'It's a nightmare': COVID-19 survivors cope with the virus aftermath

  • Joann Magoch, 63, and her mother Betty Barrett, 89, both of Bloomingdale, are at home after being hospitalized at separate times with COVID-19. Magoch said they feel fortunate to be survivors, despite lingering tiredness and shortness of breath.

      Joann Magoch, 63, and her mother Betty Barrett, 89, both of Bloomingdale, are at home after being hospitalized at separate times with COVID-19. Magoch said they feel fortunate to be survivors, despite lingering tiredness and shortness of breath. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Joann Magoch, 63, and her mother Betty Barrett, 89, step outside of the Bloomingdale condo they share to snap some photos and chronicle their recovery from the COVID-19 virus. Both daughter and mother were hospitalized at separate times battling the virus.

      Joann Magoch, 63, and her mother Betty Barrett, 89, step outside of the Bloomingdale condo they share to snap some photos and chronicle their recovery from the COVID-19 virus. Both daughter and mother were hospitalized at separate times battling the virus. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Mother-daughter duo Betty Barrett, 89, and Joann Magoch, 63, are recovering in their Bloomingdale condo after each spent time in the hospital battling COVID-19.

      Mother-daughter duo Betty Barrett, 89, and Joann Magoch, 63, are recovering in their Bloomingdale condo after each spent time in the hospital battling COVID-19. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • COVID-19 survivor Sami Uctum, a 55-year-old from Glen Ellyn, recovered at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in April.

      COVID-19 survivor Sami Uctum, a 55-year-old from Glen Ellyn, recovered at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in April. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • COVID-19 survivor Sami Uctum, a 55-year-old from Glen Ellyn, spent 11 days on a ventilator and now lives in the moment.

      COVID-19 survivor Sami Uctum, a 55-year-old from Glen Ellyn, spent 11 days on a ventilator and now lives in the moment. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 5/24/2020 9:17 AM

They don't know where they got it. Or how. Or why. But they know they're part of a global pandemic that has sickened at least 107,000 people in Illinois alone.

They're COVID-19 survivors, and they've faced a battle with some symptoms shared and others varying person to person.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

They're COVID-19 survivors, and in many ways, their bout with the virus isn't over, as its effects can linger.

"For many of the most severe cases, there's going to be a lot of adaptations and changes they're going to make in their lives, at least initially," said Dr. Mahesh Ramachandran, chief medical officer at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton.

Here are some of their stories.

Building endurance

Sami Uctum had trouble walking when he began physical and occupational therapy as one of 50 COVID-19 patients admitted to Marianjoy since mid-April.

"When I first got to Marianjoy, I could basically walk 10 feet, and that's using a walker," the 55-year-old Glen Ellyn man said.

He's had persistent weakness in his ring and pinkie fingers after spending 11 days on a ventilator at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in March. Occupational therapy sessions at Marianjoy and now at home address the numbness with exercises to flex the ulnar nerve.

"They exhibit weakness in their muscles, and they have neurological damage typically in the hands and in their feet that cause them problems with balance, weakness and pain as well," Ramachandran said of patients who needed extended periods on ventilators.

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Uctum, a father of two and software developer, is also trying to come to grips with the personal embarrassment he felt from having hallucinations in ICU.

"I'd blame people, 'Why'd you do this to me?' And they didn't do anything. Let's just say I had a lot of apologizing to do afterward."

He hasn't regained his full endurance, but he recently walked more than a mile with his wife.

"That was a good milestone," he said.

Recovering together

When Joann Magoch got sick with symptoms that seemed like COVID-19, she did everything she could to prevent her roommate -- her 89-year-old mother -- from getting sick, too.

The two lived on opposite sides of the Bloomingdale condo they share and, Magoch, 63, thought it was working. Even as her symptoms worsened over a span of nearly two weeks, culminating with a four-day stay at Amita Health Adventist Medical Center GlenOaks in Glendale Heights from March 29 to April 1, her mother remained OK.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That changed on April 3, when Magoch heard coughing and went into her mother's room wearing a mask and gloves. There she found Betty Barrett flat on her back on the floor, having taken a fall. She called 911.

Barrett, whose 90th birthday is next month, needed hospitalization at GlenOaks, too, starting April 3 and ending April 21, when she began a 15-day stay at Amita Health Rehabilitation Institute in Elk Grove Village.

The ordeal has been exhausting, Magoch said, and in many ways, it's not back to life as usual yet.

Magoch still tires easily and only recently has settled back into her typical sleep schedule after more than a month of disruptions and sleepless nights. She lost her appetite, but it slowly has returned.

Barrett gets winded when she takes a few steps around the house using a cane. Her daughter said Barrett repeats herself more than she used to and remains confused about some of what happened during her hospital and rehab experience.

"It takes a lot out of you. It's a nightmare," Magoch said about the virus. "I don't wish it on anybody."

Magoch and her mother both are grateful they avoided being intubated and placed on a ventilator, though both also battled pneumonia. Magoch said her worst symptom was long-lasting fatigue, but Barrett struggled with fever, headaches and low oxygen levels.

"They had to put her on oxygen right away," Magoch said. "She had a really tough time."

Magoch credits prayer and her mother's inner strength with keeping her off the ventilator.

"I'm religious to a point," she said, "but I'd never prayed so much in my life."

The prayers had come true by Mother's Day, when Barrett was back home, carefully sharing the condo with Magoch and distancing as much as possible.

The memories of not being able to visit her mother in the hospital or rehab center are haunting, but they're tempered with recollections of health care workers setting up video chats or throwing a goodbye party.

The guilt of possibly having infected her mother remains, but so does the uncertainty and impossibility of knowing how either mom or daughter caught the virus.

"We're lucky," Magoch said. "We're survivors."

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