By Sarah Hagan, as told to Stephanie Watson
I thank God that I'm still alive. It’s been a long road.
After 3 weeks on a ventilator and months of rehab, I'm still in the process of recovering from COVID-19. But I'm getting there, one day at a time.
I Couldn't Breathe
I have high blood pressure and diabetes. When COVID-19 started to spread in March 2020, I knew I was at high risk. I wore my mask whenever I went out. The only time I took my mask off was when I sang in my church choir.
Four members of my choir caught COVID. Two of us ended up on ventilators.
On March 15 or 16, I developed a headache. I went to my doctor, who thought I was having sinus problems. They told me to take Tylenol and call them back if the headache didn't go away in a couple of days. No one mentioned anything about COVID-19.
The headache stayed with me, and my temperature went up to 100 degrees. On March 23, I went to the emergency room. They sent me back home without a COVID test.
By the next evening, I couldn't breathe. I tried using an inhaler, but my breathing didn't improve.
Thank God my son works nights and he was still awake. I was so frightened that I called him and asked him to take me to the hospital.
At the hospital, they gave me a test and told me I had COVID. I called my daughter and my pastor. I don't remember anything after that.
3 Missing Weeks
I woke up in the ICU on April 22. My children told me I'd been on a ventilator for 22 days. Those 3 weeks were a blank.
The nurses asked me if I knew who I was and where I was. I did. Then they asked me to lift my right arm. I couldn't do it. I couldn't move my right side at all.
I heard the nurse say, "I think she's having a stoke." I was immediately wheeled down the hall for an MRI.
Thankfully, it wasn’t a stroke. I was experiencing a temporary paralysis on my right side.
All day, every day in the ICU, I heard the same words ring out over the loudspeaker: "Code blue! Code blue! Code blue!" They were losing so many people. I saw the nurses break down. They'd hold each other and cry in the hallway.
I stayed in the ICU for 3 or 4 more days, regaining my strength. Then I was moved to a step-down unit. In total, I spent 46 days in the hospital.
After that, I was transferred to IU Health's Convalescing COVID outpatient program. I still didn't have the use of my right hand or arm.
That was followed by more rehab at a Rehabilitation Hospital of Indiana outpatient facility. It involved speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. Because I had been on a feeding tube for weeks, I had to learn how to talk again. I also had to relearn how to dress myself, feed myself, and comb my hair. All the little things I used to take for granted, I wasn't able to do.
I'm grateful because they did such a miraculous job of helping me get my mobility back.
Finally, on May 7, 2020, I was able to go home. When I stepped through my front door, I just cried. I didn't think I was ever going to see home again. I didn't think I was going to make it.
I had the support of my kids during my recovery, and they were wonderful. My 14-year-old granddaughter came and stayed with me. Every day we'd walk. I was still a little wobbly, but I got stronger and stronger.
I kept doing physical therapy because I was still having trouble with my right hand. I broke a few dishes trying to grab them, only to have them fall out of my hands. My memory wasn't what it was before. I couldn't remember even simple words, like "try" or "stay." That was frustrating. One day I was buying fish at the store and I couldn't remember the words "tartar sauce." I just stood there saying, "I want ... I want ..."
COVID was so new when I caught it, my doctors didn't know if I'd ever fully recover. Each day of my recovery, I was determined to get better. I prayed for the strength to get better.
For the most part, I'm now doing what I used to do -- including working and cooking -- things I didn't think I'd ever be able to do again.
I did a lot of crying during those months of recovery. I still get emotional about it all.
The fear has also stayed with me. I still have anxiety when it comes to going to the store and getting out and about. I don't eat with people. I don't do any socializing. I kind of miss that, but I'm trying to be cautious.
Life Is Short
Having COVID taught me some valuable lessons. Love the people who are in your life. If you've got any ill will against family members, make up. If you need to tell somebody something, tell them when you have the chance. Life is so short.
Don't sweat the small stuff. And don't take your family and loved ones for granted, thinking that they're always going to be there.
Ten months after COVID, I have some good days and some bad days. I still have a few lingering side effects. Sometimes I'll grab something, and it will just fall out of my hand. But I'm taking each day in stride. Through it all, I just thank God that I'm still here.
Sarah Hagan is a mother of two, grandmother of three, and works at the Indiana Minority Health Coalition in Indianapolis.