A Fight for Her Life
Umiyah Rice-Cummings survives COVID-related illness during Delta surge
WRITTEN BY Elizabeth Earley • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Susan Lowe
The symptoms that led 11-year-old Umiyah Rice-Cummings of Yorktown to CHKD with a rare, life-threatening syndrome didn’t seem too alarming at first. In mid-August of 2021, she lost her appetite and felt tired and sleepy. “I just felt weird,” says Umiyah.
Her mother, Tiesha Rice, thought maybe she had COVID-19, since both Tiesha and her fiancé had tested positive for the virus in July. Tiesha took Umiyah to an urgent care center for a COVID-19 test, which came back negative. So they returned home, hoping whatever she had would pass. She developed a fever, which led to a test for strep throat. That was negative, too.
A few days later, however, Umiyah woke up in the middle of the night, vomiting. She was hot one minute and cold the next. She had pain on the left side of her abdomen. She felt scared and confused. Her heart was racing, and she had trouble breathing.
Tiesha’s instincts told her what to do next: Take her daughter to CHKD’s emergency department, which was about 50 miles away. Umiyah was gasping for air when she arrived on August 20. She made a plea to doctors: “Don’t let me die.”
A battery of tests produced a diagnosis: multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C. The syndrome, a rare but serious condition associated with COVID-19, is characterized by widespread inflammation that can affect any combination of the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain,
skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs. Most children recover, but the condition can be fatal.
Umiyah was part of a surge of COVID-19 and MIS-C patients who needed care from CHKD after the Delta variant of the virus arrived in our community. Since children ages 12 through 17 were the last to receive approval to be vaccinated, and the vaccine had not yet been approved for those under 12, pediatric cases soared in Hampton Roads and across the country in August and September of 2021.
More children were hospitalized at CHKD with COVID-19 and MIS-C in September than any month during the pandemic, and more children were tested for COVID-19 throughout the CHKD health system as well. Staff in CHKD urgent care centers, the emergency department, and pediatric practices experienced a deluge of patients struggling with COVID-19 symptoms, exposures, and questions.
Dr. Laura Sass, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist and medical director of infection prevention and control at CHKD, has tracked the cases since the start of the pandemic and provided data for a registry that’s shared with other hospitals treating children with COVID-19 and MIS-C. Dr. Sarah Parsons, a clinical pharmacy specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at CHKD, worked with Dr. Sass on treatment protocols and authored four studies on the topic.
“Early in the pandemic, the number of children hospitalized was small compared to adults,” says Dr. Sass. “But by late summer of 2021, more children
were not only contracting COVID-19 but also becoming very ill from the virus.”
CHKD doctors, nurses, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, and other healthcare providers went into a full-court-press to treat both COVID-19 and MIS-C patients. The pediatric intensive care unit team, along with pediatric specialists in infectious diseases and rheumatology, cared for children like Umiyah with the most severe symptoms. Hospitalized children ranged in age from infants to teens, with varying severity of illness, requiring many units across the hospital to provide care.
“Just when we thought we were catching our breath, Delta ushered in increased demands for everyone,” CHKD President and CEO Jim Dahling said in a video message to all employees in mid-September, recognizing the tremendous efforts of CHKD’s healthcare workers to help our community through this public health crisis. “The situation is incredibly challenging for everyone, emotionally and physically,” he said.
While Umiyah never experienced symptoms from COVID-19, her blood did contain antibodies to the virus – an important clue in her MIS-C diagnosis. At CHKD,
her blood pressure plunged, and she became delirious. An ultrasound showed her heart was inflamed.
“It was scary. I was right there, and I watched her fight for her life,” Tiesha says.
At CHKD, treatments for COVID-19 and MIS-C include respiratory assistance and medications to reduce inflammation. In severe cases, patients undergo extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), in which blood is pumped outside of the body to a heart-lung machine that removes carbon dioxide and sends oxygenfilled blood back to tissues in the body.
Umiyah received oxygen, medication to reduce inflammation, and IV fluids. In a few days, she regained strength. “When she asked for her cell phone, I knew she was better,” Tiesha says.
Umiyah stayed at CHKD for 10 days as she recovered and will have follow-up appointments with CHKD specialists in cardiology and rheumatology to make sure she has no lasting damage.
“Some people don’t believe COVID is real until they go through something like this,” Tiesha says. “I’m just so thankful to everyone at CHKD for saving her life.”