- This is a guest post from Jason Hartelius, a freelance TV producer, who is recovering from a serious case of coronavirus.
I couldn’t breathe. And it was terrifying. Like I’d been underwater for too long and rushed back to the surface, desperate for air. Every time I thought I was finally catching my breath it was as if I got pulled right back underwater. Again. And again. And again.
That might sound excessively dramatic, but it’s the truth. That’s what COVID-19 can do to you.
I could deal with the 102.6 fever that came out of nowhere. I could deal with the chills, body aches, and night sweats. I could deal with the coughing. But then the coughing turned into gagging. The gagging turned into those painful gasps for air. When I realized the breathing problems that had been coming and going were no longer going, I knew I was in trouble. And that’s how I ended up in the hospital for three days.
I’m an otherwise healthy 42-year-old. Yeah, I need to lose a few pounds. I have sleep issues that are thankfully under control. Cholesterol is high, but not high enough to need medication. I have a cranky lower back. But there’s nothing at all that should put me in the “at risk” category.
That’s exactly why I kept telling myself I was getting better. That’s also why I was probably two days late telling my wife she needed to call 911. I realize now that waiting was a mistake that could have killed me. I reached a point where I was afraid to walk from my bed to the bathroom because I wasn’t sure I could make it there and back. That struggle ultimately helped me accept the harsh reality: I needed help.
The sight of an ambulance at the end of your driveway is something straight out of a nightmare. You like to think ambulances are for accident victims and the elderly. This one was here for me.
My fever and pulse were high when I got to the hospital, while my oxygen levels were low. I was taking 53 breaths per minute. Anything more than about 20 is abnormal. Above 30 is asthma attack territory. I was gasping for breath at a rate nearly double that. My pulse was above 100 and I could feel my heart racing. X-rays and a CT scan showed I had pneumonia throughout both lungs. I sat alone in an ER exam room, worrying about what was next.
The doctors and nurses at Riddle Hospital in Media, PA were absolutely heroic. Fearless, like firefighters running into a burning building, even if they were scared to death inside. Funny thing is, I wouldn’t recognize a single one of them now if they were standing next to me. They were covered from head to toe. All I could see were eyes, protected by big plastic shields, like something out of a sci-fi movie. But those eyes projected a calm and confidence that I truly believe helped me recover.
Three days of oxygen and an IV and I was on the rebound. For as sick as I was, I avoided the ICU. Never needed a ventilator. Pretty sure I wouldn’t even be classified as a severe case. Why did I get so lucky, when so many others never see their loved ones again? I have no idea. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Even though I could breathe again and my fever was gone, I still I had to spend two more weeks locked in the bedroom at home. That adds up to 25 long, lonely days of isolation. I finally emerged for dinner on Easter Sunday, feeling like a world at a standstill had still managed to pass me by. It’s nice to not have food left outside the bedroom door like I’m a stray cat. It’s nice to not be forced to eat in bed, or on a bathroom counter overflowing with dirty dishes. It’s nice to be able to walk around. It’s nice to simply see another human, face to face. It’s even nicer that it’s my wife, who is completely fried from the amazing job she did taking care of me without being able to see or touch her patient.
Everyone wants to know when we can get “back to normal.” I’m no medical expert and I don’t pretend to know the answer. But I do know we’re not there yet. It’s hard to comprehend how so many are STILL arguing that this is all overblown or the product of media hype. I promise, this was worse than I could have imagined. No hype there.
That’s why it’s beyond infuriating to see people living their lives like nothing is wrong. Ignoring orders to stay home. No masks. Gathering in groups. You might feel fine. You also might be carrying this deadly virus without a clue you need a test, potentially threatening the lives of everyone around you at a time when doctors are forced to answer basic questions with “we just don’t know for sure yet.”
I fully understand the economic implications here. I’m a freelance TV producer in the sports business. I have no idea when I’ll get called to work again. And I’m fine with that for now. I’m actually somewhat sure I worked 5 days with no idea this highly contagious monster was already in my system. I don’t know how I would have lived with myself if a colleague got sick and didn’t make it. Fortunately, I won’t have to find out. Do you really want to roll those dice?
It took a FULL WEEK to get my test results. That phone call telling me I was positive didn’t come until the day AFTER I got home from the hospital. Everyone who examined me knew I had COVID-19. But they were clearly frustrated they had to make potentially life-altering decisions based on incomplete information. It certainly feels like we need to get a whole lot better and faster at testing before we can get back to normal, whatever that new normal may be.
My wife is one of the countless people who still can’t get tested. She’s had a lingering cough but was told that’s not enough to warrant a test, even after I tested positive. If she was going to get really sick from me, it probably would have happened by now. But has she been carrying the virus this entire time? Is she still at risk? We’d love to know, especially since there are currently no plans to re-test me to make sure I’m now negative. Yes, I’m out of the bedroom. But she’s still keeping her distance.
That bedroom, by the way, looks like a crime scene. I just picked up 45 Gatorade bottles from the floor, thrown from the bed when I was at my worst and couldn’t get up. Red solo cups were everywhere, like the morning after a college party. I had to handwash that seemingly endless pile of dishes in a shallow bathroom sink- no easy task- before they could leave the bedroom for two rounds in the dishwasher. Nothing comes out of that room without being sanitized. Some things, like the bed sheets, are going right in the trash. It’s going to take time to finish the job. That’s fine. It’s not like I have anywhere to go.
Once it was clear I’d be alright, a friend asked if I was ever scared I was going to die. I’ll never forget staring out the window of my hospital room, asking myself that question, and realizing I couldn’t tell myself no with complete confidence. That’s why I had to stop watching the news for a while. I couldn’t listen to any more stories about people who were healthy until they were dead.
I’ve been sharing my experience not because I like throwing my medical files out into the world. I’ve been sharing my experience because every first-hand account is forcing people to take this crisis more seriously. Be patient. Listen to the medical experts. And if you feel sick, listen to your body. Too many people still think this can’t happen to them. Trust me. You don’t want to end up alone in a hospital room, wondering if you’ll make it out alive.