‘This is a real thing, and it’s here.’ One local patient’s experience recovering from COVID-19

Photo by Holly Marcus

Q&A with Andrew Jenner, publisher

On Sunday evening, The Citizen spoke by phone with one of the two people whose COVID-19 diagnoses were announced by the Virginia Department of Health last Thursday evening. The patient, a man in his 30s who lives in Keezletown, agreed to talk about the experience on the condition of anonymity, in order to protect his privacy. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

So what exactly happened?

It started with coughing, which I think maybe still was allergies. That was middle of the [first week of March], and by that weekend I started getting flu-like symptoms, just chills and fevers and full body ache, that kind of stuff. That Saturday, when I was getting the symptoms, we were on our way to Baltimore for an overnight, to go to the aquarium. I ended up staying in the hotel room that evening and just taking it easy. We came back home Sunday, and the symptoms kind of just ebbed and flowed. It never seemed to get better.

That Tuesday, I went to the doctor. They took a flu culture and it came back negative. Listened to my lungs, didn’t sound like pneumonia. She was like, ‘Maybe it’s just a cold.’ And I knew it wasn’t just that, and she was like, ‘Well, I guess bronchitis.’ I left really discouraged because I didn’t leave with any answers.

At this point was coronavirus in your thoughts?

Yeah, it was definitely in mind. I’m a hypochondriac. My regular doctor is a friend of mine, and he’s always talking me down with stuff. So I didn’t even bring up to anyone that I thought it might be coronavirus, because at that point there were no confirmed cases [in the area]. So I was like, ‘Talk about a long shot. There’s no way I have this.’

And so I just went to the doctor thinking I had pneumonia. I had pneumonia three years ago at this time of year. So it was on my mind, but I thought it was such a long shot that I wasn’t going to go in there and say, ‘Hey, you guys gotta test me for COVID.’

The doctor did not even bring it up, and I’m kind of pissed off about that because I lost five days of treatment between that time and the time I ended up in the hospital. She didn’t even think to urge me to go to the hospital to get tested. And I’m like, ‘With this going around, and flu-like symptoms, and a negative test for the flu and it was negative, why would you not at least say, “We should probably get you tested?”’

So I’m pretty frustrated about how that went. That was Tuesday. The following Sunday, a week ago today, I ended up going to an urgent care clinic, just trying to get somebody to give me some answers. They did a chest X-ray, and they didn’t come back into the room for like 20 minutes. Then when she came in, she had a mask on. She was like, ‘I think it’s corona’ and my jaw hit the floor. She was like ‘you need to get to the ER right now.’

Were you feeling worse by that point?

It was kind of like no change. There were days when I was getting bad, and the next day I’d feel better and I’d be encouraged, and the next day it would get bad again, kind of like every other day it went the other direction. All in all I was having more trouble breathing as time went on.If I took a deep breath I would cough really bad, and my coughing was so violent it would take my breath away. And I knew that’s what would happen so I tried to not breathe deep, so I was almost like making it worse by not breathing deep for fear of coughing and having an episode.

First they called it ‘bilateral pneumonia.’ And then in the hospital they started calling it ‘multifocal pneumonia,’ I had it everywhere, and it was caused by COVID.

They immediately took the COVID culture in the ER that day, and it took four days to come back. They just kept treating me for pneumonia while I was there, and got that under control. Then, Wednesday, the culture came back positive.

Were you still in the hospital?

Still in the hospital, but I was improving enough so I was at least like, ‘yeah, it’s COVID, but I’m almost over it.’ They told me I’d be going home Thursday, assuming I continued to improve. I hadn’t had any fevers in a couple days at that point, and I was just instructed to go home and self-quarantine through today, which is what I’ve been doing.

In the hospital, did things get real serious?

I was on a floor they called “airborne” or something. There was no guests; they cut me off from my wife. It was really upsetting for both of us because they didn’t give us any sort of feeling that that was going to take place between the ER and my room. She went down to move the van and then she came back in and they were like, ‘You can’t go up there.’ So she sat out in the hallway and cried.

Aside from that, it was basically just in-patient care. I wasn’t on a respirator. I was on oxygen one morning, I think for a couple hours and then off it pretty quick. It never really felt super serious. Part of me was like ‘What’s going on out there? Am I on this floor full of these COVID patients?’ And I don’t think I ever was. It seemed sort of busy, but it never seemed like anything crazy was going on.

Were the nurses and doctors in suits that freaked you out?

They always put on these disposable gowns and masks and caps. I could never tell who was who because they were all decked out. And as they would leave the room they had a trash can near the door, and they would strip down and scrub their hands and leave, and they couldn’t come back in the room without going through that protocol. It was good. They had their crap together as far as their process and all.

What was it like getting your test results?

The doctor kind of just walked in. He only ever came in the mornings, so he shows up at like 2 in the afternoon, and I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ He came in and said, ‘So we got the results, and they’re positive. And I expected it. But you’re improving, so it doesn’t really change anything.’ So it wasn’t dire by any stretch. He handled it very well.

By that point, it wasn’t a big deal. If I had still been thinking I was going downhill, that would have freaked me out. So in some sense I’m glad it took ‘em four days, because if I had checked in and immediately they had said ‘yeah, you have COVID,’ and then I went through a couple days of wondering whether my lungs were going to suffocate me, that would have been a much harder process.

So you got out on Thursday then?

Yep, around lunch time. My wife came back to get me. I had been feeling pretty good lying in bed — but then just transitioning to the wheelchair, and then taking me to the car, getting home, that was physically very difficult. And I had not been sleeping in the hospital, which made things a lot worse. So I got back home and got into bed and just slept, and instantly felt a lot better when I woke up.

Have you had more interaction with the health department?

I’m quarantined through today. And my family is on quarantine for another two weeks because of the timing of things. The health department told me the hospital sent me home within a certain number of hours of when I still had had a fever, and that kind of reset the clock for my family.

The health department has been in contact with us. They called me first, while I was still in the hospital, and then he’s called me again while I was there. Somebody else called me over the weekend. And they’ve been emailing my wife, just giving us like protocol, what we need to be looking for in our kids and all that stuff, to see if they get it.

Has the rest of your family seemed healthy so far?

So here’s the kind of weird thing – I think I got it from my kids. Number one, nobody else has gotten sick. We were in the van driving to Baltimore, staying in the hotel room overnight, coming home in the van, and then being in the same house. And nobody has come down with any symptoms, except my wife has had a little bit of a cough this past week. That’s it. As sick as I got and have nobody else get anything? That’s weird. And when we talked about it, our kids all — over the course of like a week and a half leading up to me getting sick — had what seemed like a mild stomach virus. We’ve been told that kids carry COVID differently than we do. Sometimes they show no symptoms, or sometimes they show mild symptoms that can a lot of times look like a stomach virus. And there’s no known exposure for me. We didn’t go anywhere at all. I don’t know anyone who I know of that went anywhere. So as far as coming in contact with somebody, nothing adds up except for our kids got it at school, and brought it home, and passed it around them, and then I ended up with it that following weekend. If my wife has had it at this point, maybe she got the mild symptoms too. I think that’s what happened. I think it’s been here far longer than any of us knows.

And just for whatever reason it hit you hard enough that you know?

Yeah, I mean I had pneumonia three years ago at the same time of year. Maybe that made my lungs susceptible to it wrecking them again? It’s all about preexisting conditions with that kind of stuff. The doctors were asking me all kinds of questions about do you have any family history of COPD, all that kind of stuff. And when I’m like ‘well I had pneumonia three years ago’ they’re like, ‘yeah, that could have hurt you.’ So who knows why it hit me worse than others, but it hits different people different.

Have you talked with the health department about your suspicion that you got it from your kids?

Yeah, I told them that, and they said ,‘It’s neither here nor there at this point, because we can’t test your kids from three weeks ago and find out if they have it.’ They’re like, ‘We just have to treat it like it’s new, going forward.’ So that didn’t go anywhere.

To your knowledge, are they still trying to figure out where you got it?

They’re trying to put all these pieces together. They came to me yesterday asking a bunch of funny questions and I was like, ‘What are you getting at?’ They’re trying to figure out if I came in contact with somebody else who has it now and they’re trying to figure out where the heck they got it from, and they’re trying to tie it to me and they can’t, and nothing adds up. But yeah, they’re trying to track it, I guess, but it sounds like they’re having a really hard time.

So now that yours is one of just three cases in the region that’s been diagnosed, what’s your thinking about everything going on now? Has your perspective changed at all? Anything you want to share with readers?

I’m struggling with that, to be honest. Because my first thought was I reject fear, as far as societal fear put forth by the media. It just pisses me off to no end. People are freaking out, and the freakout is going to bring worse things than the disease itself. It’s going to make it so much worse.

I’m an entrepreneur. I’ve got lots of friends that own businesses, and I’m worried about the economic impact and my friends businesses that are going to be destroyed as a result of just the freakout. So that’s where my anxiety lies. Not so much the disease itself. Yeah, it’s a bad disease. I had it. But let’s be smart. I’m really struggling with that. That doesn’t really give you an answer, because I don’t have an answer. I’m feeling both ways. I just want people to calm the heck down because the hysteria is worse the disease itself I believe.

By “feeling both ways,” are you saying that part of you is in agreement with the extreme measures we’re taking so we don’t overwhelm our healthcare system?

Yeah, for sure. If I was in the hospital and there were 50 other people being treated at the same time, would they have been able to give me the treatment that I had? We certainly don’t want to overwhelm the system. And yeah, we do need to take some time and social distance.

I just feel like we’re so unprepared. Our nation is a first-world country. How are we unprepared? I feel like we should have our crap together a little bit better than we do at this point. We should have been testing. My doctor that I went to should have had a protocol that said ‘If somebody comes in here with these symptoms, you get them tested.’

That’s what’s frustrating to me. It doesn’t feel like there’s a process in place, and now we’re trying to catch up. I don’t want to say it, but yeah, I do feel like people should keep their distance, at least for a time. If we can take a short period of time and get this thing to slow down long enough to get our legs under us, but that time period can’t be three months or four months or whatever, because businesses are going to fail. And that’s what’s got me worried.

I kind of gave you a wishy-washy answer on whether people should social distance – they definitely should. I’m just struggling with the ramifications of it. Like I said, being a small business owner, having friends who own businesses in town here who are already struggling only a week in. I don’t want to be an alarmist, because I think the ramifications of a freakout are bad, but the reality is, where we are, people have got to keep their distance. And it’s not wise to be going out and doing social things. But we’ve got to figure out how to somehow protect ourselves but also protect our community and businesses and all that. So that’s what I’m trying to figure out.                               

Anything else that’s on your mind?

We’ve had incredible support. Our church family and our friends in general have reached out, immediately. Friends of mine who don’t know my wife have reached out to her, bringing her food, sending us gift cards, it’s been incredible to see. So that’s a really positive thing that’s come out of it, just watching people come together and help.

And the frustrating side of it has been people that I start talking about it that I’ve been a confirmed case, and then all of a sudden they start talking to me differently and start working backwards from the last time that they saw you and trying to figure out if I’ve infected them. And that’s a really weird feeling. People get irrational. It’s like they freak out. We started getting those comments and questions through Facebook and all. That’s why we didn’t want to put our name on this.

We want to say what needs to be said, make people realize that this is legit, this is a real thing and it’s here, and we’ve got to figure out how to deal with it, but also not put our name all over it. We want to protect our kids and everything.

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