Pete Buttigieg recounts terrifying health ordeal that nearly took his infant son’s life

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is opening up about the terrifying health ordeals his 1-year-old twins, Joseph (nicknamed "Gus") and Penelope, faced when they were only a few months old.

In an emotional essay published on Medium Saturday, Buttigieg detailed how the twins overcame a serious bout of RSV, explaining how the experience gave him a new perspective on life, fatherhood and parenting in America.

Chasten and Pete Buttigieg wave to supporters at an election night rally in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., February 3, 2020. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, pictured here during the 2020 U.S. presidential election, are opening up about their first year as dads. (REUTERS/Eric Thayer) (ERIC THAYER / reuters)

Buttigieg started off detailing the "surprise" call he and his husband, Chasten, received from an adoption agency in August 2021, telling them that a mother had given birth to twins and wanted to arrange adoption.

"Within hours of that first call, we stood in disbelief as morning sunlight beamed through the window of a hospital room, overflowing with indescribable joy as we held our newborn children in our arms for the first time," he wrote. "Each weighed around five pounds. Chasten and I marveled at how tiny they were, how utterly vulnerable and dependent."

The couple named the twins, a girl and a boy, Penelope Rose and Joseph August.

Buttigieg then began parental leave to ensure he'd be "taking time to be there for everything the kids needed."

The babies, born premature, also faced "potential health complications," according to the adoption agency. In the beginning, "the twins' early health needs often called for constant, active care," Buttigieg shared.

By October, when the couple "had started to feel more confident and comfortable with all the routines (and the surprises) of parenting," the twins' health took a turn for the worse and they were admitted to the hospital.

“They were sick with a respiratory virus called RSV — and soon, so were Chasten and I," he explained. "For us it just meant a nasty cold, but for premature infants like them it was a serious threat. They needed oxygen for a few days before being well enough to be discharged — just in time for me to head back to Washington for a day of important in-person meetings and events. I flew back that evening and found Chasten, sick and exhausted, with both kids curled up on his chest, and persuaded him to go to bed while I took the overnight shift."

As Penelope's health stabilized, Buttigieg explained that Gus's status went from "bad to worse."

Pete Buttigieg shares an intimate look inside a hospital room as his son Gus was fighting respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) at just a few weeks old. (Courtesy Pete Buttigieg/Medium)
Pete Buttigieg shares an intimate look inside a hospital room as his son Gus was fighting respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) at just a few weeks old. (Courtesy Pete Buttigieg/Medium)

"We started hearing words like 'serious' and then 'critical,' and soon the doctor was recommending we immediately transfer Gus to a full-scale children's hospital in Grand Rapids, about a hundred miles away, and place him on a ventilator," he wrote. "Next thing we knew, the doctor had determined that the ventilator couldn’t wait — Gus would need to be intubated now and then transferred."

Eventually, the family drove to Grand Rapids, Mich., and ended up staying in a hotel as Gus stayed in the ICU.

"Parenting is lots of things, and one of those things is terror," he explained. "You watch your infant, sedated and surrounded by wires and tubes and monitors and medical personnel coming and going constantly, and wonder how we could live in a universe where a few weeks could be all that a child gets on this earth."

All the while, the secretary of transportation was taking important calls and meetings, trying to juggle work life as his baby was fighting for his life.

"My leave had already been winding down, and now I was tending to issues that couldn't wait or be delegated," he explained. "Sometimes, that meant taking a deep breath while looking down at my unconscious two-month-old son, on life support but still strong enough to reflexively keep his grip on my finger, and then realizing I had two minutes to get into a Zoom meeting with transportation stakeholders, a phone call with a senator, or a TV interview. I'd put a tie on, go to a nearby room (or in one rushed case, the bathroom), open the laptop, pick a virtual background so no one would be distracted by seeing that I was taking the meeting from a hospital, and get to work."

Thankfully, after a difficult week, Gus's health started to get better.

"The moment came when the medics were confident he could come off the ventilator, or at least try," he wrote. "As Chasten and I took turns sleeping in that room, a new hope came into our hearts as we followed the process of weaning the oxygen down and then away completely, and gradually withdrew the fentanyl while taking care to minimize symptoms of withdrawal, then begin coaching him to feed again from a bottle and not a tube."

Today, the twins are happy and healthy, and recently celebrated their first birthdays.

Chasten Buttigieg embraces his newborns, soon after he and his husband brought them home from the hospital. (Courtesy Pete Buttigeg/Medium)
Chasten Buttigieg embraces his newborns, soon after he and his husband brought them home from the hospital. (Courtesy Pete Buttigeg/Medium)

Buttigieg said the ordeal made him "newly mindful of the stakes of our policy debates about family matters, knowing that so many families in these predicaments have none of the benefits that we do, part of why a serious illness in the family can mean financial ruin for too many parents who don't have the support networks that we were so fortunate to rely on."

"Even with the enormous advantages we had — a good salary, excellent health insurance, flexibility at work, and most important of all, each other — it had felt like we were barely keeping things together," he wrote. "It really does take a village, even in normal circumstances, to raise a child, and our village had been there for us. But so had policy, from the research that helped create the modern medical strategies to treat our son, to the basic legal protections that came with my marriage to Chasten, ensuring we would be treated by our insurance company and by hospital staff like any other family."

As much he and Chasten marvel at Gus and Penelope's year of growth, Buttigieg wrote, it's also a testament to how much they have grown as well.

"The first year may seem one of total transformation for your children, but what about their parents? It's easy to overlook," he said. "In one year, you go from someone absorbed in your own worries, hopes, and career, to having fully faced just how much in life is outside your control — and how magical it is to spend every day with someone who matters more to you than your old self could possibly have dreamed of."

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