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Fitness Teacher Is a COVID Survivor With 'Lungs of a 75-Year-Old'

COVID Diaries_Ryan
Ryan, a fitness professional based in Atlanta, has experienced COVID-like symptoms since June 2020. | Morgana Wingard
Ryan, a fitness professional, began experiencing COVID-like symptoms June 2020. Months later, an MRI scan revealed lung damage compared to that of a smoker's lung.
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Ryan's story was written for COVID-19 Survivor Diaries — a project led by humanitarian photographer and videographer Morgana Wingard, highlighting stories of those who survived COVID-19 from across the country.

ATLANTA — In Georgia, there was not much news about COVID-19 until you watched a major news network. For the first two months, they only said not to worry about it and said that everything would be fine. No one here in Georgia was concerned until March 1st. But I started to worry in mid-February.

I had an inkling that I might get it as I worked in the fitness industry, and unfortunately, I was in a state which was not necessarily taking it seriously from the beginning. But I felt that I would be fine even if I got it because I'm young and healthy.

I was very cautious March through May and then Georgia opened up in late May. I was still very cautious, but there were moments where I let my guard down slightly.

In the middle of June, we were out at my pool. The next day my spine started to hurt. It felt kind of like the oncoming of the flu. I felt like I would brush it off and it would be fine. I thought if I took a cold shower and some Tylenol, I would be fine. But on day four, it felt like my spine was going to break in half.

Some places charged $300 for a test and the results came in a day or two, but no one had the money because no one had a job. Nothing was covered under insurance except for the free ones covered by the government. But it was difficult to get into any of those places. It was like a Broadway lottery. You enter your name in the morning and if you get tickets later on in the day, you can get a test. That was the scenario here.

It was like a Broadway lottery. You enter your name in the morning and if you get tickets later on in the day, you can get a test. That was the scenario here.

In Atlanta, testing, in the beginning, was really bad. You had to either wait six hours in line before a place opened up and hope to get tested or you had to book online in advance. But everything was sold out online too. The only place I could find was about 60 miles away at a CVS. That's when Georgia started to get bad. No one wanted to go near anybody. There were many testing centers where we had to administer the test ourselves, which I was not comfortable doing. I was already in a heightened state of panic. We had to swab the nose for a particular period of time. They counted very slowly, like fitness instructors. It was a minute long, and I had to do it for both nostrils.

The night after I got the test, my fever spiked.

At the time, you couldn't get toilet paper, paper towels or thermometers. My husband drove to multiple drugstores just to find a thermometer. He ended up getting one of those strip ones, which is held along the forehead along the ends and changes color. My temperature was 103 F. That moment I felt I knew something was wrong.

My asthma immediately was out of control. I take two different inhalers: one is a preventative I take every day and one is a rescue inhaler. Even the rescue inhaler was not working.

My heart rate kept fluctuating. I would be lying down on the couch and if I sat up, my heart rate would spike to 150 beats per minute immediately. If I bent down to pick up the remote from the floor, I would blackout.

Learn more about the medical community's scramble to understand 'long haulers'
Medical community scrambles to understand 'long haulers'

The feeling that my spine will break in half didn't go away. I had that feeling for the whole period I was unwell. Sitting up or going to the bathroom was like climbing Mount Everest. It was terrible. Many times, I would cry to my husband, "I know we should go to the hospital, but I don't want to because they're going to slap me with a ventilator and I'm not going to get out."

What worked for me and still works to this day is DayQuil and Nyquil every day. I did Tylenol every six hours. I set the alarm even if I was sleeping. Even if it was 2:00 a.m., I would wake up and take two Tylenol to keep the fever below 103 F. I also drank a bottle of Pedialyte a day.

I started to feel better and my fever went away too. I found another testing center 50 miles away. I waited for two hours in line in my car. They did the test for me. I thanked God because I didn't want to do it myself again. The result came back negative. I got another test the next day; it also came out negative. I was like, "Ok, according to science, I'm good." I felt relieved. I felt like, "Yes, I did it."

I went back to work, started teaching my cycling classes and boot camp classes as if nothing happened. While I was taking classes, I was still very cautious with our protocols at work. About a week afterward, I could not breathe again. It felt like a teenager was sitting on my chest.

I felt constant pressure. I couldn't catch my breath walking up a flight of stairs. It was like winded stars. You would see those little light things when you feel lightheaded. I knew it was not normal.

I started to feel tired. I would teach one class and need to close my eyes afterward for a minimum of 20 minutes just to carry on my day. I got scared and paranoid.

Oh my God, I have lung damage. Even though I never smoked a cigarette for a day in my life.

We immediately did a CT scan to see if I had blood clots, which I didn't. We also had to do an MRI and there was damage to my lungs which my doctor compared to a smoker's lung, but not a heavy smoker. When I got those results back, the world just crumbled in front of my eyes. I was like, "Oh my God, I have lung damage. Even though I never smoked a cigarette for a day in my life."

I had to use a nebulizer again, which I haven't used since I was 9. No one has any answers to this day; there are no answers. I still feel like I can't catch my breath. I still feel like I'm on the verge of an asthma attack any minute now. But there is no explanation as to why.

I have to ensure that my watch is always charged so I can watch my heart rate every second when I am teaching. If it gets too high, I have to stop and coach. If you are a fitness teacher, it's very hard for you not to do the class.

The only workouts that I can do are barre classes, yoga and Pilates, which have a very low impact on heart rate though mine still skyrockets to 160 beats per minute.

It's been 148 days.

When you pass three or four months, the problems become neurological. I started to lose my balance. I couldn't remember anything. My brain fog is terrible. I will be on the phone with my mom and forget who I am talking to. I will see my husband feed the dog dinner, but three minutes later I'll ask him if he fed the dog. Then two more minutes after that, I'll ask him again if he has fed the dog. It is almost like dementia and it's frightening.

My hair started to fall out in massive chunks so I had to shave it. I was never able to see my scalp before, but now my scalp is visible. I'll wake up in the morning sometimes and I'll think, "Is that dog hair, or is that my hair on my pillow?" It's terrible. It's absolutely terrible because there is nothing you can do.

Before you start finding people who have had it, you are on your own in your own world, being gaslit by society like it's fake. They say that the virus is fake and blame the government.

People need to stop politicizing it. The virus is not political. It doesn't care if you're a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian. It doesn't care if you're old or young. I am 33, but now I feel like I have the lungs of a 75-year-old.

I hope that we all come to our senses in 2021 rather than having an internal war against each other.

About the Author:
Ryan Makely Phillips, 33, currently lives in Atlanta and has worked as a fitness professional for the last 10 years.

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