Utahns who had COVID-19 share what it was like

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katherine Allred, pictured at home with her dog, June 5, 2020 contracted COVID-19 in April.

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It feels like the worst cold ever — times 10. Like one cough might make your head explode. Like a baseball stuck in your chest. Like a group of people learning to tap dance on your rib cage.

There’s fatigue, too, so extreme that just rolling over in bed is exhausting. And you may think you’re freezing, but your clothes will be more drenched in sweat than they’ve ever been during any workout.

After this week, there are now approaching 12,000 people across Utah who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Even in mild cases, some say that the clinical list of symptoms pales in comparison to what they’ve experienced.

The Salt Lake Tribune spoke with residents who have been sickened by it — some more severely than others — and are trying to recover. They span different ages, backgrounds and cities. One family watched it spread through the house, infecting kids as young as 5. One woman was hospitalized for a month.

In vivid terms, they all described how it felt.

Katherine Allred

Allred, 41, lives in Salt Lake City.

It started in the middle of a call with her boss.

Katherine Allred remembers feeling fine and then suddenly at 11 a.m., she said, “it was like a weight dropped on me.” She tried to talk, but her eyes were burning and her chest got tight.

She managed to say, “I gotta go" and hung up.

Allred’s husband had been sick about two weeks earlier and got tested for the coronavirus, but they still hadn’t gotten his results back. At first, Allred wondered if maybe she was imagining the symptoms after days of searching on the internet to see if it’s what her husband had. After all, she’s young and fit.

But when she tried to stand up from her desk, she could feel something wasn’t right. “There was like a baseball under my chest,” she said. “It felt very strange. I thought I was going to pass out.”

She rested and later that day, March 27, she drove to a hospital to get a test. It came back positive. Her husband got his results the following day — after 13 days of waiting, his were negative.

Allred said their doctors now believe it was a false negative from faulty testing in the early days of the outbreak. They’re not sure how he got the virus, maybe at his workplace. But Allred had been staying home, and there’s no one else she could have caught it from. And just as he was getting over some mild symptoms, she was developing severe ones.

“I never thought I’d be somebody who was hit hard,” she said. “We were both healthy.”

Despite being a runner and working out frequently before the pandemic, Allred now had no strength. Letting her dogs outside was exhausting. She’d sleep for two hours after walking up the stairs. Even rolling over in bed made her tired.

Her heart was beating furiously, too, like some kind of Morse code signaling how sick she was. She never went more than 72 hours without her fever spiking.

At first, Allred tried to work through it, logging in from home. But after every meeting, she was lying on the floor in pain. Her husband made her a cup of coffee one morning, and her sense of taste was so far gone that she thought he’d handed her water instead.

About four weeks in, she got an X-ray that showed she had scarring in her lungs. She couldn’t believe the impact.

Only now, about two months later, have her symptoms eased, though she still has some difficulty breathing and heart palpitations.

Cynthia and Moises Lemus

Cynthia Lemus, 24, and Moises, 34, live in Magna.

(Photo courtesy of Moises Lemus) Pictured is Moises and Cynthia Lemus in this undated photo from a trip to Washington, D.C.

Cynthia Lemus couldn’t remember if she had told her husband that she loved him when he left the hospital.

For the previous week, her brain had been in a fog as she fell in and out of fevers as high as 104 degrees. All she could recall now was driving with Moises to an emergency room after he insisted. Then there was beeping and blue gowns and shiny linoleum floors.

They had both tested positive for the coronavirus a few days earlier, Cynthia on March 31 and Moises on April 1. Neither knows where each might have caught it. But doctors told the couple, who’d been married for just over a year, to recover at home with some ibuprofen.

Cynthia started off with a sore throat and then a cough. Moises was worse at the beginning, feeling like he couldn’t breathe. “It literally felt like I just had a bunch of people standing on top of me and dancing on my chest,” he said.

Six days in, though, they switched. Cynthia was gasping for air even while sitting down. “It was as if,” she said, “I had just run a marathon.”

Moises decided that she needed help on the night of April 5, but she’d only go to the hospital if he went with her. So he held her hand, and the nurses checked the young couple in. By 4:30 a.m. on April 6, Cynthia’s oxygen levels were so low that staff decided to hook her up to a ventilator. To do so, they had to put her in an induced coma.

Moises, who didn’t need urgent care, was discharged that morning; it was now the early hours of his 34th birthday. Before he left, he kissed his wife and she closed her eyes.

“When the doctor said we’re going to have to keep her, I got scared,” he said. “It was so hard to leave her.”

He called the hospital every day on a schedule, 4:30 a.m., 9 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 5 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. If he couldn’t be there, he wanted to at least know how she was doing.

“I was just living for the next phone call,” Moises said.

For a week, there were no improvements with the ventilator running at full speed. By Easter, Cynthia was put on an ECMO machine to support her heart and lungs. The doctors told Moises that she had a 50% chance of surviving. He kept calling.

On April 17, Intermountain Healthcare doctors decided they’d try one last thing: an experimental transfusion of plasma from recovered patients. There was no guarantee it would work. And they’re still not sure that’s what caused the change. But over the next few days, Cynthia slowly got a bit better.

She woke up on April 21.

Cynthia couldn’t talk yet, but the nurses called Moises on a video chat to show him how his wife was doing. He cried and shouted that he missed her. She remembered what she had wanted to say before he’d left the hospital.

On a little white board on her bed, she wrote: “I love my husband.” And she held it up for him to see.

They were back home together nine days later, though both still have a lingering cough.

(Screenshot courtesy of Moises Lemus) This is the first text that Moises Lemus got from his wife, Cynthia, after she was in the hospital for a month with the coronavirus.

Mark and Winnie Rohde

Mark Rohde, 67, and Winnie, 66, live in North Salt Lake.

Winnie Rohde said she figured out she had the coronavirus when she was chopping an onion.

It sounds kind of odd now, she said with a laugh. But she was trying to make some soup at the start of April — when both she and her husband, Mark, weren’t feeling well — and realized she suddenly couldn’t smell anything.

“Wait a second,” she recalled thinking. “These onions aren’t even bothering me.”

She called Mark into the kitchen and asked him if he noticed the smell. It was pretty strong to him.

Over the next few days, their symptoms worsened from what felt like a regular cold to something stronger. Both started feeling aches and pains all over. And Mark was extremely nauseous.

“I just wanted to go to sleep,” he said.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mark and Winnie Rohde caught COVID-19 at the end of March, hours apart from each other.

Winnie got a headache that lasted several days. She added: “Every time I coughed I thought my head was going to explode.”

The two called in to their doctor to get tested but because it was early in the pandemic, they were initially told, “No.” They also hadn’t been out much, so they weren’t sure where they might have been exposed.

Mark eventually got a swab before he could go in for his regular checkup for diabetes. Winnie was able to get in three days later. Both were positive. By then, about a week later, though, their symptoms had mostly passed.

“We were lucky," Mark said, “in that it didn’t really get into our chests.”

They both consider it mild. Winnie said she’s still had some trouble trying to smell the hyacinths and lilacs in her garden, though. And Mark said his energy isn’t back to what it used to be.

But he joked: “It’s hard to tell because we’re both getting old, too.”

Greta Robinson

Robinson, 16, lives with her parents and four siblings in Eagle Mountain.

(Photo courtesy of Cameron Robinson) The Robinson family poses in this photo from 2019.

Greta Robinson had just landed her first job — at a fast-food restaurant by her home — when she got sick.

It started with a stomachache about a week after she started. She thought maybe she had food poisoning. “It was kind of like the flu,” Robinson said.

Her dad told her to call in sick to work just in case and drove her to get tested for the virus. On May 7, the results came back positive.

Robinson had a bit of a fever and no appetite. She remembers trying to eat breakfast one morning but couldn’t taste anything.

“Some days I felt fine,” she said. “I didn’t really have symptoms. Other days, I had all of them. It was just kind of random.”

Even though her case was mild, Cameron Robinson, Robinson’s dad, said the family tried to keep the teenager isolated from her four siblings. But a few days later, Robinson’s 7-year-old brother got sick.

He had a fever, too, and vomited in the car on the way to a testing center. His symptoms lasted about a day and a half. Robinson was sick for a week.

Surprisingly, no one else in the house got it.

The Budworth family

Mac Budworth, 41, and Shannon, 40, live in Sandy with their four kids, ages 5, 7, 11 and 14.

The virus quickly spread through Mac and Shannon Budworth’s home last month, infecting everyone in the family while they felt helpless to stop it.

They had been so careful, wearing masks whenever they went out and sanitizing everything that came in.

But when the governor loosened social distancing restrictions, it seemed to them like a safe time to test the waters. They decided to go to a picnic with their extended family. And that’s where the Budworths think they got it.

By Memorial Day, all six members of their immediate household had tested positive, including all four of their kids, as well as several aunts and uncles and grandparents who had been at the gathering.

Those who are older have been sicker. Shannon’s father, who’s 65, has lost 15 pounds, though he’s starting to recover. Her older brother, who appears to have had symptoms first, has been so fatigued he can still hardly stand.

Shannon and Mac, both healthy and in their early 40s, have been ill now for two weeks.

(Photo courtesy of FotoFly/Budworth family) In this photo, parents Shannon and Mac Budworth pose with their four kids.

At first, Shannon felt like she couldn’t clear her throat. She thought maybe it was allergies. Then it felt like she was standing in front of an oven trying to catch her breath.

“There’s nothing to cough,” she said, her voice cracking over the phone. “It’s just hot, hot, burning air that you’re coughing.”

She then had shooting pain in her arms and legs. Excruciating, she added, doesn’t begin to capture it.

“I feel like I’m getting better and then another wave hits," she said, “and you’re worse than you were before.”

Mac, on the other hand, has felt like his eyes are going to pop out of his head, like they’re too big for their sockets. He’s also alternated between chills and hot flashes, like someone’s playing with a light switch on his body. Except no matter which way it’s flipped, he’s soaked in sweat.

He’s surprised at how far and fast it spread — and how potent it’s been for some. But the parents feel fortunate that their kids haven’t been as sick. There was no way they could have quarantined away from them. And they’d all been exposed anyway.

Their 11-year-old son has had a bit of a headache. But the hardest thing for him has just been not seeing his friends. “And I wanted to sleep to a lot,” Elijah said.

For their 7-year-old daughter, the anxiety over having it was worse for her than the actual virus. She hid under her bed for two days trying not to catch it. She got a mild cough.

“It’s been lighter for the kids,” Mac acknowledged. “But for us, it’s worse than any flu we’ve ever had.”

Shannon added: “The worst flu — times 10.”

Camille Biexei

Biexei, 70, lives in Salt Lake City.

(Photo courtesy of Camille Biexei) Pictured is Camille Biexei at her home.

The coronavirus came with nearly every symptom for Camille Biexei — and some still haven’t gone away after nearly three months.

She had a cough. If she walked across the room, she would be winded. Her heart has raced. She couldn’t sleep or eat. And her skin itched all over.

“It felt like slugs crawling on me,” she said. “I felt uncomfortable in my body.”

Before COVID-19, Biexei said, she was pretty active — even for a grandma, she noted with a laugh. But when she got the disease in early March, she thinks maybe from a family member, it wiped her out.

“I just started feeling really exhausted and dizzy,” Biexei added. “And my right side went weak.”

She feels like a stereotype for the virus: that older people get sick. But after what she’s been through, she wants people of all ages to take it seriously. After all, her daughter, Katherine Allred, is 30 years younger and had it just as bad — if not worse. It could happen to anyone, Biexei said.

“I may be dealing with aftereffects for the rest of my life," she added. “Just know that it’s real. It’s very real.”