“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)
March 10, 2020. I was returning home to Pennsylvania from a week in Tampa, Florida with family. My uncle was visiting from Germany. Another uncle and his family from North Carolina were there as were my aunt, her husband, and my parents. We had all enjoyed each other’s company that week. As the week progressed, we kept hearing about COVID on the news. The evening before we left, there were two confirmed cases in Tampa and talk of shutting down the country. We joked that Florida was not a bad place to be stuck. We all made it home safely. Two days later, the country shut down, as did Germany.
My husband and I decided to shelter in place. He works at a local university and they, of course, shut down. I am self employed as a real estate appraiser and have been for 26 years. I have several pre-existing conditions including diabetes and smoldering multiple myeloma, which has weakened my immune system, leaving me vulnerable. For these reasons, I stayed home.
Fast forward to April 3rd. I was not feeling well. I felt like I had bronchitis (achy, with fever and congestion). I managed to get a tele-visit with my doctor that day. He prescribed an antibiotic. I am prone to getting sick several times a year, so this seemed almost routine. By Wednesday, the 7th, I was much worse. My doctor ordered a chest x-ray and COVID test. He called that evening to tell me I had pneumonia. Whew, only pneumonia, or so I thought.
COVID tests took up to a week to come back then. But still, I thought this was the typical course for me; however, I continued to decline. By Friday, the doctor sent me to the ER at Evangelical Hospital. I said goodbye to my husband at the door. That was the last I saw him for nearly a month. My pulse oxygenation level was 67. No wonder I could not breathe. I remember being placed in a negative pressure room. Next thing I remember is waking up 21 days later in ICU in Geisinger Medical Center in Danville.
From what I have been told, I continued to text my husband to update him. That did not last long. I do not remember it, but I was put on a ventilator and transferred to Geisinger. They wanted me to have access to extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) should they feel I needed it. During those 21 days, I know I had COVID pneumonia twice and developed acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). I did not know it at the time, but I was fighting for my life.
My family could not see me because there was no visitation. The medical staff called my husband daily to keep him updated. A kind nurse enabled my daughter to contact me by FaceTime. I do not remember that interaction at all. My daughter also posted almost daily on Facebook to keep family and friends updated. A year later, this would help me better understand what had happened as my memories popped up on Facebook. It was hard to relive that time, but also helpful.
I was moved out of ICU around May 1st and discharged May 7th. My physical and occupational therapists were surprised at how well I was able to walk and function.
I remember being wheeled down to the front entrance, and there were my husband and daughter with tears and the biggest smiles! I was going home!
But now the struggle continues. The first few months home are still fuzzy. I was unable to do anything. I was on oxygen. I had to use a walker. I could not even shower or dress myself. Slowly, I began to improve.
Then came June. I began having difficulty breathing and was wheezing. Dr Korzick, who had treated me in the ICU, sent me to see another doctor who admitted me to ICU that day for an emergency tracheotomy. I had developed stridor (noisy breathing), partially paralyzed vocal cords, and glottis stenosis (narrowing of the larynx). This was all attributed to COVID. Since having the trach tube placed, I have had 3 additional surgeries to remove scar tissue. The hope is to finally have the trach removed late this summer.
I still struggle to breathe. My most recent CAT scan shows lungs that look like I have pneumonia. We don’t know if they will ever heal, and I continue to have brain fog and fatigue. As my pulmonologist says, I am the poster child for COVID’s long-term effects.
COVID is the virus that keeps giving. I am the warrior who keeps fighting.
Deleen Wetzel is a wife, mother, grandmother, and survivor of COVID, who wishes to use her experiences to educate and help others.