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COVID-19: "I never dreamed I could be so sick."

Julie Portrait

Julie Hollist Terrill

I never dreamed I could be so sick.

In late October I spent nine days in Intermountain Logan Regional Hospital courtesy of COVID-19. According to my doctor, the average length of stay for Coronavirus patients in Logan is 3.5 days. Well, I’ve always been an overachiever. My visit made me a member of the 5 Percent Club — the estimated percentage of COVID patients hospitalized nationwide.

I knew I had preexisting risk factors: pneumonia the past two winters, high blood pressure and consumption of quite possibly every treat on the planet, which led me to become more than pleasantly plump. We tried to be careful. My adorable husband, Jesse, and I wore masks in public even though we didn’t love them. I am a hugger and I quit giving squeezes. We stopped visiting our friends and family. We sterilized our shopping carts and stood 6 feet away from people. We washed our hands. But we weren’t always diligent, and we got COVID.

First, Jesse had what we thought was a cold. He took a mandatory COVID test in preparation for neck surgery and tested positive. I got tested the next day (Sunday) and I was positive too. I started congratulating myself on being one of those superhumans who was going to blast through COVID without any symptoms. Silly me. By Friday night I was in the Emergency Room. I felt yucky but chest X-rays showed nothing, so they sent me home to watch my symptoms. Saturday I went straight downhill. I was achy and shaking and my chest was tight.

By Sunday morning I had a fever of 101.7 (which I didn’t think was very impressive) and my oxygen levels kept registering in the mid-80s when they should be 90 or higher. Jesse told me he was taking me to the hospital and I was mad. I had just been there on Friday, my fever wasn’t that bad and we could wait a few hours and keep testing my oxygen. In a very firm voice he said, “Julie, this is serious. We are not messing around. Get your stuff and get in the car.” It’s a good thing he didn’t let me stall because a nurse later told me that even waiting a few more hours could have dramatically increased the severity of my case.

"Not going home"

Julie in the hospital

Julie was admitted to Logan Regional Hospital with complications from COVID-19.

We pulled up to the curb at the Emergency Room just in time for me to start dry heaving. A gowned nurse met me at the car. She waited for a break in my nausea, I said goodbye to Jesse, thinking I would see him in a few hours, and she escorted me into the hospital through the ambulance entrance so I didn’t contaminate anyone in the waiting room. I put on a light green gown and in came two nurses. One started giving me an IV. When I asked why, he glanced at a monitor and said, “Oh, you’re not going home.” What?

They checked me into the hospital and wheeled me to room 384 on the medical floor. By then my entire body ached beyond my ability to describe. Every nerve was on fire — even my skin hurt. The pain was so intense I couldn’t tolerate the weight of a bedsheet. There was no comfortable position, so I couldn’t stop squirming. I was in and out of delirium. I silently prayed the few words I could formulate, “Heavenly Father, please help me.” The lyrics and music of a hymn flooded my mind, “Fear not, I am with thee, oh be not dismayed. For I am thy God and will still give thee aid.” I felt a moment of peace before I descended into oblivion once more.

I was in and out and tormented with pain for three days and two nights.

Meanwhile, Jesse was home and heartbroken because he was not allowed to be by my side. He put out a plea on Facebook for everyone who read his post to pray for me. He also asked the bishop if our church congregation could fast for me on the upcoming Sunday. He invited friends and family to do the same.

When I finally woke up after those miserable days, I had no appetite because my stomach felt so gross, but I gagged down some cold applesauce and ordered some toast. My mouth was so dry I could hardly swallow and my tongue felt like it had been dragged through a sandbox. I stared at the daunting triangle of bread and finally took a small bite. It was so dry I could hear the crunching echo in my head and my mouth felt like it was full of those little asphalt rocks that come off shingles. I was finished. The thought of almost all food made me sick. I was still dry heaving and in addition, anything I ate guaranteed me a trip to the bathroom. Good thing it was only a few feet away. I lost 15 pounds in 10 days.

Echoes of plague

I feel like the disease I had contracted was actually the plague. Medical personnel wore masks and safety glasses and sometimes a face shield over that. They donned light yellow gowns made of that weird semi-fabric that hospital shorts are made of. Their long sleeves were tucked into gloves. Each time they exited my room they tore off the gown and gloves and threw them away. They weren’t even allowed to open the door so I could see into the hallway. I imagined a skull and crossbones mounted outside my room. And NO VISITORS. Not even Jesse, although he had already had COVID. I was so grateful when thoughtful friends sent brightly colored flowers that brightened my tiny abode.

COVID didn’t just affect me. My family was suffering too. Jesse was an emotional wreck but he hid it from me. Later he told me he hardly slept because every night he wondered if I would still be alive by morning. I only had the strength to video chat with him for a few minutes each day. My parents and sister were plagued with constant worry. They could only rely on reports from Jesse because I was too sick to talk to them myself.

Then the rattling in my throat began. It came along with a stuffy head and a stuffy nose. I didn’t really get a cough, but I could hear and feel junk in the top of my chest. I also felt like I couldn’t get enough air. The nurse came in and put her stethoscope in her ears. “Take a deep breath.” I inhaled the best I could. “I hear some crackling in your lungs.”

Translation: Congratulations, you have COVID pneumonia.

On wings of eagles

As I tossed from side to side in my bed, I kept remembering a phrase from Isaiah, something about mounting up on wings of eagles. It was important to me because I felt like the wings of eagles I would mount were in some ways the many prayers being offered by so many in my behalf. I asked Jesse to please find the verse. I was astounded when he read it to me in its entirety. Isaiah chapter 40, verse 31: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” There were more tears from both of us as that very personal message of heavenly encouragement sank in.

The nurses came in the morning to inject my IV with steroids and the antiviral drug remdesivir, which is supposed to cut the length of time COVID can survive in your system. You should know that I hate needles so much that I don’t even have pierced ears. Imagine my delight when my first IV blew out a vein, and a few days later my second IV quit working because it had been used so much.

Speaking of my ridiculous fear of needles, more injections were on the way. Once I was sick my immune system roared to life. It worked so hard to beat COVID that it became detrimental to my body. IV steroids were used to counteract the effects of its intensity. Then the combination of COVID and the steroids threw my blood sugar so far out of whack I looked like a full-blown diabetic. My first blood sugar measurement was over 300. It should be around 100. That meant nurses sticking my finger at least three times a day followed by a shot of insulin in the back of one of my arms. Did I mention two shots a day in my stomach to prevent blood clots COVID can cause? Maybe I should have had them pierce my ears while they were at it.

The original goal the medical team set was for me to be released on Friday, but they emphasized that could change. I was so sick I couldn’t even be excited about the possibility. I was too sick to check my text messages or talk on the phone. I was so sick I couldn’t read anything and I didn’t even turn on the TV for eight days.

"You flunk"

The doctors rotated after I was there six days. I said goodbye to great care by Dr. Goossens and said hello to Dr. Taki May. The first time I met her she bounded into the room, took one look at my vitals and proclaimed, “Well, you’re not going home today!” I thought, “Nice to meet you, too.” She was great. She explained the markers she was looking for before releasing me to ensure once I went home I wouldn’t end up right back in the hospital. I had to be a patient patient.

The next day she had me get up and march in place. Teasingly I told her I was just about to do my aerobics routine anyway and she said she’d do it with me. She held my oxygen tube and danced side to side and swung her arms to mimic me. I loved it. That lasted an eternity, which was probably less than two minutes, before she said, “You flunk.” Great. Back into bed where I panted until I could catch my breath. Dr. May thought I could probably get released the next day. Queue the Hallelujah Chorus!

Monday I passed my oxygen test and Dr. May said it was safe for me to go home. I was under strict quarantine for the next 20 days, not because I was contagious but because my immune system was basically destroyed and I could catch anything. She sent me home with a portable oxygen tank to use until a machine could be delivered. I was to wear it 24 hours a day and it would probably be my new best friend for at least the next month. I was thrilled to see Jesse and to finally go home.

So now what’s life like for me? I started out taking three naps a day. Now, a couple weeks later, I am down to one or two. I am constantly exhausted and my endurance is nonexistent. If I walk from my bedroom to the couch, which is about 20 feet, I am out of breath and my pulse shoots up to 115.

One not-so-great side effect of using oxygen, even with a humidifier, is that the entire inside of your nose gets covered in scabs because it’s so dry. It hurts and sometimes they’re so bad you can’t breathe through your nose at all. Officially not awesome. Another joyous development was I got thrush from my medicines. That means my entire tongue was swollen and covered with canker sores for days. I have a swollen liver and talking on the phone wears me out.

I now get to stab my finger with a lancet every morning to test my blood sugar because COVID has caused some pre-diabetics to become full-on diabetics. I am still at risk of that happening to me, so I now take medicine and monitor myself daily. I hope that doesn’t last too long because you remember how much I love needles.

Going forward

I have faith I will make a full recovery, but when standing at the kitchen sink to wash a few dishes or walking across a room makes me lose my breath, a little part of me is scared to think what if I never return to my energetic self? The doctors have no definitive answers because the effects of coronavirus are different for everyone, and the disease is too new to chart all the possible long-term effects.

Please, I plead with you to do whatever it takes for you and your loved ones not to get COVID. I don’t want anyone to go through what I have experienced in the last month. The Coronavirus is not a joke and it doesn’t care. It doesn’t care who you are, where you live, how old you are, how much money you have or even your health history. I could have died, and so could you. Now go wash your hands.