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2 stories of surviving COVID-19: Pain, weakness and longing for connection
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Staff don full PPE at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville while working May 15, 2020, on the COVID-19 area of the hospital. - photo by Scott Rogers

On her husband’s birthday April 29, Mary Whitaker remembered having a headache and “felt like I was fighting something off.”

A few days after, she felt light-headed before later experiencing “horrific abdominal pain like I have never had in my life.”

“It progressively got worse to where my husband finally just said, ‘Either I’m calling 911 or I’m taking you to the hospital, but we can’t do this,’” Whitaker said.

Mary Whitaker
Paul and Mary Whitaker. Photo courtesy Mary Whitaker.

Whitaker had pain in her chest through to her back and said she felt like she couldn’t take a deep breath. 

Whitaker, an Acute Physiology and Chronic Health Evaluation coordinator at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, was admitted to the Barrow hospital, which is closer to her Winder home, and received a positive COVID-19 test result. She was discharged four days later.

More than 725 of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 have been able to return home since the beginning of the pandemic. As of June 3, the average length of stay for patients positive for COVID-19 and admitted to a Northeast Georgia Medical Center campus is eight days.

“This is the total time patients spent in the hospital regardless of whether care was provided in an intensive care unit or a medical/surgical unit. The longest length of stay that we’ve seen for a patient is 46 days,” said Dr. Supriya Mannepalli, Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s Infection Prevention and Control Committee chairwoman. 

Chronic medical conditions like heart disease, “underlying lung conditions and uncontrolled diabetes” have been observed “to be associated with worse health outcomes and longer stays for some of our patients,” Mannepalli said.

“We have also seen young people with no underlying health conditions need mechanical ventilation and require a longer length of stay,” she said.

NGHS officials said they tend to see COVID-19 patients seek emergency care near the end of the first week with the illness or when the respiratory symptoms worsen in the second week.

“Because COVID-19 is such a new condition, all physicians and researchers are anxious to learn as much as possible about the virus. It will likely be months — or even years — before extensive studies will be completed and the medical community fully understands whether factors like comorbidities or timing of care have an impact on patient outcomes,” Mannepalli said.

An hour away from family, Whitaker and her husband, Paul, started looking at how to quarantine and get the supplies they needed. They were helped by members of their church and another group that connects COVID-19 patients with community resources.

She didn’t realize she was short of breath until she came home, “because in the hospital you can only walk about five steps.” She felt “quite sick” for another 10 days.

Every three to five days she would experience a fever, which can be caused by an underlying autoimmune disorder she has.

“I have a beautiful covered front porch on my house … so I spent a lot of time sitting out there, and that helped a lot because the weather was nice. It’s really hard, harder than I would have thought. I kind of live out in the country a little bit, so it’s not like I see a lot of people,” Whitaker said.

In the first part of her time at home, Whitaker wouldn’t be awake for more than an hour or two hours at a time before falling back asleep.

People would call to check on her, but she said she felt like she was having trouble following the conversation.

“I wanted interaction. I wanted to talk to people, but then I would get so frustrated that I could not maintain the conversation or I would lose track of what we were talking about so severely that it was almost like, ‘I’m sorry, what were we talking about again?’ every couple of minutes,” Whitaker said.

She started working from home again and would be in by bed by 7 p.m.

A Memorial Day weekend drive and walk in the park was the first time she felt like she didn’t need to stop after a few minutes.

“It’s not the flu. It’s so much worse than that,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker had quarantined herself longer than she was advised to because of her fear of getting other people sick.

“It could be weeks to months before I feel completely normal, because my GI tract has a lot to heal from. My immune system is extremely poor anyway and has been seriously taxed, so I’m also at risk of catching other things very easily, more than normal even,” she said.

Joshua Fields
Joshua Fields, center, with children Joshua Jr. and Olivia
A long time from family

A week before going to the hospital, Joshua Fields said he thought he had the flu. He had a slight fever that would come and go. 

The symptoms went away but he felt weak that weekend.

“My head was pounding. It took me it seemed like two hours to get dressed,” Fields said.

His family took him to the emergency room and was admitted in early April. Most of that month is blurry in his memory.

“My brother told me that when I was talking to him, he was asking me if I was alright. It sounded like I was struggling breathing, but I don’t really remember a lot,” Fields said.

Weeks later, a nurse set up a Zoom meeting so he could talk to his family and know how his kids were.

“I still haven’t really seen them yet,” Fields said, who spent roughly three weeks in the hospital..

His mother was also admitted to the hospital about 10 days after Fields and discharged about a week after Fields left.

During his quarantine, he was mostly by himself. His stepdad, brother and sister would come by to help him with what he needed and help change bandages for bed sores

“I really miss my kids, so that was real hard on me,” Fields said.

Fields said he feels a lot better now but still “have a road to go before I feel like I was beforehand.” With a big family, he has had a lot of people calling to check in on him. 

He hopes to see his kids, who have been with their mother in Virginia, in the coming days.

“They didn’t really want to leave, because they wanted to be home when I got home. But I thought it was better for them to be with their mother because … I didn’t want them to have to be there when I got home to see me like that,” Fields said.

Fields said he felt like he has lost some muscle mass and wants to get back into exercise when he has recovered.

“Right now, I know that, like, sometimes when I go to the store with my brother and my sister, I feel worn out,” he said.

Fields said he hopes people understand how serious the virus is and look out for their families.

“I was more worried about my kids getting sick. Honestly, I didn’t really think I was going to get sick. I’m more of a ‘keep to myself’ type person. My kids are more social than I am,” he said.