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Months After Contracting COVID-19, This Nurse Was Still Housebound

COVID Survivors_Jennifer
Jennifer, 30, is a nurse for ambulatory surgeries at a prestigious hospital in Manhattan. | Morgana Wingard
She contracted COVID-19 through community spread at the start of the outbreak in New York in March. Because of her preexisting conditions, she was hospitalized for several days and after two months she is still housebound and recovering.
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Jennifer'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.

NEW YORK — My body doesn't respond to bacteria and viruses in the way a healthy person's immune system responds. You're supposed to fight it. I kind of invited it over for lunch and help it hurt me. So it's a unique position to be in when I get sick because I have to be very careful because of the medication I'm on. It's not so much my conditions that put me at risk. It's the fact that my immune system has never been strong and I'm on a medication that essentially turns my immune system off so I don't attack my own body. But I wasn't scared about COVID-19 at first.

We first heard about COVID-19 through the news. The word on the low was that the media was hyping it up and people were kind of blowing this out of proportion. We didn't know that it was more of a SARS and a severe respiratory disease. We also had no idea that this affects your kidneys, your heart and the way your blood can coagulate. We were being led to believe it was like a wicked flu that was only going to affect the elderly.

On Monday, I noticed a decrease in my taste and my smell. When I have a cold coming on that happens so I wasn't concerned. What kind of made me feel weird though was I had ordered spicy chicken wings and I couldn't taste them. But I still didn't think I had COVID-19 because that wasn't a symptom that was talked about at that time. I just figured I was going to get a cold that week.

Jennifer sits on her couch in a dimly lit room. She's resting her head on her hand, propped up by the couch. A blanket covers her legs and feet.
Labored, extreme fatigue and weakness were some of the first few symptoms Jennifer experienced when she contracted COVID-19. | Morgana Wingard

Friday came and my symptoms went from feeling like I had the flu to feeling like I had labored breathing, extreme fatigue and weakness. My wet cough turned dry. It was so bone dry that it hurt. I had pain in my chest and when I was coughing it was like I was almost barking. I had the headaches. I had a very low-grade fever but Humira, the medication I'm on, sometimes can mask a fever.

By Sunday, on the phone with a doctor, I had to take deep breaths after two to three words. He said, "You are a high-risk patient. Your outcome would not be good if you are to go, let's say, south." He explained that I was approaching the five-to-seven-day window where patients either experience the two worst days of the illness and get over it or they decline. He said, "If you feel for any reason today that you cannot breathe, you need to come in."

As the day went on, I could barely walk to my kitchen or the bathroom without having to stop and gasp for air and I live in a studio. By nine o'clock, I was sitting on my couch very calm getting into a meditative headspace. I felt like I had a horse galloping on my chest like I was having palpitations. I've never really experienced palpitations before. I also had severe chest pain and then I started gasping for air.

I was unsure if one of those gasps would have been my last one. I was afraid to call 911 and it take too long so I put on a mask, wrapped a scarf around my face and called an Uber. I was only four blocks from the hospital. I said open the windows and drive fast and bring me to the emergency room.

They immediately brought me in. This time, knowing I'm positive, they brought me into a different section of the emergency department that has isolation rooms so everyone there was COVID-positive.

I was on Facetime with my family. One of my best friends, Matt, works as a nurse in the same hospital. He played the middleman for my family. We stayed on FaceTime because he wasn't getting emotional or upset like my family clearly was and anytime a doctor came in to speak with me, he would text them telling them what was being said because I couldn't really text. I couldn't really focus at that point.

The room I was in and the unit I was on is identical to the fourth floor where I worked previously. While I was in there, every patient's face that I've ever cared for in that room flashed before my eyes. It just brought back a lot of hard memories for me working on that unit.

While I was in there, every patient's face that I've ever cared for in that room flashed before my eyes.

But then I also had to deal with knowing that my family couldn't get to me. It's one thing to be in the hospital and be scared but it's another thing to not have a family member by your side.

My mom and I hadn't FaceTimed until Tuesday and we just looked at each other in silence and cried. She's never not been by my side and the thought that there was a chance that I might be vented and she might get that call. Or, that I would have to tell her they're going to vent me now, I'm going under was ... there's not a single word in the English dictionary or any language to describe that feeling. I was afraid what would happen if it came to me being put on a ventilator.

I said, "Give me 24 hours and I will get off this oxygen." And I did.

I saw my manager through the glass window of my airborne room that I was in before I got discharged. He walked by while we were on the phone. He waved through the glass and said, "This is just bad. I don't know what to do and I don't know how to help and I can't believe one of my own is inside this room right now."

As time goes on, I'm learning that this disease isn't just a lung disease. It causes cardiac issues and renal issues and blood issues. It causes issues with the autonomic nervous system so the body can't maintain body temperature. It's either sweating or chills. It's either your heart rate is super low or it's super high. Memory fog, loss of balance, vertigo.

Jennifer is photographed between glass doors, slightly ajar. She is sitting a dining room table and using a respiratory device.
Months after contracting COVID-19, Jennifer is still homebound and recovering from long-lasting symptoms like fainting, dizzy spells and vertigo. | Morgana Wingard

I think two weeks after I was out of the hospital it started but then it kind of subsided and it got better. And then, it hit me again on the 9th of April. I fainted in my apartment. Friday the 10th, it happened again along with severe vertigo and the spins.

My dad said, "Someone either needs to come to you or you need to come home because you're not safe alone. How long will it take for someone to notice if you do faint and hit your head?" I was no longer at the point where I could care for myself. There wouldn't be time to call 911; it would happen too quickly. So I went home. My dad picked me up: both masked, gloved.

My mom has hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. So she gets shortness of breath and has really high blood pressure. You know, going home was a risk. Thankfully when it came to the point of it being dangerous for me to be alone because of the fainting and dizzy spells and vertigo, I was pretty far out from my first day of symptoms. But we still treated it like I was on hospital isolation because, with my mom's heart disease, she is somebody that would die. She would not stand a chance. So that was the risk of me going home. So my mom has been on self-isolation to not get it. You know it's a really nerve-wracking time.

I almost feel like one life was taken to spare mine.

I was discharged from the hospital on the 25th and little did we know one of my mother's brothers was in the hospital. And he tested negative for COVID-19 but he had congestive heart failure. I almost feel like one life was taken to spare mine. He died at 3:10 p.m. and my birthday is March 10th. And then, another one of my mom's brothers died yesterday around 3:00 p.m. He tested positive. So, it's been a lot for us as a family to process.

When you think about how, how do you live your life after this? After so much grief and tragedy? And, I'm almost mourning the loss of the person I was before March 2020.

About the Author:
Jennifer is a nurse for ambulatory surgeries at a hospital in Manhattan.

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