From the Bay to the Blue Ridge, To the Blue Ridge

COVID In the Country

By Julie Reardon

COVID In the Country

A year ago, as COVID cases and rules about masks, social distancing and cancellation of gatherings dragged along, we considered how lucky we were to live in a rural area where it’s easy to social distance and avoid exposure to the virus. It’s also easy to hide stuff like your own declining health, filling me with a false sense of complacency. Unbeknownst to me, I got COVID early on, which I mistakenly treated as a garden variety respiratory infection. After all, in January and February 2020, no one had heard of COVID—not until March. So I never saw a doctor about my nagging respiratory infection.

Only marginally improved after 2 months, pollen season hit with a vengeance. My lungs, already scarred from chronic asthma, struggled. It was also very easy to hide how short of breath I’d gotten, and the weight I’d gained. With my compromised lungs I took no chances and neither of us went anywhere unless we absolutely had to. I only went to the grocery for curbside grocery pick up and the post office. Our post office is tiny, so it was easy to wait until no one else was in the little building to go in. Anything picked up outside our farm was disinfected and our hands washed before entering the house.

The problem with hiding your worsening health from friends and family is that you start to believe yourself that your health problems are no big deal. The pandemic and related restrictions made it easy to keep my shortness of breath and worsening asthma well hidden from friends and family as well as myself. And 2021 started on a bad note. In January we lost my oldest dog, a male Chesapeake that was almost 15. In the spring, along with the return of the tree pollen and worsening shortness of breath, my younger brother passed away from an accidental overdose of fentanyl. My asthma attacks were becoming more frequent and taking longer to recover from, and in late May an asthma attack landed me hospitalized for acute respiratory failure. It was the first time I’d ever been hospitalized overnight.

This time I was scared and finally forced to face the cold truth about my health. My lungs were failing. I was placed on oxygen, prescribed a mountain of medications and sent home after 4 days. No longer able to hide my condition, I started a program of respiratory therapy and exercise and was able to wean myself off using oxygen during the day. Not until a visit with a pulmonologist in July did I realize that I’d actually had COVID early in 2020, even though I’d had all the signs: lack of taste and smell and even the “COVID toes”. But I was reminded late in September when I was hospitalized again for pneumonia, this time spending 10 days there. By now I was staying on a hospital bed in the living room, since all 4 bedrooms in our farmhouse are upstairs—13 steep stairs I was too weak to navigate.

Kept at bay but not eliminated during that last hospital visit, the pneumonia returned in late October. This was, perhaps, the scariest incident of all especially since I remember nothing from the first week. Pneumonia, paired with my lungs’ inability to expel carbon dioxide, produced a toxic build up that is preceded by vague symptoms others noticed but I did not. I passed out and was taken by ambulance back to the local hospital. I was placed in an induced coma and on a ventilator, none of which I remember, and transported to the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. My first memory there is being taken off the ventilator and then learning my husband had to make the agonizing decision to put our favorite dog to sleep.  She was almost 14 and in declining health; it was the right decision but a heart breaking loss nonetheless.

After a 10-day stay I returned home, breathing better but greatly weakened by 3 weeks of ICU. And a new resolve not to keep my health issues hidden from friends and family.

Publishers Note: We are very glad to have Julie getting back in the swing of things. She has been a contributing writer since almost the beginning 35 years ago. We hope you take something away from her column and pay close attention to your body. Getting vaccinated may be a very good place to start.

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