POWHATAN – Just as Dr. David Duncan was recovering from one of the worst weeks of his life, his wife Sandy was about to start hers.
Over about two weeks at the end of March and the beginning of April, the Powhatan couple fell victim to COVID-19, which has seen 13,535 people test positive for the disease in Virginia and killed 458 as of Monday, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
The couple, who are both now back to work at Powhatan Family Physicians, agreed to share how they suffered through and survived the virus in part because they believe too many people are still not taking it seriously. While obviously only a small percentage of patients who tested positive have died, living through full-blown symptoms is like nothing they had ever experienced before.
“It is not a hoax. It is not fake news. It is real, and I can understand why people are dying from it,” Sandy said. “And while I understand the economic climate and that we need to get people back to work, there is also the situation of there are folks on the front lines that are risking their lives and their families’ lives to take care of people.”
Back in March, when national attention on the disease was starting to ramp up, the Duncans flew to Orlando to celebrate Sandy’s 60th birthday at Walt Disney World. When they arrived, they found out their trip would be cut short because the park would be closing. So they crammed five days of activity into three and still had a wonderful time together.
However, when they were on their way home and were eating dinner at the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, a man behind David started coughing and was making no move to cover his mouth. While he can’t be positive, in retrospect, that is where David thinks he was probably exposed.
After arriving home, the doctor went back to work on March 18 and two days later was asked to evaluate three cases of suspected COVID-19, one of which ended up testing positive. He was fine for the next few days, and nothing was amiss when he worked a full day on Monday, March 23.
But that night, he developed a fever, chills, sweats, and a nonproductive cough and realized he immediately needed to go into quarantine. David said he was finally able to procure a COVID-19 testing kit two days later. But that Thursday, he realized he also had a tick embedded in him and he had to start treatment for Lyme disease.
While all of the symptoms were horrible, what most shook David, who is a cancer survivor with no spleen, was how much trouble he had breathing for one 12-hour period, which Sandy would also find later.
“Let me tell you, the coronoavirus can make you mentally challenged, can give you uncontrolled diarrhea and throwing up, and can make you extremely short of breath when you exert yourself,” David said.
After starting treatment for Lyme disease, David’s fever, chills, and sweats abated. By March 30 – the same day his test came back positive for COVID-19 – David was meeting the Virginia Department of Health’s provider criteria for going back to work, which was 72 hours of no fever, chills, or sweats and seven days from the onset of the symptoms. Because of a mix-up with the health department, he actually started back to work the next day.
“Since that Tuesday, I have been back to work seeing patients. When a patient presents with a respiratory illness, they are met by me outside. Since I have the antibodies and had the disease, I can’t transmit it and I can’t get it again, so I am perfectly immune at this point,” he said.
Unfortunately, the end of her husband’s personal journey with COVID-19 marked the beginning of Sandy’s experience as she started to exhibit symptoms of the disease on March 30. She had gone to work several days as the director of practice management at Powhatan Family Physicians and cared for her husband in the evenings, taking precautions along the way. In addition to David, two other staff members had tested positive, although one was asymptomatic.
Having seen what David went through, she was already worried since her immune system is compromised – she has asthma, psoriasis, and psoriatic arthritis. Sandy experienced many of the same symptoms her husband had and couldn’t believe the toll they took on her body. She didn’t hold back when describing the experience, saying she basically spent about three days in bed or on the toilet with her head in the trashcan.
“While I had it I actually lost 19 pounds in one week. They don’t talk about the uncontrolled diarrhea and vomiting on TV,” she said.
Then there was the difficulty breathing. At her worst point, which came the night of April 8, it was unimaginable. Sandy said she has had bronchitis, H1N1, and has even been hospitalized with pneumonia, but “never in my life have I had to take a break in the middle of a shower because I was so exhausted. … This is the worst I have ever felt.”
“I will be honest, the evening of April 8, I literally thought I was going to die,” she said.
It was only her fear of being exposed to something worse and becoming sicker that prevented her from giving her husband the signal to take her to the hospital. Fortunately, she turned a corner the next morning and her fever started to go down.
Speaking last week, Sandy had been back at work since April 14 and said she is still dealing with physical exhaustion from the toll the illness took on her body. It aggravated her asthma, but that too has been improving.
“Everything mentally you can usually do takes twice as long, probably because you are just so exhausted from how sick you have been,” she said.
In a way, it is good that the Duncans contracted the virus back to back instead of at the same time so they could take care of each other and not risk their parents’ health, too, Sandy said.
Like her husband, she hopes people will continue to take the precautionary measures seriously until the pandemic runs its course.
“If they went through what I went through, they would be praising God they were still alive, because that is what I am doing every single day. I am a firm believer I was kept alive for a reason, and now I wake up every single day with excitement as to what plan does He havefor me that he kept me and got me through this,” she said.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmfarland@powhatantoday.com.