Va. Baby Recovering After Scary Bout With Botulism

A baby boy from Woodstock, Virginia, is making progress at Inova Fairfax Hospital after being stricken with a rare case of botulism.

Benjamin Shell almost died as the potent toxin attacked his tiny body.

"I was honestly thinking, How am I going to tell my two older sons that their brother is not coming home?" said Antonette Shell, the baby's mother.

The illness is so rare only about 100 babies nationwide suffer from botulism each year.

Shell said she became concerned about two weeks ago when her baby suddenly stopped nursing and became constipated. Her pediatrician told her to go immediately to the hospital, but doctors there were perplexed.

"They were dumbfounded," said Antonette Shell. "They were wondering how could such a healthy baby boy ... just get sick so fast and so easily."

Benjamin was rushed to Inova Fairfax Hospital June 27, too weak to even open his eyes. Right away, doctors suspected botulism and began treating Benjamin with a medication called BabyBIG, a purified antibody.


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Inova Pediatric Intensivist Dr. Michael Vish has only treated three cases of botulism in his 12-year career.

"Botulism toxin is actually the most potent toxin known to man," explained Vish. "That toxin makes somebody weak, and it affects their (baby's) breathing muscles so children aren't able to breathe and that can be severe and cause low oxygen levels and even death."

Shell said even after the medication was started, there was a terrifying moment when she almost lost her son.

"It got bad ... At one point they had to resuscitate him," said Shell, her eyes filling with tears.

As Shell and her husband took turns at Benjamin's bedside, friends and family turned to social media for support.

A Facebook page seeks prayer — more than 1,700 have responded. A GoFundMe page is raising money to deal with enormous medical costs. The medication alone costs $45,000.

Antonette Shell's aunt is organizing a fundraiser at a local vineyard that she co-owns.

"It's been a real eye-opener to see just how much the community has come together for this. It's heartwarming," said Tracey Newcome.

Shell hopes her family's ordeal will serve as a warning to other parents. She's learned botulism is everywhere, sometimes becoming airborne at construction sites.

"I didn't know my infant could get this," Shell said. "They say it could have come from many things. They think a spore in the air."

Dr. Vish tells parents while botulism is impossible to avoid, good hand-washing practices can help. Pediatricians also advise parents of children under the age of 1 to avoid giving babies honey, because it can carry botulism spores.

He and Shell also urge parents not to overlook the symptoms.

"It's weakness we see, a poor cry, a soft cry, a baby seeming floppy," said Vish. "Those are big warning signs for any child no matter what that they have to seek medical attention."

Poor sucking or nursing and constipation can also signal a problem.

Benjamin Shell's prognosis is now good. He's getting stronger every day and his feeding tube was just removed.

"He's able to move his head," Shell said. "He was so happy last night he just kept moving his head back and forth, like, I can finally move!"

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