13-year-old boy recovered from COVID symptoms, 2 months later facing serious ‘long-hauler’ effects

WOBURN, Mass. — As more children are eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccines, parents are carefully weighing their options. One Woburn boy and his mom are sharing their experience with the virus to provide some food for thought.

The 13-year-old said, months after he was sick, a whole new wave of symptoms surfaced like trouble breathing, fevers, brain fog and fatigue. Brody Gillingham said his symptoms began four weeks ago and haven’t let up since.

“Tell me about your hardest days,” said anchor Kerry Kavanaugh.

“It’s when like I have really bad breathing, my head is killing me, I’m really, really tired. I can’t get out of bed. I’ve had a couple of those days,” Brody said.

Statistically, most children who’ve contracted COVID-19 have been spared the worst of the virus. Though a small number of children have reported serious bouts with COVID-19. And now, some are reporting a series of debilitating, long-term side effects.

Very little is known about young, so-called COVID long-haulers. And that’s what is so scary for mom, Nicole Bradley.

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“It was quite literally overnight he went from healthy to not able to breathe on his own,” she said.

Lately, even a short walk is a chore for the Woburn boy. To understand where Brody is at now, we need to go back to January.

Brody’s mom, Nicole, and his older brother got sick and tested positive for COVID-19. About two weeks later, Brody got sick.

He was in bed for about a week. He never tested positive for the virus, but doctors called him a presumptive-positive case due to this exposure, that being his family, and his symptoms.

Brody got better. He was back in his routine with school and sports for about two months.

“It was April vacation. And, on Monday night I started feeling really, really lousy,” Brody said.

“I could see the pulling of the ribs on his side because he couldn’t breathe,” his mom said.

Since then, Brody has been in and out of the hospital with fevers, breathing struggles, fatigue and fogginess, a cough, sore throat [and] pneumonia. Tests revealed a portion of his heart is now enlarged.

Doctors tried testing and treating him for asthma, multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children – also known as MIS-C – and even mono.

Now, Bradley said his pediatrician believes his symptoms are tied to his bout with COVID-19.

“They said this could be after-effects of COVID,” Bradley said.

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“At Boston Children’s, we are seeing an increasing number of requests to try to evaluate these kids who have had symptoms that are going on post-COVID, lasting for even, you know, weeks or months after COVID,” said Dr. Alicia Johnston, an infectious diseases specialist who is one the doctors leading a new clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital for post-COVID kids.

Johnston said they’re seeing kids with broad-ranging symptoms.

“We’ve seen kids with a main complaint of fatigue, I think that’s probably the most common persisting symptom that we see lots of kids who have problems with their taste and their smell that’s been ongoing since their COVID,” Johnston said.

“But then there’s this whole other group of kids – and you sort of alluded to this earlier – that have really had most of those symptoms of COVID completely resolved and then weeks or months later have brand new symptoms. And, we’re seeing all kinds of things like headaches and kids with brain fog, problems with memory and concentration. We’ve seen kids with chest pain, shortness of breath with exertion, so they’ve got exercise intolerance, they can’t play their sports, they can’t sort of school. They’ve got fast heart rate, palpitations. Oftentimes they complain of dizziness, particularly when they’re standing up. We’ve seen kids who have muscle aches and joint aches that are persisting. They’ve got nausea, they’ve got abdominal pain and diarrhea that lasts. Some kids with low-grade fevers that have been persisting over time. And probably most concerning, we see a lot of kids who have new-onset anxiety who anxiety really hasn’t been an issue for them in the past.”

Johnston said there’s a dearth of information about post-COVID struggles in young people, a big reason they launched Boston Children’s Hospital post-COVID-19 Clinic in March.

“We are hoping that by working with our subspecialty colleagues and collaborating with them, that we’re going to be able to learn more about what post-COVID really looks like in these kids so that we can provide the best care for them,” Johnston said.

“All I want is to make my child better,” said mom Nicole Bradley. “We don’t talk about what tomorrow will look like, we just deal with today.”

The clinic at Children’s Hospital is one of just a handful of places in the country now dedicated to treating younger people struggling with lingering or new post-COVID symptoms. It has seen about 40 patients so far.

As for Brody, his immune system is too weak for the vaccine right now. The family hopes his story, though rare, offers some perspective into how serious a child’s battle with the virus can be.

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