Clement Y. Chow: When you have coronavirus, the isolation is the worst

The isolation is the worst. Lying awake alone, wondering what will happen. Will I die alone?

It started with a low-grade fever accompanied by the chills and cold sweats. With two young kids, I am no stranger to being sick so I thought at worst, this was just a bad case of the flu. COVID-19 didn’t even enter my mind; after all, there were only one or two cases in Utah at the time. However, I do remember thinking that this felt unique because all I had was a fever.

Then came the cough. It started as a typical cough you might experience with the cold or flu, but it quickly got worse. I started coughing up blood in my phlegm. Within a day, I was having trouble catching my breath and the coughing worsened. We had a pulse oximeter at home so I was able to measure my blood oxygen saturation levels. When I saw “70” blinking at me, I knew I had to go to the hospital. My body wasn’t getting enough oxygen.

My wife rushed me to the ER at the University of Utah Hospital. We were instructed to call when we arrived so the staff would be prepared with personal protective equipment for themselves and for me. They asked my wife to go home and rushed me into an isolation room. I could barely make the short walk – my breathing had worsened and I was gasping for air. They put me on oxygen using a nasal cannula which provided immediate relief. While in the ER, they ruled out a number of viruses, including the flu. They also tested me for COVID-19. I would later find out I was positive for COVID-19.

I was admitted to the hospital and moved to a normal isolation room. In the ER, I was stable on oxygen. But in my room, it quickly became harder and harder for me to catch my breath, even on the oxygen. I was treated with respiratory therapy to open my airways and the oxygen was turned up as high as possible. Nothing was working. I was still gasping. A crew showed up in PPE, rushed me to the ICU, and put me on high-flow oxygen. I would spend the next five days there without seeing my family.

More isolation. ICU isolation is lonely. The staff are donned in PPE and everyone looks the same, making the whole experience even lonelier. During the first day, the physician told me that I might need to be intubated. I knew that this was bad. That night I laid awake, alone, wondering if I was going to die. Wondering if I would ever see my family again. Luckily, I had amazing nurses and physicians who kept watch over me and slowly weaned me off of high flow oxygen, eliminating the need for intubation.

I was fortunate to get sick so early. I was the first COVID-19 ICU case at the hospital and had the attention of all the staff. I spent three days on high-flow oxygen and two days on more standard oxygen before I was discharged. I was sent home with oxygen and was told recovery would be slow. But isolation continued, as I had to be quarantined for an additional 10 days away from my family at home.

I know I am one of the lucky ones – I survived. Others have not been so lucky. The physical pain was terrible, but even more, the isolation and loneliness was something I had never experienced. I can only imagine what it’s like for people who are dying.

COVID-19 is crushing, both physically and emotionally. Please stay at home and practice physical distancing. Keeping more people healthy mitigates undue risk to our healthcare providers who have families of their own. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall did the right thing by issuing a mandatory stay at home order. Gov. Gary Herbert needs to do the same immediately.

As for me, I’m still recovering. I’m still on oxygen and still coughing. The good news is that I am out of quarantine. I came out of isolation and hugged my children for the first time in over three weeks.

Clement Y. Chow, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Utah.