Thursday, September 24, 2020

COVID-19: Up Close and Personal

Putting a Familiar Face on the Pandemic

By Mary King

Sandy Kessinger is a healthy middle-aged woman who leads an active lifestyle. A former Grandview alderman, Kessinger works for Bank of Blue Valley and volunteers her spare time to many different organizations. She most recently became president of the Grandview Education Foundation. Even through the pandemic, she remained focused on her work and her volunteer efforts as much as possible.

“It’s hard to believe that a week ago I was in the hospital,” said Kessinger. “I never thought COVID was a hoax. I knew it was real, I just never thought it would affect me. Personally, I was more worried about the collapse of the economy than I was about contracting COVID. I didn’t think I would catch it.”

Wearing a mask when required in public, working from home, and washing her hands more often than usual, Kessinger felt as though she was doing everything she needed to be doing in order to remain healthy and clear from the virus. However, mid-week before Labor Day, she started to not feel well. After several days of worsening symptoms, on Labor Day, Monday, September 7, Kessinger and her husband, Don, went to get her tested for COVID-19.

“I can’t even really describe how I felt,” she said. “It wasn’t a cold. I’ve had bronchitis before and all kinds of other respiratory illnesses, and this wasn’t like any of those. It didn’t feel like anything I’ve had before. I just felt off. I was really fatigued and the body aches were the worst. But, you know your body, and when something doesn’t feel right. I knew something was really wrong when I didn’t have the energy to even walk from the bedroom to the couch.”

With no underlying health conditions she’s aware of, Kessinger wasn’t convinced that what she had was COVID-19. The couple headed to an urgent care clinic, where with a limited number of tests available each day, they were given an allotted time to be tested.

“I had heard that they dig practically to the back of the brain for the test, but at the urgent care it wasn’t like that,” said Kessinger. “She just swirled a Q-tip looking thing around real fast in my nose, and that was it.”

While at the urgent care, the nurse practitioner also checked Kessinger’s vital signs. Attaching the blood oxygen monitor to her pointer finger, the nurse thought maybe something was wrong with the monitor and tried another of Kessinger’s fingers. The readings on her blood oxygen levels were dangerously low. Still not convinced it wasn’t a technicality, the nurse attached it to Kessinger’s husband’s finger, then her own, just to be sure.

“She told me my oxygen level was under 90 and asked me if I had a hard time breathing,” said Kessinger. “I didn’t realize until she mentioned it that I was shallow breathing to keep from coughing.”

The physician on call at the urgent care clinic sent Kessinger straight to the emergency room due to her critical oxygen levels.

“I was thinking, ‘I just came to get a test, I didn’t sign up for this,’” she said.

The clinic sent her medical paperwork over immediately to the hospital, and the Kessingers made their way to the ER.

“I was planning on going to get a COVID test and then going home,” she said.

Kessinger’s Labor Day plans changed quickly, as she was ushered into isolation immediately upon arrival, while her husband waited outside in the parking lot for updates. The COVID-19 test Kessinger received upon admission into the emergency room at the hospital, unlike that at the clinic, was like everything she had read about previously.

“It was almost like a straw that they stuck in there, and I literally saw stars,” said Kessinger. “My eyes teared up and it was horrible. The test is no joke.”

They had Kessinger dress into a gown, and when she met with the first attending physician and nurses, she noticed they were suited up from head-to-toe in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

“It kind of took me off guard,” she said. “They each had on three masks, a shield, every piece of hair is covered, gloves, plastic disposable gowns, and even shoe covers. Every time someone came in my room, they would get rid of it all when they left. They would have to put a fresh set on every time. Knowing that I was the one there potentially exposing everybody was kind of surreal.”

While there, she found out there was a shortage of housekeeping staff due to fear of working in the hospital during the pandemic. Kessinger discovered that the one who was there most consistently cleaning her room was working 16-hour days to keep up with the cleaning because her coworkers were no longer coming in.

Kessinger was fully admitted to the hospital on the evening of September 7. She spent six full days in the hospital, and was finally released to go home on Sunday, September 13. While there, she received a number of treatments, including intravenous antiviral medicines, oxygen, steroids, blood thinners, and two plasma transfusions from recovered COVID-19 patients. Preliminary tests have shown that the plasma antibodies have proven to strengthen the body’s ability to fight the virus quicker.

“It’s overwhelming. To have to listen to a doctor tell you that they have to wait on your test results before they can treat you because nothing has been approved yet - though there are treatments the FDA has authorized for those with a positive result - to not even have Don there to help make those decisions with me was probably the hardest,” said Kessinger. “The practical side of me wondered if insurance would pay for this. Am I going to even be able to afford to live my life after this hospital bill?

“I looked it up while there, and the makers of Remdesivir (the antiviral medication she was given) are charging something like $3,500 for the five doses,” Kessinger added. “Though I will say, I feel fortunate that I became a patient six months after this came to light, because there was so little data for those people who were in the hospital in March or April. The doctors have learned a lot more since then.”

Though she’s grateful for the care she received while in the care of her physicians and nurses, she was ready to go home. Being in hospital isolation took its toll on her mental health.

“Just being by myself was the worst part,” said Kessinger. “The days were just so long. When you find yourself living this, it becomes so real. It’s more than just news stories you’re reading.”

Kessinger said in a few months, the blood bank will likely call her to donate her own plasma and pay it forward to another patient suffering from the virus.

“Of course I’ll say yes,” she said. “It seemed to work, though. I remember when they were taking me to my room in the hospital, if we had turned right, I would have been in the ICU. There were COVID patients there in the ICU on ventilators, and I’m very thankful that I wasn’t one of them.”

As much as she said she felt sorry for herself while in the hospital, she was grateful that it wasn’t worse. Upon going home, Kessinger no longer needed the oxygen, and was feeling much better already; though she was told to quarantine for 10 days. Her husband’s test that he received on Labor Day came back negative. She continued the steroid treatment for another five days at home.

“Not knowing where I got it, I’m a little freaked out about venturing out in public again,” said Kessinger. “I don’t know who I got it from or when that moment was that coronavirus entered my body. It freaks me out because I don’t know if I have any immunity. They’re not sure yet, and the thought of getting it again knowing that I’ve already been hospitalized once is scary.”

She said she is going to be more mindful in asking questions while out in public going forward. Having a first-hand experience with COVID-19, she plans to speak up when someone near her is coughing or showing other symptoms.

“Unfortunately, we’re coming up on the flu season, and people have seasonal allergies, but I don’t think it’s inappropriate to ask people if their coughing is normal for them,” said Kessinger. “I have a whole lot more hand sanitizer that I’m ready to put in my purse and my car. I don’t want to live my life in a bubble, but I want to be careful too.”

She is also concerned about how other people, her friends and family, will feel about being around her.

“Until it happened to me, I didn’t really know anyone who had it,” she said. “I don’t know what my reaction to someone else with it would have been. It feels as though there’s a stigma attached to a positive result, like I’ve turned into a pariah.

“I’ve had mixed feelings about sharing my COVID diagnosis publicly,” Kessinger said in a social media post to her friends. “Not sure why, as if there is some kind of shame in catching a virus during a pandemic. There’s no protocol for this.”

Throughout her experience with COVID-19, Kessinger learned that she’s not bulletproof, and that things that stressed her out before coronavirus don’t seem to matter as much anymore.

“That’s the lesson I hope I remember once I’m well,” she said. “It’s the little things, after all.”

For up-to-date COVID-19 data and information in Grandview and Jackson County, visit the Jackson County Health Department website at www.jacohd.org.

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