Pictured: Jon Cesario Jr. with baby Aubrey and Zachary Foster Jr. holding Anthony Cesario. Photo by Luis Chavez.

by Kimberly Rivers

kimberly@vcreporter.com 

We’ve read the statistics and been told about the numerous risk factors that make an individual more vulnerable to coronavirus infection and the COVID-19 disease it causes. The longer we live through the pandemic, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that the virus does not discriminate, and no one is immune. Jon and Shantel Cesario of Ventura know this all too well: The entire family became infected by the coronavirus. The good news is that they all survived. But the Cesarios hope that their experience will help raise awareness of how this disease can impact anyone of any age.

A family crisis

Jon, who was born and raised in Ventura, is a life coach. He said that in coping over the past month he has had to “practice some of what I teach.”

He said that it all began around 9:30 p.m. on July 9. “I got a FaceTime call from my wife.She was hysterically crying.” 

Shantel and Jon Cesario. Photo submitted.

Shantel had called her doctor because she had a high fever, and was told to go to the hospital. Jon drove home immediately to take care of three of their children, ages 7, 2 and 3 weeks. (Jon’s 11-year-old son was with his mother at the time, and did not get the virus.) Shantel drove herself to Santa Paula Hospital. 

“It was the first time she had to say goodbye to both babies,” Jon recalled.

She was tested for coronavirus and monitoring through the night, eventually being discharged at 4 a.m. 

“The doctor informed us it was still OK to breastfeed,” said Jon. The next day Shantel got the call that she tested positive for the coronavirus. “We started to inform people . . . letting everybody know that she was positive for COVID.” He said it was a very small group of people, mostly family members, that she had been in contact with. Not long after Shantel came home from the hospital, infant Aubrey developed symptoms.

“Two hours later, our three-week-old daughter had a high fever . . . It’s dangerous for a newborn.” They called their doctor, who once again told them to go immediately to Santa Paula Hospital. Jon took Aubrey and “they met us outside, escorted us into the back and into a room.” 

Because Shantel had tested positive and Aubrey had a high fever, hospital staff assumed the baby had COVID-19 as well. They began running tests on Aubrey. 

“They did a lumbar test, with a needle down her spine. She had to lay in the cradle position,” Jon recalled. “She was hysterically crying. She had to be in extreme pain.” 

Staff recognized the seriousness of the baby’s illness and recommended an immediate transfer by ambulance to Ventura County Medical Center (VCMC), where Aubrey was admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). 

Aubrey Cesario. Photo submitted.

The stay was only supposed to be one day. Ultimately, Jon spent five days there with his daughter. Aubrey started to experience respiratory issues on top of the high fever. The doctors decided a longer stay was needed; they didn’t know what would happen to someone so young with COVID-19. 

“I felt really powerless”

Jon praised VCMC for their strong protective procedures, noting that “staff took 15 to 20 minutes to dress out and dress in” when they came in and out of Aubrey’s NICU room. They also trained him to do a lot of the needed monitoring and procedures to limit the number of people who had to come into the isolated room. He had to fill out a log sheet, writing down vital signs and other information about his daughter. 

“On the second night she started to have stomach problems…COVID began to attack her digestive system…she cried and had a rash everywhere,” Jon said. “She was hysterically crying for eight hours straight. I would pick her up. I was rocking her. There was nothing that I was able to do for the pain that she was experiencing. My priorities were really put in place. Nothing mattered anymore [other than for] her to recover. I made a prayer, Lord give this to me, put this on me. I felt really powerless at that time. I admit I was crying.” 

He said a nurse must have been watching the room’s cameras and saw that he was struggling. “It was her time off, after a 12-hour shift, she suited back up and brought in a tablet,” Jon said.

The nurse put on Baby Mozart music and showed him how to wrap the baby up and use a heating pad to tuck her in. “She finally went to sleep.”

“I don’t know who this nurse is . . . her co-workers told her ‘you’re done,’ ” with your shift Jon said.  “But she told them ‘don’t worry, I’m where I need to be’ . . . that was pretty cool. I’m wanting to get back there and locate this nurse . . . I’d love to thank her.” 

Aubrey had been “breastfed from day one,” but due to her hospitalization and separation from mom, Jon had to introduce a bottle. “It was a challenge initially, but thank God she did take the bottle.” 

Staff tested Aubrey’s oxygen levels, urine and blood to make sure she wasn’t experiencing brain damage from the fever, and was put on an IV. A suspected bacterial infection turned out to be a contaminant from a test. 

“She was the only infant at the time that had tested positive,” Jon explained. “The nurses didn’t have any experience with infants that young with a  positive test; it was kind of scary.” They told him they’d “do everything we can to pay attention to the symptoms, but there is really nothing we can do about the virus. It’s too new, we don’t know how to go about it.” And they told him that they had to let the virus take its course. “That was scary news, to hear a doctor tell you they can’t really do anything.” 

After an “exhausting” five days, which Jon said “seemed like two years,” Aubrey improved enough to be discharged to home isolation, with strict instructions to come back if any symptoms worsened. Luckily the baby continued to improve. 

While baby Aubrey battled COVID-19 in NICU, her mom took a turn for the worse. 

The day after her infant was admitted to VCMC, Shantel developed a high fever and went into the hospital again. She suffered headaches, respiratory issues, a lost sense of taste and smell and extreme fatigue.

“She could barely get out of bed and she still had to take care of our 2 year old, who was having similar symptoms,”  Jon recalled. Even though she was only in the hospital one night, she still had symptoms when discharged. “The scary part is, if my wife had never been admitted to the hospital [initially], our test wouldn’t have come back [for 15 days] . . . and I had no symptoms and was interacting with multiple different people [through work]. Thank God we caught it early.” 

Everyone in the family ultimately tested positive for the coronavirus. Jon and his 7-year-old were asymptomatic; the 2-year-old had a high fever but no other symptoms. After everyone was discharged from the hospital, the family adhered to a strict home quarantine. 

“For 14 days we were camped out at our house,” Jon explained. As he was otherwise healthy, he could “step up and take care of my family.” 

Rough recovery

During the ordeal friends, family and members of the Ventura Missionary Church and New Life Church brought food and meals to them. “It was encouraging to see our community [offer assistance],” Jon said. 

The family needed it. 

Even though Shantel was at home, she was having trouble breathing. “My wife experienced the roughest challenges with COVID and we began researching different studies.” 

They looked at information online, and read about a steroid-based breathing treatment, called Pulmicort Respules(R), normally used to treat asthma. According to Jon, it has been used in Japan, which has experienced a low COVID-19-related death rate. 

“Our doctor was on board,” but when a family member tried to pick up the prescription at a local pharmacy, “they initially denied it . . . I was blown away. It could help her, she can’t breath.” Their doctor had to “write a letter to demand” the medication, and the pharmacy filled the prescription. 

Jon said their insurance refused to cover the cost of the medication, so they paid for it out of pocket, along with the breathing machine needed to administer the medication. 

“Two days later, she was recovering,” he said. 

They don’t know for sure if the medication is what helped, but they were glad to get that treatment. According to Jon, about 10 days into home quarantine, “everybody stopped experiencing symptoms.” 

The doctors told the Cesarios that after the 14 days, “even though we would not be contagious anymore, the virus could be dead in our system for up to 12 weeks.” But they were cleared on July 24. They were also told retesting wasn’t necessary, but they did it anyway (at the free testing site at Oxnard College) — and all had negative results. Jon said that everyone the Cesarios had been in contact with tested negative. Shantel still doesn’t have her sense of taste and smell back, but that is the only lasting effect anyone in the family has noticed so far. 

Looking back on the ordeal, Jon felt like he had a unique bonding experience with his baby in the NICU, but wonders about her occasional bouts of strong crying when he holds her: Is she “sensing that time, when I try to hold her?” 

“This virus is real”

The Cesarios still aren’t sure where or how they contracted the virus. Jon said that the family didn’t go anywhere, and the small cohort of people they were in contact with tested negative.

“The only thing we can think of is when we gave birth at the hospital, but that is speculation,” Jon said.

All the nurses and doctors wore protective gear during the birth. But Shantel developed post-eclampsia, high blood pressure after birth (a rare condition compared to pre-eclampsia, high blood pressure before birth, that usually resolves itself after delivery).  The medication she was given had no effect, but “the minute she had the high fever, [the post-eclampsia] went away.”

In light of that, Jon said that contracting the coronavirus in the hospital is “the only thing that makes sense to us . . . There is a possibility that I gave my family this,too. That is scary.” 

While the Cesario family practiced social distancing, wore masks and used hand sanitizer, Jon admitted that they felt it was unlikely that any of them were at risk of contracting the virus. They feel differently now.  

He hopes their experience will help bring awareness to the reality of the virus and its impacts. He said a lot of their community “thought it was a hoax.” But after what he and  his family have gone through, he has seen that it really “woke up our community that this stuff is real. Up until this happened, they didn’t believe it . . . We took all the precautions to not contract it, and it still hit our home. You can be contagious and not even know it, that is the scary part of this whole thing.” He’s worried that others may be asymptomatic and not know that they have the virus, and aren’t wearing masks or social distancinging.

“Maybe that is a benefit of us contracting it,” Jon said. “It brought awareness to the community . . . that this is real, this virus is real.”