Tatum holds a sign showing the health challenges he has overcome.

Tatum, the survivor

After beating cancer as a toddler, this teenager confronted a pandemic and won.

Tatum Crowell is no stranger to Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Medical Center. At 15 months old, he was diagnosed with Stage III liver cancer. Twelve years later, this teenager was again fighting for his life against COVID-19.

As a toddler, Tatum underwent nine rounds of chemotherapy, a full liver transplant, and had part of his lung removed after he contracted fungal pneumonia amid his battle with cancer. After 10 difficult and heartbreaking months, Tatum was cancer-free.

Unfortunately, Tatum’s medical journey wasn’t quite over. Over time, chemotherapy and anti-rejection medications damaged his kidneys and suppressed his immune system, making him vulnerable to illness.

In late March 2020, Tatum began complaining of nausea, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Despite his self-quarantine since mid-March, tests revealed Tatum had COVID-19.

“I’ve had a lot of shocks in my life when it comes to Tatum’s health, but this one got to me,” says his mother, Jasmine Crowell. “I couldn’t control cancer and I couldn’t control him needing a transplant. This one was really tough to handle because I felt like I could have controlled it. That positive test was a punch to the gut. I felt like a failure, even though we had done everything we were supposed to do to keep him healthy.”

Over the years, the staff at McLane Children’s had become like family to Tatum and his mother. “Tatum has been at this hospital his whole life and they have never let us down,” Mrs. Crowell says. “I was feeling guilty and nervous, but from the moment they gave us the positive result, we experienced an outpouring of love. I saw how prepared they were, that they knew this was coming, and I didn’t feel nervous anymore. I felt relief.”

Tatum hugs one of his “space angels.”

Because of his health history, Tatum was admitted to an isolation room with its own air system and extra precautions to protect both Tatum and the staff. “Everyone who came in to treat him was wearing suits with their own airflow. They looked like astronauts. Tatum called them his ‘space angels,’” Mrs. Crowell says.

With limited research regarding the novel coronavirus and the appropriate treatment for children, Tatum’s medical team faced a challenge. “While his liver is now really healthy, his kidneys aren’t great, and he’s immunosuppressed because of the transplant medication he takes,” Mrs. Crowell says. “The medication that would support him through the worst of his virus symptoms might also damage his liver and kidneys. The doctors helped us weigh all the options and figure out which route was going to be best for him.”

Tatum and his mother spent just over one week in isolation at the hospital. “It got pretty lonely, but the entire staff helped make it easier. The Child Life team sent up games and art projects for us to do. The nurses were like counselors to me and extra parents to Tatum. They each had their own special handshake with him. Someone on the nutrition team called to ask for our dinner order, and she just talked and laughed with me. I truly appreciate everything the entire staff did for us.”

Finally, Tatum was able to go home, although he spent the next two weeks in continued quarantine. “His discharge was very emotional for me. I guess it’s because we added another survivor checkmark to his medical history,” Mrs. Crowell says. “I can’t say ‘thank you’ enough. Yet again, this hospital has saved my son.”

The need for funding for equipment and research to combat COVID-19 is ongoing, as is the need to continue enhanced safety measures to protect both staff and patients, like Tatum. “I truly believe that with donations to help support our healthcare workers, we can beat this,” Mrs. Crowell says. “We are bigger than this virus.”

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