Brielle Reuter woke up one morning in mid-January with a 103-degree fever. She was 7 years old.
“She looked gray and had gotten sick once,” recalled her mother, Kerri. “She has food allergies, but she hadn’t eaten anything. We were honestly relieved it was not an anaphylactic reaction. We thought maybe it was a stomach bug or the flu.”
Her parents took her to the emergency department at Advocate Children’s Hospital – Park Ridge. The initial flu and strep tests came back negative, and they were sent home with instructions to rest, take Tylenol and stay hydrated.
“But by the next night, she continued complaining that she wasn’t feeling well, and her knee hurt. The skin on her knee was pink and speckled-looking,” said Kerri. “She was apologizing that it hurt so badly, and that’s when I knew she wasn’t just complaining.”
They went back to the emergency department. At the same time, Kerri got a call that Brielle’s earlier culture for Group A Streptococcus came back positive. The same bacteria that causes strep throat had gotten into Brielle’s blood and infected her knee and wrist. She began to decline rapidly—all from a common strain of strep—and went into toxic shock from the sepsis.
Every second counted
“There are some very bad strains of strep A that can be life-threatening, but it’s rare,” explained Vinod Havalad, MD, who was part of Brielle’s care team.
“We didn’t realize how serious it was until later,” said Kerri. “She would have died that very morning on our couch if we hadn’t brought her in when we did.”
Brielle went into surgery, and the surgical team was able to clear the infection.
“She was basically as sick as a person can get. But she was more resilient and tougher than we expected,” said Dr. Havalad.
Brielle wasn’t in the clear yet. She was breathing with the help of a ventilator, and when it was removed, her lungs collapsed, bringing her near death once again.
“We were saying our goodbyes at that point,” recalled Kerri. But Brielle is a fighter, and her care team wasn’t giving up.
“A team of doctors, specialists, nurses and respiratory therapists saved my daughter’s life. They were phenomenal, working for hours on end, staying hours over their shift. They collaborated with all of the various areas and teams the entire time. And we got a miracle.”
A family that gives back
Brielle spent two weeks in the Advocate Children’s Hospital Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and two more weeks in a step-down unit, her tiny body fighting off the infection for weeks. She had two more procedures, had to relearn how to walk and eat, plus six months of physical and occupational therapy.
“I cared for Brielle when she was on her way to recovery,” said Deanna Behrens, MD. “I got to see what a strong little girl she is. And because she was doing so well, Kerri and I were able to have more conversations about her condition and how she could help others.”
One way Kerri wants to give back is by sharing her daughter’s story.
“The whole team not only saved Brielle’s life, they also made it a positive experience. It truly was a team effort, and we felt we were involved in making decisions too. The collaboration was phenomenal,” she said.
Brielle is also grateful. For her eighth birthday—a milestone that, at one point, Kerri did not know her daughter would ever reach—she asked her friends to donate toys for children in the PICU.
“I’m overwhelmed and awed that a family can go through something like this and their first thought is, ‘How can I help?’” said Dr. Behrens.
Brielle was able to donate many toys to the hospital, and she was reunited with some of her care team.
“She was so excited to see her nurses and those she connected with. These people saved her life. You can never thank true superheroes enough.” Kerri reflected.
And perhaps the most touching way the Reuter family showed their gratitude is that shortly after their ordeal, the family welcomed their fourth child, a little girl. They chose a middle name in honor of two of the nurses who saved Brielle’s life: Lauratha, after Laura and Samantha.
“It’s a testament to our nurses,” said Dr. Behrens. “It’s really beautiful.”
How you can help
It’s not easy for a child to process what’s happening when they’re sick and in the hospital. But there are programs and resources—many of which are supported by charitable gifts—available to help.
“The Child Life Program is designed to help kids process what’s happening in an age-appropriate way,” explained Dr. Behrens. “They help children normalize their situation, understand that they’re sick, and they help siblings understand too. They use books, iPads, dolls, therapy dogs, magicians and music therapists, to name a few.”
Kerri also stresses the program’s importance.
“These programs became a true highlight for Brielle when she was struggling to merely sit up on her own,” she said. “They created positive memories of the hospital when so much is terrifying. Now, she loves to show people the magic tricks she learned, talks about the special art projects she did while missing all of her friends in school, and remembers the comedy show in the playroom where she sat along with other kids in wheelchairs just like her.
“Please give. Your gift makes such a huge impact on these children and their families, when they are going through the most challenging time they have ever faced—when the life of their child is on the line.”
Your support can help families just like Brielle’s. Please consider making a gift today.