trouble breathing, and potentially more serious illnesses like bronchiolitis or pneumonia.
Standing in the doorway of his child’s ICU room, Balka urged other parents not to hesitate to seek care for their child.
“Don’t wait,” he said. “If you feel as if something is wrong with your child, you know your child better than anyone does. Get your child help immediately. Because it could, you know, it could be something minor but again, it could be something catastrophic.”
Down the hall from Adrian, 7-month-old Miles is in the ICU after his parents noticed he had become lethargic, developed a cough and started throwing up.
Nine-month-old Koa was also brought to the hospital and placed in intensive care after his mother saw that he wasn’t quite himself and was refusing to eat.
“On appearance, RSV looks similar to other respiratory viral infections that (parents) might have experience with in their children. But RSV – when you have a little one, an infant, somebody tiny – it just has so much more impact on them,” Kitagawa said.
Kitagawa encouraged parents to communicate with their pediatricians if their child has symptoms of RSV or other respiratory illnesses, which include runny nose, decreased appetite, fever, coughing and sneezing.
CNN’s Jen Christensen and Raenu Charles contributed to this report.