I contracted COVID-19 twice. And it nearly killed me. This is my story and the story of thousands of others.
Exactly one year ago, COVID-19 was still a new buzz word. It was full of unknowns and fear as state by state, country by country, we went into full lock downs. I am a flight attendant so I continued to work flying national guard, doctors and other essential workers. I wore a thin paper mask. And in April 2020 I contracted COVID-19. I was scared, everything was unknown and people were dying. I quarantined at home and waited with fear. However, apart from a few days with difficulty breathing it seemed to be mild. I went back to flying and thought, “Ok I’m fine and I can’t get this again. Besides, I must be healthy since it didn’t get me that badly.” And I relied on this thinking as I donned my paper mask and hit the skies again.
In September I decided to transfer bases to Denver, CO. I moved with excitement and hope for a new start in the midst of a world pandemic. Then in October I started a 5 day trip with one of my favorite captains. We joked around and went out for dinner with our first officer. It almost felt like a normal few days in the world. But by the end of the 5th day I felt something might be off. It felt like I had the start of an ear infection, not one of the advertised symptoms of COVID.
After work I headed to a clinic just to be sure I was ok. They took my temperature and it was 100 degrees and climbing. It was there that I was surprisingly diagnosed once again with COVID-19. I was frustrated. Because now I would be alone for another 2 weeks. I just moved to a new state…this was when I should be focused on exploring and making friends. It felt like an inconvenience; how naive I was.
Things quickly deteriorated. Each day revealed a new symptom. The worst fever and body aches of my life. My body shook through the night and the numbing sleep I hoped for wouldn’t come. The ear ache continued to throb. Then the deep coughing started which constantly racked my entire body and burned my already sore throat. A migraine pulsed and my whole world became a dark painful fog. When I did sleep I would wake with an alarmingly numb left arm that caused a strange arthritic ache in my middle finger. The pain continued to pile up on itself each day.
Trips to the bathroom were frequent, I could no longer keep any food in. So for 16 days I did not eat. Weakness took over. I was utterly exhausted and helplessly incapacitated. Getting a drink of water from the sink 10 feet away was something that I had to prepare for as an emotional and mental trek. And that’s the thing, the sickness reaches you mentally as much as it does physically. Every day a symptom added on, but none dissipated. It slowly broke my will to fight. It felt like I was playing mental chess with an evil intelligent alien living inside of me. And it was winning.
By the second week I started runs to the ER. And each time I would be given a quick fix and sent home. First I went because I was severely dehydrated without the strength to lift my head. They gave me two IV liters and sent me home. The next night I broke into sweats, could not catch my breath and grew faint when I tried to stand. The ambulance came. It turned out to be low potassium levels shutting my organs down. They gave me potassium and sent me home again. Each time I was sent home I felt more helpless, scared and alone. I continued to try to fight.
And then I started spitting up blood into my bathroom sink.
“This never ends well in the movies,” I thought to myself, and went to the ER once again.
I was given my first chest CT scan and the technicians started to whisper urgently to one another. Again I thought, “This doesn’t sound good.” The scan revealed lungs full of blood clots, pneumonia and COVID scarring. My oxygen levels dropped dangerously low anytime I moved. They admitted me into the hospital where I went on 24/7 oxygen for the next 2 weeks. I tried to stay very still as my oxygen machine would beep danger every time I moved. A commode was placed next to my bed since I was unable to walk the 8 steps to the bathroom. I barely remember those first days as I was in and out of consciousness. When I was awake I quietly cried to myself in the dark room. My doctor told me later that I was inches from death.
It was the hardest time of my life; not knowing if I would make it to the end of each day.
But here’s the thing, the battle didn’t end when I left the hospital.
“One study states that about 10% of people who’ve had COVID-19 (3 million) will experience prolonged symptoms… This group, which many refer to as ‘long-haulers,’ is mixed with those who experienced both mild and severe cases. And this condition can effect anyone- young, old, those who were healthy, those who had a chronic condition, those who were hospitalized and those who weren’t.” (Cleveland Clinic article, updated Jan 26, 2021)
Once home I was able to do small things like sit down to bathe myself, and pour a bowl of cereal to eat. But I was no longer “me”. I could not cook, I could not leave my house, I could not talk on the phone because my lungs did not have enough air for conversation. I had to sit up to sleep each night and hook myself up to oxygen because my levels would drop while I slept. I was constantly exhausted and scared. My journey each day would be the steps to get from my bed to the couch. When I finally did venture to leave my home, I cried when someone removed their mask near me. I cried the first time I heard an ambulance siren. I found myself crying often. I was once an active, adventurous and thriving woman. I became a shell of myself.
Now I am 6 months out and I finally have the distance to be able to talk about the experience. It has been a continued journey. Frequent doctor visits that do not result in any clarity have been disheartening. But I made it through and I am healing. When I was frustrated that I could no longer do and be the things I formerly was, my doctor said, “Jess, you have been through something very traumatic and your body needs time. Be patient and kind to yourself.” My lungs seem to grow a bit stronger each day now and I realize he was right.
I think maybe that is how it will be for all of us. It will take us time and patience to heal. So much grief and loss has been experienced this year. And we are all working through the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. And eventually Acceptance. We are all in different places of that grief journey; maybe part of the journey is in acknowledging that. And having compassion for each stage that we are in. For ourselves and for our neighbors as we work through this together.