SELINSGROVE — A mask can be inconvenient. It can be itchy, hot and — for some — even make it hard to breathe. For people with weak immune systems or underlying medical conditions, a mask is one of the things standing in the way of a trip to the emergency room.

Too many times, when 8-year-old Emma Straub catches a cold she ends up with pneumonia. Born with several congenital defects, two of which required major surgeries when she was an infant, she also battles tracheomalacia, which means her trachea narrows or collapses when breathing.

Developing pneumonia means the refreshingly feisty and energetic girl ends up in the hospital for lifesaving treatment.

“Normally they have to put an IV in my hand or foot,” Emma said.

Technicians had trouble inserting Emma’s IV in her hand and had to use her foot when she was last admitted to Geisinger around Valentine’s Day, Emma’s mother, Jennifer Straub, explained, as Emma continued to describe what a hospital stay for her is like.

“My tummy hurts. I gotta do breathing treatments (a nebulizer),” she said. “You gotta hook something up to me.”

A suctioning machine is needed because the unusual shape of Emma’s trachea makes it difficult for her to clear secretions, Jennifer explained. The IVs provide both medications and fluids because pneumonia also makes it hard for Emma to keep food down, resulting in dehydration.

“When she coughs,” said Joe Straub, Emma’s father, “it doesn’t expel with as much force as it should.”

Along with protecting Emma from everyday illnesses, the Straubs must now guard against the novel coronavirus that has swept around the world, and one of their best defenses against that respiratory disease is a simple item that has sparked controversy and derision: a cloth mask.

Why it works 

To understand how a mask helps, it is necessary to understand that COVID-19, or SARS-CoV-2, is transmitted when an infected person coughs or breathes, releasing a spray of tiny respiratory droplets that can travel up to six feet, said Dr. Swathi Gowtham, Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist at Geisinger. The infected person can be asymptomatic, showing no symptoms, or pre-symptomatic, spreading the disease two days before developing symptoms.

In either case, a cloth mask on that infected person can block or at least decrease the speed of the droplets.

“If the sick person is wearing a mask, and the person near that sick person is wearing a mask, that’s going to decrease the risk (of transmission) even further,” Gowtham said. “That’s why everybody should be wearing masks.”

Equally important, people who feel sick should stay home from work or school to avoid potentially spreading the virus.

“Separate the sick from the well. That’s going to be your major route of transmission,” Gowtham said.

No ‘negative feelings’

As important as the mask is in protecting their daughter from COVID-19, both Jennifer and Joe Straub emphasized that they don’t judge people who don’t wear one. They would just appreciate people giving the mask some thought.

“We don’t hold any negative feelings. We’re not going to yell at people,” Jennifer said. “It means a lot more when it’s your own daughter who has underlying medical conditions. It’s easy for others to say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter.’”

“This is a very touchy issue right now for a lot of people,” Joe said. “I can understand that if you’ve never had a child or someone near and dear to you (who is ill), I can understand people would not take it seriously.

“My hope would be for them to put themselves in our position. We do have someone in our life near and dear to us. Wearing a mask is going to protect her.”

Psychological impact

Beyond limiting the distance respiratory droplets can travel, masks offer psychological reassurance that people are looking out for each other, said B. James Connolly, MD, Medical Director of Emergency Services, Evangelical Community Hospital

“When I see someone in the community wearing a mask, I know this person is on board,” he said. “They’re part of the solution. It sends the message, ‘We’re on the same team.’ They’re concerned not only with their own health but the community’s health.”

While mindful of the varying viewpoints the mask incites, the Straubs’ focus is understandably on keeping Emma as safe as possible, and that includes keeping her home most of the time.

“She hasn’t been in a store since March,” Jennifer said.

The family did go on an overnight camping trip and occasional hikes and swims, but like so many others, they’ve had to cancel vacation plans, and they haven’t allowed Emma to play with friends this year.

“Usually the summer is Emma’s reward,” Jennifer said. “Summer is when she’s at her healthiest and we can take her out and do things. But we haven’t been able to this summer.”

Isolating Emma is one thing; isolating themselves is nearly impossible. As a language arts teacher at Midd-West High School, in Middleburg, Jennifer worries during the best of times that she’ll bring home germs.

“I see how students are at school. They come in with a cold, sneezing and touching everything,” she said. “I’m always concerned with what I’m bringing home to Emma. (This year) my anxiety level is on the rise.”

When Emma is healthy, she’s great, Jennifer said. But when she gets a cold, pneumonia is never far away.

“It’s horrible,” Joe said of the times Emma is in the hospital.

They keep a sharp eye on her, struggling with when to let the cold run its course and when to step in with antibiotics.

“That’s one thing that sometimes can keep it from progressing (to pneumonia), but you don’t want to give your child an antibiotic every time she gets a cold, either,” Joe said. “You feel bad if she ends up in the hospital — ‘could I have prevented it?’”

With their vigilance in guarding Emma’s health, the Straubs appreciate when people in public places wear a mask, even if those people question its effectiveness.

“We think the masking is important. We think it does work,” Jennifer said. “Whether or not you believe, why wouldn’t you rather be safe than sorry?”

“We mask for Emma,” Joe said. “To keep her as safe as possible.”

Emma herself has strong opinions on the power of the mask.

“This isn’t just for you to wear a mask. It’s for everybody to wear a mask. It is so we can change the world from quarantine,” she said with the enthusiasm of an 8-year-old. “So start putting your mask on today.”

Cindy O. Herman lives in Snyder County. Send e-mail comments to her at

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