Taking a sick child to the doctor never gets easier. As a parent, you want answers, but there’s still so much that is unknown.
For the parents of a 2-year-old boy from New Zealand, it was this “unknown” that was so dangerous. Young William Burton was misdiagnosed twice before meningitis left him disabled.
The little boy was apparently taken to the doctor for his mysterious symptoms when he was 3 months old. His parents, Derek and Wendy Burton, noticed that the infant had a fever and a rash. Like any concerned parents, they rushed him to the hospital, where he was examined and sent home. Doctors told the worried new parents to come back if he got any worse. During that first visit, doctors mentioned meningitis as a possibility, though an official diagnosis was never made.
The next day, William hadn’t gotten any better. He was still vomiting, so his parents took him to the pediatrician, who referred them to the emergency room again. While William showed classic symptoms of meningitis, like high-pitched crying, a rash, fever, vomiting and a stiff neck, a second doctor again misdiagnosed his illness. The baby was sent home with the diagnosis of a gastrointestinal viral infection, thought to cause vomiting and diarrhea.
It wasn’t until William’s parents took him back to the emergency room again three days later that he was diagnosed with E. coli meningitis. Typically, the disease can be treated with antibiotics, but because the diagnosis took so long, William has been left brain-damaged and severely disabled. Now a toddler, he requires constant care as a quadriplegic who is also deaf and blind. The Capital and Coast District Health Board has apologized to the Burtons and has since changed its policy, now requiring a senior doctor to see any child who visits the hospital twice within 72 hours.
To call this story heartbreaking would be an understatement. These parents did what any other parents would do — they kept fighting for their child until he received an accurate diagnosis. Unfortunately, in William’s case, this diagnosis came a few days too late.
And now for the truly alarming part for parents: A misdiagnosis like William’s isn’t a fluke. A recent survey of 726 pediatricians confirmed that viral illnesses are the most commonly misdiagnosed, often confused for bacterial infection. Pediatricians also make the common mistake of failing to recognize a medication’s side effects. Though William’s condition was bacterial, E. coli meningitis is still easy for a doctor to miss. Most cases of E. coli meningitis occur in babies younger than 3 months old, with early symptoms like fever, vomiting and headache that can progress to a rash, stiff neck, light sensitivity, confusion, difficulty waking and even seizures. Many times, a baby with meningitis younger than 3 months may not have a fever — so be aware of symptoms like irritability, difficulty feeding and a bulging soft spot instead.
As a new parent, it’s hard to know when your child is really sick and needs urgent care and when they just need fluids and rest. But a parent has one thing a doctor doesn’t have: their gut. Your gut instinct matters more than you think when it comes to your child’s health. When a child is suffering from a mysterious illness, one that’s hard for a doctor to diagnose like meningitis or Lyme disease, the parent has to be that squeaky wheel and keep asking for answers.
In a best-case scenario, questioning a doctor’s diagnosis could save your tot from being prescribed unnecessary antibiotics for an illness they never had. In a worst-case scenario, being that annoying parent who keeps pestering the doctors could save your child’s life, as we saw in William’s case.
As easy as it would be to blame the doctors for this horrible tragedy, doctors aren’t the villains here. Parents are human, and so are doctors. We know our kids better than any doctor ever could. As William’s parents showed us by fighting so hard for their son’s diagnosis, we play an equally important role in our child’s health care. It’s often up to us to get the answers that a doctor may not be able to give. It’s up to us to work together with doctors to make sure our sick kids aren’t overlooked.