When the first announcements of a strange new virus called COVID-19 hit New York City’s news, I was working. We allergy/immunology nurses stopped what we were doing and watched the Channel 7 broadcast with fear. At that point in January, the first case was being reported in the United States. I explained to the other nurses that I’d been working in infectious diseases when Ebola hit the US.
“This feels similar,” I said, noting that Ebola was quickly contained. “We had more deaths from the influenza that year than Ebola itself.”
We resumed working, hoping this situation would be similar.
I wake up with gastric symptoms and a fever. I’d drunk a bit the night before and had Blue Ribbon fried chicken a bit too late, an unusual combination for me. Another nurse I work with, who had shared the meal and drinks with me, wakes up with similar symptoms. As of now, the CDC is only reporting three symptoms for COVID-19ócough, fever, and shortness of breath. I’m already asthmatic and know I have no respiratory symptoms, but I still stay home from work for a week. The symptoms continue.
I wake up coughing, wheezing, and short of breath. My fever has spiked again after being absent for a couple of days, so I head to an urgent care center. I explain to the physician there that I was informed the day prior that a nurse and a physician I work closely with tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week and that another physician is awaiting results. He states he feels I have the coronavirus but will not swab me due to lack of testing. Besides, he says, the treatment would be the same anyway—fluids, rest, Tylenol.
I wake up feeling like my lungs are working extra hard. My fever has reached 103.7. I contact my director of nursing and the allergist/immunologist I work directly with. Both advise me to head to an ER. I arrive at a hospital in downtown Manhattan just as the Motrin I took is breaking my fever. I know this because I’m profusely sweating. My Albuterol has taken effect as well, as my breathing does not feel as labored. I look around and see patients in worse distress than I’m in, so I know I will not be admitted. I am put on the antibiotic Azithromycin, given IV fluids, and sent home.
I am coughing up bright red blood. My chest is heaving with every breath. Neither of my two inhalers is helping and my fever has spiked to 104.5. Both my superiors are now begging me to call 911, as it is clear I need to be hospitalized. I am hesitant because I have never stayed overnight in a hospital before, but I can feel my body shutting down systemically, so I dial 911 and am rushed by ambulance to a hospital in Brooklyn.
At 5 a.m. a physician comes to tell me my nasal swab is positive for COVID-19, as I already knew. He then throws me off-guard by asking if I have family in the nearby area. I should call them, he says, and tell them I love them, tell them what’s going on with me. I am so scared, I text my fellow nurses, not my parents, because I want a second opinion and know a shift change is happening in a mere two hours. I am on 15 liters of oxygen and still heaving. My fever remains high and they are not giving medication. They forget to give me an IV until I remind them at 6 a.m. I have now been there for nine hours. At 8 a.m. I’m told I will be moved to the ICU. At 3 p.m., still in an overcrowded Critical Care ER, they tell me there is no bed for me and they need to find another ICU in New York City somewhere. Every hospital they call is completely full. They finally locate an ICU bed in the Bronx, forty-five minutes away. I have to get transferred and the oxygen tank cannot give me the amount I&rsquol;ve been receiving for the transfer. I am not warned. I only know this from my own medical knowledge.
At 12 a.m. I arrive at the Bronx hospital gasping for air, only to be told my ICU bed was given away. I am then put on a newly renovated geriatric psych unit that hasn’t even had patients yet. I am put in a room with no oxygen attached to the wall, just a completely bare room. Not even a trash can. They are trying to find a large oxygen tank for me, as I keep running out. This is not an ICU unit and this is the first time I feel I may die. I don’t sleep. My fever spikes again. I cough up red blood.
They are not feeding me by 9 a.m. and I last ate on Friday, March 27. I just want cold water. I ask for some. It comes two hours later. Someone in full PPE comes into my room and steals my oxygen tank. I am gasping for air for five to ten minutes. They bring it back. It happens again—for more than ten minutes. I am trying to yell that I can’t breathe, but no one can hear me in an isolation room with no call button. I am choking. I know I will die tonight if I am not moved out off this floor immediately. At 7 p.m. I start to choke on blood. I feel my lungs shutting down as well as my kidneys, my whole body. I press and press the newly made call button. No one comes for over an hour. I know a normal adult’s O2 saturation levels should be 98–100 percent. Mine are now at 86 percent while on oxygen, then drop to 80 percent.
They call the ICU. I’m rushed down and put in a glass isolation room with all of the ICU physicians and nurses crowded around me. The doctor says he needs to intubate me immediately. I say no. He states they will watch me for an hour and if I can keep my O2 levels above 90 percent, they will not intubate me. I spend an hour staring at the wall, practicing deep, slow breathing while clutching my necklace that stores my only sister’s ashes. I make the decision then and there that my parents will not go to a hospital and pick up another dead child with tubes down her throat. I succeed in keeping my O2 sats above 90 percent, so the staff lets me rest.
I wake up to two medical researchers shoving a stack of papers in front of me. They ask me to sign my name to try an IV transfusion for a blinded clinical trial. They state no one will know if I receive a placebo, 200 milligrams or 400 milligrams of a medication called Kevzara, made by Regeneron. I recognize the pharmaceutical corporation, as they make a biologic medication I use daily at work. I’ve personally seen that medication dramatically change patient’s lives. I accept. I receive. I am still considered critical at this point: high fever, diarrhea, dehydration, kidneys not functioning, and labored breathing while attached to an oxygen mask.
I feel a bit better. I am not coughing up blood anymore. My fever is lower.
I wake up with no fever. I am able to eat a little bit. I am able to talk a little bit.
I now know I will not die. No fever for two days. My nurses say I look so much better. Two physicians come in and ask why I refused intubation. I explained my family’s last image of my thirty-year-old sister: she was dead on a hospital bed with tubes down her throat. When I arrived at the hospital back then, I had pleaded with the nurses to take them out of her and to clean the blood off of her so my parents didn’t have to see her that way. They stated that since she overdosed at home and was so young, there would be an investigation and they could not touch her body. That image will be forever embedded in my brain. I told the doctors I would not allow my parents to go through it again. They stated that had been the smartest move because it saved my life. I was the sole survivor of the ICU on the night of March 29. The other five patients who were intubated before me died. They change their “intubate immediately” policy.
I can smell again. I am tasting certain foods. I speak with my voice to my parents for the first time. They cry. I don’t tell them that I have no TV or window, that I just watch all day and night from my glass isolation room as bodies are rolled in, code, and rolled out with a sheet over them. I haven’t cried yet.
Today I turn thirty-six. My ten girlfriends who I grew up with create a Dropbox video of them and their kids, across the country, singing me “Happy Birthday.” I finally cry. A lot.
I am moved to a medical surgical unit, as they have dropped me down to 4 liters of oxygen and I am talking without my mask. Doctors and nurses come into my room to ask my story. I become some sort of phenomenon, mostly because this trial medication saved my life. Today is the first day my medical researcher will admit I did not receive the placebo and was given either 200 or 400 milligrams. She states my markers went up dramatically all week after the IV transfusion I received and the areas of my lungs with damage can be seen improving on my chest Xrays. My arms are bloodied and bruised from twicea-day blood draws and I am sick of taking so many medications, especially the blood thinner injections to the stomach.
They take off my oxygen mask. An hour later they tell me I am having an early discharge. I am not prepared and know they should keep me another twenty-four hours, as per protocol with the oxygen. They state they are scared I will get another infection from the hospital and that I need to continue lying in bed all day while at home. No one sends me home with oxygen and I don’t get a wheelchair. I have to walk for the first time in ten days. I’m so weak. The nurses cheer for me as I leave the unit. I cry uncontrollably.
On the street I see a nurse who took care of me in the ICU and cannot believe she recognized me with my mask on. We both cry and she states she thought I would never walk out of here alive, as most doctors and nurses have already told me. I take a forty-five-minute Uber ride back to my apartment. I have a bad asthmatic episode on my second-floor apartment stairs. I take my inhaler a couple of times. I run into the shower. My roommate helps me stand as I scrub all the tape and electrode pad residue off me.
It has taken me more than two months to recover. I am still not at work but hope to be by July. I had to do a lot of breathing exercises in the beginning and was sleeping fourteen to more than eighteen hours a day, due to chronic fatigue and not sleeping for more than three hours straight in the hospital. I am now able to take small walks around the block and not use my rescue inhaler. I continue to read articles about lengthy recoveries from other healthcare providers who also almost died and who, like me, were also immunocompromised prior to getting COVID-19. I have hope and faith I will return to work soon to help the sick people of New York City, the reason why I got into this profession.
Laura Carriere is a nurse working and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has been a nurse for fourteen years and is currently attending a CUNY college to further her education.