SALT LAKE CITY— Utahns have been social distancing for a while now and new data suggests the time people have spent apart from one another is paying off. Experts say it's not only protecting the general public, but especially those with compromised immune systems.
With a smile as big as sweet little Lettie Hendrick’s, no one would ever guess this 9-month-old baby has cancer.
"We were both just sobbing," Kayla Hendricks said, remembering when Lettie was diagnosed.
At just three weeks old, Lettie started chemotherapy at Primary Children’s Hospital for retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer that begins in the retina.
"I will just never forget the moment I'm holding my child, and they've got her eyes dilated and propped open, they're rattling off these things," Casey Hendricks said. "It was the worst day of my life."
As if being first-time parents isn’t already hard enough, the Hendricks are now used to regular doctor appointments, cleaning Lettie’s central line, and hefty insurance bills. "Having a baby with cancer is like a whole new ballgame," Kayla said.
The diagnosis was devastating, but not entirely surprising. Lettie's mom Kayla has been down this road before. Kayla had the same type of cancer when she was a baby.
"But it was still, like, earth-shattering," Kayla said. Fortunately, Kayla didn't lose her eyesight.
Between his wife and now daughter, Casey knows he’s surrounded by strong women. "My wife is as sweet as can be and tough as nails," he said.
Kayla developed a secondary bone cancer in the orbit of her eye when she was 16 years old from the radiation she received as a baby. She endured 18 rounds of chemo over ten months.
I think you really need to reconfigure how you think about what your role is as a human in a situation like this. We need to be vigilant because it just takes the decisions or actions of few people doing something that spreads it… (to) start a new cluster of infection.
–Dr. Per Gesteland, Dr. Per Gesteland, a hospitalist with University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare’s Primary Children’s Hospital
Cancer is no stranger to the Hendricks. "I knew a lot going into it," Kayla said. "I think that also helped me."
Casey says Lettie is just like her mom — sweet as can be and tough as nails. But they’re taking extra precautions to give Lettie the best chance of also saving her eyes.
Because of treatment, Lettie has a suppressed immune system and can't afford to also get COVID-19.
"But if Lettie got it? It could be detrimental and that's what put it in perspective for me," Kayla acknowledged.
Lettie doesn't leave the house, and if Kayla or Casey have to leave for groceries they are quick to clean up when they return home. "As soon as I walk in, I change my clothes (and) wash my hands," Kayla explained.
They skip out on family gatherings and are now drive instead of fly to Lettie's treatment in Arizona.
"It's not worth her getting sick," Casey said
Although social distancing may be getting tiresome, it's families like the Hendricks who appreciate those who take it seriously.
"Nobody wants to do it, especially now that we've been doing it for so long," Casey admitted.
Dr. Per Gesteland, a hospitalist with University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare’s Primary Children’s Hospital, said social distancing is working. He noticed an unusual, steep decline in common respiratory illnesses this spring, aside from COVID-19.
"What we saw this year was a much more rapid decline than is typical," he explained. "So under normal respiratory seasons, that tail would still be playing out. We'd still be seeing cases of RSV, we would still be seeing cases of influenza."
But instead the opposite is happening.
"So that tells us that distancing is working," he said, serving as a reminder that whether someone is at high risk or not, it's important to slow the spread of COVID-19 by staying home.
Gesteland said even healthy people including physicians and athletes are not necessarily immune. "You may be in really fit shape, you may be really healthy, you may be in an age group where you don't think you're at risk, but that's not entirely true," he said.
He also reminds the public that asymptomatic people are capable of spreading COVID-19 without even knowing they are sick.
"I think you really need to reconfigure how you think about what your role is as a human in a situation like this," Gesteland said, suggesting everyone plays a part in the solution.
"We need to be vigilant because it just takes the decisions or actions of few people doing something that spreads it… (to) start a new cluster of infection," he said.
Gesteland also urges people to take advantage of the wider testing capabilities that are now available in the state. He said the more people who get tested will contribute to the overall solution.
As difficult as social distancing has been, it’s helping people like little Lettie as she fights to save her eyes. Right now Casey and Kayla say thanks to prayer and a miracle, Lettie is beating the odds and anticipate she will keep both eyes.
Kayla says Lettie is worth everything!
"She's our ray of sunshine!" Casey added. "We know she's meant to be here."