COVID19 in Trumpland: My battle with coronavirus in red rural America

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13 mins read
Photo by Tai's Captures on Unsplash

When It All Started

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve been sick for months now. It all started at the end of January, when most of us didn’t even know what a coronavirus was or how to find Wuhan China on a map. My family had its share of normal flu bugs and colds, but none of us thought that we would be facing a pandemic in rural Ohio. 

By mid-February, when it became evident that I was sicker than the rest of my family, I figured I was developing a nasty case of pneumonia (which I also had when I was younger). So I did what a responsible adult does: I went to a doctor, got some antibiotics, and took a few days off. Naturally, I thought that would be it.

I was wrong.

The First Doctor: Thursday, March 5 

After not getting any better, I made an appointment with my primary care provider. She went through the normal questions and tests but when my flu test came back negative, she began to ask different questions. Had my appetite changed? Had I been out of the country or around anyone who had been? Had anyone around me been sick too? I answered yes to all of these. That’s when I was told to quarantine myself at home until I heard from the health department for my next steps.  

I won’t lie, her words scared the crap out of me. By now I had seen the news and heard the stories coming out of Washington State and New York. I was worried that I might have this virus.  

The state health department finally called me later that afternoon. I was fully expecting for them to call me in to get tested but that didn’t happen. Instead, they told me that I did not meet the criteria for testing even though my symptoms matched COVID-19. Because I personally had not traveled to the affected countries and did not know someone who had been confirmed with the disease, they would not test me. The director of infectious disease at the health department actually told me it was good news they weren’t going to test me. Like a lack of testing was the same as a negative result. They took me out of quarantine and told me I was safe to return to work. So I did.

The First Hospital Visit: Monday, March 9

By Monday I felt worse than ever. My chest congestion was horrible. My breathing was erratic and labored. I had no energy. At work, I went on break and when I returned to my desk I could not catch my breath. My chest felt like a 100-pound weight was sitting on it. It was as if I was trying to breathe underwater. My boss called 911.

At the hospital, they ruled out COVID-19 because they said I had been sick for too long. Even though I had all the symptoms and ground glass opacities (this was the first time I had heard this phrase) on the lower left lobe of my lung, which they did not understand, they again diagnosed me with pneumonia. They gave me some meds and sent me home. A few days later, I went back to work.

The Second Hospital Visit: Sunday, March 15–Thursday, March 19

That weekend, if you can believe it, I got worse. By Sunday it was so bad that I knew I had to get to an ER right away, couldn’t even wait for an ambulance. I drove myself, and to this day I still don’t know how I didn’t crash my car. I stumbled through the ER doors barely standing.

They rushed me into a triage room and began running IVs, taking blood and samples, running tests—blood tests, bacterial pneumonia, strep—all except for the one that I needed. They determined that I had to be admitted to the hospital. They discussed transferring me to another hospital (which in hindsight I wish they had) but ultimately decided to put me in their isolation ward.

Here at Clinton Memorial Hospital in Wilmington, Ohio (the town where Michael Moore filmed the movie Trumpland) was where my real hardship began. That night I went into tachycardia arrest. I almost died. They had to give me nitroglycerin pills to slow my heart rate. For the next two days I was on an EKG machine around the clock. The 8 or so steps to the bathroom caused my heart rate to skyrocket to over 170. It got to the point where I could not even get out of my bed to use the restroom. For a 40-year-old man in good health this was such a demoralizing experience.

Despite my condition, no one seemed terribly concerned, at least, not concerned enough to run a COVID test. The day after my tachycardia arrest, in fact, a physical therapist entered my room. He wore no mask or gloves and immediately began talking about COVID-19 as a hoax, telling me that it wasn’t real. Though I was in isolation, he reached out to shake my hand. (I’m not even sure why he was there–he left soon after.)

On Tuesday, two days after I was admitted to the hospital, my doctor finally agreed to test me for COVID-19. I checked with the nursing staff all day, asking when they would perform the test. The nurses kept saying they were waiting for my doctor to put in the order. But she never did. I found out at the nurses’ shift change that my doctor had already left for the day. She had either lied to me or changed her mind. Either way, she didn’t have the respect to come and tell me herself she wasn’t going to order the test. 

After that, my wife and I spoke to hospital management. I got a new doctor but he also refused to allow me to get tested even though his diagnosis was a viral pneumonia infection with ground glass opacities in the lower left lobe, which I now know can be seen in COVID patients. Instead, the doctor declared I had a community-acquired pneumonia, stabilized me, and then sent me home.

The Third Hospital Visit: Thursday, March 19

Immediately upon my discharge from Clinton Memorial, my wife drove me to UC Health West Chester in West Chester, Ohio. (This is the hospital I was taken to the previous week.) A young resident looked over my test results and my symptoms, and within the hour declared I was presumptively positive for COVID-19. He wanted to test me but he, too, was limited by CDC guidelines. All he could do was place me back in isolation at my home.

By this point, it was clear to me which health care workers were conservative, much like the area in which we lived. They doubted not just the idea that I had the disease but the reality of COVID-19 itself. They were more apt to ignore the rules on protective gear and downplay what I was going through. But the health care workers who took COVID-19 and my condition seriously would speak to me in private about how they were petitioning to get me tested. They also told me that hospital management did not want to chalk up a positive test. The hospital did not wish that sort of attention on rural southwest Ohio. Trumpland.

Instead, as a staff member revealed, the hospital management chose to go along with the notion that COVID-19 was a big city problem, not a red-district issue. They did not want this disease in their district at all, certainly not in their facility. And since they couldn’t find another hospital to take me, I simply … couldn’t have COVID-19. 

Recovery

Since the day I left the hospital, I have only been back to the ER once, again to UC Health West Chester. I had broken out in a rash, probably from a fever, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going into septic shock. The doctors said my condition was not critical enough to admit me and prescribed Benadryl for the rash. Then they sent me home.

I am still under quarantine and only recently got tested for COVID. Not from Clinton Memorial, not from UC Health West Chester, not from the health department, but from a local urgent care facility. This was only because I saw on Facebook that my local urgent care center was doing COVID testing by appointment. After two doctors connected to major medical centers in my area denied me a COVID test, nine days after I was first admitted to the hospital, I got a test by walking into a clinic.

The state of Ohio failed me. My local hospitals failed me. All that saved me were the wonderful nurses at Clinton Memorial when I went there barely able to stand, and my own strength and will to survive. I am on the mend now but not out of the woods. My heart rate is still high and my breathing is still labored, but I can move around and I feel better each day.

COVID-19 does not care where you live, how old you are, how you vote, or how much money you make. It only cares that you are a host in which it can live and multiply. As long as our local governments and hospital staff only care about different things than the virus, we have a long road ahead.

UPDATE: On March 30, I finally received my test results, 6 days after my sample was taken at the clinic and 15 days after I was admitted to the hospital. The test came back negative. But did I have the virus? Doctors think so. Due to the lack of an antibody test, doctors can’t say that I never had COVID-19, just that I don’t have it now


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