Toddler dies after leukemia is misdiagnosed as a viral infection

By Stephanie Srakocic | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published June 14, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Local pediatricians diagnosed a toddler who was experiencing symptoms such as snoring, fever, and a cough; he also had a viral infection.

  • The toddler’s symptoms persisted for months and became increasingly severe, leading to eventual hospitalization and a surprising diagnosis of leukemia.

  • Despite a 4-week course of intensive chemotherapy, the 2 year old passed away in July 2020.

Ellie Keating took her 2-year-old son Mason to the doctor several times between December 2019 and March 2020. Mason was having trouble breathing at night, and Ellie noticed he had a persistent high fever. Mason’s general doctor diagnosed him with a viral infection in December 2019.[]

However, Mason’s symptoms got progressively worse. Eventually, he was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance with severe vomiting and difficulty standing on his own.

Mason was discharged days later but was sent for a chest x-ray and blood tests later that week. Test results revealed late-stage T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Mason passed away in July 2020.[]

Misdiagnosis despite worsening symptoms

Ellie Keating, who lives in England with her family, told the UK’s Daily Mail that Mason’s symptoms advanced between January and March 2020.[] Reportedly, he developed night sweats, a chesty cough, and snoring; he also lost interest in eating. Despite repeated medical appointments given his worsening symptoms, physicians still believed Mason had a viral infection. 

“As more symptoms were coming into the mix, it just didn’t sit right that it was a typical viral infection,” Ellie Keating said in an interview with Daily Mail. “He was then vomiting, and his poo looked like he’d swallowed tobacco; it was really bitty. He wasn’t eating, he was a very good eater, and he wasn’t drinking.”[]

Mason was rushed to the hospital on Mother’s Day 2020 and was put into an induced coma to preserve his strength while dialysis treatments were started to help remove waste from his blood. After he was brought out of his coma in June 2020, Mason began a 4-week course of intensive chemotherapy and steroid treatment. However, Mason’s symptoms returned. 

Low chance of success

Ellie Keating was given the option of another round of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant if Mason was in remission; however, she was told that the odds of treatment being successful were very low.[] Additionally, Keating was advised that Mason would require radiation along with the second round of chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant, a treatment that was likely to lead to severe brain damage. After weighing the options, Keating chose to pursue palliative care instead of further curative treatment.[] Mason died on July 23, 2020 at the age of two.[]

Ellie Keating said her son’s death was sudden. “[T]here was no warning,” she reported. “We were doing handprints and footprints with the two nurses and I was showing them videos of him, then all of a sudden it was just four big breaths and he was gone.”[]

Keating is now sharing Mason’s story in the hopes that other parents can learn from it. She hopes to raise awareness of childhood leukemia symptoms and is hopeful that learning about Mason will encourage parents to get their children’s symptoms checked and to ask questions if something doesn’t feel right.

“My message to parents would be to 100 per cent stand your ground and trust your gut because early diagnosis could save lives,” Keating said.[]

Diagnosing childhood leukemia 

Leukemia is the most common cancer diagnosed in people under 20.[] It’s estimated that leukemia accounts for about 25% of all cancers diagnosed in this age, with an incidence rate of 4.9 per 100,00 people under the age of 20 in the United States.

Childhood leukemia is very treatable when diagnosed early and managed appropriately, and survival rates have risen dramatically in recent years. 

In its early stages, childhood leukemia can be misdiagnosed as other conditions. For instance, leukemia symptoms such as bone pain and fatigue can lead to diagnoses of reactive arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, or osteomyelitis.[] Additional symptoms, such as a history of nighttime pain, along with lab work showing leukopenia and thrombocytopenia, can help physicians make a differential diagnosis. In some cases, imaging shows leukemia damage to the bones before blood levels are affected. 

Children who present with musculoskeletal symptoms can benefit from a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to diagnosis. This route can be the way to confirm a diagnosis, especially in cases without an immediate, clear cause of symptoms. 

What this means for you

When Ellie Keating took her young son to the hospital for worrisome symptoms, his doctors insisted he had a viral infection. Despite worsening symptoms and repeated doctor’s visits, he didn’t receive an accurate diagnosis—leukemia—until it was too late. This story serves as a good reminder that missed or delayed diagnosis is one of the most common causes of medical malpractice suits. Comprehensive diagnostics and reaching out to members of multidisciplinary medical teams can help increase diagnostic accuracy. 

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