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'Never got a chance': Boy, 9, dies 1 day after testing positive for COVID-19

The family had no idea that children could get so sick from the coronavirus and hope others will take precautions to protect their families.
/ Source: TODAY

When 9-year-old J.J. went to bed on Jan. 24 he said his throat hurt so his dad, Jason Boatman, gave him cough medicine. When J.J. woke the next day, he couldn’t breathe. A day after J.J. tested positive for COVID-19, the boy passed away and his family is reeling.

“There wasn’t a single sign of anything. What happened?” Boatman, 38, of Vernon, Texas, told TODAY. “He was happy, loving, full of life. The next day he’s gone.”

J.J. Boatman, 9, loved playing with his sisters and always wanted to play tennis with them. Courtesy the Boatman family

The Boatmans are sharing his story to warn others that COVID-19 can be serious for children, too.

“Not once in my wildest dreams did I ever think this could happen — especially to a 9-year-old,” Boatman said. “COVID can happen to anyone. It really can.”

From healthy to struggling to breathe

The last evening J.J. was at home, Boatman remembers the two going through their familiar father-son bedtime routine. J.J. played in the bath, making a bubble beard, and joked with his dad about whether he wanted to be a vampire. After giving J.J. cough medicine for his sore throat, father and son lain in bed watching cartoons until J.J. fell asleep. When J.J. woke the next morning, he was yelping in pain.

“He just started screaming, ‘I can’t breathe! I can’t breath! Help,’” Boatman recalled. “He sat on the chair and just kind of slumps over and falls on the floor. He starts bleeding from his mouth and nose.”

J.J. Boatman was a fun child who loved video games, cartoons and recently started drawing. His family feels stunned that he died just one day after testing positive for COVID-19. Courtesy the Boatman family

J.J.’s mom, Priscilla, called 911 and an ambulance took him to a local hospital. Doctors gave him two COVID-19 tests. The rapid test was negative, but the other test was positive. They also performed X-rays and saw that fluid filled J.J.’s lungs. At one point, doctors struggled to revive J.J.

“He did pass for 32 minutes and they did CPR on him for 32 minutes, which that was terrible on its own because that ended up giving him brain damage,” Boatman said.

Doctors transferred him to Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth. Boatman said he and his wife had to drive to meet their son, an agonizing hourslong trip.

“That is when they had told us that his heart and lungs were just so bad it would be some miracle if he was to survive,” Boatman said. “But it wouldn’t matter anyways because when they had to do that CPR on him that had made him brain dead.”

Prior to the hospital, the family didn’t even know J.J. had COVID-19. The sore throat the night before was his only symptom. Boatman and one of his daughters had the virus in November, but Priscilla, J.J. and another daughter never caught it. They were all tested after J.J. went to the hospital and no one else had it. Every time they went out, Boatman said the entire family, including J.J., wore masks.

“I don’t know where he had gotten it from,” Boatman said. “He’s always with us. None of us have it and it’s been out of my system and his sister’s system for a while.”

Like many children, J.J. Boatman loved bubble baths and often crafted a bubble beard while he played. Courtesy the Boatman family

Boatman spent the night in the hospital with J.J. When he woke the next day, doctors informed him that J.J. had worsened overnight.

“I laid next to him all night and he's not moving,” Boatman said. “They come in and tell me that his heart's doing even worse and that he's going probably go on his own. And then about an hour and a half later, he went on his own. His heart finally gave out.”

Children and COVID-19

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, in the United States, there was a 12% increase in the number of children with COVID-19 during the last two weeks of January 2021. Experts say that COVID-19 remains mild for the vast majority of children.

“Children who get infected have very mild cases. They can be completely asymptomatic,” Dr. Rosemary Olivero, division chief for pediatric infectious disease at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told TODAY. “They can have very mild symptoms — something that looks a lot like the common cold.”

Children with preexisting conditions, such as cancer or uncontrolled diabetes, are at greater risk she said.

“In young, healthy children the risk for extreme COVID-19 is extremely low,” she said.

She said parents should monitor their children’s temperature and breathing. If they struggle to breathe or have a persistent fever, parents should call their doctor.

“If they have any signs of increasing respiratory distress — so that usually looks like a fast breathing, labored breathing, pulling in between their ribs, looking extremely fatigued while they're trying to breathe — that would be a warning sign that you would need to seek medical care,” Olivero said. “Fortunately, that happens really infrequently.”

For mild cases, parents can give children fever reducers and make sure they’re hydrated while keeping them isolated.

“For the vast majority of children, it’s going to run its course relatively quickly,” she said.

Waiting for answers

The family had an autopsy performed on J.J. in the hopes they might better understand why he became so sick and died so suddenly.

“It is so hard to imagine life without him because he really was the sweetest boy you could ever meet,” Boatman said. “It’s just sad that something like that happens so young in life. He never got a chance to really, fully live life.”

The Boatman family is stunned that COVID-19 was fatal for their 9-year-old son. They hope others take precautions to protect their families. Courtesy the Boatman family

J.J., who had ADHD and autism, always smiled. He loved laughing and joking around and enjoyed spending time with his family.

“He just lived life to the fullest. There was no bad,” Boatman said. “He never let anything get to him. He loved playing with his sisters.”

In school, he excelled at math and liked his classes. He looked forward to middle school so he could play tennis.

“He wanted to play tennis all the time. He just loved to watch cartoons and he was starting to get drawing,” Boatman said. “He was really good for a 9-year-old. Really cute, your typical cute child who would do random things that children do.”

The full autopsy results will take time but Boatman said the coroner confirmed that J.J. had COVID-19. Boatman hopes J.J.’s story encourages others to take the pandemic seriously.

“It just could happen to anybody, it really can,” he said. “I want to let parents know that young ones aren’t safe and they need to take precautions.”