In the beginning, the illness seemed like little more than an ordinary cold. Too tired to go to school, ten-year-old Zyrin Foots plopped down on his family’s big brown living-room recliner, turned on the TV, and waited for the sluggishness and congestion to pass. But four days later, his mother, Amber McDaniel, began to grow concerned. Though Zyrin was normally quick to bounce back from illness, his condition didn’t seem to be improving. He was still just as lethargic as he’d been days earlier. Even more worrying was his breathing, which had tightened into a shallow wheeze. 

On a Thursday evening in late September, with Zyrin’s breathing becoming more labored and his legs beginning to ache, McDaniel decided she’d seen enough and called an ambulance. On the way to the hospital, as his breathing grew more rapid, a sign that he wasn’t getting adequate oxygen, Zyrin went into sudden cardiac arrest. A few days earlier, the carefree little boy that family members had nicknamed “Chef Boyardee” because of his love of cooking had been riding bikes through his neighborhood in Huntsville, an East Texas town of 46,000 about an hour north of Houston, and talking about Halloween costumes with his little brother. Now, McDaniel found herself inside the emergency room watching doctors perform chest compressions on her son’s body and praying that his heart monitor would start beeping again. The suddenness of it all—the way a child could be healthy one week, but on the verge of death the next—was hard to comprehend. Even so, McDaniel remained hopeful. “Zyrin is my firstborn and he’s a lot like me; he’s stubborn and he’s a fighter,” she recalled several weeks later. “So when his heart started beating again I just knew he was going to be okay, and, for a little while, he was.”

Before he contracted COVID-19 in late September, Zyrin Foots was healthy and active. Family members said the 10-year-old loved to ride his bike, attend church and experiment in the kitchen.
Before he contracted COVID-19 in late September, Zyrin Foots was healthy and active. Family members said the ten-year-old loved to ride his bike, attend church, and experiment in the kitchen. Courtesy of Amber McDaniel

Despite temporarily stabilizing, Zyrin, who’d tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving at the hospital, was rushed to Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston several hours later. Shortly after he arrived, he suffered a second heart attack. After he survived an open-heart surgery, doctors placed him on life support in hopes that his body might begin to recover. The opposite occurred. Weakened by COVID-19, Zyrin’s immune system had developed respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and later multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), a rare condition that causes different parts of the body, such as the heart, lungs, and even the brain, to become inflamed. There have been more than five thousand cases of MIS-C across the country since the pandemic began, but doctors are still trying to understand how exactly COVID-19 is triggering the inflammatory condition. With his heart inflamed and unable to pump blood, Zyrin’s appendages developed gangrene, causing the tissue on his arms and legs to turn black and eventually die. 

In mid-October, about ten days after Zyrin arrived at Texas Children’s, doctors presented McDaniel with an excruciating choice: she could take her son off life support, allowing him to die, or she could give doctors permission to amputate his right arm, both of his legs, and one of his eyes. With the procedure, the doctors estimated the child would have a 25 percent chance of survival. Assuming he did make it through the surgery, they told his mother, Zyrin wouldn’t be able to wear prosthetic legs—the procedure would leave too little of his thighs intact. Because he’d experienced multiple strokes in the hospital, there was a strong chance he’d never be able to use his remaining arm. They gave her 48 hours to make her decision. 

Refusing to leave her son’s hospital room, McDaniel consulted with friends and family by phone, processing her choices out loud. But lying on a small couch inside the room each night, a restless and heartbroken McDaniel realized that only she could make sense of what seemed an impossible dilemma. Her son lay a few feet away, his eighty-pound body wrapped in plastic tubes that cut into his abdomen and poured from his mouth. He was unconscious and pain-free, his face innocent and peaceful-looking, but his body was losing its battle for survival. A dark red incision ran down his chest and his appendages had begun to turn black and swollen, like those of a mountain climber in the final stages of frostbite. 

She thought about how Zyrin had been independent for his age—the result, family members believed, of being the oldest sibling in a single-parent household. A fan of video games and cooking shows, he was active and energetic, a kid who’d taught himself to prepare French toast from scratch and had, on his own initiative, begun attending a local church last year with Zaiden, his nine-year-old brother. “He was going to be the next Emeril Lagasse,” McDaniel said. “He had the raw talent.” In photos, the two brothers look inseparable, their faces lit up with smiles and their arms draped across each other’s shoulders. McDaniel kept picturing Zyrin waking up and realizing he could no longer walk, feed himself or go to the restroom on his own. There would be no more riding bikes with Zaiden, no more laid-back childhood, but instead years of painful surgeries, intermittent hospital stays, and constant uncertainty. “I kept wondering whether he’d thank me for keeping him alive or if he’d hate me for making him suffer for the rest of his life,” McDaniel told me. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my child or give up on him, but I also didn’t want him to experience more trauma. I kept hoping for God to make some miracle happen so it wasn’t in my hands.” 

Her indecision was amplified by her own complicated relationship with physical trauma, which, like her son’s, had come into her life one day without warning and changed everything that followed. It was a fall evening in 2013, and McDaniel, then 26, was six months pregnant with a third child. She had just left a Walmart in Conroe, thirty miles from Huntsville, where she was then living with her two sons and their father, pushing a grocery cart full of snack food for her pregnancy cravings. As she crossed a nearby street on her way home, she was struck by a truck traveling at a high rate of speed. The driver, who briefly left the scene but later returned, was never charged, and to this day, details of the accident remain foggy for McDaniel. She remembers briefly regaining consciousness in a patch of grass beside the road, her body broken, bloody, and surrounded by first responders. She spent the next four months in an induced coma. “The doctors later told me that if I wasn’t pregnant when the truck hit me then I wouldn’t be alive,” McDaniel said. “They said the baby protected some of my vital organs, but of course I lost my child.”

After the collision, McDaniel was unable to talk or chew. The impact had shattered her leg and nearly destroyed her liver, which required seven surgeries to heal fully. For months, her meals were delivered via a feeding tube. The accident took away the use of her right hand, and for years, she was unable to walk without assistance. The injuries, which generated more than $1 million in medical bills, also forced her to stop working as a door-to-door vacuum salesperson, a job she’d grown to love. Almost a decade later, she remains on disability, but has stopped taking pain medication and regained her ability to walk without a cane. McDaniel is unable to drive, but while the wreck left her right leg shorter than her left, she makes a point of walking everywhere she goes. “She walks to Walmart and H-E-B and she walks the boys to school every day, and she’s been doing it that way for years,” said Ashley Engmann, McDaniel’s younger sister. “It’s her way of refusing to let her disability define her.” 

When I visited McDaniel this past week at her apartment, a small, one-story brick residence in a Huntsville neighborhood dedicated to low-income residents, she showed me a calendar she uses to give herself a tiny gold star each time she completes physical-therapy exercises. Over time, her dedication has yielded significant results. After training herself to become left-handed, she has nearly regained complete use of her formerly dominant right hand. She has become accustomed to fighting for incremental improvements in her quality of life, some of them years in the making. As she debated whether to take Zyrin off life support, she envisioned him trying to do the same, only without any viable appendages to rehabilitate. 

The most difficult call in Pastor Philip A. Hagans’s career arrived in mid-October, a couple of weeks into Zyrin’s hospital stay. The 41-year-old preacher at Huntsville’s Unity of Faith Missionary Baptist Church had led funerals and counseled grieving families before, but this situation was different. On the other end of the line, McDaniel wanted to know if Hagans could offer any guidance. Considering what was at stake, Hagans knew he didn’t want to influence McDaniel’s decision. Instead, he asked God to give him the right words for the moment. “She was leaning towards letting her little boy go peacefully,” Hagans recalled. “My only words to her were, ‘I’m going to support whatever decision you make and do not feel bad because I know—and God knows—you’re doing the best you can for your son.’”

“That was basically all I could say,” Hagans added. “This was the most difficult decision any parent could have to make.”

Hagans is a Zyrin fan. He first met the boy about a year ago when Zyrin and his brother rode up to the airy, white-steepled church on their bikes one day, walked inside, and asked if they could start attending the Sunday service. From that point on, both boys became regulars, attending more consistently than many adults. Whereas most kids would play on their phones or sleep during services, Zyrin would sit in the front row and engage with the sermon. “He would stand up and wave his hands and clap with the music,” Hagans said. “The atmosphere seemed like it was making a difference in his life.”

A day or so after she’d spoken with Hagans, McDaniel had made up her mind. She told family members that she would spare her son another invasive surgery and the years of fraught health that were certain to follow. They would have a few days to say goodbye to Zyrin before doctors removed him from life support. One by one, masked family members were allowed to make brief visits to the hospital room. Some prayed over him; others spoke to the little boy one last time, telling him how much they loved him. Engmann, his aunt, got permission to escort Zaiden into the room; he’d been too scared to go into the room by himself. “It was just a horrible feeling because I think all of us felt like he wasn’t supposed to be there,” she said. “Until he took his last breath, I don’t think my sister [Zyrin’s mom] fully believed that he wasn’t coming home at some point.” Zyrin was pronounced dead on October 13 at 5:03 p.m., twenty days after he’d started feeling ill. 

When I asked how she decided to let him go, McDaniel, who spent several weeks at her son’s side in the hospital, said that a single look on his face, one that only a mother would recognize, had given her the answer she was looking for. “He was unconscious, but he had this look of anguish on his face that I hadn’t seen since he was an infant,” she said. “At that moment I knew he was in too much pain to continue.” (To date, a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Zyrin’s medical bills and funeral costs has raised more than $45,000.)

A few days after Zyrin’s passing, Hagans, a father of four boys who range from seven to seventeen years old, told me he was struggling with the child’s death, not just because he was sad, but also because he was frustrated. Huntsville had always been the kind of place, he said, where people looked out for one another. But that same thoughtfulness didn’t seem to extend to concerns about COVID-19, even though Walker County has experienced nearly 12,000 cases and lost 181 residents to the virus. Some Huntsville residents were still not masking around vulnerable neighbors and family members. Others, he said, were sending kids to school with COVID-19 symptoms because it was more convenient than keeping them at home. That selfish behavior, he said, may have gotten Zyrin killed, and Hagans couldn’t understand it. “I chose to keep my kids home when they tested positive for COVID, and yes, it interrupted my schedule and my wife’s schedule,” Hagans said. “But I’d rather do that than allow them to get someone else sick whose body can’t bounce back and they end up losing their life like Zyrin—all because I didn’t want to miss work? That’s a disgrace.” 

As of late October, more than 200,000 Texas students have tested positive for COVID-19. Out of the state’s roughly 69,000 reported COVID-19 deaths as of October 22, at least 31 have been children under ten years old. Zyrin’s family members are convinced he contracted COVID-19 at school. (His mother tested negative after he went to the hospital.) As evidence, they cite an email from school administrators sent the same week he became ill, alerting parents about a positive case at the school. 

About a week after Zyrin’s death, late on a school night, I reached McDaniel by phone for our initial conversation, and asked her to tell me a little bit more about her son. Midway through our talk, Zaiden, who was sitting nearby, grabbed his mother’s phone and began to tell me about his older brother’s favorite color (bright orange) as well as his favorite animal (tiger). That night, he was in the process of writing a eulogy to read during his brother’s funeral two days later, though he was already feeling some stage fright. Despite the nerves, he assured me that he planned to push past his discomfort. “I want everyone in the church to know that he was a great brother to me and he would always make me have a good day or find a way to make me smile,” Zaiden said. “I already miss him.” Then he handed the phone back to his mother and disappeared into his bedroom.  

A few days later, when he saw his brother’s unblemished body lying in the casket wearing a black suit and an orange tie, Zaiden insisted on placing his finger beneath Zyrin’s nose to be certain he wasn’t breathing, his aunt later told me. “He needed to be certain his best friend wasn’t really there, that this was all real,” she said. “He just couldn’t believe that Zyrin wasn’t going to get up and come home.”

McDaniel said she’d been trying to stay strong for her Zaiden, who was “devastated,” and had been unable to begin her own grieving process. Instead, she’d been compartmentalizing her agony to keep it from overwhelming her. Drawing upon skills she’d developed after the hit-and-run that nearly killed her, she said her plan was to move forward hour by hour, focusing on the next task at hand. When I asked her what she wanted others to know about her son, she paused, seeming to hold back tears. “I wish I could put it into words,” she finally said. “He was such an awesome little guy. He was going to be an amazing man.” A few minutes after we hung up, McDaniel called back. This time, her voice trembled with some barely containable mixture of exhaustion and heartbreak. “I thought Zyrin was going to beat it, because I died, too, but I’m still alive,” she said. “And he, well, he was just like me.”