Survivors Of COVID-19: Even As Patients Recover, Emotional Scars Linger. ‘It Was Life-Altering’

By Angie Leventis Lourgos Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) From a pregnant suburban mom to a young man in his 20's, people who have battled coronavirus and recovered, share their unique first hand experiences of what it is like.

CHICAGO

As COVID-19 sickens thousands in Illinois, several Chicago-area survivors shared the stories of their illness and recovery, describing how the highly contagious new virus has altered their lives as well as the world around them.

Although their experiences and the severity of their symptoms vary, all of the recovering patients cautioned against minimizing or underestimating the threat of the pandemic.

"I hope this makes it more real and people take social distancing seriously," said one recuperating patient. "Because you don't want to have this."

PREGNANT AND PRAYING Through sweat-soaked and feverish nights, the expectant mother would sing to her unborn baby.

Katina Theodorou of southwest suburban Stickney was just past her first trimester when diagnosed with coronavirus in late March.

"I literally felt like I would die," she said. "I couldn't breathe. I had shortness of breath. I would be sweating and have the chills and then I would be soaked; my clothes were like I had just come out of the shower."

She recalled fervently praying, unsure how the new virus might impact her pregnancy. She was constantly on guard for cramping or spotting. Her obstetrician called to check in daily, "because of the unknown," she said. "There's not a lot of documentation of pregnant women who have it."

After learning she had the virus, Theodorou isolated herself in her room at home, unable to hold her 20-month-old son until Saturday.

A 34-year-old respiratory therapist, she hasn't gone back to work yet, feeling torn between the need to care for her patients and a desire to protect her family.

Her expertise is in particularly high demand amid the outbreak, from managing ventilators and administering oxygen to assisting with intubating patients in respiratory distress.

"There's a mental challenge for me," she said. "I want to be helping. But I'm also making a baby. And I have a child I have to take care of."

The job requires intimate proximity to the virus, and she suspects she contracted it while caring for a patient who later tested positive for COVID-19. "You're at a huge risk being at the head of the bed," she said.

Theodorou said she always wore personal protective equipment, face masks, gloves, while treating patients, but had not been using the full protective gear recommended for people treating COVID-19 because it wasn't known that her patient was infected.

She recently watched a patient die of coronavirus. Next-of-kin weren't permitted at the bedside for fear of contagion.

"I saw a son and a daughter say goodbye to their mother from a hospital window," she said. "They couldn't let them in the room because she had COVID-19."

Yet Theodorou has also been struck by the profound sense of shared responsibility that's emerged in combating the health crisis.

"At least in my lifetime, this is the first time the whole world is experiencing the exact same thing," she said. "The fear and the camaraderie, it's almost like 9/11 was here, it's a global thing now. And that's astonishing."

ANXIETY, GUILT, FEAR Struggling to get some air in his lungs, lying in a hospital bed on a COVID-19 isolation unit, the young father confronted his own mortality.

The oxygen saturation monitor dipped dangerously low. Each gasp of breath was immediately pushed out by a burning cough that wouldn't relent.

Michael Bane, 42, of west suburban Berwyn recalled fearing that these moments would be his last.

"I felt like I had no air," he said, his words interspersed by a dry, racking cough. "I don't know what drowning is like, but I imagine it's something like this, just a struggle to breathe. I mean, the air is right there."

After 10 days at Rush University Medical Center, Bane returned home at the end of March and is slowly recuperating. Yet the emotional scars of COVID-19 linger.

He worries that he might infect his loved ones as he continues to shed the virus. He's unsure whether that angst will subside even after he's no longer contagious.

Self-isolated in his basement, he hears the voices and movements of his wife and 2-year-old daughter upstairs but sees them only on a screen, through FaceTime.

It has been three weeks since he has been able to touch the people he loves most.

"There was always this sense of guilt that I could put them in some sort of danger," he said. "I don't know if I can mentally handle if my wife or my child, or any close family member or friend, were to become sick ... knowing what I went through and how bad this is."

Coming out of isolation might be scarier than the peak of the illness, he said.

"You want to be around people, but you feel like you might kill them," he said. "I don't know how else to say it. The thought of coming into proximity with anyone ... there's that anxiety, guilt."

He stressed that he was generally healthy, not in any of the classic risk groups identified by the medical experts.

"I'm not an elderly person, I'm not immunocompromised," he said. "It's so scary. Especially when you think it's not going to be you."

HOPING FOR A TREATMENT His symptoms were consistent with COVID-19, and he had likely been exposed to other people who had tested positive.

Stuart Nissenbaum, 28, of north suburban Long Grove was approved in mid-March to be tested for the new virus, meeting strict screening guidelines implemented due to a shortage of test kits across the country.

A bit delirious with fever, he drove himself on March 18 to a drive-thru coronavirus screening site at a north suburban hospital. That testing station would suspend operations two days later, citing a national dearth of testing supplies.

Then Nissenbaum faced a lengthy wait for results: It took 11 days before he received a phone alert that he was COVID-19 positive. Many patients locally and across the country have described similar delays, as overwhelmed labs face a backlog of tests.

While awaiting results, Nissenbaum quarantined himself in part to avoid infecting his parents who live in the same home. He wonders, though, if everyone acts the same way before getting a definitive diagnosis.

"I was certainly anxious and frustrated," he said. "I did not think it was going to take that long at all. I understand just how bombarded the medical system has been with the whole COVID-19 outbreak."

While he said he has great faith in physicians and nurses, Nissenbaum said he's always had trepidation about barriers to health care in the United States.

"People not having access is an issue," he said. "I am a proponent of universal health care and making sure everyone has access to it. I think (the pandemic) certainly has exposed the problem."

While enduring the disease was grueling, Nissenbaum believes something positive might emerge from his infection. He's eager to donate convalescent plasma, hoping that infusions of his blood, and the immunity it's suspected to provide, might help others fight COVID-19. The Food and Drug Administration last week announced a national study allowing hospitals to offer experimental plasma therapy and track outcomes.

"I'm obviously lucky to have had as relatively mild symptoms as I've had," Nissenbaum said. "Now I can use it for good. ... I just want to contribute what I can to society."

LOOKING FORWARD The first signs of illness mirrored a sinus infection, with debilitating muscle aches. The painful, vicious cough didn't come until later.

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