Cami Abernathy, of Cartersville, Georgia, says she never expected that her son’s common cold symptoms would mark the start of an ordeal that would change the family forever.
It was nearing the end of August when 3-year-old Carter Abernathy had a running nose and cough for about a week. When Carter developed a fever, Cami took the boy to a hospital where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. Just one day later, his health took a turn for the worst.
“His arm just quit working. He went to use the restroom and when he went to pull his underwear back up, his arm would not work,” Cami, 30, tells PEOPLE. “He couldn’t grasp his underwear to pull it up.”
She and her husband, 30-year-old Rhyne Abernathy, took Carter to a local emergency room where doctors “dismissed” the ailment as nursemaid’s elbow, a common condition in which a child’s arm is pulled and partially dislocates.
However, when Carter was still unable to move his arm after treatment, the family took him to Children’s Hospital of Atlanta where he was again diagnosed with the common dislocation.
“At first we thought he had a stroke,” Cami tells PEOPLE of herself, her husband and her mother. “We felt like something was wrong from the beginning. We knew deep down that it was more than nursemaid’s elbow.”
So, she and her mother did some research on the Internet, where they learned about acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), a rare, polio-like condition that affect’s a person’s nervous system and causes weakness in the arms or legs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Her suspicions were correct and a doctor diagnosed Carter with AFM in early September.
“We were devastated,” Cami says of the moments she and her family got the diagnosis, noting that Carter had been hospitalized for at least five days before doctors determined he has the illness. “We were worried and scared.”
Less than one in a million people are diagnosed with AFM in the United States each year, according to the CDC. From August 2014 through August 2018, a total of 362 cases of AFM from across the U.S. have been identified by the CDC. In rare cases, AFM can result in death.
“He was very depressed in the hospital. He couldn’t leave the room because of the virus he had because it was contagious. So he spent six days in the hospital room. Then the last day we were there, he was able to get around and go outside.”
Doctors reassured the concerned parents that Carter would be okay. He has since undergone physical therapy to regain the use of his left arm and to remedy the weakness in his legs. Although his health has improved in the last month, Cami says she is unsure of Carter’s future.
“It’s changed our lives. We’ve had to learn how to make life easier for Carter with only one arm that has full movement,” she tells PEOPLE, adding that Carter has “adapted very well.” “Right now we’re kind of lost because we don’t know if [his arm] will get better or if the progress we have seen is all we’ll see.”
Despite the struggle, Cami says Carter has managed to maintain a positive attitude during the ordeal.
“He is outgoing. He’s full of personality. He’s funny,” she tells PEOPLE. “He is wide open from the moment he gets up to the moment he gets to sleep at night. He is back to his old self for sure.”
The mysterious illness has been making headlines recently, as cases of the condition have appeared to skyrocket in recent weeks. In Minnesota alone, six children have been diagnosed since mid-September. The average for the state is less than one case a year.
Majority of those affected are children under the age of 10, and there is no clear cause behind its spread since 2014, the CDC reported. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, symptoms include sudden muscle weakness in the arms or legs, sometimes following a respiratory illness, neck weakness or stiffness, drooping eyelids or a facial droop, and difficulty swallowing or slurred speech.
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Healthy Living newsletter
Family – Health.com