In a selfie taken at Geisinger Medical Center, Stacey Smith poses with her 7-year-old son, Cole Vogt. He is smiling from ear-to-ear, the gaps between loose baby teeth on proud display. Although her mouth is covered by a mask, it’s easy to tell by her eyes that Stacey is smiling too. How could she not? Her youngest child, nearly killed by sudden, COVID-induced diabetes in front of her, is alive.
Cole, an avid science lover and soon-to-be second-grader, is one of the thousands of children across America who have contracted the coronavirus so far this year. A typically healthy kid, he alarmed his babysitter when he began throwing up, unprovoked, the morning of Thursday, Aug. 6.
Stacey, who was out of town, had been contacted by her ex-husband less than 24 hours earlier with disturbing news — he had tested positive for COVID-19. When Cole’s babysitter called, Stacey immediately drove back to Williamsport to pick up Cole. When they got home, she called the doctor, who said Cole presumably was suffering from COVID-19 and to keep him quarantined.
As the day went on, Cole stopped throwing up and began experiencing extreme fatigue and dehydration. By nighttime, the normally sharp 7-year-old started to act confused. This time, Stacey called a local hospital’s ER. Their response was much snappier. “They said, ‘We’re getting a room ready,’” Stacey recalled. “ ‘Bring him out right now.’ ”
Test results — positive
The night was anticlimactic. Cole, his strange symptoms at a standstill, was swabbed for the virus and sent home to rest. On Friday morning, Stacey got the phone call she’d been dreading — Cole had tested positive for COVID-19.
As the hours passed, she watched and worried. Cole’s health worsened. Although he did not experience the most common virus symptoms — fever, persistent cough and shortness of breath — there was no denying that Cole was seriously ill.
That afternoon, when Stacey left him in bed to do some cleaning downstairs, she heard a loud thump. When she ran upstairs, she found Cole stumbling across the room, unable to walk. This warranted another call to the ER and staff again told Stacey to bring him in quickly.
However, when she and Cole arrived, there was no bed ready. The hospital staff calmly told Stacey to take her son back to the car, where they assured they would call her as soon as a space opened. She reluctantly obeyed.
Forty-five minutes later, as they waited in the parking lot, no call had come. Cole increasingly grew more agitated and restless. Stacey, at a loss for how to soothe him, decided to drive back home, only a five-minute ride from the hospital.
‘All hell was breaking loose’
Though Stacey promptly called the hospital to let nurses know she had taken Cole home, she did not get a ring back until an hour and a half later — 2 hours and 15 minutes after she initially was told to keep her son in the parking lot. She recalled that the nurse, a different one from a new shift, seemed annoyed with her for driving away. Soon after, Stacey was told that a discharge was taking place and that Cole could have the bed if she waited in the parking lot — again.
Stacey, at this point deeply frustrated, once again loaded Cole into the car for a trip to the hospital. But then, something strange happened — Stacey’s normally reliable Toyota wouldn’t start. As she messaged her boyfriend to ask for a lift, the hospital called — they were finally ready for Cole. When she explained that her car had stalled, they told her to call an ambulance.
Stacey believes the moment that followed was divine intervention. “The ambulance no sooner started coming up my street and, all of a sudden, my car miraculously started.”
Stacey decided to go with the ambulance. On the way, the paramedic asked if the hospital had taken Cole’s blood sugar when he first came to the hospital lethargic Thursday night. She shook her head no — after all, he was not yet diagnosed with diabetes. The paramedic looked incredulous. “‘That’s the first thing they should’ve done,’” Stacey remembered him saying. He quickly took Cole’s sugar level, which registered dangerously high.
When they arrived at the hospital, the nurses hooked Cole up to an IV with insulin and gave him a shot in his belly. Stacey had been in his room for about an hour when her phone started to die. Wary of losing her only source of contact with family and friends, she called her boyfriend to ask if he could bring her charger. In the five minutes during which Stacey left the room, Cole went into diabetic shock. She can picture the moment she came back with chilling clarity.
“The nurse is like, ‘He’s in critical condition — Life Flight is here. Do you mind if he goes into a helicopter?’ I said, ‘What happened in five minutes?!’. . . All hell was breaking loose, basically.”
Luckily, Cole was lucid enough to tell the nurses he didn’t want to go in the helicopter, which would be headed to Geisinger Medical Center in Danville — not without his mom. They agreed to send him in an ambulance instead. Stacey was not allowed on this ambulance ride and was driven to the hospital by her boyfriend and friend.
“I was a mess,” she said. “I didn’t know what was going on out there.”
‘He wasn’t himself’
When Cole arrived at Geisinger on Friday night, he was immediately admitted to the hospital’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, or PICU. Once again the 7-year-old was hooked up to a series of IVs to flush the ketones — dangerous chemicals that build up in a diabetic’s body when they aren’t getting enough insulin — out of his system.
The staff monitored Cole’s progress by periodically testing his urine and would give him insulin every three hours. After a touch-and-go two days, he was finally deemed stable enough to be moved to a room of his own. Though Stacey was relieved that Cole was no longer in immediate danger, it broke her heart to see her typically cheerful son so upset over the constant finger sticks and insulin injections.
“He was going crazy. He didn’t understand why (this) was happening,” Stacey said. “He just fought (everything). . . He was really mean. He wasn’t himself.”
Going home/ The support that got Stacey and Cole through
Stacey may have been by herself at Cole’s bedside, but she was certainly not alone. After posting a Facebook update on Saturday, Aug. 8, about Cole’s critical condition, she was shocked to receive an outpouring of love and support from friends, family and even strangers. She and Cole have been gifted everything from monetary donations to presents and food.
“I’m overwhelmed, I’m grateful,” Stacey said, choking up a bit. “Honestly, I don’t think I deserve it. . . But it’s amazing.”
‘Take it seriously’
Stacey has kept Cole and herself under strict quarantine at home since Aug. 11 — five days after the rocky start of his illness. She is happy to report that although he will be homeschooled this year, he is almost completely back to his old self.
Though Stacey reiterates that Cole is still asymptomatic , the doctors told her that the virus was likely the cause of his sudden-onset Type-1 diabetes — a relationship that is only just starting to be studied by medical professionals.
She urges those who think the coronavirus is a hoax to reconsider.
“Just take it seriously,” Stacey said. “It’s nothing to joke about.”