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Shawn Vestal: Tales of COVID-19, and the various ways it affects people

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

A friend from high school with a brutal headache and fever for days.

A professor at my alma mater whose 18-year-old son experienced intense levels of fatigue. A Spokane couple in their 80s whose family has rallied round them as they battle weakness and cognitive challenges. My sister’s parents-in-law, who never really got sick.

A 25-year-old who died, suddenly and shockingly, whose tragic story I saw on Facebook.

Even if we don’t have it, none of us are far from COVID-19. The same webs of human connection that allow the virus to spread are the ones that tether us to the people experiencing this illness.

Over the past week, I reached out to people in my network of friends, family, acquaintances who have the disease – people I know, people who are friends of friends, people whose stories crossed my social media feeds – to ask them if they would share their experiences. This is the result: My Six Degrees of COVID-19.

Most of these illnesses, like most of all cases, were “clinically mild,” meaning they didn’t require hospitalization, but the disease affected individuals in remarkably different ways. Most battled fatigue and flu-like symptoms such as fever; most of those I spoke with feel they are at the end of their illness, or over it, but unsure whether COVID is completely done with them. Most had difficulty or delays in getting tested.

All of them found their lives upended by their diagnosis; all saw ripple effects through their families and had to negotiate unforeseen challenges associated with the disease; all of them urged people to take precautions seriously.

Here are some of their stories.

‘Crazy fatigue’

On July 14, Chris Valeo’s 18-year-old son, Dylan Doney, was notified that a co-worker had tested positive for COVID. Dylan had worked closely with this co-worker a week before; he was tested the following day, July 15.

Before his test results were back, Dylan began to suffer from a head cold, sinus congestion and “crazy, couldn’t-get-out-of-bed levels of fatigue,” said Valeo, who chairs the English Department at Eastern Washington University.

Then Valeo was hit with a “killer stomach bug” – one day in bed, two days flat on the couch. Some fatigue and headaches would follow, along with some of the cognitive fuzziness that is common among those with the disease. She assumed she had it, as well.

Dylan’s positive result came back July 19.

It took longer for Valeo and her 14-year-old daughter, Halley Doney, to be successfully tested. They initially were tested at the drive-thru operation in Airway Heights the day after Dylan’s positive test, but then were informed later that the samples taken that day had been compromised. Valeo and her daughter were retested, and received their results Friday: Both negative.

That was just one delay. Valeo said her son’s employer was presumably aware his co-worker had been exposed to COVID and was awaiting test results several days before letting her son know of the positive test; during that window, Valeo and her children spent time – though following health guidelines – around others.

She understands the privacy concerns around health information, but wonders if there was a way to alert others to be careful sooner. Being able to spot and isolate potential cases more quickly, as well as having access to quicker turnaround on testing, would improve the ability to limit the spread of infection.

“As a community, we just have to be able to respond faster,” she said.

The family, which has been good about masking and following public health guidance, has been quarantined during this time, and Valeo purchased an oximeter to help measure their blood oxygen and help them manage their anxiety about the illness.

Dylan has reached the end of quarantine, though Chris and Halley have a few more days. Dylan’s symptoms faded, then returned with one day of major fatigue; he is feeling better now, and looking forward to attending the University of Michigan, in person, this fall.

One ramification of the illness and Valeo’s quarantine was that she had to stay away from her parents in Missoula, as her mother was undergoing open-heart surgery. She’s grateful their cases were not more serious, but it’s been a trying experience for her and her children

“We’re so lucky,” she said. “I’m employed. I’m insured. We had a mild case. My mom’s in incredibly good hands. But holy mackerel.”

‘It was a shock’

Chuck Ailie took a hard fall the early morning of July 19, and wound up being taken by ambulance to Holy Family Hospital. An 88-year-old native of Spokane, Ailie lives with his wife of 63 years, Shirley, in the Morgan Acres.

Chuck has atrial fibrillation, or AFib, which causes an irregular heartbeat, and when he arrived at Holy Family Hospital his heart was beating alarmingly fast – 150 beats a minute, said his daughter, Stacey Ailie. By the time his scrapes, cuts and racing heart had been treated and he was headed home, he had a new health concern: a positive test for COVID-19.

Stacey and Shirley were tested later that day; Shirley’s test was positive, and Stacey’s was negative. Shirley, an 88-year-old with a history of strokes, has had more health problems resulting from the illness than her husband.

“My most concern is for my wife,” Chuck said. “As you know, we’re both in our high 80s and it was a shock to get this thing.”

Stacey, a 59-year-old Spokane native who was laid off from her job at Triumph Composite Systems due to the pandemic, is convinced Chuck contracted the disease from an unmasked delivery driver they encountered a couple of weeks ago, while they were on an errand to buy Shirley some chocolates.

The illness has exacerbated his AFib, and made him so weak he relies on a walker – whereas he might have climbed on his riding mower and cut his one-acre lawn before he fell ill. He has not suffered many of the other symptoms of the disease, such as cough or fever, though his caregivers are keeping close watch on his lungs, which they believe may have some fluid in them.

Shirley, meanwhile, has suffered a similar fatigue and weakness, and also has pneumonia, Stacey said. She has also shown more cognitive effects, and has all but stopped communicating at times – deepening some of the effects remaining from strokes she’s had.

“Now her communication skills have pretty much shut down,” Stacey said. “You’re lucky if you get a yes or no.”

Chuck has in-home care, but it has been a nightmare for Stacey to arrange in-home care for her mother; she’s caught in a bureaucratic loop between her mother’s health care providers and insurance company, and had still not been able to resolve that conflict late last week, 11 days after her mother was diagnosed.

Stacey’s adult son, John Naccarato, has moved into their basement to help care for them. He is being as careful as he can, he said, including double-masking and wearing gloves, but said if he does contract the disease that he is young and healthy and believes it won’t be serious.

The Ailies are vulnerable to the disease, but have so far not shown the most serious symptoms. Stacey said they seem to be improving and gaining strength.

“I’m hoping we’re getting through the worst of it,” she said.

Chuck, a former police officer and salesman, said he would like to see more people taking the disease seriously.

“I see a lot of careless people out there in crowds and stuff, not even wearing their masks,” he said.

‘Tired constantly’

It’s been more than two weeks since Wes Piatt felt his first symptoms, and he’s still feeling them.

“I’m still fighting the exhaustion – just being tired constantly,” he said.

Piatt is a 51-year-old lumber trader who lives in Meridian, Idaho, with his wife and four kids. He and I went to high school together.

Like a lot of people, Piatt caught COVID at the workplace. His boss got the illness from his wife, who works at a grocery store; three others in his nine-person office eventually contracted the illness, too.

Piatt learned of his boss’s diagnosis on July 11. Two days later, he felt the first of what would be his most common symptom: a crushing fatigue, a “couldn’t-keep-my-eyes open kind of tired.”

The following morning, he was suffering body aches, a splitting headache, joint pain and other effects similar to the flu – a very bad one, he said. He was tested July 15. He lost his sense of taste and smell July 16.

“At that point I was like, yeah, for sure,” Piatt said.

His positive result came back July 20. He isolated at home, staying apart from his wife and four teenage kids; for days, his headaches made it hard to even think, and his fevers kept him swinging between the sweats and the chills. He worried about the virus getting into his lungs.

His symptoms have eased, but not completely gone away, he said last week. He feels lucky that no one else in his family was positive for the disease, and they’ve ended their period of quarantine.

‘I’m just lucky’

Morgan Hartonov doesn’t know where it came from, but it showed up in mid-March, early in the pandemic: relatively mild headaches, and then a slight fever.

His wife urged him to get tested, though he wasn’t feeling very sick, and he received a positive result March 15. Hartonov, a 32-year-old salesman for Dale Carnegie Training and co-founder of the 90+ Project Youth Soccer Organization, then spent the next dozen days or so by himself in a room and steering clear of his wife, who is pregnant. She has tested negative.

He said he doesn’t know where he contracted the illness. “At the end of the day, I have no idea,” he said. “I’m just lucky we took social distancing seriously. I don’t believe I passed it along to anyone else.”

He said his symptoms never became very serious, and lasted 12 or 13 days.

“My worst day was the last day I had it,” he said. “Then I started feeling better.”

He experienced an epilogue, though. After he had recovered, he went on a 10-mile bike ride with a friend, and it really did a number on him.

“It felt like I ran 50 miles and my lungs were just dead and they hurt for the next week and a half,” he said.

He had his lungs X-rayed, but they didn’t find any damage, he said.

‘It wasn’t an issue’

Many people have had very mild cases of COVID. Wayne and Debbie Chandler had a case that never really made itself known.

The Chandlers live in Wendell, Idaho. They are my brother-in-law’s parents and people I have known most of my life. Wayne is 72 and Debbie is 69; they contracted COVID while serving an LDS mission at the Heber Valley Camp in Utah.

They were there for about three weeks in June when they learned one of the other couples serving a mission at the church camp had tested positive. “Everybody up there was exposed,” Debbie said.

They went to nearby Heber, a town about 45 minutes southeast of Salt Lake City, to be tested. They returned to Wendell, and were told they’d tested positive on June 28. In the town of Wendell, population about 2,700, news of their diagnosis spread quickly.

“Everybody thought we had the plague,” Wayne said. “The whole town of Wendell knew we had it.”

They stayed away from others for the next two weeks, though they never registered a fever, lost their sense of taste and smell, or had any other symptoms.

“Maybe a little fatigue was the only issue,” Wayne said. “But I’m 72! I get fatigued! To me it really wasn’t an issue.”

Three other couples who had been serving missions at the church camp also came down with COVID, and had more serious symptoms, they said.

‘Please do whatever you can’

Most people survive the disease. But the dreadful, unpredictably fatal nature of COVID was recently driven home for me, as for many people in Spokane, through social media, where I read a Facebook posting about the death of 25-year-old Aliyah Marsh.

Marsh’s death was stunning even for people who didn’t know her. Young people, generally, aren’t as severely affected by COVID as older people are, and many of us have adopted a nonchalance about infections among that age group. But Marsh died suddenly on July 21, about a week after she and her fiancé were diagnosed with the illness, according to an interview her mother, Jacqueline Porter Martone, gave to KREM and a statement issued by the family. She did not want to be interviewed for this column.

Marsh and her fiancé, Adam Chavez, were planning her wedding next year. In early July, they learned some people in their apartment complex had come down with COVID; they began experiencing mild symptoms and were tested. Both came back positive.

About a week afterward, Marsh woke up having trouble breathing. The following day, as her mother was on her way to drive Marsh to a doctor’s appointment, Marsh collapsed. She died before the ambulance arrived.

Her family’s statement read, in part: “Maybe, like us, you didn’t really know what Covid-19 was capable of. Now that you know, the question is simply what you are going to do to protect yourselves and your families. We understand that certain preventative measures are not realistic for everyone as we all need to work, but please please take this opportunity to do whatever you can do to prevent this from happening to your family or others. We can no longer act like we don’t really know what this virus can do.”

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