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A Michigan children's hospital is overwhelmed with RSV and flu cases

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In recent years, some U.S. hospitals have been cutting back on their ability to treat children. Adult patients need hospitals more reliably and are more profitable. But the current surge of RSV and flu means there just aren't enough beds for all the kids who need them. Michigan Radio's Kate Wells visited a children's hospital in Grand Rapids where she spoke to families who have spent days shuttling between urgent care and emergency rooms, just waiting for beds to open up.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: In the ER waiting room at the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, dazed-looking parents in winter coats are bouncing crying babies. They're trying to catch the eye of Dr. Erica Michiels like, is it our turn now?

ERICA MICHIELS: As an ER doctor, I feel like my job is to be able to see you when you need me. So when we have a wait, it really bothers me. But for right now, we just can't do it any other way.

WELLS: This is the second time Caitlyn Houston has been to the ER this week. Her 7-week-old daughter Parker has RSV. Last time they got sent home.

CAITLYN HOUSTON: I mean, there's so many kids in here that they have to take the ones that are really bad. So - and even, like, two nights ago, in the middle of the night, it was - the ER was packed. So we were there for, like, two hours, waiting.

WELLS: Parker is now sick enough that the nurses told Houston, we are going to admit her, possibly to the ICU. And immediately, Houston's first question was, so you are not going to send us home again, right? No, they told her. You can stay. Michigan has more than 130 hospitals, but only nine of them have pediatric ICUs. And it's not just beds. Hospitals everywhere have staffing shortages, too. Dr. Andrea Hadley is chief of pediatric medicine here at DeVos. She's been getting transfer requests even from out of state.

ANDREA HADLEY: I have had many calls come in where they said, we've called 15 other places, and they've all said no.

WELLS: They've made space here by doubling up rooms with two families crammed on either side of a makeshift partition. But they can only take the sickest kids.

HADLEY: We've had to say, we see you. We're going to support you. But we can't bring you here yet. And that used to be none. We would just take everybody.

WELLS: Inside one of the patient rooms, Saul Botello is watching his 9-month-old son struggle to breathe. Santi is lying in his mom's arms. He's got an oxygen tubed taped to his little face.

He's keeping his eyes on you.

SAUL BOTELLO: I know. I see that a little bit.

WELLS: Yeah.

BOTELLO: I hate seeing him like this.

WELLS: Santi's mom, Staci Rodriguez, says he has been sick for five days. When he stopped eating, she took him to an urgent care.

STACI RODRIGUEZ: They just told me it was a bad virus and to send him home. So we did. And then I noticed he was sleeping maybe about 20 hours a day.

WELLS: She took him to the pediatrician but got sent home again. Finally, last night his fever got so high, she took him to the ER in their small town of Shelby, Mich. The doctors there said Santi had RSV, and his oxygen levels were now dangerously low. This rural ER didn't have the breathing equipment he needed. So they rushed him by ambulance here to DeVos Hospital. It took an hour.

RODRIGUEZ: I thought I was going to be able to hold him in the ambulance, which makes sense. I mean, they do have to be strapped down. But it was just...

WELLS: You couldn't hold him.

RODRIGUEZ: No.

WELLS: You had to be separated.

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. And luckily, he just kind of stared at me the whole time and then eventually fell asleep. But, you know, then to get here and to kind of have it done all over again...

SANTI: (Crying).

RODRIGUEZ: I know. Yeah.

WELLS: Santi is on a feeding tube now, and they don't know how long he'll need to be here. But with so many sick kids right now, they are grateful their baby has a bed.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells in Grand Rapids, Mich.

CHANG: That story came from NPR's partnership with Michigan Radio and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Wells is an award-winning reporter who covers politics, education, public policy and just about everything in between for Iowa Public Radio, and is based in Cedar Rapids. Her work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. She's also contributed coverage to WNYC in New York, Harvest Public Media, Austin Public Radio (KUT) and the Texas Tribune. Winner of the 2012 regional RTDNA Edward R. Murrow Award and NBNA Eric Sevareid Award for investigative reporting, Kate came to Iowa Public Radio in 2010 from New England. Previously, she was a news intern for New Hampshire Public Radio.