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

  • The Atwells of Barrington: Alix, left, Bridget, Andy and Rory.

    The Atwells of Barrington: Alix, left, Bridget, Andy and Rory. courtesy of Alix Atwell

  • Alix Atwell of Barrington is the final member of her family to contract COVID-19.

    Alix Atwell of Barrington is the final member of her family to contract COVID-19. courtesy of Alix Atwell

  • The Atwells of Barrington: Alix, left, Bridget, Andy and Rory.

    The Atwells of Barrington: Alix, left, Bridget, Andy and Rory. courtesy of Alix Atwell

 
By Alix Atwell
Straight from the Source
Updated 6/28/2020 12:17 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 last installment of her three-part COVID-19 diary, told in her own words.
The third of three parts

Coughing after mowing the lawn is not unusual for me. I have bad lungs from a sick building I used to work in. They are sensitive to fumes.

But after I put the mower away, my lungs felt like they were on fire. That was odd.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

I grabbed the pulse ox. It read 89.

"That can't be right? Can it?" I sat up and took a few deep breaths, and it jumped to 97. "That's more like it," I thought.

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

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

I poured myself a finger of Barenjager, a yummy honey bourbon every medicine cabinet needs, sipped it to quell my cough and went to sleep.

I felt fine the next day. The kids finally were no longer feverish.

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Andy was back at work at his standing desk. It was gorgeous outside, sunny and warm. I decided to take advantage.

I trimmed the hedges, took some nature photos and cut some flowers from my garden.

Later that day, I celebrated a niece's high school graduation via FaceTime. Yay! We were back to pandemic normal.

But that night, the same thing happened. A burning cough and a low pulse ox. This time I kept the monitor on. It stayed low when I lay on my back but was normal if I turned on my side or sat up.

I spent the weekend in denial. "I'm not getting sick. I'm not getting sick."

I made pancakes. I did laundry. I accompanied my husband on his daily recovery walks. But when he declined to take the hilly street to the right, I didn't push him. Not this time. I was feeling winded already.

I attended another niece's college graduation party, but now I was sipping Barenjager in the afternoon to hide my pesky dry cough from my Zoom family. My energy was good. I didn't have a fever. But my lower back and legs ached. Maybe it was just from the yardwork, I told myself.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

On Sunday evening, I got an oxygen reading of 83. Now I was scared.

I spent Monday morning calling local urgent care centers to see who could do COVID testing, X-rays and labs. I called my primary care physician and my pulmonologist and was directed to text my symptoms and set up virtual doctor visits. It took COVID to finally bring health care into the digital age.

Already short of breath coming up stairs, a mild but present tightness in my chest wherever I went, I secured a physical appointment the next morning for the dreaded nasal swab and an X-ray.

I watched impatiently to a blinking 90 on the pulse ox readout, waiting for morning to come.

I had the first morning appointment. Within minutes of my arrival, my vitals, chest X-ray and nasal swab were done. It really wasn't so bad and was over in a moment. Why are people making such a big deal of it?

My doctor was now far more familiar with the disease process than he would like to be. He stood in full protective garb, hand on the door, 6 or more feet away, and told it to me straight.

You have COVID, he said. Whether the test comes back positive or negative, you have COVID. You will feel worse before you feel better. You will not feel like yourself for at least another two months. You are infectious. With what I am seeing, your family could be shedding virus if they live with you, even if they have no symptoms and have recovered from it.

He prescribed me meds and oxygen and gave me instructions, but told me these are just supportive measures. We have no treatment. And you are the healthiest COVID patient I have seen here yet, likely because you are here early in your course. So take care and call or text with any questions or changes.

And with that, I was sent home.

That was yesterday. My headache is now gone and my oxygen level blinks reassuringly at 97. I will not sleep soundly until I get my oxygen tank. But by that time, the steroids will likely have kicked in.

But I am grateful. I am home. I have a plan. I am the last one to get sick in the house, so I get company through my illness. I have the tools to monitor myself and the meds to support my body in healing.

I have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

Epilogue

It turns out that the delay in my home oxygen delivery was because COVID is not currently a qualifying medical condition on any insurance. It seems home oxygen requires a chronic condition like COPD or congestive heart failure.

Home management is best for noncritical cases of COVID. It frees up much needed hospital resources, keeps cost to a minimum and keeps health care workers safer.

COVID is not currently considered a chronic condition. However, many people are suffering monthslong debilitating symptoms.

They even have a name: long haulers.

Since my husband's hospital stay, new research has surfaced mentioning a link between blood types and severity and susceptibility of COVID disease. Between the four of us in the household, we have four blood types. We also had four very specific and different presentations of this novel disease.

It is baffling and curious. My husband is A+, the type linked to those most susceptible to acquiring the disease and to those most critically affected. I am B- and presented with what they now call "silent hypoxia." My son is AB+. He had a runny nose and mild GI symptoms. And my daughter is O+ and she had fever and malaise.

The day after I wrote this, my daughter relapsed. She had a high fever, chills, weakness, uncontrolled shaking, a rapid heart rate.

"The air feels thin!" she told me.

She required an emergency room evaluation because our local pediatrician office has a policy of not seeing COVID patients. I was not allowed to take her because I had symptoms. But my husband was a rock star!

Her symptoms resolved as quickly as they came. The experts at Lurie Children's Hospital reassured us that children handle the waves of COVID symptoms far better than adults and she was safe, for now, to ride it out at home. The very next day, my husband's symptoms returned. Fever, chills, body aches and malaise. They are now long haulers, too.

Seven days after my test was performed, my doctor called with my COVID swab result: Positive.

Validation leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

We are convalescing side by side, me with my oxygen and steroids, my daughter with her breathing treatments and Tylenol. My husband is pushing himself, working from home, between bouts of symptoms. My dear son is helping out around the house and taking care of the dogs. He has even learned to make cupcakes.

There are a lot more COVID stories out there. I believe ours will have a happy ending. I just don't know how many more chapters there will be until we get there.

But we have each other. We have a roof over our heads and friends who deliver meals and supplies. We have access to treatment.

We are the lucky ones.

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

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

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