What is it like to have COVID-19?

What is it like to have COVID-19?

UPDATE:

Whitney Buzbee has fully recovered from her bout with COVID; her father had a more serious case, but he is recovering.  He was well enough to walk his daughter down the aisle.  You can see a short clip of that here. https://drive.google.com/file/d/14RqNZ9jW-bUYvSLvhzoxlZVs0gci5LTV/view?usp=sharing

 

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“Recovery has been agonizingly slow.”

That is how USD Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science Adjunct Professor Scott Teerlink described his recent, nearly fatal bout with COVID-19.

Recently, Dean Jane Georges had the opportunity to speak with Teerlink, Professor Peggy Mata, and Nurse Practitioner student Whitney Buzbee all of whom contracted COVID-19 to varying degrees.  Their stories differ greatly but the one common factor in each is this: the coronavirus, COVID-19, is very real and even in so-called mild cases, it is much more severe than the flu.

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Peggy Mata

MEPN placement coordinator, professor, and DNP student Peggy Mata went to San Antonio, Texas the first week of March. She and her husband were married there 40 years ago, and they returned for this milestone anniversary to celebrate.  When they came back to San Diego, Mata wasn’t feeling well, but not unexpectedly.

“After you fly, you know, you get that bit of congestion and you don’t feel 100%. I didn’t think anything of it. Then we go on lockdown and I started feeling a little worse. I thought, ‘oh, it’s just because of the weather change.’  You know nurses, we try to downplay everything because we’re not going to get sick.”

But her symptoms continued to get worse.  Soon, she developed a fever and a cough. Still, she refused to believe she had COVID-19; instead, she figured she just picked up a little cold.  That changed when her cough became relentless.

“The cough was worse; I had a fever every day. I was taking Tylenol and cough suppressant, and nothing worked.”

Finally, she went to her doctor.  Because this happened at the beginning of the outbreak, there were few COVID-19 test kits available and those that were on hand were used solely for at-risk patients. Mata was not in the at-risk group, so she was not tested at that time.  But her doctor insisted she had COVID-19.

“I said how do you know I just don’t have a regular old bug that’s going around?  But, by the time we chalked up all my symptoms with the severe cough, shortness of breath, not being able to do my own [daily activities], I knew.  I would go to take a shower and would have to sit because I could not stand for that long.”

Mata continued to monitor her symptoms and noted that if she reached certain milestones, she would go to the hospital.  In the end, she was able to recover at home.

“I was lucky in that I was only sick for about three weeks.  I gave myself two more weeks at home not wanting to come in contact with anyone in case I was still shedding the virus,” she said.  “This was worse than any flu I ever had.  The worst was I couldn’t sleep.  The cough, it was just constant.” 

Mata is taking part in a National Institutes of Health antibodies study.  The NIH is also interested in her husband; he has remained asymptomatic for the duration.

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Whitney Buzbee

Whitney Buzbee has the distinction of being the first USD student to contract the illness. Buzbee is an MSN Family Nurse Practitioner student who became ill with COVID-19 very early on in the pandemic. She is also a nurse, which is how she believes she contracted the illness.

“Well, it started off when I was at work and taking care of a patient whom we didn't have any suspicion of having COVID.  That was on March 6. Then I got a phone call on March 8 saying the patient had tested positive for COVID-19.”

Buzbee was immediately sent home under a 14-day precautionary quarantine.  At first, she felt fine.  Then she developed a sore throat, followed by a persistent cough, and then severe myalgia that restricted her daily activities.  As the cough worsened, she decided to go to urgent care at the hospital where she worked.  There, she was able to be tested at a time when COVID-19 test kits were in short supply, but only because she had come in contact with a known COVID-19 patient.  Her test came back positive.

“It was over a month that I had just a terrible cough. I had a fever really for one day.  But that cough was just relentless.  Even taking a deep breath set off the cough.” 

Buzbee was on a cough suppressant and had an inhaler. 

“Nothing worked. It was miserable and just to walk in my backyard, I mean, could do one lap and that was as much as I could tolerate at 31 years old.”

But for Buzbee, the most terrifying incident was still to come.  Her parents came to San Diego to help her recover.  Both contracted COVID-19.  Her mother was and still is asymptomatic.  Her father, at 69 years old, was not so fortunate.  She was emotional as she discussed her father’s battle with the virus.  

“He started off with a cough that he just kept trying to brush off thinking it was just a cold or something. And then it progressed; he had chills and fever and I was finally able to convince him to go to the hospital.”

That was March 25.  He was taken to the ICU almost immediately and intubated.  For nearly two months, he remained intubated and was only recently taken off the ventilator.   

“He’s off oxygen. But it just knocked him off his feet, literally. He can't walk. He stood for the first time today with the help of three people. It’s going to be a very long course for him.”

But Buzbee may have given her father that extra push he needed to begin his recovery.

“I was able to donate my plasma via transfusion.  He was the first one to receive [transfused plasma] in my hospital, so it kind of set the pace for people after him.  Since then, they have been able to provide plasma to about 20 people.”

Both Mata and Buzbee say the severity of their illness was considered mild.  But with COVID-19, the term “mild” can be misleading.

“We're not talking about just a little bout of the flu,” Dean Jane Georges said. “We’re talking about something that severely disables you and you cannot perform activities of daily living.”

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Scott Teerlink

Scott Teerlink knows all about that. He is still dealing with what could be termed his “new normal.”  At the time Teerlink contracted COVID-19, he was a healthy 45-year-old man who worked out several days a week.  He swam often. He was the antithesis of a patient that healthcare professionals would expect to nearly die from the virus.

His journey also began in the early days of the pandemic: March 8.

“It felt like I had an ache in my lungs when I inhaled and I conveyed to my partner that it felt like I had smog in my lungs and the only time I'd ever experienced that before was when I was growing up in Los Angeles.”

Two days later, Teerlink became extremely fatigued while working at UCSD Health where he is a surgical oncology nurse.

“I took my temperature, a low-grade fever, like 99.5.  But at lunch, I felt like I had the flu.  So I took my temperature again.  It was 103.  They immediately sent me home.”

Teerlink says the fever never went down.  He developed a cough.  He was short of breath. He called his primary care provider at Kaiser Permanente.  They were not accepting office visits, so he was told to drive up to the medical offices for an exam. Then he was told to go to the emergency department.  When he arrived at the ED, he informed the medical staff of his symptoms and begged them to test him for COVID.  The test kits were in short supply and considering that Teerlink was not in an at-risk group, they declined to test him. They believed he had the flu.

“They ran a flu test, which came back negative.  Then they discharged me.”

Teerlink went home, but his symptoms continued to worsen.  By Friday, he called Kaiser again and they offered him a phone appointment with a physician the next day.  On Saturday, Teerlink spoke with a doctor who told him to go immediately to the ED.

“My partner was actually in New York, so I drove myself there. I was miserable. When I got there, I saw something like out of a movie; these spacemen walked out of the ED and they examined me in my car and they were like, okay, we've got a room for you. Go ahead and park your car and we will text you when the room is ready for you. It was just so surreal. So I was immediately admitted.”

That was Saturday, March 14.

“So they intubated me on Tuesday. I have no memory of that and maybe that's a good thing. But I was intubated and on a ventilator for two weeks.  I have absolutely no memory of that time. The next thing I remember is I awoke, and the entire world had changed. This no-visitor policy was now in effect. When I was working on that previous Tuesday visitors were allowed in the hospital. Now, the world was completely different. And that was so scary.”

Teerlink developed bacterial pneumonia in the hospital and suffered from delirium in the ICU. 

“The thing I remember was a nurse, dressed in a spacesuit, and he was trying to assess my cognition. I remember that tube being in my throat. It was so scary because I had no idea what was going on.  The nurse tried to convey to me that, Scott, you had the coronavirus you were very ill. And I don't know why, but that just did not register with me.”

It did register when some of the other nurses who had been taking care of him stopped by his room. 

“They conveyed to me that, ‘my goodness, Scott, we are so happy to see you on our assignment roster. Because quite honestly, we didn't think you were going to make it.’”

Teerlink was taken off the ventilator on April 1.  He was not discharged until April 8.  For that entire week, he was not able to see any of his family.

“So everything you know about reality about the way humans interact with humans and with the medical staff in spacesuits, there was no human connection. It was so hard. I pleaded with the nurses and the doctors to please let my family come in and don the appropriate PPE just so I could have some contact with some familiar faces.”

He said he tried escaping a few times, which earned him both the nickname, “Houdini” and bed restraints. And when he did finally go home, he went home with battle scars; marks from the bed and the restraints, and punctures from various needles and a PICC line.

“I've got this bump on my lip from where the intubation tube was resting. So those are all reminders of everything that I had endured, but I'm so, so, thankful for the team at Kaiser and what they did for me.  I am so lucky to be alive.”

Teerlink later found out he was the first COVID-19 patient at a Kaiser hospital in San Diego.  Because of that, many of his questions have no answers; questions like, how long will this fatigue last and will the shortness of breath ever end?  He’s had staph infections since his release from the hospital and has noticed his hair falling out.  He asks his doctors about these occurrences and wonders if they are COVID related.

“And their answer is always the same. It's always, ‘well Scott, you are the data.’ And it's very hard because I work on a surgical oncology unit and all patients have certain milestones they must meet, and I don’t feel like I have that. You know, I drove myself to the hospital. I walked in on my own accord, and I left needing a wheelchair, needing a walker, and that really messes with your mind.”

Daily activities are difficult for Scott and he wants everyone to know that.  He went into the hospital a healthy 45-year-old man.  He came out a person he does not recognize, one who cannot walk but a few steps without having to sit; one who requires a lot of post-hospital care.  Scott Teerlink does not know how to feel about that because he is usually the one providing that care.

Each of these health care professionals would like to offer this advice; take this virus seriously.

“We need to protect human life,” said Dean Georges. “We can best do that by wearing masks, we really can. It's something everybody ought to be doing.”

“We're seeing the gamut for people that get this,” Mata said.  “We just don't know how it's going to hit any individual. You might get a case where you get to stay home, and you might get a case where you're in the hospital for several months.”

“Thankfully I had it in such a mild case,” Buzbee said. “But I've also seen the most severe cases of it as well. And I think what is also hard for people is that they don't see what these patients look like in the hospital and how long it really can take to recover from it. You really don't hear these stories yet. And we're not hearing them because half those patients are still in the hospital fighting for their life.”

“The whole world had changed while I was sleeping,” Teerlink said of his hospitalization. “You know so much has changed to the way you enter a grocery store or, you know, having to remain in your home.”

On top of struggling to survive COVID-19, Teerlink said he’s been watching the protests on the news. While he agrees with the message, he worries about the health risks to the protestors. 

“I have friends that have texted me to say they are going out to protest and I just tell them, ‘no because you know I went through.’ I mean, [the protestors are] not practicing social distancing. They're not practicing using face masks.  Why would you put yourself at risk like that?  Look at me-I’m a healthy individual and I got it.  If I can get it, anyone can.”

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Hear these nurses talk about how they contracted COVID-19: https://youtu.be/bCsMkaCPxOs

Hear their recommendations on how to stay safe: https://youtu.be/4ySfofGPFgg

Hear Scott Teerlink discuss how COVID-19 will help him become a better nurse: https://youtu.be/KDL5tbBXO-g

begin quotePeople don't see what these patients look like in the hospital and how long it can take to recover. You don't hear their stories; you don't hear them because half those patients are still in the hospital fighting for their life.
Surviving COVID-19

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Carol Scimone
cscimone@sandiego.edu
619-260-4730

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