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‘When I couldn’t breathe, I thought I was going to die’: East Valley High School librarian shares battle with COVID-19

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 30, 2020

East Valley librarian Amanda Mead, right, along with wife Abbie Speer, are seen Friday at their home in Spokane. Mead likely contracted COVID-19 from a co-worker, then Speer also tested positive.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
East Valley librarian Amanda Mead, right, along with wife Abbie Speer, are seen Friday at their home in Spokane. Mead likely contracted COVID-19 from a co-worker, then Speer also tested positive. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

After a month battling COVID-19 and now pneumonia, Amanda Mead, 37, has good days and bad days. There are waves of exhaustion that leave their legs feeling like “jello” and the librarian even unable to hold up a book.

“As someone who has run marathons and competed in duathlons and regularly is active, it’s a huge life change,” Mead said. “And I am hoping that it goes away.”

Mead contracted COVID-19 sometime during the last week of October. They think they got it from a coworker at East Valley High School where they are a librarian.

When the pandemic started earlier this year, Mead – who has an autoimmune disease called Behcet’s syndrome that causes blood vessel inflammation – was extremely concerned.

“That was one of the reasons why I was trying to stay pretty distant from folks,” Mead said.

However, Mead’s rheumatologist said people with Behcet’s were not at a higher risk of contracting the virus, and while Mead wasn’t completely supportive of in-person school reopening with transmission rates on the rise in Spokane, they headed back to work this fall.

Mead has been a librarian at East Valley High School for the past three years after teaching middle school .

“It’s the best job,” Mead said. “I get to just have relationships with kids and talk about cool books. It’s really ideal.”

Mead is heavily involved in the school community, creating a book club for students and serving as the adviser for the Gender and Sexuality Alliance. As a nonbinary and queer person, Mead loves mentoring young people through their turbulent high school years.

“I get to have my hand in every pot,” they said.

While being back to school in-person was a bit nerve-wracking, Mead said they were impressed by the effort of school district staff to keep students wearing their masks properly. That doesn’t mean students or staff are masked every moment while at school, Mead said.

Mead’s contact tracer said they likely got the virus at school. There have been four documented in-school transmissions of the virus in the East Valley School District, said Superintendent Kelly Shea.

One of Mead’s coworkers had a family member test positive for the virus around the same time Mead did, but the coworker tested negative, Mead said.

“Somewhere along the line someone was likely asymptomatic and positive,” Mead said. “That’s my best guess.”

On Oct. 28, Mead had some digestive problems, but they thought it was just a bad reaction to take-out. The stomach problems continued Thursday and Friday, which sent up a bit of a red flag but wasn’t completely out of the norm, Mead said.

“I even thought to myself, hmm, I hope this isn’t something else,” Mead said.

On Halloween, Mead and their wife, Abbie Speer, attended a friend’s wedding. The event was held outdoors with physical distancing and everyone – including the newlyweds –  wore masks.

But two days later when Mead began having body aches, they started to get worried. On Nov. 2, Mead woke up with a 100.8 degree fever.

They decided to go get tested for COVID-19, and two days later  their test came back positive. Speer also tested back positive.

Immediately, Mead thought of the wedding on Halloween.

“Oh my God, did I get anybody else sick?” Mead recalled thinking. “Even though I knew, logically, it was probably very unlikely anybody would get sick from that event.”

Everyone in attendance tested negative for the virus, except Mead and Speer. Despite the negative tests, Mead said attendees self-isolated for 10 days.

A contact tracer called Mead about a week after they got their positive test results, but by that point Mead said they had taken matters into their own hands, contacting everyone they saw outside of their home within the past in the last two weeks.

Over the next few days, Mead began to experience new symptoms.

“It was a nightmare,” they said. “Everyday there was either a new symptom or another symptom.”

Mead made a list of symptoms each time they experienced a new one. They lost their sense of taste and smell, then began having pain in their eyes.

“My physical eyeballs hurt,” Mead said.

Mead began getting auras, blind spots and headaches, they said. Then came back pain and a rash across their chest, shoulders and collarbone. After those symptoms began to subside, they experienced congestion, coughing, sneezing and burning nostrils, Mead said.

“My entire sinuses all the way into my chest felt like I had been like sniffing bleach or something,” Mead said.

Then their hands began to get extremely warm in comparison to the rest of their body, coupled with a tingling sensation. After that came a sense of impending doom, Mead said.

Two weeks after their first symptoms, Mead was having such difficulty breathing they went to urgent care, where a doctor diagnosed Mead with pneumonia in their right lung.

“When I couldn’t breathe I thought I was going to die,” Mead said. “I really thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going into the hospital.’”

About three weeks after those first symptoms, Mead was feeling better but still battling extreme exhaustion.

“I do feel much better than I did even two days ago, but what I’m struggling with now is really intense muscle weakness,” Mead said last week . “It’s seemingly out of nowhere that it will come on like a wave and I can’t do anything.”

Despite being extremely ill for weeks, Mead has only used eight of their 10 COVID-19 leave days provided under the 2020 Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Otherwise they have been working from home.

“I knew we only had 10 of those days, and I didn’t know how long I was going to be sick,” Mead said. “It’s really hard to work from home.”

East Valley High School moved classes online on Nov. 13 due to an increase in COVID positive teachers, staff and students. The school committed to at least two weeks of distancing learning. At the time there were 53 employees quarantined, Shea said.

The school remains flexible to “meet the current situation,” Shea said, but plans to return to a hybrid model as soon as safely possible.

With students not set to return to-in person classes until the Monday after Thanksgiving, Mead hoped they would be well enough to join them.

“I thought I was for sure rounding the corner,” Mead said. “It was better, everything was going great.” 

But on the day before Thanksgiving, Mead was barely able to breathe. Their adoptive mother in Spokane is a nurse and suggested Mead go back to the doctor. On Saturday, Mead was coughing and had a fever again. 

“Now I’m on my second round of antibiotics because I can’t seem to kick the pneumonia,” Mead said. “I’m really sick of this.”

That day Mead continued to feel “really, really terrible,” unable to do anything but lay on the couch and watch TV. But Sunday they felt a bit better. 

“Today, I can at least be angry so I feel like I can accomplish something,” they said, pausing to cough, which left them out of breath.

While Mead said they understand the fatigue of trying to do the right thing eight months into the pandemic, they now have first-hand experience with the virus and want others to remember how serious it can be.

“Don’t get this. Do whatever you can. Even if you don’t die, it’s still the worst,” Mead said. “The feeling of not being able to breathe sufficiently is pretty terrifying.”

Editor’s note: In a previous version of this story, Mead’s age was listed incorrectly. They are 37. 

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