An eight-year-old autistic boy in Texas is fighting to recover his ability to speak and even stand after his flu turned into a rare brain infection.
Witten Ramirez developed cerebrellitis, an infection that causes brain inflammation after this year’s aggressive virus – which he is still fighting – broke through the barrier between his body and brain last month.
In the aftermath of the infection, Witten will have to relearn to walk and talk, and it is unclear yet how extensive the damage to his brain might be, or if he is even cured of the infection yet.
A similar flu-related brain infection claimed the life of a five-year-old boy in Georgia died on Saturday, making him one of 37 people in state and more than 40 children in the US to die of the aggressive H3N2 strain so far this season.
Witten Ramirez, eight, is relearning to stand, walk and talk in a Texas rehabilitation center after his flu moved into his brain, causing a rare infection
The boy from Georgia, Eli Snook, was one of three that were killed by flu-related illnesses in the last week alone. Seven-year-old Kevin Baynes in Virginia and an unnamed 10-year-old in California both died after developing secondary infections.
But Eli’s flu had become deadly when it turned into a brain infection, according to WSB-TV, and that was what really shook Witten’s mother, Desiree Buckingham-Ramirez.
When Desiree, a 30-year-old stay-at-home mother, read about Eli’s death ‘I did not sleep well that night,’ she says.
Desiree read the story – which someone had posted on the support Facebook page she started for Witten – while sitting at a rehabilitation center where own her son is slowly relearning to speak and stand.
Last month, Witten’s father, Mike, came home from working as a UPS driver during Christmas break feeling under the weather. He insisted it wasn’t the flu, but soon the entire, normally healthy family was sick.
Witten has always loved sports like football (left) but now he can only move or hold his younger sister, Cora, age three, with the help of a wheelchair (right)
On January 9, just after Witten had returned to school after the new year, a school nurse called his mother to tell her he had 101 degree fever.
The next day, a doctor confirmed Desiree’s suspicions: Witten had the flu, as did his three-year-old sister, Cora, and Desiree probably did to.
The whole family started on a Tamiflu regimen that knocked the virus out for everyone but Witten, who not only did not seem to be getting better, but had a bad reaction to the drug that gave him that made his muscles spasm uncontrollably.
After Witten slept for the better part of the next two days, it was clear that he was suffering from much worse than a reaction to the flu drug.
Witten – an active and athletic boy who loves basketball and football – was stumbling every time he stood, and as Desiree tried to help him dress on Thursday morning, he fell backwards and could not get back up on his own.
Witten and his Star Wars toys have been a hospital or rehab center since January 11
This week, three other little boys died of flu-related complications, including 10-year-old Kevin Baynes of Virginia (left) and Eli Snook, five, (right) who developed a similar brain infection to Witten’s and died in Georgia
‘I looked at my husband and said “this is not normal flu, something is wrong, I’m taking him to the hospital,”‘ Desiree told Daily Mail Online.
The doctors there explained that Witten was ataxic, meaning that something happening in the little boy’s brain to disable his motor control.
An MRI revealed that he had brain swelling, inflammation of his cerebellum, and meningitis, or inflammation in the cell membranes of his brain and spinal cord.
A blood-brain barrier typically protects the brain and nervous system from viral infections, but in rare cases like Witten’s that barrier is not strong enough to hold back aggressive invaders like his flu.
FLU CAUSED MAYHEM FOR SCHOOLS IN JANUARY
Schools in more than a dozen states had to close during January due to massive flu absences.
Many took the time without students to attempt to disinfect their classrooms and campuses.
Entire school districts shut down in Texas and Arkansas during January.
In some schools as much as 30 percent of the student populations called out sick on certain days.
Nearly 90 students stayed home from a Chicago private school this week.
The flu spreads rapidly through schools because children have less developed immune symptoms.
This year’s epidemic has forced school closures, led to overflowing hospital waiting rooms, and is anticipated to kill more than 50,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The flu is most likely to turn deadly for children – whose developing immune systems are particularly susceptible to this year’s aggressive H3N2 virus – when it gives way to secondary infections like pneumonia.
Because the infection had moved into Witten’s brain, and, more specifically, his cerebellum, the part of the brain that coordinates movement – including of the muscles in his mouth – he was rendered immobile and speechless.
Before he got sick, Witten’s autism did not stop him from much, Desiree says. Her son is in the second grade, can speak, read and write (though at a level closer to kindergartners than to children his own age) and has always been very active.
‘He loves school and being around his friends. he’s super popular, [the other kids] call him “the rock star,”‘ Desiree says.
But in the hospital, her rock star could not even sit up on his own. He was moved from the emergency room to the ICU, and from the ICU to a larger hospital in Dallas.
At one point, Desiree recalls a doctor saying they may have to drill holes into Witten’s skull to insert cameras and get a better look at his brain.
‘I looked at her and said “is my kid going to die?'” And she said “we don’t think so…but we don’t know if he’ll be able to walk or talk again,”‘ Desiree recalls.
‘We used to have this kid that would bound around…then hearing he might not walk or talk again…it was pretty terrifying,’ she says.
Witten was treated with a massive dose of steroids and IVIG – a cocktail of antibodies meant to help boost his immune system so it could mount a better fight against his brain infections.
Witten’s mother, Desiree Buckingham-Ramirez used the first syllable Witten relearned, ‘beh,’ as a tagline for his support Facebook page, #TeamWitten (left). At Christmas time, just before he got the flu, Witten was a social child, grinning for a picture with Santa (right)
Witten now spends much of his days in occupational, physical and speech therapy. ‘He smiles a lot, but he gets really frustrated with not being able to do things,’ his mother says
The drugs started to do their work, and last Tuesday, Witten was transferred out of the ICU and into a rehabilitation center where he could begin occupational, speech and physical therapy.
Witten regained his ability to sit up, and a single syllable, ‘beh.’
It was the one thing he could get out that made any sense, so he would just yell, it was his answer for everything, so it became a family joke,’ and the tagline for the family’s Facebook support page, #TeamWitten.
Now, Witten can say the beginnings of words, and can stand or walk with assistance, but there is no telling how long he and Desiree will be at the rehab center, or when – if ever – he’ll fully regain the physical and verbal abilities he had only a month ago.
Witten still tested positive for the flu as recently as Monday, and his family won’t know the status of his other infections until his MRI on Friday.
While Witten and Desiree stay ‘indefinitely’ at the rehab center, she says, Mike is at home, and their daughter, Cora, is with family.
‘The isolation is the hardest thing,’ for Witten, Desiree says.
‘He’s a social kid and thrives mentally and developmentally and learns best from his peers, so not being able to do that at all is really hard on him.
‘He smiles a lot, but he gets really frustrated with not being able to do things he was a month ago,’ she adds.
Ataxia like Witten suffered is most common in children between two and four years old. Recovery varies widely once the age range is extended, but the prognosis is good for most children.
Witten’s family just won’t know what that is until after his MRI, but so far, ‘he’s worked so hard, he is my rock star,’ Desiree says.
‘I just really want parents to know what to look for when it comes to the flu. If it’s not just coughing, if you see your kid stumbling, unable to sit or stand like my kid was, that’s an emergency, and I learned that the hard way,’ Desiree says.
THE AMERICAN VICTIMS WHO DIED OF THE FLU THIS SEASON
Katharine Gallagher, 27, died on December 5, 2017, in her Tustin, California, home.
The Boston University graduate started experiencing flu-like symptoms on Thursday night and went to the doctor on Sunday where was sent home with antibiotics.
Two days later her boyfriend came home to find her dead on the bathroom floor after she appeared to be getting better that morning .
She had caught severe acute bronchial pneumonia.
Jonah Smith, 17, died December 29, 2017, when his heart stopped beating in the backseat of his sister’s car.
His family said he showed no flu-like symptoms except he had complained of a backache, but continued to go to work at a fast-food restaurant and see friends.
After his death, doctors confirmed that the teen from Arizona had the flu and pneumonia and believe he may have suffered from an underlying medical condition, though he was never known to have one.
Kyler Baughmen, 21, became sick on December 23, 2017, with a mild cough and runny nose.
The body builder celebrated Christmas and went back to work December 26, but the following day was rushed to the hospital.
He died on December 28 from kidney failure due to septic shock caused by the flu.
Katie Oxley Thomas, 40, of San Jose, California, died of the flu just 48 hours of falling ill.
The mother-of-three and marathon runner’s condition declined so quickly that she was moved to intensive care, placed on life support and died all in the span of 15 hours on January 4, 2018.
Her family said she had received her flu shot before getting sick.
Jenny Ching, 51, went to the hospital in Massachusetts with flu-like symptoms.
After being diagnosed with the flu she developed an infection and pneumonia.
The mother-of-two died on January 6, 2018, just a week after being diagnosed.
Jonah Rieben, four, died on January 6, 2018, just hours after first showing symptoms, making him the first child to die from the flu in Ohio this season.
The boy who loved to play with his 16 adoptive siblings was born with Noonan syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes heart defects and developmental delays. Doctors are still investigating if his condition contributed to his death.
Jonah’s older brother, who also suffers from a disorder, is in the hospital with a severe case of the flu.
Nico Mallozzi, 10, of New Canaan in Connecticut, had been sick and bed-bound all weekend during the hockey tournament in Buffalo, New York, forcing him to miss every game.
Eventually, he was hospitalized and diagnosed with Influenza B, which had developed into pneumonia and caused sepsis.
He died on Sunday January 14, 2018, in a Buffalo hospital.
Zainab Momin, a third-grader of Montgomery, Alabama, died on Tuesday January 16, 2018.
She died in hospital the day her school was closed due to snowy weather.
More details are pending about her specific case and symptoms.
She is the first child to die of the flu in Alabama this season.
Amanda Franks, 38, was killed by the flu on January 17 after being diagnosed just three days prior.
The mother-of-four from New Hampshire was prescribed Tamiflu but did not take it because ‘the doctor said the side effects were a lot of times worse than the flu’.
Septic shock set in and she died in the ambulance on her way to the hospital.
Emily Grace Muth, six, was killed by the flu on Friday January 19, 2018.
She first fell ill on that Tuesday and went to urgent care where she received Tamiflu.
By Friday her breathing was labored and her mother called the ambulance but they said to keep her hydrated and she would be okay within a week.
Hours later she stopped breathing and died.
Tandy Harmon, a 36-year-old mother-of-two in Oregon died on Friday, January 19, 2018.
She went to the hospital with flu symptoms on Wednesday, but was told to go home to rest and hydrate.
Hours later, Harmon was back in the emergency room, where she quickly declined and had to be placed on life support by that evening.
Harmon had developed MRSA and pneumonia and died two days later.
Lily Kershaw, 5, died of the flu on January 22 in Nebraska.
She was the first child to die of flu-related causes in the state so far this season, although there have been 21 adult fatalities so far.
More details are pending about her specific case and symptoms.
Dylan Winnik, 12, died of the flu on Tuesday January 23, 2018.
He fell ill two days earlier and his parents thought he had the common cold because his symptoms were mild.
The seventh-grader died two days later.
Dylan is the first flu death in Palm Beach County, Florida, this season