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5-year-old with rare complication becomes first Michigan child to die of COVID-19

Jasmin Barmore
Special to The Detroit News

 A month ago, 5-year-old Skylar Herbert complained to her parents that she had a bad headache.

On Sunday, after spending two weeks on a ventilator, the Detroit girl died. Skylar had tested positive for COVID-19 in March and later developed a rare form of meningitis and brain swelling.

Skylar Herbert

“We decided to take her off the ventilator today because her improvement had stopped, the doctors told us that it was possible she was brain dead, and we basically just knew she wasn’t coming back to us,” said LaVondria Herbert, Skylar's mother, on Sunday. 

Skylar, the daughter of Detroit first responders, is the first child with COVID-19 to die in Michigan. Until now, the youngest person on record to die with COVID-19 was 20, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

After Skylar was admitted to the hospital on March 29, she developed meningoencephalitis, a rare complication of the coronavirus, which caused swelling of brain tissue and a lesion on her frontal lobe, her parents said.

A spokesman for Beaumont Health confirmed Skylar's death, issuing the following statement: "The loss of a child, at any time, under any circumstances, is a tragedy. We are heartbroken that COVID-19 has taken the life of a child. We extend our deepest sympathy to Skylar’s family and all others who have lost a loved one to this virus."

It's at least the second Michigan example of concerning new complications in the COVID-19 pandemic. A 58-year-old woman being treated for the coronavirus at Henry Ford Health System last month developed acute necrotizing encephalitis, the first published association between COVID-19 and the central nervous system infection that mostly afflicts young children.

That case was reported on March 31 in the medical journal Radiology as the first of its kind. The International Journal of Infectious Diseases on April 3 reported a case of encephalitis/meningitis in a COVID-19 positive patient out of Japan.

After Skylar was admitted, doctors at Beaumont Royal Oak treated her and while she started to show signs of improvement — such as not complaining about her head hurting anymore and being able to get up to use the bathroom — Skylar soon began relapsing. 

"She was really in and out as far as sleeping," LaVondria Herbert said. “They just cut out a small hole in the front of her head and stuck the tube in so that the fluid could drain."

The next day, Skylar was put on the ventilator. 

A headache and a fever

Her first symptoms didn't indicate coronavirus.

Ebbie and LaVondria Herbert brought Skylar to the pediatrician on March 23 for her headache that wouldn't go away with pain medication. After testing positive for strep throat, her doctor gave her antibiotics and sent the child home to rest. 

"She had been crying all night and saying the headache would not go away," said LaVondria Herbert, 46.

"We called the doctor back, and they told us that it takes the medication 48 hours to kick in and to give it some time, but because she was crying so bad, I told my husband we needed to take her to emergency because I just didn’t know."

Skylar Herbert

They took her to Beaumont Royal Oak, and the doctors tested her for COVID-19, which came back positive the next day. They determined the headache and mild fever were side effects of the virus. 

A day later she was released, but the family was back at a hospital six hours later. 

"We went back to emergency at the Beaumont Hospital’s Farmington campus because I noticed my husband was coughing and having shortness of breath," Herbert said. "Me and Skylar waited in the car, but out of nowhere, Skylar began complaining about her head hurting again and then she just threw up."

After taking her temperature — around 100 degrees — her mom wrapped her up in blankets because she was shivering.

That's when Skylar had a seizure. 

'Look at your daddy'

Ebbie Herbert, 48, had just walked back out of the emergency room and scooped up his daughter.

"(I told her) Skylar, look at your daddy, Skylar, look at your daddy," Herbert said. "She came out of the seizure and me and her mother ran back into the emergency room."

LaVondria and Ebbie Herbert with their daughter Skylar.

Skylar was transferred back to the Royal Oak campus and admitted to the pediatric ICU for sedation and a series of tests, including a lumbar puncture. That's when the family learned of the meningitis, her family said.

"I would whisper in her ear and say, 'Skylar, hold your leg up. Just think about it really hard and hold your leg up.' And with my assistance, she did," LaVondria said of her only child.

However, Skylar never opened her eyes again.

The African American family living in northwest Detroit said they have no idea how their daughter contracted the virus. She had been in the house for weeks and had no prior health issues. Her father's test was inconclusive despite his symptoms. The family lives in a ZIP code that is among the hardest hit — with 559 cases reported as of Sunday

Michigan's has reached 31,424 COVID-19 cases, with 2,391 deaths recorded, as of Sunday. At least 40% of fatalities are African Americans. That number is even higher for Detroit, at least 76%

MORE: Toll of virus on black Americans grows starker as more data emerges

MOREDetroit's northwest side — near Sinai-Grace — hardest hit with coronavirus

Seeking a cure

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued her "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order on March 23, and says she is now looking at strategic ways to reopen the economy. But, Whitmer says, Michigan's lack of virus testing supplies is holding her back

Skylar Herbert

While there has been much debate and anger over the order — including a Wednesday protest at the Capitol in Lansing — the Herberts say they support the governor's efforts and believe she is doing what is necessary to save lives. 

“I want to say thank you to the governor for making people go home,” LaVondria said.

Both parents work in public safety: Ebbie has been a Detroit Firefighter for 18 years,  LaVondria a Detroit Police Officer for 25 years. 

Both departments have been hit hard by the coronavirus.

More than 600 Detroit police employees — 109 civilians and 502 sworn officers — returned from quarantine last week, but 345 DPD employees remain quarantined. Two weeks ago, the fire department said 52 members had the virus and about 130 were quarantined. 

More than anything, they say, they want a cure so other parents don't have to experience what they are going through with the loss of Skylar. 

“She was the type of girl that would just run up to you and jump in your arms and hug you," LaVondria said. "It didn’t matter what she was doing, she would stop what she was doing and tell me she loved me like 20 times a day."