Rag Doll for Baby
By Sandra G. Boodman, April 21, 2009
At 3 months old, Garrett Perschy suddenly became very ill; his doctors were… (Family Photo )
During the awards banquet honoring her father, Terri Sebelin grew increasingly uneasy. The first-time mother had her 3-month-old son, Garrett Perschy, in tow, and he was sick. The baby had a slight fever and seemed restless. He was also drooling, which the pediatrician told Sebelin, a registered nurse, meant that he was teething. Sebelin thought that odd because she couldn't feel any tooth buds. Her mother, a retired nurse who had raised seven children, was skeptical, too.
"All during dinner people kept coming up and asking me what was wrong with the baby, " Sebelin recalled of the events of the Memorial Day weekend in 1999. She watched closely as friends and relatives passed her son around, noticing at one point that "it looked like they were passing around a rag doll." She tried not to overreact; she had talked to the doctor several times that day and had been assured the problem didn't sound serious.
A few hours later, after another call to the pediatrician, who instructed Sebelin to take the baby to a nearby emergency room, the family arrived at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, Pa. Garrett was admitted, and the ER doctor told her he probably had croup. Sebelin and her mother doubted that, too: Garrett wasn't coughing. "I know you don't have croup, " Sebelin wrote that night in her journal.
She was right. Less than 24 hours later, her baby was gravely ill, and doctors were frantically ruling out one diagnosis after another. It took an astute specialist to figure out what was wrong, a cause so unlikely that the doctor who made the diagnosis had never seen a case before -- and hasn't since. But diagnosis was only part of the problem. At the time there was only one experimental drug to treat Garrett's illness, and getting it to Allentown required the approval of federal officials. That process would take days -- time the baby clearly did not have.
Ten years later, pediatric neurologist Martha Lusser vividly remembers her tiny patient. Lusser said she believes Garrett's ailment is "clearly less well recognized than it should be" and remains easily overlooked by pediatricians. She is convinced that some fatalities attributed to sudden infant death syndrome were probably caused by the extremely rare problem she diagnosed in Garrett.
Until that weekend, Garrett had been a normal, healthy baby, according to Sebelin, who lives in Palmerton, a small town about 30 miles north of Allentown.
The day before the Sunday banquet, she had noticed he was constipated; she had taken him to a local mall in the morning, where he began to seem out of sorts. She later discovered he was running a slight fever, common when babies are teething. By the time she got to Lehigh Valley Hospital 36 hours later, his fever was gone but he seemed utterly wrung out.
At the hospital doctors ran some tests and, after listening to his lungs, decided he didn't have croup. The staff thought he might have a virus and told his parents he would probably be discharged the next morning.
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