Sarah Leland is on the other side of the novel coronavirus.
The 39-year-old Camas resident doesn’t know how she got COVID-19. She doesn’t know anyone in her family who had it. Maybe she got it at work; an ICU nurse with Providence in Portland, she interacted with a lot of people, though no coronavirus patients directly. Maybe she got it during a trip to the grocery store or gas station.
“I’ll probably never know,” she said.
What she does know is how it felt to have the virus and how grateful she is to be recovering. Earlier this week, Leland described her experience to The Columbian.
Clark County has had 57 COVID-19 cases among health care workers who were not necessarily infected as a result of their jobs, said Marissa Armstrong, spokeswoman for Clark County Public Health. That means out of 265 confirmed cases, health care workers represent nearly 22 percent of the total.
Leland’s symptoms started around mid-March, and at first she didn’t realize they were symptoms of the virus. The first week she had a runny nose that came and went, which she attributed to allergies. She also had body aches in her neck and back that were so painful she had trouble sleeping and resorted to sleeping on the floor. Perhaps the extra work shifts were taking a toll on her body, she surmised. Tylenol helped some. She also didn’t realize initially that her sense of smell had gone.
By the start of the weekend, she developed a mild cough. About 48 hours later, she was out of breath walking up the stairs.
“Just going down to my kitchen and coming back up, I would have had to stop and catch my breath,” Leland said. “I have never been so short of breath.”
As a health care professional, it was scary to see how quickly her condition worsened. She could only take shallow breaths. No cold she’d ever had could compare to this. She called her primary care provider and explained that she worked in health care and needed to be tested for COVID-19.
They said they couldn’t help and told her to talk with her employer. So, she told her manager she was feeling sick and relayed her symptoms. She then went to the emergency room, which Leland wouldn’t necessarily recommend but was how she was able to get tested at the time. The test was a swab put up her nose to the back of the throat. She was given an inhaler, cough syrup, and instructions for what to do if her symptoms worsened. Her test results came back in less than a day: positive for COVID-19.
Leland said she was lucky she was able to recover at home without additional medical intervention. Due to her shortness of breath, using the inhaler was difficult. She found if she used the cough syrup first and let it kick in, she was able to take a deep enough breath to use the inhaler.
She slept a lot — an estimated 16 hours each day including naps. She tried not to worry about her house or returning to work.
“I really gave myself permission to just rest,” Leland said. “I stayed in my bed the whole time.”
When she needed something, she texted her oldest son, who would bring things to her bedroom door.
“I knew I wasn’t alone, but I still really tried to limit my time with him,” she said.
Whenever she left her room, her son would sanitize anything she touched. They wore masks when they were around each other. Leland’s other kids stayed at their father’s house.
Without a sense of smell or taste, Leland lost much of her appetite with one strange exception: mandarin oranges and tangerines. She estimates over three weeks she ate 22 pounds of citrus. Some nurses believe vitamin C is helpful with COVID-19.
Before COVID-19, Leland got migraines every three or four months. While sick, the migraines came two or three times daily.
“It was terrible. It was almost worse than the shortness of breath,” Leland said.
She was truly, physically alone in her room, but actually felt less alone than ever before. Her co-workers, church friends and family regularly checked in on her and surrounded her with love and attention. They brought meals to her and her son.
“My faith has strengthened more than I expected,” Leland said. She felt God was telling her she was not alone and was going to be OK.
There was one instance where she felt the weight of her situation. On her daughter’s 17th birthday, she video-called into the party using FaceTime and began crying while singing “Happy Birthday.” It was hard not being there for her daughter. Yet, she felt fortunate for her social network that was quick to make sure she was OK.
“I think sometimes we take for granted the people in our lives” and forget how much we’re loved and supported, Leland said. “I’m more thankful than ever for the people in my life.”
After the third week of being sick, she noticed slow improvements. Her sense of smell and taste returned. Still, she has to stop and catch her breath when doing an activity like vacuuming.
Leland would love to say she can’t wait to get back to work next week, but acknowledged she’s scared. While a lot has happened in the last month and much has been learned about COVID-19, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the virus and immunity, she said. Could she get sick again? Could she catch something else with her immune system lowered? Her work team has been “wonderful and supportive in this whole process,” she said.
“I’m preparing myself mentally to go back and be the best nurse I can be,” Leland said.
She aims to help patients recover, perhaps providing comfort by telling the story of her own illness (while wearing personal protective equipment).
Leland appreciates people wearing masks in public, social distancing and only leaving the house for essentials. She also likes seeing people practicing good personal hygiene and frequently washing their hands. (Though, she noted, people who wear gloves may feel a false sense of security; if they wear gloves but touch their wallet, face or other things, it’s not helpful.)
“We are flattening the curve. It is working,” Leland said. “This, too, shall pass.”