COVID-19 Diary, Part 1: 'I'm scared, but I can't show it'

  • Alix Atwell, a nurse from Barrington, is the fourth member of her family to contract COVID-19. She is still sick.

    Alix Atwell, a nurse from Barrington, is the fourth member of her family to contract COVID-19. She is still sick. Courtesy of Alix Atwell

 
By Alix Atwell
Straight from the Source
Updated 6/28/2020 12:16 AM
Editor's note: Alix Atwell is a nurse, amateur photographer and aspiring writer with experience in both emergency rooms and intensive care units. She, her husband, Andy, and two children moved to Barrington from California three years ago. What follows is her harrowing tale of how her entire family has been living through COVID-19 in recent weeks. This is the first installment of her three-part COVID-19 diary, told in her own words.

First of three parts

I wake with a start to flashing lights, blue and blinking against the darkness of my bedroom. Numbers. My body feels heavier than normal, like I have a weighted blanket on, but I don't. I'm on the living room couch. The base of my skull aches. So does my lower back.

88, 88, 88.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It's not changing. That number is meaningful, I know it. Oh, yes. It's the year I graduated high school. Now orienting myself, I realize it's also the number flashing on my trusty pulse oximeter. Alarmed, I force myself to sit up.

Darn it. The doctor told me to sleep on my stomach, but I keep waking on my back.

My body has been trained to back sleep. I've used a cervical traction pillow for 10 years now. It's been a godsend.

I'm a nurse. I herniated a disc in my neck on the job years ago while manipulating equipment and my tired body working a double shift. I started my nursing career in the ER and ICU but transitioned to labor and delivery a few years in. After lifting and moving patients, day in and day out, something was sure to give. It did. My neck snapped, or cracked or shifted. An MRI would prove all three. My body screamed "Enough."

Was it the same silent internal scream that woke me just now? "Enough!" "Enough sleep." "88 is too low!" "Wake up and die alive!"

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My late mother used to say that to me when I had watched too much TV or slept long into a Sunday afternoon as teenagers are supposed to do. "Wake up and die alive."

Was she watching over me now? Did she wake me up?

But, Mum. I'm not dying. I've been to the doctor. I'm not even sick enough to be hospitalized. My pulmonologist gave me dexamethasone and azithromycin just yesterday. He ordered home oxygen and instructed me to sleep on my belly. I'm not even sick enough for my insurance to approve same-day oxygen delivery. I'm even healthy enough to be up writing this diatribe at 2:43 in the morning. Actually, it's fear that's keeping me awake. But don't tell anyone. At least writing will distract me from my thoughts.

So I sit up, prop pillows that in turn prop my oxygen level up to a healthy 97%, and I breath in deeply and deliberately. My headache fades. My back pain eases. I lean over and grab my computer and write for the first time in three long months.

The Atwell family of Barrington: Alix, left, Bridget, Rory and Andy.
The Atwell family of Barrington: Alix, left, Bridget, Rory and Andy. - Courtesy of Alix Atwell
It's my turn

It's in me. First it invaded my husband, then my two children. Now me.

That seems to be the order of business in my house.

It's as if my body decides it cannot get sick until the others are on the mend.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In 2017 it was Influenza A. My husband brought it back as a souvenir on one of his many work trips to Japan.

Then 2018 brought us Influenza B. Now it's COVID-19.

This time, the fated souvenir came from a trip to the gas station and the home improvement store.

My husband hadn't been out of the house in weeks. Since quarantine started, I had insisted on being the only one to go out and get food and supplies. After all, as a nurse of 27 years I knew sterile technique.

He retorted, "You're being paranoid and controlling," traits I openly admit to. I got them from my mother. "You forget, Hun, I worked in a genetics lab. I also know sterile technique."

He was right. He was smart. He was a trained scientist who now worked in biotech. He probably knew germ theory better than I did.

He donned his mask, armed himself with Purell and headed out.

It had been so long since he left the house or did anything normal. He was itching for a change of scenery. Who could blame him?

It was May 1 in Illinois and everything was blooming. My husband had developed bad allergies since our move from California three years ago.

That evening I recall commenting on his eyes. "Wow, your eyes are really bloodshot and swollen. Your eyelids are so puffy. Do they hurt?" "Damn allergies," he said. "Where are my drops, Hun?" "See, you should have let me go out instead." I said with a smirk while handing him the bottle.

I am an armchair epidemiologist. In high school I had pipe dreams of working at the CDC with Anthony Fauci. My mom was earning a biology degree and was writing a paper about a new scary retrovirus called HIV. I was hooked. Later, I busied myself reading about outbreaks of Ebola and Dengue fever, SARS and MERS while eating popcorn and sipping on juice boxes alongside my two kids while they played with blocks and watched "Super Why!" and "Caillou."

When the news struck of a novel virus spreading in China early in January 2020, I devoured every news article I could. This was the one we were waiting for.

The lockdown came as no surprise to me. I took the initiative and canceled our Spring Break trip to California, even though a dear old friend had planned my 50th birthday party that my closest friends and family were set to attend, weeks before the government advised against nonessential travel.

Friends thought I was alarmist. Some still do.

I turned 50 a week into quarantine. Everyone was still adjusting. No one had their act together yet. There was no car parade or Zoom party for me. I transitioned to middle age with little fanfare. The only card I received in the mail was from the AARP.

It didn't take long for the COVID pudge and the absence of my usual bimonthly dye job to make me look middle aged. Now months into isolation, with 88 blinking back at me, I feel the part, too.

88 is an ominous number for those of us in the medical field. With a pulse ox reading of 92%, I would place a nasal cannula (low flow oxygen) on my patient. But at 88% I would choose a non-rebreather face mask (high flow oxygen) instead, because if their oxygen level remained that low they could sustain permanent organ damage.

Alix Atwell's pulse oximeter gives an ominous reading of 88 percent.
Alix Atwell's pulse oximeter gives an ominous reading of 88 percent. - Courtesy of Alix Atwell

I know medicine practices change rapidly and that I was trained old-school. Things that were once routine, like bed baths and enemas and now even hand holding, are now passe. I can roll with change, but I honestly did not foresee that a day would come when a sudden oxygen de-saturation to 88% would buy one a home oxygen machine rather than a hospital bed.

We have entered postmodern COVID times. The old rules no longer apply.

More honestly, I'm scared. But I can't show it. I have an 11-year-old daughter who was crying yesterday as I left for my doctor's appointment.

When I grabbed my car keys and bag, my dogs -- Jasper and Taz -- seemed concerned, too. I had packed a little bag, thinking 88 might be the magic number that would buy me a hospital staycation.

"Mommy, you have to come home. I can't go through what I went through with Daddy. I can't. It was too hard."

Read COVID-19 Diary, Part 2: 'I feel like my knees are going to just give out underneath me.'

Read COVID-19 Diary, Part 3: 'We are the lucky ones'

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