A New and Unknown Normal – A Coronavirus Story

A family of five is infected with coronavirus, and struggles to manage through a pandemic

Let me start by saying that we’re a family of five, and we all contracted the coronavirus.  My son is diagnosed with schizophrenia and has recently been moving across a spate of jobs, and my youngest daughter has cerebral palsy from an inutero stroke she experienced. My eldest daughter is going to college and works part-time. All of our kids live at home with us. My wife and I work at the same software company. I am a home-based employee and she has been working from home since mid-March when the company announced employees were to work from home going forward.

My son had recently started work in the deli department of a local grocery store, and had a co-worker who tested positive.  I don’t think he understood that he was exposed because although they work closely together, he happened to be off on the day the coworker reported the infection.  Within a week I had developed symptoms that I thought were a bad case of the flu, because how could I possibly have been exposed to the coronavirus? We were being careful about distancing and staying home, and we didn’t know anyone who had been infected.  

My symptoms started on April 17, and by one week later I had already experienced a couple of nights awake trying to breathe because I couldn’t get enough air.  I went in to test for COVID-19 on that day, and after I came back home my son finally mentioned that someone he worked closely with had reported being infected, wasn’t he lucky to have not been there the day it was reported? I really don’t think my son realized that he had already been exposed. My test came back positive the next day. My wife and youngest daughter had started to develop symptoms that were different from mine and from each other.  We all had low grade fevers, aches and whole body exhaustion, but where my breathing was affected, Angela’s heart would race, and Natalie experienced nausea and stomach problems.  My wife, two daughters and son all tested on April 24, and the tests were positive for all but my eldest daughter.  My son was infected, but asymptomatic.  We had been quarantined, now we started self isolation.

On Friday we received a poster drawn by Katie Hut – Natalie’s Special Olympics Partner, BFF and fellow Brooklyn Nine-Nine fan. The Hut family and the Green family are intertwined in lots of ways, and this outreach of kind thoughts was fun and uplifting.

On Saturday evening we received a “heart-attack” where friends came by and taped messages on heart-shaped papers across our front door.  It was overwhelming that there was so much support from our friends (they rightfully call themselves the #Tribe). Tribe members stopped by to drop off a pulse oximeter so we could monitor oxygen levels, and more Tylenol where we had run out. There were messages sent and a doordash account set up for us. A long-time friend and neighbor dropped off groceries from Costco at our door.  Our first dinner drop-off was homemade potato soup with dinner rolls. A gift box was hand delivered for Natalie. My coworkers rallied to plan a couple of shopping trips that were delivered to our home. Another coworker sponsored us to receive Goodr sunglasses through the company’s gratitude initiative (can I hear Carl say “SQQQQQUAAAAWWWKKKKK” (that is I love you in flamingo). There were a lot of social media interactions as well, and it was an outpouring of support that was unexpected and sudden. It was help that we didn’t know we needed, and we were humbled and grateful for the network that reached out.

The next couple of nights were difficult for me – I couldn’t breathe well enough to fall asleep and stayed propped up on the couch at night to focus on breathing. Early Monday morning of April 27 I wasn’t able to keep my O2 levels above 90 so went to the local emergency room and after an evaluation and a chest x-ray, was admitted to the hospital for Acute Hypoxemic Respiratory Failure (a type of ARDS) and pneumonia.  I was in the hospital for 3 days because, as the doctors explained – ARDS typically develops within 10-12 days following initial symptoms, and from then there is a 72-hour window where the patient either maintains, or quickly loses capacity and ends up on a ventilator. Doctor #2’s query about having advanced directives in place was grave.  I’m a 52 year old man who is overweight, with hypertension and diabetes.  It was their decision to keep me in the ICU long enough to ensure I would not be on a ventilator.  Visitors weren’t allowed in the ICU, and my family was at home dealing with their own symptoms. Telling my wife, and texting with my in-laws about this was difficult because I could see and hear the concern in their words and voices. I think they thought I wasn’t coming home.

I was in the hospital for 3 days because, as the doctors explained – ARDS typically develops within 10-12 days following initial symptoms, and from then there is a 72-hour window where the patient either maintains, or quickly loses capacity and ends up on a ventilator.

During my hospital stay I was thanking the staff and complaining about going home.  Each time anyone walked into the room they wore full PPE, and I wore a face mask while they responded to monitors, played with oxygen levels, recorded vitals, took blood, administered shots, gave me oral medication and delivered meals. My blood glucose was high enough that I began receiving injections of insulin to bring numbers down. A salt supplement was added because my bloodwork showed extremely low potassium (hypokalemia), which made everything that I ate taste like salt was poured over it. I received Lovenox as an anticoagulant but stopped taking it when I developed nosebleeds.

There wasn’t much to do in the room except listen to what was going on in the hallway and in rooms next to mine, or text on my phone with people reaching out.  My game to pass time turned into removing the nasal cannula for my oxygen and watching my O2 levels drop on the monitor – my intent was to see the numbers stay above 90 so I could claim I wasn’t getting worse, and good enough to go home. The numbers regularly dipped into the 80’s and 70’s, and would occasionally dip below 90 when I wore the oxygen. There was slow stabilization though. I went from two liters of oxygen to three, then to two, then down to 1 liter of oxygen before going back up to two liters. The good news here is that I wasn’t going down hill completely. On the third day, doctor #4 agreed that if we were able to arrange getting an oxygen concentrator, that I would be able to check out in the afternoon.  I was incredibly happy to send that message to my wife.  While I waited for equipment to be coordinated for me to take home a nurse came in and talked about Convalescent Plasma donations, and explained how someone previously infected with COVID-19 could donate plasma that would be given to an infected patient in critical status. I went home on Wednesday, April 29. Shortly after I left there was a story in the paper about a woman in another IHC hospital who was on a ventilator, who recovered five days after receiving a plasma donation.

Angela had come to pick me up from the hospital. Following my return to home, our afternoon was primarily receiving the oxygen concentrator, along with several air tanks and a CPAP machine.  Although it was good to be home, it was a somber transition to hear the pumps and be connected to a 50-foot tether that I received oxygen from.  In 2008 my father had passed away from Pulmonary Fibrosis, and I was intimately familiar with this equipment. At the time I wondered how long I would require it, and whether this was a turning point in my health and life (that question still does not have an answer).

We’re pretty gushy about the shout-out that SIRSY made for us on their April 30 virtual concert, when they dedicated their song Stand for us (you can subscribe to their YouTube channel here). So much love for these two, and yes they actually made me tear up to come home and see this.

On May 1st, my eldest daughter tested again for coronavirus, and this time was positive.  Consider whether you would have successfully navigated away from four others living in the same home for 14 days without contracting what they carried. According to this article by Erin Bromage PhD, most people get infected in their own home. It is the sustained contact with family members that leads to infection.

Holly at the Salt Lake County Health Department began calling our home on Friday, April 24 to follow up with me initially, but began to track the entire family as we were infected.  Holly tracked our symptoms, provided direction on self isolation, and enquired into our social history to see where she could associate the distribution of the virus.  Her calls were informational, reassuring, and provided guidance from someone who was knowledgeable to talk to.  We correlated disparate updates from cdc.gov, coronavirus.utah.gov and testutah.com so that we could determine safe departure from self-isolation, and discussed the progress of symptoms.  

Recovery is taking place, although slower than hoped for. We have passed the number of days required for self-isolation. Marisa, Angela and Natalie have been cleared by Salt Lake County Health Department. Gabriel took a second COVID test and is now confirmed negative for the virus. Angela’s heartrate is still high. I’m still using the oxygen concentrator, mainly at night and occasionally during the day. We have started to go out to walk the dog, but wear masks outside and maintain physical distance from passers-by.  I have found a new physician who I like, and have completed labs and a wellness check, and am now on a new medication plan. Things are looking better.  

I have a Red Cross Blood appointment on June 1st to donate Convalescent Plasma. My goal is to be off of oxygen before then, and be able to give back so that I can help someone who is more in need.

Some perspective after being impacted by COVID-19: there is a new normal that needs to be carried out in public as we keep the distance and help protect others. Our first wealth is our health as a community, without that we are all grabbing for the same short straw. 

Thoughts Following Coronavirus Exposure

  • Without a community network, self-isolation can be incredibly difficult. We were supported by neighbors, friends, coworkers and healthcare members who delivered groceries, meals, words of encouragement and even medical treatment to our home.
  • Everyone needs a health kit at their home. Start with a reliable thermometer, a pulse oximeter, medicine to manage symptoms (reduce fever, a decongestant and pain relievers), facial masks, and extra batteries for electronic devices.
  • Know what it means to establish an advanced directive, or to have a healthcare proxy for making end-of-life care decisions.
  • If you don’t have an established relationship with a PCP and/or a medical office, consider doing so now. Find out where your insurance is accepted, locate the doctors who are accepting patients, and get yourself in for a wellness check. In the event that you have an emergency you will very likely need to follow up with your primary doctor for status, treatment and releases, which is difficult if you don’t have one in the first place.
  • We’re fortunate to live in an area where grocers have been experimenting with eShop and delivery. Without this we would have been significantly more dependent on others to get basic items.
  • People with mental health issues are particularly impacted. Hygiene issues, difficulty communicating, inability to consistently follow guidance for physical distancing are common reasons why risk of exposure is higher, and this may be compounded by homelessness.
  • After self-isolation, it has been awkward returning to public activities where others do not practice physical distancing, or wear masks. I don’t think people understand how profoundly different this virus is.
  • There is some skepticism from others about infection regarding the seriousness of becoming ill with coronavirus, or doubts of the level of contagion. Again, I don’t understand the conspiracy theorists at all.
  • There is a wariness from both sides due to the lack of a consistent message by leaders, and in some cases for the obvious disregard of medical experts by politicians.
  • Longterm effects of COVID-19 exposure are unknown. Articles like Coronavirus survivors banned from joining the military (militarytimes.com) state that the military has permanent disqualification for anyone with a confirmed history of COVID-19, which raises questions about what long term effects there may be.
Back home in my office