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She Was Trained to Deal With Pandemics, But That Wasn't Enough

Susan sits on a bright blue wooden lawn chair. She's sitting leaned back, with her legs folded and her arms crossed. Patches of sunlight light different parts of her body as she smiles with a gaze slightly off from the camera.
Susan was an emergency room nurse trained to respond to bioterrorism attacks and Ebola. She contracted COVID-19 March 2020.
Despite her background as an emergency room nurse trained to respond to bioterrorism attacks and Ebola, Susan contracted COVID-19 March 2020 and continues to experience symptoms months later.
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Susan'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.

CHERRY HILL, N.J. — I think I have come full circle. Confidence, fear, sadness, relief, frustration, fear, sadness, relief, fear, frustration and relief again. I am trying now to work back up to being confident that I am ready to care for others during this pandemic.

At first, I was confident that I could contribute to the fight at my hospital. I know it sounds crazy, but I love this stuff! I have been trained to deal with a pandemic for years. I trained as a Navy corpsman in a field hospital unit right out of high school. That was many years ago, but the passion stuck with me.

I became a member of our hospital's decontamination team early in my career in the emergency department. I attended a week-long training with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to learn more about mass casualty response and management. I became a decontamination team leader in our emergency department. During the Ebola outbreak, I joined the hospital-wide bioresponse team and also trained to be a PPE monitor. So I was ready for this!

I reassured my family. "I will be fine; I teach others how to use PPE." I never feared for myself, not even for a minute! I was seriously scared that I would bring the virus home to my family and was not sleeping well at all.

I signed up to work PPE shifts for the very first COVID-19 cases at our hospital, but also continued to fill my regular role at the hospital. My first PPE shift was March 17th. I made sure everyone stayed safe and reassured doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists when they were scared. I recruited coworkers to become PPE monitors. I was feeling good about this.

I am highly trained. I know what to do. I was not being careless. I was ready for everybody else to get it. I was never ready for me to get it.

March 20th, at midnight, I was unknowingly exposed to COVID-19. Here's my journey:

DAY 1 — March 22 I thought I was having allergy symptoms and anxiety about being exposed. I had a sore throat, a headache and a slight cough. That night, I had difficulty sleeping. I kept thinking about bringing COVID-19 home and infecting my wife. Every time I turned over in my sleep, I pictured breathing viral particles into her sleep space.

DAY 3 — March 24 was an otherwise normal day, but something didn't feel right. I felt "weird" in the back of my mind.

DAY 4 — March 25, I woke up with a slight fever of 99.1 degrees Fahrenheit and abdominal discomfort. I hadn't had a fever since I was six years old. So I was like, "Okay, I'm really sick if I have a fever." I was supposed to go to work so I called out. My doctor sent me to get testing. The same day I got a phone call. The voice on the other line said I was exposed on Friday night, March 20th.

The big thing in the very beginning was headaches. I had terrible headaches for weeks. It was just ongoing. I think I probably had a headache for six weeks. It felt like a sinus infection — mostly frontal. It was difficult to sleep. It was difficult to stay awake. It was like I was tired and wanted to close my eyes, but couldn't actually sleep because of the headache. Tylenol did take a little bit of the edge off.

Because I felt awful, I wanted to be comforted. But I didn't want to get my wife sick so we stayed apart until a couple days later when she started getting sick. So the first two weeks I was taking care of her. She recovered 14 days later. She woke up and was like, "Oh hi! I'm better." That's when I got really sick.

I ended up being admitted to the hospital twice. Before that, I had only been in the hospital two times in my life and one was to have a baby.

I had three days of persistent chest pain, chest pressure, and shortness of breath. I let it go a long time. But, on the third day I decided I couldn't ignore it anymore. I thought, "What if something is wrong and it's not just symptoms?"

My wife had to drop me off at the hospital door. She sat in the parking lot until I got admitted. I said, "Go! You can't come in, just go home."

She was like, "I can't do it until I know that you're alright."

I said, "I'm admitted. Go home. I'm going to be fine. I love you." Oh, she was a mess. It's hard dropping somebody off at the door. And she knew I was really sick. So it's tough.

They had a phone outside my room so most of my communication was done over the phone with somebody who could see me. They wanted to limit their time of exposure. It was like being a bug under a microscope because everybody's just looking in at you. Then they would come in with their PPE and do an assessment. Food would be delivered outside the door, but I wasn't allowed to open it. The nurses were all really busy, so the food would just sit out there.

It was like being a bug under a microscope because everybody's just looking in at you.

I felt so isolated. I thought to myself, "This is what it feels like. This is what people are talking about being alone and scared." I could hear a woman screaming, "Let me out of here! I can't stand it in here! Help me get me out of here!" I never saw her, but I think it was an older woman. Maybe she had dementia.

I was just scared they were going to miss something or that something was really wrong. The day I was going to be discharged, they did a cardiac echogram. While waiting for the results, I felt like I was making a bad turn. I couldn't catch my breath and the chest pain was really bad so I called the nurse. She put me on oxygen for maybe 30 seconds. In that 30 seconds I had a vision above my bed of them intubating me like I was losing consciousness. I had a vision of me dying. It was so weird. I've never had a panic attack before. But I believe that's what it was.

So that was my first hospitalization.

The second time I went in was three weeks later. I was keeping myself busy around the house — sitting back, working on a wind chime, something that easy, and I had this really intense pain in my back. It was the worst pain I've ever had. They were worried that I had an aortic dissection so they did all the cardiac tests again. They looked at everything and everything was fine. It was so random. It doesn't make sense. I still have muscle spasms at that same spot to this day. I just don't understand.

But the anxiety was the absolute worst part of it. It wasn't any single thing. It was everything together. It was work. It was not being able to go to work and not knowing if I would get paid. It was just one big ball of anxiety over everything and the whole situation.

DAY 47 — MAY 8 I tested negative on May 8. I took a couple more weeks to recover and then went back to work on June 2nd. All in all, I didn't leave the house unless I was in the hospital for maybe eight weeks.

Lingering Symptoms from COVID-19 are “unprecedented.”
Lingering Symptoms from COVID-19 are “Unprecedented”

I had a rude awakening when I came out of my little COVID cocoon.
I feel disconnected physically and emotionally.
People are being careless, rude and inconsiderate.
At work, in the stores, at the park, at the beaches;
They just don’t get it.

How can they not see it?
How can they not feel it?
I do not understand.
I can not wrap my head around it.
I go home feeling frustrated, angry and defeated.

How can I reach them?
Doesn’t the look in my eyes give them a hint?
A peek into a fog of fear and desperation?
A glimpse of a tortuous journey propelled by the unknown;
Into a world that did not seem real?

But it’s not them.
It’s me.
I see more clearly.
I feel more deeply.
I am different.

My perspective has changed.
For me, life will never be the same.
I do not want it to go back to the way it was.
Every moment has more meaning than it did before.
I need to refocus my energy.

It is time to heal.
It is time to love.
It is time to be present.
It is time to forgive.
And it is time to live.

A poem written by Susan during her recovery

AUGUST 2020 CHECK-IN — Well, I lived almost normally for a couple of weeks. Then it was like déjà vu. I was really tired on July 5th. I seemed OK on the 6th, but woke with a fever on the 7th. I tested positive again on July 8th. I was not shocked. I knew. This time, my major symptoms were fever, terrible headaches, dizziness and balance issues. I stopped working again and isolated in our sick room for 20 days, just to be safe.

Not sure if it was a false negative back in May or a new infection. I was sicker in the beginning this time — nothing scary or serious though. I had no known exposures, but I do work in a hospital. It felt more like the later weeks from the first time, but I had a fever longer. The chest pain is not as intense. I isolated for 20 days in our sick room. This time my wife was not sick! In fact, I didn't get anyone sick which is quite a relief.

They think it's part of the same virus. I had no known or suspected contacts. I think it never went away. I had lingering symptoms for weeks. I really only felt better for 2-3 weeks and it was really stressful at work.

I just had another CAT Scan. Apparently, I have pansinusitis. This is when most or all of the sinuses are inflamed and infected. So, now I'm on antibiotics. I really hope to feel normal soon.

I have been out of work for about 6 weeks and still feel as if I am on a slow treadmill. The headaches, dizziness and balance issues have been relentless. And the fatigue is crazy. If I do a small task, it takes me hours to recuperate. I feel 30 years older. I am praying there are no long-term effects and that I can achieve my previous strength and activity level. At this time of year, I am usually playing softball and very active. I am craving that physical activity, but feel far from having that type of energy. Most times I feel like life is just going on without me. I cannot wait to feel like myself again.'

About the Author:
Susan was an emergency room nurse trained to respond to bioterrorism attacks and Ebola. She currently works in a different department, but continues on the decontamination and bioresponse team.

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