Unpredictable & serious: Community members describe COVID experiences

Christine - COVID story

Christine was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March 2020.

November 26, 2020

As COVID-19 cases continue surge, people across our community who get sick from the virus have been impacted in many ways. Several community members share their stories below.  

COVID-19 journey isn’t always a short one

Christine was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March 2020.

March 2020 may seem like an eon ago, but it has only been nine months since COVID-19 arrived in communities across the country. At the time, health care systems in Montana prepared for a surge. They encouraged communities to come together to take action and flatten the curve.

At the time, Christine felt lucky. Although she has minor underlying health conditions like mild asthma, she had what she considered a mild case of the illness, originally experiencing body aches, fever and fatigue. She also experienced lung pain, something not abnormal given her asthma. However, while ill Christine also experienced shortness of breath. She had trouble finishing sentences while sitting down and would easily become winded.

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She recovered and returned to work after being dismissed from quarantine by the public health officials.

“I was a gymnast, dancer, and long-distance runner,” said Christine. “I kept up on my health pretty well.”

However, nearly nine months later, Christine is still dealing with symptoms and is considered one of the increasing number of “long-haulers” across the country. “Long-haulers” are people who continue to experience an array of symptoms weeks and months after their initial illness.

“I expected to recover pretty quickly, but I was mistaken.”

She experiences a cycle of symptoms that range from migraines and muscle/joint pain to rashes, tachycardia (high heart rate), and extreme fatigue. She sometimes experiences the kind of fatigue that rest just doesn’t make go away.

Everyone has a different experience with COVID-19. Although the majority recover from the illness, it can be severe or deadly for others. And, the long-term health implications of the novel virus are not yet known.

Christine wants the community to understand that COVID-19 shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“I hope sharing my experience will reinforce for people that (COVID-19) is unpredictable, serious, and possibly chronic.”

Caregivers caring for caregivers

Rhonda Baxter, LPN
Rhonda Baxter, LPN

Rhonda Baxter, LPN started to feel ill in mid-September, and soon after was diagnosed with COVID-19.

Over a month later, the nurse was hospitalized at St. Peter’s Health. Caregivers on the hospital’s medical floor have worked tirelessly for all patients throughout this pandemic. But this time, they were taking care of one of their own.

Rhonda was hospitalized for several days.

“I was so ill that I had to have the ambulance come get me,” she recalls.

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Rhonda is now recovering from COVID-19, but the road to recovery hasn’t been easy.

“The struggle with breathing, fatigue and intermittent fevers has been difficult.”

She has been on large doses of prednisone, a steroid, throughout her recovery. She also remains on two inhalers, is on oxygen at night, and now has her own nebulizer machine. Nebulizer machines turn liquid medicine into a fine mist that people can inhale, and the devices are typically used for the treatment of conditions like asthma, COPD and other respiratory disorders.

Because she is no longer infectious or able to transmit the virus, Rhonda has been able to slowly return to work.

“The good news is I haven’t spiked a fever in two weeks,” she said.

Rhonda continues to push through the physical symptoms. She still experiences breathing issues.

“I continue to have breathing issues including chest tightness. I feel like I’m suffocating and I just can’t catch my breath.”

Returning to work in health care has offered Rhonda hope as she continues on her journey to recovery.

“Getting back to work, though difficult, has helped me heal mentally,” she said. “I’ve been able to focus on others and keep a positive attitude. I also work with awesome, supportive people. I still have some physical symptoms that continue, but I push through.”

Rhonda has an important message for everyone in the community, “Please take COVID-19 seriously. I personally wear a mask everywhere I go. I was told that if I were to get this again, I may not make it.”

'COVID-19 denial is dangerous'

Helena-area residents Kari and Ron have been taking COVID-19 seriously since the virus arrived in the community in March. Both in their 50s, they typically pick up food for take-out and adhere to all COVID-19 precautions in the workplace.
Recently, the couple was invited to a family event and decided to attend. They knew it was going to be small and outside, reducing their risk of getting or spreading COVID-19.
Soon after the event, they learned that one of the attendees who had been in close contact was not feeling well and they were told that the individual may have been exposed to the flu. Kari and Ron monitored their symptoms but felt fine.
And then it hit.

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“I went from having a normal temperature during the day to a temperature of over 103 degrees six hours later,” said Ron.
As their symptoms worsened, so did the symptoms of others who had been at the event. That’s when they received a call notifying them that someone they had close contact with had tested positive for COVID-19.
Ron and Kari were tested for COVID-19 and unsurprisingly received positive results.
They began thinking back to the past few days: where they’d been and who they’d been around.
Reflecting on the situation, Kari believes one of the smartest things they did was isolate themselves from their teenage son the minute they found out they had been around someone who was sick. Their son had not attended the event with them.
“We took precautions immediately. We made an effort to not be around our son, we wore masks at home, and he used a separate bathroom,” said Kari. “One day, we made soup, and we even used two separate ladles.”
They isolated from their son, who has not gotten ill and tested negative for the virus.
Kari and Ron were severely ill for almost six days. Their symptoms were typical for COVID-19: fever, cough, body aches, lack of an appetite, stomach issues and extreme fatigue.
According to Kari, “we were the sickest we’ve been in our entire lives. And not to sound morbid, but there were times that I felt so bad, I felt like I wouldn’t have cared if I died.”
Some days, Ron and Kari would feel better, like they had rounded a corner. Until suddenly, their temperature would rise and symptoms would return. It was unlike any illness they had ever had before. It was a “roller-coaster.”
One of the rays of hope through this challenging time was their communication with St. Peter’s Health Registered Nurse Care Manager Kelly Hunt. Kari sees St. Peter’s Health Primary Care Physician Dr. Jenifer Dodge, and Kelly called the family soon after the test results were back.
Kelly called to check in, providing tips and information to help with their recovery. Sometimes she simply listened and joined in conversations.
“I've been to war, I've been a firefighter... I feel that it isn't always necessary to have others offer reassurance," said Ron, an Iraq war Veteran. "But having Kelly call us every third day or so just to see how we were doing, and having her advice and reassurance that we would get through it was a godsend. 
Kelly also offered recovery advice, using a COVID-19 clinical pathway she developed to help patients manage a COVID-19 diagnosis. Advice included activities like deep breathing to help strengthen the lungs and prevent pneumonia. But, Ron also harkened back to his prior experience in the military, taking the advice offered years ago to help put them on the path to recovery.
Both Kari and Ron lacked any appetite for days and had to force themselves to eat. After suffering a heat-related injury at a fire, relates Ron, I remember a medic in Iraq telling me, "food intake is just as important as water intake." Ron adds, "you have to force yourself to eat. One way that you'll get better is if you eat and keep your strength up."
The couple forced themselves to eat even through the pain and lack of appetite, using Walmart grocery pick-up to safely feed themselves and their family as they recovered. And slowly but surely, the couple is recovering even though previously simple chores like snow shoveling can be exhausting.
All three recommend that people recovering from COVID-19 gradually resume activities like short walks to regain their strength and health.
Ron and Kari also have an important message for the Helena community as cases surge: If you are sick or have had close contact with someone who has COVID-19, stay home, isolate yourself and get tested for COVID-19 so you do not spread it to others.
They also think back to the time before they felt sick and are thankful for all the precautions they took to protect their son and others. People with COVID-19 can be contagious even before they show symptoms--and some people never show symptoms. This is why it is so important that everyone take necessary precautions like masking to help reduce the spread of the very contagious virus.
“People need to stop being in denial. I do think that people need to live their lives and not live in fear,” Ron said. “But if you do find yourself sick, you absolutely cannot live in denial and you need to do the right thing.