COVID-19 story by Susie McCormick, 2020

Susie McCormick shares her experience becoming ill during the COVID-19 pandemic. She describes her symptoms, virtual doctors' visits, and going to the emergency room and being tested for COVID-19. In addition to Susie's audio story, she writes the following addendum: I completely lost my appetite with the sore throat and then, beginning with the fever, I had digestive issues and was unable to keep even bland food in for about 5 days. I finally went with a liquid diet the 6th day and then was gradually able to keep food in but my appetite was nonexistent and I had continuing nausea for about 2-1/2 weeks. I couldn’t taste food or smell it. I lost 6 pounds in that first 10 days of being sick and didn’t gain it back. I also had a virtual visit a week after the fever when I felt my breathing issues weren’t improving at all. The doctor I spoke with felt trying 5 days of a high dose of prednisone might help improve things. I completed that course and it really didn’t have the usual effect of instantly making things better that I’ve usually seen in the past with a bronchitis or something. I was still using rescue inhalers and nebulizers throughout and it was another week or 10 days beyond that when I was able to reduce use of those. -- Susie McCormick, April 2020

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    Interviewer: Hello. My name is Laura Damon-Moore. I am here recording ''Stories From a Distance'' for the Living History project, today. It is Monday, April 13th, 2020. I'm going to have our narrator introduce herself in a moment and let us know what her Madison connection is.

    Susie McCormick: Hi. My name is Susie McCormick. And I've been a resident of Madison since 1973. When my family moved here, I was a young child. So, I grew up in Madison Public Schools and went to the University and have lived in and worked in and around Madison for most of my adult life. And I live in, currently live in Sun Prairie.

    Interviewer: Fantastic, thank you, so much, Susie. And I think we'll, we'll open it up to you. Can you tell us your COVID-19 and Safer at Home story?

    Susie McCormick: Sure. I am, I, first of all, I have two grown children and I live alone. So, and, and I also have asthma. So, when stories about this came out, I was definitely concerned and, and wanted to be very careful and cautious and protect myself. So, I, I work from home half of the time and from an office the other half of the time. So, I'm super-fortunate in being able to have that flexibility. So, I just started working from home more. I also started stocking up on some things. Not making a run on toilet paper like a lot of people. But just stocking up on basic necessities and making sure I had medications and just practical things. And so that I could, and I tried to do that in several you know, trips so that I wouldn't have to go out frequently. And so, I was doing that in late, late February and early March in several trips. And I was just about done stocking up and I guess toward mid-March, and was ready to just kind of hunker down and just stay in and stay safe, when I actually did get sick. So, that, that was kind of my story. And I, and I am now recovering. Three and a half weeks later, I am finally getting back, back to normal health. But so those were the precautions that I, I took, kind of like everyone else. I mean, I was very careful to kind of maintain a distance and you know, try to minimize my trips out. You know, I'm not working with the public, so. I don't know. Do you have other questions or do you want me to. . .?

    Interviewer: No, no [inaudible]. I'm wondering how did you realize you were sick? Had you been monitoring you know, your symptoms or was it just that you know, how did it start, I guess? What was that like?

    Susie McCormick: It was March 18th and I started with a sore throat, a pretty, pretty severe sore throat. And kind of typical flu-like symptoms where I had the chills and I really thought that I had a fever. And I, I was working that day at home. And I kind of kept taking my temperature, thinking I must have a fever. I was cold and hot and sweating and just not feeling well. Bad headache. And I did not have a fever. It was actually less than, less than normal. And so, I thought okay, well, maybe it's just a cold or, or something. So, I treated my symptoms that Wednesday and Thursday and just had the sore throat, the headache. On Friday the 20th, I actually thought I was feeling better during the day. And I went to bed that night and I woke up in the middle of the night and I was gasping for air. I actually woke up and I was gasping for air. And, and I thought maybe I'm just, you know, there's so much news coverage by that point, there was so much news coverage about the symptoms and everything. And I wondered if maybe I'd just been having a dream and you know, just. And, and so, I just, I got up and I read and I tried to calm myself down and tried to go back to sleep. And I went back to sleep and a couple hours later, I woke up and I had a heaviness in my chest and some pain in my back with breathing. And I thought okay, maybe this is, maybe this is moving into my chest. Maybe I'm still sick and I'm, this is going into my chest. Went back to sleep. I woke up in the morning and around 8:30 or nine o'clock I started spiking a fever of 101.5.

    So, then I did a virtual visit with my doctor. And that took a while to get through because it was really just starting to peak at that point. We had just, I think we had just kind of everything had just shut down and things were really just starting to hit here in the Madison area, I think. So, I did get through. The nurse I talked to said it does sound like it could definitely be COVID and I got through the call and they said given that you have asthma, that you should probably be tested. So, I'll have a doctor call you back and they would probably put you, at that point, for UW Health, they would put you in a, a queue for testing for COVID. The only way you could get testing at that point was if you had symptoms and also had a risk factor such as asthma or any of the other risk factors.

    So, that was Saturday around noon. I didn't hear anything on Sunday. And I had some other questions about whether I should be using extra asthma medications. I talked to a nurse and they said yes, you will be still hearing back because I was surprised, I hadn't heard back. And she said it's 24 to 48 hours that you would be hearing back. But you should get a call and they will be scheduling you for a test.

    So, then I did hear later that day that I was scheduled for a test on Monday, the 23rd. And they were doing all the testing out of one clinic and having all of the respiratory patients go to that one clinic, so as to reduce exposure to other people with non-respiratory issues. So, it seemed like they had a really great process in place. But clearly, there was huge demand and you know.

    And that Sunday night, I woke up in the middle of the night and I just could not breathe and I had just this heaviness on my chest that I, I just felt like a huge pile of books or elephant on my chest or something. And it was really scary. And living alone, it was extremely scary not to know at what point should I call or? And I have family nearby, but my parents are older. My mom's asthmatic. I didn't want to expose them. So, at, at a certain point, I called and I talked to a nurse on call. And she said you should really just probably go to the ER.

    So, so I drove myself to the ER and they checked me out and tested me for influenza A and B and RSV. And when those tests came back negative, they had also done like a chest x-ray and some bloodwork and some other things. And when those things had all come back okay, then they decided to run the swab for COVID, to, because it seemed the most likely you know, they were basically calling it suspected COVID. So, then, at that point, I also got medication to use. I have a nebulizer since both my kids were asthmatic as, as children. And I have not had to use a nebulizer except probably a couple times in the last five years. And they prescribed medication for me to use a nebulizer which just basically clears out your lungs and opens up your airways. It doesn't clear out your lungs. I guess it opens up your, your bronchial passages.

    I was sent home and was waiting for the test results which then came back the next day. And surprisingly, were, were negative. And I was very surprised and I, I think my doctor's office was very surprised because my symptoms were, were so, so typical of the, you know, the timing, the progression, the symptoms. And the fact that every other respiratory virus that could be causing these symptoms had been ruled out.
    They basically said that I should continue to self-isolate and you know, treat, treat it as though it were COVID. And so, I continued to use medication every, every four hours, I used a rescue inhaler for asthma and, and my preventive medications. And then, I used nebulizers in the night because at nighttime, it was, it was so much worse at night. I mean, and you, you hear this, you see people talking on television or wherever about what it's like. And it, it just hits at night. It just, you can't breathe. And it just feels like you can't get a full breath of air or you can feel yourself breathing, but it doesn't feel like anything is actually getting to you. It doesn't feel like the breath is getting to you. So, it's, it's a very strange and kind of terrifying feeling. But the nebulizers did seem to help, help me get through that. And when that still wasn't enough to, for me to fall asleep, sitting up at night and just staying awake and kind of getting through that was the best I could do. And then, during the day, I would, I would rest. But it was, it was very exhausting and there were some really scary moments in those nights.

    I think, too, being by myself and just that, that feeling is, is a, is a very strange feeling. I think the, the panic that you hear people have, too, also compounds that feeling of not being able to breathe. Which, I think, they were really understanding of that at the ER and said, you know you were right to come in. And the, the panic is a normal part of, of this disease, too, I think, because, because the symptoms create that lack of, of ability to breathe. It's a natural instinct to panic. And it's also knowing how quickly this can turn and turn for the worse. And that people will you know, will, will turn for the worse and end up on a ventilator and end up not making it. There is that, that panic can turn, can turn so quickly into you know, where's this headed? So, you know, that, that, I, I dealt with for the first several days until I could see that okay, I'm, I'm going to trust that these nebulizers are going to work. And then, I just kind of had to I guess, gain some faith that okay, maybe this is just, this is, this is going to work and this is going to happen every night, and then, it's going to be okay.

    I ended up learning a lot of breathing exercises and some meditative exercises, also, that were really, really helpful. And I had people reaching out to me who, this was, and I'm just kind of free-flowing here, so if you have a question, raise your hand. I had a lot of people, once I decided to post on Facebook, which is about two weeks into my experience, I decided to reach out. Because I realized that I felt like other people should know that I, I think two weeks into it, I realized okay, this has got to be COVID. Because if it was something else, it would have gone away. It and it just wasn't, it just kept, you know, it just went on. I wanted other people to realize that, you know if I had a negative test and I'm continuing to have these symptoms and continuing to experience this, that you know, they could have a negative test. And my symptoms were severe enough that I knew to stay away from other people. But these people that are having cold-like symptoms or less severe symptoms who test negative, may trust that it's a negative test. And, and may not be as careful around other people. And I guess I, I thought that it would be important maybe just to share that a negative test is not necessarily a negative.

    So, I shared my experience. And I was amazed to hear people from different parts of the country that I'm friends with. People in Seattle, people in Tennessee I heard from, who had been sick in late February or you know, earlier, earlier in February, and had something like this. That the symptoms were very much like this but it was before the first cases were even diagnosed in their communities.

    I think that we're finding now that we know that coronavirus has been here in the States in various communities longer than we realized. And I think, like myself, a lot of these people feel that they have had COVID even though they haven't tested positive for it or been tested at all. And I will be really interested in finding out once the antibody tests are available whether they did have it. Those people were very helpful to me in sharing breathing exercises, sharing their experiences. Letting me know, you know, that it eventually does start to heal and that you know, you do still have this heaviness in your chest, maybe a month or five or six weeks later, but that it's not every night and it's not all the time and that your energy starts to come back.

    That has been my experience. I am still self-isolating. I am actually sleeping through the night. I am not using a nebulizer. I'm not using a rescue inhaler every four hours anymore. I'm still using it occasionally. And that is only in the last few days that that happened. So, the first three and a half weeks, I have been treating you know, pretty aggressively with asthma medication just to manage the symptoms of this. But my, my family has been you know, supportive from a distance. Friends have been awesome from a distance. But you know, I can't say enough.

    One other thing that I would also add is that as careful as I was about the way that I prepared for this and tried to protect myself. I feel fairly certain that it was on one of those trips to a store to get supplies that I was exposed. And I actually can remember a time I was at like a Woodman's or Target and it was before everything was shut down. And someone was standing behind me and the lines were huge. Someone was standing behind me with their cart very close to me and they were standing at the front of their cart which was right next to the back of my cart. And he was on his cellphone talking to his wife and it was about four o'clock on a weekday. And he's coughing and coughing and on his cellphone and not using, not coughing into his arm or anything. Just coughing. And saying “I just woke up from my nap. I thought I'd get some supplies.”

    And I'm thinking, it's a weekday and you just woke up from a nap and you're sick and you came out and you're coughing all over and you're coughing on my cart. And in retrospect, I might have turned around and said you know, could you back up or you know. We were in line together for 15 to 20 minutes, probably. This line was moving so slowly. So, I think that people don't realize that you know, it's those interactions that you can be out, you can be protecting yourself, you can be trying to keep a distance from other people. But if they are not, you know, keeping a respectful distance. And now, of course, people are using masks but people were not wearing masks [at that time]. I think I saw two people maybe wearing masks, at that time.

    Interviewer: Right.

    Susie McCormick: I don't know that that's the person who gave it to me. I could have gotten it off of a cart or it could have, you know, it could have been anywhere. But it just makes you stop to realize all the people that you interact with. The other thing that it made me realize, too, is who have I interacted with that I could have exposed? So, I had to backtrack and consider who had I exposed prior to being in my home?

    Interviewer: I actually, I have a question about that. Was, well, maybe this was past the point where there was an attempt to do contact tracing or anything like that. So public health was not involved with your saga here, at any point.

    Susie McCormick: They were not. At the ER, I did ask. I said so if this comes back positive, how far back do I need to look at my contacts and how, who do I need to contact? And they told me. And I was surprised, it wasn't as far back as I would have guessed. This was Wednesday that I came down with symptoms. They said I would need to go back to the previous Saturday. So, only back four or five days, which I found a little bit surprising. But that meant that I had just gotten my hair cut the day before. And then, of course, three days after I got my haircut, they were closed. Salons and everything were shut down. And I probably shouldn’t [have], you know. That was a concern to me because I know that my hairstylist lives with her boyfriend who is a dietitian at Oakwood Nursing Home on the East Side. And so, my concern right away when I started with the breathing issues and spiking the fever on Saturday, I reached out and I friended her on Facebook and I messaged her. And I just said I am so sorry but I may have exposed you to this. And I'm really concerned about you and your boyfriend being exposed to this. And so, I alerted her and she was super-nice about it. I told them you know, I hope you start you know, you're watching for symptoms.

    And I know at Oakwood, she had told me because I had asked her when I got my haircut, like, what were they doing to protect people, residents at a nursing home. And she said it was very strict. Like, every time he went to work, they were taking temperatures, they were watching symptoms. And clearly, they're doing a good job. I know at West, at Oakwood West, there have been some cases. But for the most part, I think our county has had a relatively low incidence of nursing home outbreaks. I stayed in contact with her and neither of them did get sick. And I know that at the salon that I went to, they were wearing gloves. They were, you know, they were practicing, they were using a lot of hand sanitizer. They were using a lot of precautions. And she said that she felt pretty confident that they were okay. But it just made me feel so horrible that. I mean, my fear was like, oh, God, if I've started something at a nursing home, because I went to get my hair cut. I mean, these are the decisions that you, that you make. And you know. And who would have thought that we would be second-guessing minor decisions like that as being major life-changing events for, life and death events for people in our society? And it has been a strange several weeks, to say the least, I guess. But for everyone. But it does make you look at all your interactions with people differently.

    Interviewer: For sure. Yeah. I don't know how your memory is of going to the ER. Was everybody in masks? Was it busy?

    Susie McCormick: Mm-hmm.

    Interviewer: Were there a lot of people there? Or what was that setting like?

    Susie McCormick: I was not. First of all, I was worried about going because I didn't want to cause. I didn't know that my symptoms were severe enough that I should be taking their time, you know. And I got there and it wasn't busy. It was, I think it was like four o'clock in the morning on a Monday morning. Four-thirty, maybe. And it was not busy. And I came in and they had—their protocols were just insane. They were definitely protected. They had a certain direction that I was supposed to walk around the desk and certain protective gear and things that you know, they were using and discarding. And certain people were in contact with me and others were not. And, and they actually said— I think I said, “I'm really impressed that you have this." And they said well, these are all new protocols and we're, we're still getting used to them. And so, it was fairly new, I think, for them, too, at that point. It was not busy in the ER. It was actually very slow. And in fact, I said something to one of the nurses about it seem[ing] really slow. And he said yeah, usually, we're really busy on Monday mornings. People are not coming to the ER for other things, anymore.

    Interviewer: Wow.

    Susie McCormick: So, it has impacted the way the ERs are used in general. Like, people are—clearly, people don't want to be in that environment. They don't go for just anything anymore. They're, at all costs, I think they're avoiding it. And even more so now, because I'm sure it's busier now than it was. I know there's a lot more hospitalizations. I mean, at that time, I'm trying to remember. I want to say there were, there were less than—I, I want to say there were only, like, 30 cases or something in the state.

    Interviewer: Wow. Yeah.

    Susie McCormick: Or I don't know. I would have to look back. I'm sure it's, I mean it's grown so exponentially. But I will say, too, that they were very careful about, I mean, the, the room was closed. It was carefully marked as—you know I don't know if it was marked as COVID. But it was [marked] as biohazard. And everything that came, came in and out of there was disposed of. So, I was, I was very impressed with the way they handled it. Like, I was also afraid to go there and expose myself to it if I didn't have it. So, that was part of my thinking, too.

    I think the other thing, I expected the test to be painful and it wasn't. And she said this is not going to be comfortable. And that is part of the reason I think that maybe my test was negative is the swab is— I mean, everything I've heard is the swab goes up and it goes over and it's, it's kind of rolled around and kind of, it's a pinch. And it really was very quick and it just seemed like it went up in my nose and it came straight back down and there was no pinch. And it was fast and so, I don't know if there was something in the technique of it that it just wasn’t—I don't know. And not to discredit anyone or and I think that I, it, it. It's not even just Madison. I think you hear about negative, false negatives everywhere you go. And I may eventually hear that after I have an antibody test that I did not have COVID. But I would bet my life that I did, or do, so.

    Interviewer: For sure. Can I ask now that things have progressed you know, that you're a couple of weeks past the worst symptoms? Are you still, like, doing the breathing exercises and mediation? Do you have touchpoints, throughout your day, you know? That are grounding for you [inaudible]?

    Susie McCormick: I do. I do actually do some breathing exercises, especially when I go to bed. I think it's like a calming thing that I do when I go to bed. I tried to come back to work. That was one other thing. I tried to come back and, and work from home. I think it was the second week. I wasn't really able to. I ended up just not, I kind of, kind of had a flareup and it just got worse again. So, I did have to kind of step back and say you know what? I'm just not ready to be back working and because I had a couple of rough nights after I'd been kind of progressing in the right direction. There is definitely truth to the fact that you can think that you're feeling better, and you can feel better and kind of resume normal activity. And, you're just not, you're not there, yet. So I'm still cautious now. I mean, I'm definitely still taking it easy when I can and you know, I was working some longer days and I'm still, I'm, I put in my eight hours. And until I'm completely and totally over this, I'm taking it easy. And I am still using some of the preventive medications. But yeah. I would say I know that I have those to fall back on and I think they’re— I think that you know, it really did kind of teach me the value of some of that meditative and focused breathing that I have never really realized before. But when I was desperate for anything, it really did make me, it made a difference.

    Interviewer: Thank you. I think you may have spoken to this a little bit. But do you think—I think everybody is going to emerge from this different or like living their lives a little bit differently. At least, for a while. What are your thoughts on that? Like, are there already things you can tell that are going to be, like, really different for you once we're all back to normal?

    Susie McCormick: Yes. I think one thing that—well, I think it's changed all of us. And this was before I was sick. But I think I realized that even more so. I think it's changed the way that we interact with each other. I think that instead of relying on texting and you know, messaging, I think that the value—And maybe it's because I've been isolated for four weeks now. Plus, because I was isolating before I got sick— But I think the value of picking up the phone and calling and hearing someone's voice, I think we didn't realize just how important that was. I think that's the change. That if you can't see someone, at least if you can hear their voice, [there’s] so much more value in that than texting and electronic communications.

    And I guess the flip side of it though, is without electronic communications, we wouldn't see each other's faces. And we wouldn't be able to do Zoom calls and you know, my family was able to check on me and see what I looked like and you know, see my progress. I think that was helpful to them to at least see me when they couldn't be with me. And I'm just so thankful that I wasn't someone who had to be hospitalized with this. I mean, that's I think another thing that's changed people is, like, the idea of when you're really, really sick and when you lose someone who is sick and close to you. The idea that they can be fine one day and then go in the hospital and you never see them or communicate with them again. I think that is a life-changing thing for any of us, knowing that that happens. And that that's happening with so many people, right now. I think that changes our, our interactions with people. I mean, it has to because how can you, how can you live with yourself if you don't tell people how you feel or you know, look out for each other? And value people when you know how, how fleeting it can be and just how scary an ending people can come to. And I think that that's the scary thing about this.

    So that definitely was a fear for me. I think that sharing my story, the other reason that I wanted to share my story, is that I don't know that this seems real to people when they're watching it on television until they know someone who is having those symptoms and who is sick and self-isolating. And the more people that we can reach with our stories and let them know that it's happening to someone that they know. And someone who was just taking care and just doing normal stuff and trying to take care of themselves and not in a high-risk situation and not working in a healthcare situation. Or you know, I think people need to know that it can happen and how to protect themselves.

    Interviewer: For sure. Thank you, so much. I feel like that's a pretty good place to start wrapping up here. Is there anything we did not talk about that you want to make sure to mention?

    Susie McCormick: No.I think I've covered most of the things. I think it's, it's just looking out for people.

    Interviewer: Sounds good. Well, thank you so much, Susie, thank you.

    Susie McCormick: All right. Thank you for the opportunity.