Much of the focus around the impact ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has rightly been on those who lost their lives as a result of the virus.
That’s more than 2,800 Canadians out of almost 50,000 who have knowingly been infected. But many have gone through the illness and, though their experiences have sometimes been gruelling, survived. Here are some of their stories.
Port Moody, B.C.
Given her age, retired educator Karen Shoemaker feared the worst when told, in mid-March, that she had been diagnosed with COVID-19. “You’re thinking, ‘What chance does a 74-year-old grandma have?’” Ms. Shoemaker recalled in an interview, reflecting on her harrowing experience. “You’re thinking this could turn on a dime.”
By then, she was alone in a room at the Eagle Ridge Hospital, attended to by medical staff who came in with full protective gear. “My question is: Am I going to die? Can I expect that this can take a real bad turn south? Will my lungs fill up? Will I be gasping for air? No one could answer that.”
And then there was the isolation as the sole patient in rooms of a Vancouver-area hospital. “I am a really upbeat, positive kind of person. I have never been that close to depression,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘If I have to stay in this room for X amount of days, put me in a coma. Knock me out. Do something.’”
Following a Caribbean cruise a month earlier with her husband, Ms. Shoemaker was hit by an escalating series of symptoms associated with the virus.
There was the dry cough that led her to call 811 and reach out to her doctor. She had lost her sense of smell and taste, curbing her appetite. She had flu-like symptoms and was lethargic.
Based on advice from the provincial medical line, Ms. Shoemaker went to her doctor for a COVID-19 test. But on March 13, additional symptoms led her to call 911. Her husband was directed to give her a mask and drive her to hospital, where she was whisked away to her own room.
She was completely shut away, without a TV or anything to read. Family and friends were not allowed to visit. Medical staff were supportive and professional, but dressed in what she recalls as “the full hazmat thing.”
Eventually, her husband dropped off her pyjamas, toothbrush and smartphone, and her daughter sent reading material and greetings from family and friends. While she was in hospital, she turned 74.
Although her cough continued, her worry and fear was more trying.
One doctor told her she likely had COVID-19. “I remember asking her: ‘Could I die from this?’ Nobody really gives you an answer. [They said] 'Oh, don’t worry. You’re going to be fine.’" She concluded they didn’t necessarily have an answer.
The test results came on March 17. She was sent home to go into self-isolation. When her husband came to get her, he was wearing a mask and gloves. “The crazy thing is, he had been in 99 per cent of the places I had been in and never had a single symptom,” she says.
The couple then isolated in different areas of their home, with public-health officials occasionally calling to see how she was doing.
She says there is a warning inherent in her experience. “I have no idea how I caught this. If I could catch it just going around doing normal things like everybody else does, anybody can catch this. The only way to make sure you don’t have to live through this experience is by staying at home,” she said.
“It can happen to anyone.”
Melissa Woodward, a 34-year-old former nurse in Montreal, first noticed she felt unwell while in line at Costco, stocking up on food just before schools closed in mid-March. Ms. Woodward said her children had been ill with what she thought was a cold. But within 24 hours her mild headache and sore throat had evolved to an overwhelming fatigue.
“I couldn’t stand up any more. I went back to bed and slept most of that day on and off,” Ms. Woodward said. Later that day she developed a cough. She phoned her doctor, and was referred to a telehealth line. After waiting on hold nearly four hours, she was told she couldn’t be tested for COVID-19 because she hadn’t knowingly been in contact with someone who had tested positive.
She was shocked that they wouldn’t test, but having worked as a nurse she understood there were limits to what the system could manage. She was told to isolate and go to hospital if necessary. As time went on, her breathing worsened.
“It felt like air hunger. I could not for the life of me get a deep breath. Like when you try to yawn but fail to get your yawn right. It was like that, but more,” she said. She was also exhausted just getting out of bed. She spent most of the time watching Netflix to distract herself. “I’d stand up for about 20 minutes and then I’d have to sit down because I’d be out of breath,” she said.
About six days later she felt better. Although it was an unpleasant experience, Ms. Woodward said it was not as bad, in her case, as the seasonal flu, which she’d had in December. To others who may catch it, her advice is simply to rest.
“I’m super grateful more than anything else. I’m really valuing all these deep breaths I can take,” Ms. Woodward said.
Andre Valleteau, 27, got a call from public health in early March, before many people were aware that COVID-19 was circulating in Toronto. He works as a clinical research co-ordinator at a lab and one of the patients he’d seen several days earlier had been diagnosed with the disease.
He had to call friends he had spent time with to warn them to isolate themselves.
“I was quite blunt,” Mr. Valleteau said. He worried that he’d been in contact with a significant number of people and knew he could reach them more quickly than public health. Many were scared but they dealt with the news as best they could.
Mr. Valleteau lives alone in an apartment in midtown Toronto. He ordered groceries online to stock up for a long period in isolation. He remembers feeling very tired to start with. That progressed to an itch at the back of his throat, a headache and eventually a cough and worsening fatigue.
“It’s like going to sleep and waking up and still feeling constantly tired,” Mr. Valleteau said. His days felt like falling in and out of constant naps. He had to force himself to eat and drink regularly.
“You feel so lethargic. You don’t want to do anything,” he recalled.
He didn’t develop the fever that many patients do. His breathing was also not severely affected. The flu-like symptoms were not as bad as with the seasonal flu, he said, but the fatigue was worse. He was able to stay calm throughout, checking in on himself by asking if he was okay, if he had felt worse than this. The answer was always yes.
“In general, I take things step-by-step,” he said.
Within a week he was able to start doing some work at home. As he recovered, Mr. Valleteau offered to take part in any research being done on those who recover from COVID-19. The company he works for, LMC Manna Research, is offering to connect other COVID-19 patients willing to volunteer with researchers studying the disease.
Hank Klein and Marion Klein
Hank Klein, a retired Vancouver dentist, attended the Pacific Dental Conference, which was held from March 5 to 7 at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
On March 12, Vancouver Coastal Health, the health authority for the region, notified conference attendees about a possible exposure to COVID-19 on March 6.
On March 17, as Mr. Klein tried to brush his teeth, his wife Marion noticed he was slurring his words and unsteady on his feet. The couple went to the emergency room at Vancouver General Hospital. Because he’d attended the dental conference, he was whisked into isolation and tested for COVID-19.
Ms. Klein was tested as well. Results for both were positive.
Mr. Klein was released from the hospital two days later, on March 19.
The couple, who have been married 35 years and have a blended family of six grown children, went into self-isolation at home, grateful for friends and family who brought food and regularly called to check on their health.
Neither had a fever or a cough.
Over the next few days, Mr. Klein was hit by a deep, unrelenting fatigue. On March 31, he told his wife he was going for a nap. When she checked on him a short time later, he was struggling to sit up and couldn’t speak. Ms. Klein called 911 and paramedics took him to the hospital.
Since then, Mr. Klein has been in VGH. Ms. Klein says doctors have told her he had a stroke, possibly related to COVID-19. He’d had heart attack more than a decade ago and another bout of heart problems this past Christmas; that history “may have been his Achilles heel” in terms of susceptibility to infection, she says.
The stroke affected Mr. Klein’s speech, but not his mobility; Ms. Klein says her husband has been walking on his own. She’s hopeful time, will and energy will help him recover.
Ms. Klein is now past the infectious period for COVID-19 but is being cautious; she has been having visits with her children in her backyard, where they keep at least two metres apart.
Visits with her husband have been through video chats, assisted by nurses who help Mr. Klein navigate his phone.
Ms. Klein is overcome when she talks about the health care workers she has encountered in recent weeks.
“They are not just providing medical care,” Ms. Klein says. “They are being like family for patients like Hank who are in isolation. And it means so much. It means everything.”
Manhattan, New York
Andrew Delaney is a Canadian citizen who recently obtained permanent resident status in the United States. He is married to an American and the couple currently lives in New York, in a two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Mr. Delaney, a writer, says he and his wife have been self-isolating since March 12, when they learned some people in his wife’s workplace had tested positive for COVID-19.
Soon after that self-imposed isolation, he was hit by crushing fatigue. Then, his wife developed a fever and joint pain.
Neither of them were tested for COVID-19. But after describing their symptoms to doctors in phone and video conversations, they were told they likely had the virus.
New York is currently grappling with a high number of cases, equipment shortages and overstretched hospitals. Mr. Delaney had stocked up on supplies and groceries before he fell ill. He’s grateful he had some items – including toilet paper and a large container of Tylenol – that are currently difficult to buy online.
He and his wife both lost their sense of smell, which has since returned. They developed coughs, but those coughs were not severe enough to make it difficult to breathe. His wife’s fever dragged on for days; she self-medicated with Tylenol.
Since they’ve been feeling better, they’ve passed the time with reading and watching television.
Mr. Delaney is careful in his building, recently warning a woman who’d entered the apartment’s common laundry facilities accompanied by a young child that he had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
“In that situation, I was more concerned about the child,” Mr. Delaney said when asked if he was concerned about any stigma or backlash from disclosing he’d had the disease.
“I put the mask and gloves on just to go across the hall to take out garbage, and I think anyone who is not taking those precautions is silly. I don’t have much of an issue disclosing I have had this and been through it. I would rather know than not know – and I feel that’s how I should treat everybody else."
On March 13, David Mount woke up at 3 a.m. with a sore throat and a feeling that he was choking.
He went back to bed for a few hours, hoping the feeling would go away.
When he got up, he called B.C.’s 811 – getting through “in about 45 seconds”, he says – and described his symptoms.
He was told he likely had COVID-19 and to stay at home.
Mr. Mount, a freelance writer in his 40s, isn’t sure when he might have been exposed. He suspects it might have happened while he was on a walk with a friend who had a cough. Or he might have picked it up going in and out of his building, a 26-storey condo close to downtown. In recent weeks, building management has implemented stepped-up cleaning protocols, closed a pool and gym and put up signs saying only two people at a time should go in an elevator.
“I was very careful in my building each time I left my apartment. I always washed my hands every time I went out, and wore gloves when taking out the garbage and recycling,” he said in an e-mail.
“I had only been outside my apartment a couple times before I came down with it but had been sneezed on about five days before I got sick.”
What he is certain of is how difficult it was to breathe.
“It felt like a heavy sensation in the chest, like it’s being constricted,” Mr. Mount says. “My lungs felt that they were made of glass – it was just really hard to catch my breath and to talk.”
For a couple of days, Mr. Mount drifted between his bed and his couch, unable to focus on reading “or even Twitter.”
As a university student, he’d been sick with the H1N1 flu virus in 2009; he says this was worse, calling the pain “excruciating.”
He, too, had stocked up before he fell ill, and had enough food and supplies to get by, supplemented by food delivery services.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control says people who are sick must isolate themselves for at least 10 days.
Recently, he regained his sense of smell.
“I was able to smell my coffee this morning,” he said.” And while that may not seem like much, I am so happy to report that.”
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