Adam Black, a 17-year-old Centennial High senior, loves the stage. In his sophomore year, he was nominated for a PEAAK Award for his portrayal of the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz" — a role his drama teacher, Alicia Hammons, said was a perfect fit for Black because he "is a total ham."
His most harrowing role yet, however, is surely the one he finds himself in now at the center of an unfolding real-life medical drama called COVID-19. Black, who contracted the virus almost two months ago, developed a rare but serious inflammatory condition affecting children who've had the virus that has landed him in the ICU at Valley Children's Hospital in Madera.
He is one of just 25 kids in the state to develop the potentially life-threatening illness, known as Multisymptom Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C, according to the California Department of Public Health.
The syndrome causes severe inflammation to body systems including the heart, lungs, kidneys and other major organs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Black's case, it targeted his heart and blood vessels, said Dr. Molly Dorfman, a pediatric intensivist who has been part of a team treating Black.
The teenager had two serious episodes of arrhythmia, where the heart's electrical system malfunctions, and twice in two days doctors rushed into his room to shock his heart back into a normal pattern. The second time was in the middle of the night, said Adam's father, Douglas Black, who has spent every night in Madera with Adam, his youngest of three sons. The second time, his heart required two shocks before it resumed a normal heartbeat.
Later, Adam told his father that as he was being sedated just prior to those shocks, he wondered if he would ever wake up.
Douglas described the ordeal as "absolutely terrifying" from a parent's perspective, but said that moment was the only time he saw his son worried.
"He’s been staying very strong through it all. I can’t believe how strong he’s been," said Douglas, 45, who coaches soccer at Centennial High and for a club.
On Friday afternoon, Adam posted an update on Facebook saying he is doing better and will likely be moved out of the ICU on Monday.
"The last two weeks have been hell, it's good to see improvement," he wrote.
A LOSS OF TASTE
It all began about seven weeks ago when Adam called his dad at work to report something weird: He just brushed his teeth but couldn't taste the toothpaste.
Douglas immediately recognized it as a COVID-19 symptom and the two went in for testing. Adam was positive but Douglas was not.
Adam's illness was mild. He was tired but by the end of his 14-day quarantine he was feeling fine, his dad said. It wasn't until another two weeks passed that he developed a fever and swollen lymph nodes, Adam said in a Facebook post on July 15.
The next day he was transported to Valley Children's.
"Children are not immune to this disease. There’s a lot of misinformation out there," Dr. Dorfman said of COVID-19.
The CDC says children do not appear to be at higher risk for COVID-19 and "while children and infants can become sick with COVID-19, adults make up most of the known cases to date." But Dorfman said that doesn't mean there aren't serious cases of COVID-19 in children. They can become very sick from the virus itself or from the syndrome Adam developed, she said.
Children who develop MIS-C have had COVID-19 or been exposed to someone who has and later develop symptoms such as fever, vomiting, diarrhea and a rash, according to available studies. Dorfman said the virus appears to disregulate the body's systems in these children but severe symptoms don't begin to show for a couple of weeks. It's still unknown why some children develop the syndrome and others don't, Dorfman said.
Adam was healthy and had no previous medical conditions. He was awake and alert through most of his time in the ICU even to the point of critiquing Dorfman's attempt to bring a little bit of the stage into his hospital room.
"I tried to cheer him up with some 'Hamilton' but it didn't go over too well," she said of the Broadway hit that reimagines the life of Alexander Hamilton. "It was too nerdy for the grown-up doctor to do Hamilton."
‘THIS IS WHY YOU WEAR A MASK’
Hammons, his Centennial High theater teacher, said Adam is a fun kid who is well-liked by his peers and loves to be a jokester. She pointed out that Adam made the local news in late April when he was interviewed by a local TV station for a unique way of cheering up fellow cast members who were unable to perform their production of "Les Miserables" due to closures caused by the virus.
He had bracelets made imprinted with a silly inside joke — Adam Black is my dad — and sold hundreds of them.
Earlier this summer, he convinced actor Andy Buckley of "The Office" to record a special message for his fellow theater students, Hammons said, and was putting together a virtual theater awards event because the annual in-person event was canceled.
In several of his recent Facebook posts, Adam has used his experience with COVID-19 and MIS-C as a warning to take the virus seriously.
"This is why you wear a mask," he wrote along with a photo of him in his ICU bed. "Trust me, you don't want to go through this."
He and his father have also thanked people from Bakersfield who have donated more than $12,000 to a fund to help cover costs associated with their stay in Madera.
"When someone needs help, Bakersfield is a good community," Douglas said. "They come together."