A reporter’s harrowing COVID-19 experience: ‘I am more afraid of this virus’ than ever

MANITOWOC, Wis. –  I lay in the hospital bed, trying to concentrate on what the doctor was saying. I had been sick with COVID-19 for 12 days and breathing had become a struggle.

He was telling me about the course of Remdesivir he wanted to give me.

“How long is that going to take?” I had asked, still expecting to be home in a few hours. I was already looking forward to a bowl of leftover chicken soup we had in the fridge.

“We’ll give you a dose every day and the usual course takes five days,” he said.

Five days.

Five days of medication. Five days of blood draws and tests. Five days of sleeping in a strange bed. Five days … alone.

I felt myself nodding at the doctor’s explanation, putting on a smile — a habit left over from the days before masks — as the words seemed to drift around the room.

Then he left.

I didn’t know him very well, but his absence left a vacuum. I could hear nurses talking outside my door and then someone in another room coughed, but hearing those sounds only accentuated how alone I was in this empty, sterile room.

There I was, 30 years old and relatively healthy, experiencing the kind of symptoms from COVID-19 that I thought only those with chronic health conditions or previous breathing struggles would face. 

Quietly, I let tears wash down my face.

Exposure, and then agony

A selfie I took during my second day at Aurora Medical Center in Two Rivers. I was hoping to show friends and family that I was doing well despite the seriousness of my condition.

My husband, Ken, and I had been diagnosed with COVID-19 almost two weeks before I was admitted to the hospital on Oct. 6. It came just after seeing a close family friend over the weekend. We had all been careful and taken precautions recommended by experts — wearing masks, staying 6 feet apart, avoiding large gatherings — and felt we would be reasonably safe to spend some long-awaited quality time with each other.

A few days after that weekend, our friend called to say he had just tested positive. Someone at the place he worked had fallen ill, so our friend took a test even though he felt fine. When his positive results came in, he immediately called us so we could begin the recommended 14-day quarantine and take tests to find out if he had passed it on to us. 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people quarantine for 14 days if they have been exposed to coronavirus, even if they test negative. Those who test positive for the virus are urged to quarantine until at least 10 days after they get the diagnosis, and more than 24 hours after having a fever.

By the time our friend told us about his positive test, Ken had already been sick with fatigue and nausea for a day, and I had woken up that morning with a sore throat. We had already canceled all plans with family, and Ken called in sick at his job. Hearing the news from our friend confirmed what we had already begun to suspect.

A day later, we were both tethered to our bed, sicker than we had been in years.

Fever became our constant companion and we marked time by how many blankets we piled on ourselves when we had chills. Ken dealt with waves of nausea while I was brought low by body aches and a splitting migraine. Somehow, we managed to take care of each other, taking turns bringing fresh water, ice packs and doses of Tylenol.

On good days, we hobbled a few steps to the couch, but no farther. I was tired and couldn’t keep my eyes open, but pain chased sleep away and I would lie awake for hours on end. The days blended together and time slowed to a crawl at night.

Just when I wondered if we could take more, Ken’s fever broke and he began getting stronger each day, spending less and less time in bed. My body aches and migraine slowly faded and I began to regain my appetite. We started to see a light at the end of our COVID-19 tunnel.

Time to seek medical help

I didn’t notice it much at first. Coughing goes hand-in-hand with illness in my mind and it made sense that I would breathe harder after walking to the kitchen. I was just happy that Ken and I seemed to be getting better. A few more days of recovery, I thought, and we could get back to living our lives.

The next day, my cough was worse. A lot worse. And I started to feel out of breath just standing up from the couch. Soon, I was having to stop to catch my breath halfway through the 15-foot walk from the bedroom to the bathroom. I’d have to sit at the edge of my bed after sitting up until the coughing abated. Just trying to hold a conversation became difficult; talking would cause a fit of coughing.

When I started having trouble breathing, even when I was laying down and resting, I finally agreed with my husband.

It was time to seek medical help.

Ken drove me to Aurora Medical Center in Two Rivers, Wisconsin after talking with a nurse over the phone who encouraged us to come directly to the emergency room. He brought the car up to the doors and told me to wait. I thought he was going to check in for me so I closed my eyes, mentally preparing for the walk inside.

Moments later, he opened my door and I saw that he had brought out a wheelchair. Was I really that weak?

My room at Aurora Medical Center in Two Rivers overlooked Lake Michigan and I looked forward to seeing the sunrise each morning. Having such an amazing view lifted my spirits on more than one occasion during my stay.

I got out of the car and took three steps to the chair. In just that time, I felt like I had gone through a strenuous workout. My breathing was heavy; my energy sapped.

Once inside, Ken gave the nurse my information and why we were there, but because of our COVID-19 diagnoses, he had to leave shortly after and I was brought inside the hospital alone. At that point, I still hoped they’d give me some medication and send me home. My husband and the cats could care for me.

I was taken to a room quickly after arriving. The nurse checked my temperature — which was just under 100 degrees, the lowest it had been in days — and a few other vitals. A paper gown covered her scrubs and was tucked into a pair of disposable latex gloves; her face was covered by a plastic face shield and a mask around her nose and mouth.

Soon after, the ER doctor told me my oxygen levels were low and started me on oxygen therapy. My breathing calmed down after that, but there were more tests and evaluations to come.

Not long after, I was admitted to the hospital. That’s when I learned what seems so obvious in retrospect, but was a shock at the time: I would need to stay for days instead of hours.

US coronavirus map:Tracking the outbreak

Two gifts of comfort from home

That first day, a nurse came by to pass along a few items from home Ken had dropped off for me — fuzzy socks, an iPad and earbuds, my phone charger and a few overnight items I would need. I thought that was all, since that’s all I had asked for, but then I realized there was more in the bag.

Ken had packed two small crocheted cats I made earlier in the year as replicas of our own cats, Josie and Mr. Snow.

I kept these crocheted cats, modeled after the cats we own, on my bedside table where I could see them easily. They made my room feel just a little bit like home.

“I just thought, since I couldn’t actually bring the cats in, that this might be the next best thing,” he said when we video chatted afterward. “I didn’t want you to feel so alone.”

My eyes filled with tears again. My husband knew how much I would hate being away from home and how I would need any source of comfort I could find.

Aside from continued breathing difficulties, I felt tired — but not sick like I had been for more than a week. My body aches and migraine were gone. Although my sense of taste and smell had disappeared and showed no signs of returning, I no longer had periods of cold sweats and my appetite was nearly back to normal.

More than anything, I struggled with isolation and loneliness.

Visits from nurses and doctors broke the monotony. But I found myself savoring video chats with Ken and anyone else who had time to call me. Just seeing a familiar face was enough to lift my spirits and bring a smile to my face.

I responded well to the oxygen therapy and the remdesivir, an anti-viral drug that some studies say could be moderately effective in shortening the recovery time of those with COVID-19. I also was given steroids to treat the pneumonia that had developed in my lungs.

Remdesivir:FDA approves drug as treatment for COVID-19 patients in hospital

At the end of the second day, doctors took me off oxygen to see how I would respond. The next morning, my levels continued to hold above the minimum threshold. The end was in sight.

A gradual recovery but lifelong effects

When I left the hospital, doctors gave me a prescription for steroids to continue my recovery. Moving around felt easier, although I still lost my breath easily and had a mild cough. It was more than a week before I could return to work. Had I been in the newsroom at the Herald Times Reporter instead of working from home, it surely would have been longer.

Now, more than two months later, I am still feeling the effects of being sick with COVID-19. I still have a persistent cough that worsens when I walk around or even talk too much, and I was recently prescribed an inhaler. I get tired very easily and still find it difficult to get through a full day without resting or taking a nap. I find myself becoming lightheaded more often and my hands have a slight tremor that gets worse when I am tired.

I’ve had a few visits with my primary doctor since being discharged from the hospital. Because I developed pneumonia, I will be more susceptible to it for the rest of my life. Illnesses like influenza or even the common cold are likely to be more severe for me, and it will probably take me longer to recover from those illnesses.

At my first check-up, my doctor told me that X-rays had shown my heart was enlarged while I was in the hospital, something seen in many other COVID-19 patients who had to be hospitalized. She said subsequent X-rays had shown it was returning to a normal size, but that doesn’t happen for everybody. If it had remained enlarged, I would have an increased risk of heart failure.

COVID-19 brought my life to a standstill for two and a half weeks, and it continues to threaten the quality of my life. Those are just the effects that we know about. Though we are on the brink of a vaccine, doctors still know very little still about the disease and the virus that causes it. Some studies suggest there could be long-term damage to internal organs and even to the brain.

Cases continue to rise, including in Wisconsin’s Manitowoc County where I live and where almost 5,000 people have tested positive so far, and with that rise comes an increased number of deaths. People are in denial of the dangers — some aggressively — or just tired of living in fear, not seeing loved ones, not doing activities they enjoy. They are taking more and more risks.

I can tell you that I am more afraid of this virus than I ever have been. I am terrified of contracting it again, because it was such a struggle to survive it the first time. I am worried about the effects it will have on my health in the future.

More than that, I am frightened for the people I love.

Just before this story published, my mom fell ill and is awaiting results from her COVID-19 test. The thought that she, a 10-year breast cancer survivor, could experience symptoms as severe as I did or worse is keeping me awake at night.

The virus is unpredictable and anybody who catches it, regardless of previous risk factors, could end up experiencing severe, life-threatening symptoms. Even if they survive, their life and their health could be affected for months or years afterward.

Follow Wisconsin reporter Alisa Schafer on Twitter at @AlisaMSchafer.

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