Grand Rapids toddler Cora Healy is a foodie.

“Some foodies are more discerning than her—she just likes to eat,” Kelly Healy said laughing, describing her 16-month-old daughter.

Healy is a trained dietitian, diabetes educator and health coach, so she’s especially in tune with her daughter’s diet and eating habits.

When Cora stopped eating during a Labor Day weekend visit to Healy’s parents in Ludington, Michigan, Healy grew concerned.

“She had a little bit of a cough, but it wasn’t anything I was too concerned about,” Healy said. “A bigger concern was she wasn’t eating as much as she usually does.”

But when Cora’s breathing suddenly became labored, Healy knew it was time to seek medical help.

Healy took Cora to Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with respiratory syncytial virus. The illness causes infections in the lungs and respiratory tract and is common in young children.

The emergency department staff also diagnosed Cora with bronchiolitis, inflammation of her airway passages entering her lungs.

“I thought we’d be going home that night, but pretty quickly the emergency department doctor let me know we would most likely be going to Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital,” Healy said.

Labored breathing on Labor Day

Cora was taken by ambulance to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in the early morning hours of Sept. 6, 2021.

Her breathing had become more labored, her breaths very shallow.

“I thought, ‘It’s all going to be fine, we’re going to Helen DeVos, they deal with kids all the time and lots of kids get RSV,’” Healy said. “Later on, when they put her on the ventilator is when I was extremely concerned.”

Once admitted, the care team initially put Cora on a high-flow nasal cannula to help her breathe.

“She hated it,” Healy said. “She pulled it out several times. And she was just miserable. She slept much of the day Monday and into Tuesday. I just held her in my arms.”

When her condition didn’t improve, doctors transferred Cora from a regular floor to the pediatric intensive care unit.

In the PICU, the care team tried a BiPAP machine to push air into her lungs.

“It was worse, she was salivating and crying and panicking,” Healy said. “I was extremely scared, but there was a staff of people that talked me through it.”

Doctors diagnosed Cora with reactive airway disease, respiratory failure and pneumonia.

She needed to be intubated.

“The first time they tried it, it didn’t work, and that’s when I lost it, because she wasn’t breathing,” Healy said. “She was breathing from a bag, and that was really scary to watch.”

Once on the ventilator, Cora received a paralytic medication to keep her comfortable.

She would remain intubated for a week.

Healy never left her side.

“I never left,” she said. “We were roomies.”

Healy lives in the Alger Heights area of Grand Rapids and her parents, Dennis and JoEllen, would stop by to check on her house and visit Healy and Cora.

Look, it’s Jack Jack

Healy quickly bonded with nurses and others on the health team in the PICU.

With their help, she posted a photograph of Cora in an Incredibles outfit she’d recently worn to spirit day at her day care. She was dressed as Jack Jack from the movie.

“Nurse techs would bring other kids by to see her picture and say, ‘Look, it’s Jack Jack from the Incredibles,’” Healy said. “It increased the morale completely and I was so happy that they offered that to me.”

Her morale got the biggest lift when Cora could breathe on her own and go off the ventilator.

“It was a huge celebration when we got to take her off the ventilator,” Healy said. “She still had a feeding tube because she couldn’t eat or drink. She had dysphagia (difficulty swallowing) and an aversion to food where she was very scared.”

But her health improved. She moved from the PICU to a regular floor where she started working with occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy to get her active and eating again.

“She did start to eat a little bit in the hospital,” Healy said. “That was the craziest thing, she just wasn’t eating.”

Her rehabilitation continued at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, where she underwent intensive therapy for a week and a half.

“She got the eating back pretty quick, but the drinking was the hardest part,” Healy said.

‘She’s back to being a foodie’

One day during Grandpa Dennis’ visit, he started playing a game with Cora using a straw and water. Suddenly, Cora seemed interested.

“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s swallowing again,’” Healy said.

After passing a second swallow study, Cora and mom were finally able to go home.

“She’s doing wonderful,” Healy said. “She’s progressed further along now than before she got sick. She’s … crawling around faster and loves to pull herself up to things.”

And she’s eating fine.

“She’s back to being a foodie,” Healy said. “She’s not real picky.”

To thank those at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, Healy and Cora made a special delivery to the PICU, dropping off 300 granola bars with a special message.

“Thank you for taking incredible care of me, love Cora,” the note said.