Pete Buttigieg Recalls Son Being Intubated Amid Newborn Twins' RSV Battle: 'Sometimes Parenting Is Terror'

Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, adopted the twins in September 2021.

Pete Buttigieg is looking back on his first year as a parent and the sometimes "terrifying" moments he and his husband, Chasten, encountered with their now 1-year-old twins, Penelope Rose and Joseph "Gus" August. 

In a personal essay published on Medium, the 40-year-old U.S. Transportation Secretary opened up about the health issues his children have faced as premature newborns, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which he says they developed about a month after they were adopted in September 2021.

"Penelope developed severe reflux, terrifying us when she would stop breathing and turn purple in a matter of seconds," Buttigieg writes. "More than once, it happened in the car, prompting Chasten to hurriedly pull over so we could unbuckle her from her seat and help get her breathing back into rhythm while standing on the side of the road."

While terrifying, it hasn't all been bad, with Buttigieg noting that both he and Chasten have relished in the "joyful" moments as well.

"It was joyful, too, of course," he maintains. "Some of the sweetest moments happened during those bleary feedings around one or four in the morning, as Penelope's dark round eyes blinked up at me from behind the bottle, or when Joseph, whom we quickly nicknamed Gus, produced a resounding and adorable burp that echoed like a little joke just between us."

But sadly, the twins' health issues did not end there. Their trouble breathing was soon diagnosed as RSV, something the entire family had contracted.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. Most people recover in a week or two, but RSV can be serious, especially for infants and older adults. In some severe cases, RSV can cause infections such as bronchiolitis or pneumonia.

"For us it just meant a nasty cold, but for premature infants like them it was a serious threat," Buttigieg explains.

"One day, the kids got a cold. Soon it was a cough. Then Penelope started to have trouble breathing," he says. "Over FaceTime, our doctor expressed concern about the way her belly was retracting under her ribs as she worked to take in air. Chasten drove her to the Emergency Room while I stayed home with Gus. His skin took on a mottled look, and by the next day he was admitted to the hospital too."

The twins were given oxygen and discharged from the hospital a few days later, but Gus' breathing continued to struggle, and it wasn't long before he was back in the hospital.

"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," Buttigieg recalls. "Next thing we knew, the doctor had determined that the ventilator couldn't wait -- Gus would need to be intubated now and then transferred."

"Parenting is lots of things, and one of those things is terror," he adds. "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."

Seeing the little one intubated was beyond scary for Buttigieg, and while the twins' health has since improved, the scare reminded him of the privilege he and his family have been afforded by having excellent health insurance and a good salary to weather the enormous hospital bills that often plague many in a situation like this -- something many other families don't have.

"Yes, sometimes parenting is terror," Buttigieg went on to write in the essay. "It is also dependency, and it is reason for constant and enormous gratitude."

"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," Buttigieg adds before ending the essay. "I became 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."