As a working-from-home mom of a special needs young adult, Carolyn Stinnett understands the deep divide between those who say COVID-19 has run its course and want businesses opened up and those who feel it’s way too early to make that call.
Stinnett, a Blount County resident, teaches at the Blount County campus of Pellissippi State Community College and has been instructing her students online for weeks, something she said takes so much longer to do versus being in person in a classroom. Her son, Corey Chandler, is a survivor of shaken baby syndrome, a 21-year-old graduate of William Blount High School who functions at the level of a 6- to 9-month-old because of his severe injuries. So worried that she will bring the virus into her home, the devoted mom hasn’t gone anywhere except on short walks and necessary appointments.
“Corey has not been out of the house except for walks in his chair in secluded areas since March 10,” Stinnett said. “The anxiety a mom of a medically fragile child feels during normal circumstances is high, but the fear of COVID-19 exposure has driven my worries through the roof. I clean constantly. I myself haven’t been inside a building — any building — since I taught my last on-campus class March 12. I worry about him contracting the virus and how hospitalization would work. Would I be able to stay with him in ICU?”
He is a fighter
Chandler graduated from WBHS in May 2019, but the months leading up to his special day were filled with health crisis. Between January and May last year, he was hospitalized four times with pneumonia and the flu. He has chronic lung disease, making him vulnerable to pneumonia and other problems.
Because of sleep apnea, Chandler must use an iVap and keeps a pulse oximeter machine on at all times to monitor his heart rate and oxygenation.
The list of strikes against Chandler is long. He required spinal fusion surgery when he was younger. Cerebral palsy, a side effect of shaken baby syndrome, caused muscles to torque around the inserted rods, which makes one side of Chandler’s back unaligned with the other. His lung on that same side is also compressed, making expansion difficult, Stinnett explained.
She adopted Chandler when he was just a baby. Chandler was shaken violently by one or both birth parents when he was just a month old, which caused irreparable brain damage. It was at least 24 hours after the injury before the baby was taken to the hospital.
According to the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, there are 1,300 reported cases of shaken baby syndrome annually in the United States. About 25% of victims die, while 80% of those who survive have lifelong disabilities.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, with the third week designated for Shaken Baby Syndrome Awareness. Stinnett said she shares Chandler’s story in hopes of preventing someone else from destroying the life of a child with a 10-second mistake.
She said children are very vulnerable during quarantine. Adults and children are forced to wait it out 24/7 inside the home. Some parents have lost jobs or are working from home. Stress is through the roof in some instances.
Where stress can lead
“I would never wish what happened to Corey on another child, and while I wholeheartedly agree that the country should be sheltering in place until COVID-19 numbers show a sustained drop in cases, I do worry about children in homes where parents are stressed due to layoffs and money problems. Teachers normally provide a safety net because they see children every day during the school year and may be able to detect and report abuse in the early stages. Now, of course, students are sheltered at home so no one outside the family is able to keep track of their welfare. That is very scary.”
Marisa McPeck-Stringham is information and research specialist at the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome in Utah. She said the stress many are facing in this pandemic can lead to tragic mistakes.
“Stress is definitely a risk factor for shaken baby syndrome,” she said via phone. “When there is economic difficulty that includes job loss ... we saw a rise in incidents during the last recession.”
McPeck-Stringham said it only takes seconds to inflict irreparable damage to a child. In severe cases like Corey’s immediate medical attention is critical. Some children experience a lower level of damage that might go undetected, she pointed out, only to be discovered later when the child has a seizure. While most have heard the term shaken baby syndrome, most doctors refer to it as inflicted head trauma, McPeck-Stringham pointed out. It is not just small infants who are the victims.
Who are our weak, defenseless?
A photo of a protestor in Nashville has made the rounds via social media. A sign read “Sacrifice the Weak; Reopen Tennessee.” Stinnett said she doesn’t know if the sign holder was referring to the elderly, disabled or medically fragile as the weak ones, but Chandler, she said, is a fighter.
“My son is one of the strongest people I know,” Stinnett said. “He functions as a 6- to 9-month old, all because he was shaken by birth parents. Few people could have made it 21½ years in Corey’s condition.”
There is a sign in Chandler’s room that sums it up: “A super hero lives here,” it states.
Ever since Chandler was a child, Stinnett has taken him with her to present at conferences on shaken baby syndrome. They have been to Salt Lake City, Atlanta and also Canada. They are set to attend a conference in September in Philadelphia, where Stinnett will talk about the challenges faced by children who survive shaken baby syndrome to age 21.
They no longer qualify for pediatric care and must find new doctors, Stinnett pointed out. Medications that were covered before age 21 are not after that. It is also more difficult to move and transport Chandler because of his size.
For all to see and know
“By presenting at conference, talking to various groups and giving information via newspaper or television interviews, our goal is prevention,” Stinnett said. “Corey was shaken at 1 month of age. His neck muscles were not developed and the violent back and forth motion of shaking causes internal trauma to the brain.”
Chandler had bruises on his chest where his chin struck during the violent shaking, Stinnett said. In addition, he also had bruises on his arms and a possible break where he was held tightly during the shaking.
“Most people’s nerves are on end during the pandemic,” the mom said. “A child’s crying can trigger shaking.”
Stinnett said adults should make sure the child doesn’t have some discomfort, such as a wet diaper and then put the child in a safe place, such as his or her bed, and walk away for a few minutes.
“No child ever died from crying,” she said. “But if a parent or caregiver loses his or her temper, or she may cause a child’s death or a lifetime of living with major health issues and permanent disabilities.”
McPeck-Stringham agreed, saying that crying is the No. 1 stimulus for abuse. Her organization provides educational programs to help parents cope in stressful situations. She said Stinnett is a great spokeswoman and hopes the conference in Philadelphia will take place as planned, with Stinnett in attendance.
“She is a wonderful mother and advocate,” McPeck-Stringham said.