My name is Katie and until the middle of March I was a healthy 29-year-old who only worried about getting through my work day to work on my novel. Now, my focus has shifted, because every day since then has been a lesson in advocating for my own health.
On Wednesday, March 18, I began noticing symptoms of a headache, sore throat, and a cough. By Thursday, March 19, the cough had gotten dramatically worse and I was having chest pains and difficulty breathing.
I have asthma, but it’s well controlled. So well controlled that my inhaler had expired in 2018, in fact. I was worried, but unsure what to do, so I called my doctor who directed me to go to a specific Urgent Care in town that had been designated to handle respiratory symptoms. She told me there would be a sign on the door directing all patients to call the hotline first, but that I could ignore that because she was the hotline.
I immediately went to the urgent care and encountered the first of many obstacles in my quest for treatment. I was almost turned away at the door until I mentioned, again, that I was experiencing chest pains. Only then was I finally allowed to be seen by a physician.
To be honest, this visit was incredibly scary to experience alone as it was clear the staff were all afraid to come near me. A nurse in full protective gear immediately fled the room when she opened the door and realized I hadn’t been given a mask yet. Eventually, she returned with a mask and wordlessly examined me.
When the doctor saw me, she said that it was clear I had a viral infection and she could assume from my symptoms that it was coronavirus, but as of that day they would no longer be testing out-patients. She gave me a note indicating I was to self-quarantine and sent me home.
This was the beginning of a free fall of respiratory complications that would eventually land me in the ER. My breathing continued to deteriorate with increased chest pains until it reached its peak two days later, on Saturday, March 21.
That morning I woke up gasping at 5 a.m. I was completely incapable of taking anything close to a full breath unless propped upright with pillows on the couch. After much consideration, my husband and I decided it was time to go to the hospital.
The hospital was eerie, to say the least. The halls were completely deserted and every nurse who entered my room wore a protective plastic smock that had to be torn off and discarded before they left.
They asked me probably five times if I had experienced a fever. I told them no, I very rarely have fevers and in fact run cold. Because I had no fever, I was again not tested. Instead, I was diagnosed with an extremely bad case of bronchitis, and sent home with a nebulizer.
Despite the bronchitis diagnosis, every nurse who saw me said that I had most likely had COVID-19.
The next week was a series of ups and downs. I alternated between hours of being relatively fine and times when I felt like I had to fight for every breath. The worst day of all was that Friday, when I was fighting for air and experiencing chills.
That afternoon my nebulizer gave me no relief at all and that realization triggered a panic attack, which obviously didn’t help my situation. My husband managed to calm me down, but he later confessed that in 10 years he had never seen me look so scared.
By Sunday, March 29, I was still fighting to breathe and after a virtual doctor visit I was directed to get a chest X-ray to rule out pneumonia. We were directed to the Urgent Care facility, which directed us to go to the hospital main entrance, where the nurse at the front desk reacted as if I were holding a bomb and all but screamed at us to go to the ER.
There, another nurse rolled her eyes when they found my temperature was 99.0 and both my husband and myself tried to explain that my baseline is 97.4 degrees.
“How could you possibly know that?” was all she said, leaving us flabbergasted.
Finally, a third nurse turned up to assess my symptoms and the third time she called them “asthma related” I corrected her to explain that every medical professional agreed that I had COVID-19.
Her response to this was to explain that no one who is not elderly, hospitalized, or a front line medical worker with symptoms is being tested and without a positive test she couldn’t say that I indeed had COVID-19, although she agreed that I had all the signs and symptoms. After a battery of tests all came back clean, I was again sent home and told to remain in quarantine.
Now, on April 5, a week later, my symptoms have finally begun to abate. I still feel sick, but it’s a more familiar form of sick. A regular kind of sick.
And what have I learned from all of this? If you don’t need to be admitted to the hospital you will not be tested and you will likely encounter the same frustrating Catch-22 scenario I did: sick enough to need medical care but not sick enough to get it without a fight. You will have to fight.
You will have to advocate for yourself, or, if at all possible, have someone with you who can advocate for you. Don’t let yourself be ignored because you don’t meet certain criteria. If you can’t breathe, if you have chest pains, you deserve to be assessed and treated.
It’s especially hard for women’s pain to be taken seriously, and even harder to put up this kind of fight when you’re as sick as I was. But I implore you: Be strong.
Katie Lewis lives in Fort Collins.