Nine-year-old Ellie Chardos sits on the floor with her legs crossed and brown hair pulled back. Behind her, a bookshelf is full of reading materials and a plastic bin is filled to the brim with her toys.
Ellie holds a toy needle in her right hand and picks up a stuffed Olaf toy with her left. Her eyes concentrate as she carefully gives the snowman a shot before smiling up at her mother, Michelle Chardos.
For Ellie, this is playtime. But for Michelle, this exercise helps her daughter understand what will happen in the near future when she becomes the last person in the family of six to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Chardos family has been under strict quarantine since March 2020 to protect Ellie, who has Down syndrome and is immunocompromised, from the coronavirus.
Now that the FDA has given emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine to be administered to children ages 5-11, Michelle and husband Jeff ensured that Ellie would be one of the first children in Columbus to receive the vaccine.
“Maybe if Ellie wasn’t part of our lives, we would have taken our time and looked at the pros and cons,” Jeff said. “But when you have Ellie, a lot of decisions are made for you.”
‘She won’t understand the fever, the pain, the discomfort’
During Michelle’s pregnancy, the couple learned that Ellie had Down syndrome and pulmonary hypertension and when she was born, she needed oxygen and a feeding tube. When Ellie swallowed milk, she would aspirate, meaning she was breathing fluid into her lungs.
The family was assigned a team of doctors whose job was to comfort parents who were going to lose their child, Jeff said.
“I don’t hate anyone,” he said. “But I hated seeing those people.”
Ellie underwent heart surgery when she was a year old, and she was able to come off of oxygen at the time. But her health was touch and go, and her struggles with eating lasted for three years.
Since that time, Michelle and Jeff have worked to prevent Ellie from getting colds because she tends to choke more often when she’s sick and tired.
“She won’t understand the fever, the pain, the discomfort,” Michelle said. “She can’t necessarily express herself.”
Pulmonary hypertension causes inflammation of the lungs, so the last thing Ellie needs is a respiratory virus, Michelle said. Between the challenges in caring for Ellie when she’s sick along with her medical history, preventing her from getting COVID-19 is a high priority for the entire family.
Children with underlying medical conditions are more at risk for severe illness from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The COVID-19 vaccine does not contain the live virus, Dr. Susan McWhirter of Rivertown Pediatrics in Columbus said, so there is no risk of getting coronavirus from the vaccine, which is an important consideration when vaccinating immunocompromised individuals.
“To me, the kids that have any chronic illness, those are the kids that need to get it first,” McWhirter said. “Those are the kids that should be standing in line to get it first.”
Twenty months of quarantine
For the last 20 months, no one other than Michelle, Jeff and their four kids have crossed the threshold of their home.
Jeff is a teacher at St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School, while Michelle is a stay-at-home mom. They got married in 2001 after meeting at the University of Georgia. Ellie is the youngest of siblings Jacob, Xavier and Julia, ages 17, 14 and 12 respectively.
The family has operated under strict COVID-19 protocols since March 2020. When the first shutdown began, they stayed at home, sanitized and washed groceries, and took other strict precautions, Michelle said.
As they realized it was going to be awhile before scientists could produce and distribute a vaccine, they embraced their new normal. The Chardos’ let up on some practices over time, like washing groceries, but mostly nothing has changed in their new pandemic-era routine.
Ellie has been in the family’s van less than 10 times since the pandemic began.
“We have been so serious about the quarantine because we felt like it was the only way to really make sure that she wasn’t going to get it,” Michelle said.
To pass the time, the family has taken walks outside and they now own almost every Monopoly board game. They found that once everything was pushed to one side of the playroom, there was enough space for six people to do Pilates.
They also baked a lot, which Michelle jokes directly related to the need for exercise.
Ellie and her older siblings always have been home schooled, so there wasn’t a big adjustment in schooling. But while there was no gap in their education, sports were put on hold.
“We have tried to just stay focused on doing the right thing,” Jacob, Ellie’s oldest brother, said, “which is to keep Ellie safe during this challenging time.”
However, isolation from their other family has taken its toll on the Chardoses. While they have seen some of their other relatives, all visits have been in the garage. Holiday celebrations last year were spent entirely at home, rather than going to Chattanooga to visit with extended family.
The small celebration they held with Michelle’s mother, Shirley Huddleston, was done out in the garage. While it was nice, the atmosphere was different, she said.
“I can’t hug them,” Huddleston said. “I miss hugging them. I see them, but it’s just not the same.”
As a hands-on grandparent, the distance between herself and her grandchildren has been hard, Huddleston said. She looks forward to being able to enter the house to watch football games and spend time with the kids who have been growing up out of her arms.
But she appreciates the sacrifices Michelle and Jeff have made.
“(Michelle is) protecting her family,” she said.
Huddleston said she got a vaccine when it was available for two reasons: to protect herself and to protect Ellie.
Making sure Ellie is first in line
It’s Nov. 5 and Michelle stands in front of a whiteboard hanging in the hallway of her home. Notes for the family have been scribbled in red dry-erase marker, and papers are taped along the bottom.
“That is so awesome — yay, thank you for calling!,” she exclaims into a phone as she prepares to add another note to the board. “So, just get there right before 9?”
When the FDA approved the vaccine for children 5-11 on Oct. 29, notifications from family and friends excited about the prospect of Ellie getting vaccinated flooded Michelle’s phone.
After that approval was released, she started calling pharmacies around Columbus to find out when they’d be getting needles and vaccines for Ellie’s age group.
The call Friday morning was from a Walmart pharmacy to let her know they received the needed supplies, and they began scheduling Ellie’s vaccine despite the electronic system not yet being updated to allow appointments for children her age.
Ellie smiled and laughed when she talked about getting vaccinated. She’ll have a vaccine card like her older siblings, and she’ll celebrate with a special dinner of her choosing.
The entire family woke up early on Saturday and loaded up in their maroon Hyundai Odyssey. They first drove to the Walmart on Airport Thruway, arriving just before 9 a.m., and although the supplies were in, the system still had not updated to allow the workers to administer the vaccine to Ellie.
Undeterred, the employee that had been working closely with Michelle to get Ellie vaccinated called a nearby Walmart to verify they would be able to vaccinate the 9-year-old.
About an hour later, Ellie sat in a booth in Walmart — the first time she’s been in a store since March 2020 — pointing at her arm to where a pharmacist would put the needle. She sat in Michelle’s lap while Jeff and her supportive siblings looked on as the youngest girl finally was vaccinated.
There were smiles everywhere as she gave each one of her siblings a hug.
“Everything on Earth is temporary,” Jacob said. “And this experience has reminded us that hard times do pass.”