Katie Woodham started feeling lousy and tired, fighting a nagging headache. Crystal Bowen thought she had a sinus infection.
They both had COVID-19 and both are feeling a little more grateful this Thanksgiving.
In Alabama, there have been nearly 200,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since March. Across the state, there have been more than 3,000 deaths and around 24,000 hospitalizations. Among Wiregrass counties, there have been more than 10,600 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least 154 confirmed deaths.
‘Close to home’
Katie Woodham travels for her job as physician liaison with Eye Center South, visiting doctor’s offices in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia when she’s not at the Dothan main office. Around the first of July she had traveled to locations in Tallahassee, Destin, and Panama City. Her family also gathered in Panama City for a weekend getaway. They wore masks and took precautions, but there were a lot of people around them who were not.
The next week, Woodham began feeling bad. She had an intermittent headache that would come on suddenly with a stabbing pain to the back of her head and behind her eyeballs.
“The only time I ever get a headache is like a sinus or tension headache, and it’s completely different,” she said. “I felt like somebody would have an ice pick and they were stabbing me. It wouldn’t be all the time; it would be random and I would have to stop. It was bad enough that I would have to stop and gather myself.”
She tried to see her doctor, but her doctor had started limiting patient visits and Woodham had trouble getting in. She kept telling herself it was nothing. She didn’t want to overreact. Finally, she saw a doctor as a walk-in patient. She was tested for both flu and COVID-19 and Woodham went back to work. Looking back, Woodham said she can’t believe she didn’t go straight home rather than risk exposing her co-workers. But, Woodham works in an office by herself and said she really didn’t think she had COVID-19 or the flu. A few hours later, Woodham got a phone call with her test results.
Woodham had both flu and COVID-19.
Woodham informed her employer and returned home to Headland to quarantine. Woodham isolated herself in her bedroom, keeping away from her husband, Ronnie, and their three children – ages 10, 7 and 4.
For 10 days, Woodham’s condition went up and down. Going into the second week was when she had the worst of her symptoms; she even drove herself to the emergency room at Southeast Health because her breathing didn’t seem normal.
At Southeast Health, Woodham was put in an isolation room after she explained her diagnoses and symptoms. They did a chest X-ray and did some nebulizer treatments. They gave her nausea medicine and IV fluids for dehydration. Her oxygen levels were still in the 90s, so they sent her home with nebulizers.
“One day I felt fine; one day I literally thought I was going to die,” Woodham said.
She was scared. She had no energy. She asked her husband to check on her during the night to make sure she was still breathing. She was afraid to fall asleep at times.
“Some nights I would stay up until three or four … because I was scared I wasn’t going to wake up,” Woodham said.
She lost days. And even now, there are things from her COVID fog that she just doesn’t remember – she’s even forgotten details from the days before she got sick.
“I swear it messed with my memory,” Woodham said.
Additional tests showed she was still positive for both flu and COVID-19, but by that time steroids were starting to show some benefit to COVID patients. So, Woodham got a steroid shot and a prescription for oral steroids. Things slowly started improving.
“One day, you’ll feel OK. You’re still exhausted and just lay there … but then the next day you feel like you’re getting better and then you overdo it.”
Just walking to the shower was exhausting and left her out of breath.
An asthmatic, Woodham usually only had trouble during allergy season or when she would be over-exerted physically. She doesn’t even keep an inhaler. But during her COVID-19 illness, she regularly used inhalers.
Slowly, her energy returned, but the isolation and staying inside constantly was wearing on her mentally as was all the news she kept hearing about the pandemic. Friends and co-workers checked on Woodham regularly, bringing food for the family. Ronnie’s employer also offered a lot of support. The support helped, she said.
“The anxiety that goes with it, all the people that were dying that you were hearing about; all these young people dying; all these older people who were in great shape who were dying from it – all of that just kind of freaks you out,” Woodham said.
She worried about her family, but luckily her husband and children have immune systems of “iron will,” Woodham said.
After being out of work for nearly a month, Woodham finally got a negative COVID-19 test. Even after she returned, she had lingering fatigue and was still using inhalers until a couple weeks ago. She worries about the long-term effects the illness could have on her health. She’s a lot more cautious these days. Fortunately, nobody else in her family has had the virus.
“I still don’t like to be in crowds,” Woodham said. “I still don’t like to go to the grocery store. I’ll still do pick-ups … If I do have to go to the grocery store, I run in for one thing and I try to do it when it’s not crowded.”
Woodham said she will get a vaccine when they’re available but plans to speak with her doctor first. And she cautions those who don’t think the pandemic warrants measures such as masks and social distancing.
“I knew it was happening before I got. I’d watched the news. I saw the devastation,” she said. “But I don’t think you really grasp how bad it is until it hits close to home.”
‘There’s a purpose for me’
Crystal Bowen’s battle with the novel coronavirus began in early April, not even a full month after Alabama adopted protective measures due to the first cases being diagnosed in the state.
A mental health counselor at the Graceville Correctional Facility, Bowen had a telehealth visit for what seemed like a sinus infection. Bowen, 34, didn’t have any of the novel symptoms. No cough. No shortness of breath. No fever. She was prescribed antibiotics and a steroid for what even the doctor believed to be a sinus infection. She returned to work after taking a day off to rest. But back at work, she noticed she was a little short of breath while walking.
It was Easter weekend. She went to her father’s house for Easter and spent the day asleep on his couch. Bowen stayed out of work the following Monday and Tuesday and by the wee hours of Wednesday morning, she couldn’t breathe and struggled to sit up. Her sister took her to the emergency room. Bowen’s oxygen level was low – in the 60s or 70s, she said. Bowen was tested for COVID-19 and admitted to Southeast Health on April 15. Two days later, she was put on a ventilator.
Bowen, who has high blood pressure, thought she had taken enough precautions to protect herself.
“It was really scary,” she said. “As soon as the doctor said the word ‘ventilator,’ I just started crying because I didn’t know what it meant. I thought it meant that I was dying.”
A nurse hearing her cries immediately gowned and masked up and came in the room, holding Bowen’s hand as the doctor explained his reasoning. Bowen FaceTimed with her dad and sister and texted a few friends to tell them she wouldn’t be able to respond to texts for a while. She was sedated, intubated, and placed on a ventilator.
The days that followed were a strange mix of life and dreaming. Bowen remembers hearing doctors and nurses come into the room. She even thought she was responding to them. She dreamed she was in Florida, getting breathing treatments. She remembers a nurse, having learned about Bowen’s pet cats from her father, asking her about her cats, Frank and Petunia. She remembers “talking” to the nurse about her cats.
“I’m having full conversations,” Bowen said. “I still have issues with some parts of it with understanding what was real and what wasn’t.”
She was on a ventilator for nine days. After she woke up, she had trouble believing she was in the hospital. And, she learned her twin sister had also been hospitalized for COVID-19 but had not experienced symptoms as severe as Bowen.
She couldn’t do much by herself, couldn’t walk on her own and could only stand for a few seconds at a time. On May 1, Bowen was transferred to Encompass Health for physical therapy where she stayed until May 7.
She eventually became strong enough to walk without assistance, but standing and walking for long periods left her winded. She returned to work on June 1, but she still has trouble catching her breath at times.
When she came out of the other side of COVID-19, Bowen said she felt a rollercoaster of emotions, especially seeing the numbers of those who had died.
“But I was more hopeful because I really thought I was dying when I was put on the vent,” she said. “I had already made peace with it. I had already called my family and said what I thought were going to be my final goodbyes. So to wake up and learn what all I had been through – it was scary and there was some anxiety there, but for the most part I was hopeful. I had just survived and from what I knew, they told me I had experienced a pretty rough bout of it. I thought if I could survive it and I could come out of it then I knew other people would too.”
She has a collection of masks that she keeps in her work bag, her car, hanging on the back of her front door. She keeps hand sanitizer with her at all times and washes her hands regularly
“I don’t want to go through that again,” Bowen said. “I don’t want to chance it at all.”
One thing COVID-19 gave her was the confidence to live life on her terms. She is more aware of how she speaks to others and that has helped her in her job as a mental health counselor
“Weirdly enough, I have gained so much confidence. I’m more thankful, too,” she said. “I thank God every day that I wake up and that I can get up out of my bed on my own. I can brush my hair; I can brush my teeth; I can dress myself. I can drive and I get to go to work. I am so thankful… The fact that I survived this … I look at it as there’s a purpose for me and I still have things that I need to do.”