By Akhink Omer, as told to Jennifer Clopton
For the first 31 years of my life, I was blessed with good health. The most significant medical event I’d ever experienced was a tonsil removal when I was a kid.
Then I got COVID-19.
I didn’t think I had the coronavirus at first. The day before my symptoms started, I went to the gym just like I do almost every day – I felt 100% fine. The next day – BOOM! I was hit with an avalanche of symptoms - literally all at once.
Initially, my doctor and I just thought my body aches, fever and dry cough was a bacterial infection, and I was prescribed antibiotics. There were only two reported positive COVID-19 cases in Tennessee at the time – at the start of March – and only one was in my county. I am a nurse, but I hadn’t come into contact with anyone who I knew had the virus and my life is pretty simple. I live with my family and typically just spend my time at work, the gym, with my family, or running errands to the store.
But the antibiotic didn’t make me feel better, and after four days, I began to realize this was more than a typical infection. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen has always lowered my fevers when I’ve had them in the past, but this time, my fever consistently stayed between 101 and 103 degrees and I worsened as the days passed. So, on day 6, I went back to my doctor. I still didn’t qualify for COVID-19 testing because I hadn’t traveled outside of the US, wasn’t in respiratory distress, and hadn’t come into contact with someone who tested positive. So they gave me a steroid shot, which provided mild relief from the fevers – and sent me home.
By day 8, I was really dehydrated and my fatigue was worsening. Just getting out of bed and taking a few steps into the bathroom would leave me doubled over my sink in exhaustion because I felt like I had just run a marathon. I felt terrible all over, but the cough was the worst part. It got to the point where I felt like someone grabbed me by the throat and chest and I was choking. It was becoming physically impossible to take a full, deep breath, so I went to an urgent care center.
After an exam, they sent me straight to the emergency room of my local hospital where my blood pressure was dangerously low and my resting heart rate, which should be around 70, was 120. An X-ray revealed I had pneumonia in both lungs, and I was admitted. I could barely take a breath, and they were worried if they released me to go home I would really struggle. At that point, on my third attempt to get a COVID-19 test, I finally got one. Two days later, to no one’s surprise, the results came back from the state lab. I was positive.
At that point, I saw the infectious disease doctor who asked if I wanted to try a combination of drugs that has been showing promise in Europe. It’s daunting to try a new treatment without a lot of scientific evidence behind it. The doctor also explained it comes with some risks, but I still said yes and started a 7-day course of hydroxychloroquine, which is typically used to treat malaria, lupus, and arthritis. They also gave me the antibiotic azithromycin.
I can’t say for sure that the hydroxychloroquine helped, but once I started taking it, I went 24 hours fever-free – for the first time in 2 weeks. It did raise my liver enzymes, although not to a dangerous point, and it has heart risks, so they did an EKG to check for heart issues every morning. Thankfully I didn’t develop any. They also had me doing daily breathing treatments and using inhalers regularly. [Editor's note: Since this story was published, the FDA has cautioned against treating COVID-19 with hydroxcloroquine. There's no evidence that the drug reduces death or speeds recovery, and it can come with serious side effects, the agency said.]
I didn’t feel 100% right away. For the next 8 days, while I was hospitalized, I would go through periods where I was absolutely miserable and then there were times I would start to feel a bit better before my symptoms would come back in a terrible wave. But I knew I had turned a corner 3 days into those medications because it was the first time the respiratory therapist brought in the inhaler and I could take a deep breath with it.
While everyone is focused on the physical side of COVID-19, I think it’s important to stress that there is a real mental toll too. I am not someone that gets scared or panicky easily. I’m a nurse, so I function very well in a crisis – particularly health-related ones. Even so, I found this experience to be very, very scary. I’ve seen patients not able to breathe, but it’s a whole different level of horror when it happens to you.
The isolation that comes with COVID-19 is also very challenging. Nobody can be with you, and feeling this sick while being alone is just awful. Even the hospital staff practiced cluster care. That means they’d get everything together they needed to bring to me and do it all at once and then exit the room as quickly as possible. I was able to video chat with my extended family, and I genuinely pray that everybody that is in the hospital has someone they can talk to because it does start to wear on you after a while that you are fighting this alone. The mental isolation is exhausting.
After 8 days, I tested negative for COVID-19 and was sent home, but I was still worried I could pass it on to my family, so I stayed isolated in my room for another 4 days. On the 5th day, I finally walked down the stairs for the first time to interact with my family. That simple act was still tiring, but at the bottom of the stairs, I got my first hug in 3 weeks – from my mom. It was wonderful – for both of us.
I’m still surprised I was one of first in my state to have COVID-19. I live a very normal life. I go to work, gym and the grocery store. I’m not in a ton more places, and I’ve always been very healthy, so the fact that I got this was shocking to me and very eye-opening to my extended family.
If I can get it, anybody can.
I do worry that I infected people before I knew I was sick since they say you are contagious for up to 2 weeks before show symptoms, and that’s a pretty terrible thought to live with. During that time, I took group fitness classes, worked at the hospital, and shopped at the grocery store. I also worry greatly about people who are vulnerable getting this. Throughout this whole process I keep thinking, in my most miserable and painful moments, I don’t know how an elderly person or someone with underlying medical conditions would handle this. It’s really, really bad and very, very hard.
So, to anyone out there still not taking this seriously I want to say this: If you aren’t afraid for yourself, then think of someone you love – your partner, parent, child, or friend – sick, in pain, gasping for breath and alone, in a hospital room by themselves. Having been there myself, I can tell you – it’s not something you want anybody to experience.
So please. Stay home.
Akhink Omer is a nurse practitioner living in Nashville. She also teaches nursing students at Belmont University. She chronicled her entire COVID-19 experience on Twitter here.