Why I’m not returning to campus: A student’s experience with COVID-19

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GRAPHIC BY MAGGIE MORE / THE FLAT HAT

At approximately 11:30 p.m. Friday, March 20, my dad threw me into the back of his car and rushed me to the local emergency room. I just had my second asthma attack within three and a half hours, after not having one for an entire year. The first attack occurred as I was finishing dinner with my dad, and I was able to quickly get it under control by using my rescue inhaler. However, the second one happened as I was trying to fall asleep. I tried using my rescue inhaler again, but this time it proved useless. The attack continued to worsen and I had to drag myself to my dad’s bedroom gasping for air. He made me throw some clothes on and sped, literally, to the nearest hospital. Before I continue further with my story, I want to give it some context. I have had asthma for as long as I can remember, but it has been completely under control for about the past decade; I was not even taking a daily inhaler. I thought I was in the clear, and my asthma would never be an issue in my life ever again. I was definitely wrong.

The day before my first two asthma attacks, I woke up with a shortness of breath. As that day progressed, I developed a slight fever and a light cough. At that point, my dad and I agreed that we should go into quarantine as a family. The next morning, I woke up to find my cough and fever had disappeared, but my shortness of breath had worsened. I called my primary doctor who ordered me a COVID-19 test at a local drive-thru testing site that following Monday. I never made it. That night I had the two aforementioned asthma attacks, and given my poor condition, my dad knew it was in my best interest to break the quarantine and get me to a hospital immediately.

“As that day progressed, I developed a slight fever and a light cough. At that point, my dad and I agreed that we should go into quarantine as a family.”

Anyways, we walked into the emergency room around 11:45 p.m. and were given face masks to put on before being told to wait. By that time, the attack had mainly subsided, but it was getting increasingly harder to breathe. After about 30 minutes, we were called back to get my vitals taken and then put in a room to wait to be seen. Sometime later, a doctor entered the room, examined me, and ordered a Nebulizer treatment and a COVID-19 nasal swab. For those who are not familiar, a Nebulizer treatment is essentially liquid medicine that gets turned into mist and one then inhales it. In turn, it is supposed to ease asthma and open up the lungs. My treatment lasted about 15 minutes and I was feeling nearly completely better when it was over. Then, came the COVID-19 test. And yes, I can confirm that the nasal swab is very unpleasant, but in my case, necessary. Feeling better, I was sent home with a more powerful rescue inhaler and told that my test results would come back in 3-5 business days.

I got home and passed out from exhaustion. Around 9 a.m. the next morning I awoke to find myself in the midst of another asthma attack (#3). I took my new inhaler and thankfully it worked, and I was able to fall back asleep. That day, my dad woke me periodically to check on me and give me food and liquids. Otherwise, I just slept as severe exhaustion had set in. However, I did have yet another asthma attack that evening (#4), but was once again able to quell it with my new inhaler. 

As day turned to night, I had developed body aches and a terrible headache, and my shortness of breath was not getting any better. Luckily, my exhaustion had overpowered my other symptoms and I continued to sleep. The next day, Sunday, probably began the scariest 72 hours of my life and by far the worst symptoms. That morning, I awoke to yet another asthma attack, but yet again was able to stop it with the inhaler (#5). I fell back asleep but was woken up by my dad in the early evening to eat and drink something. However, I was extremely lightheaded and had no memory of what I had eaten earlier that day or the prior day. My dad had to hold onto my hand to get me to the dining table. I was able to eat a bit of food and then decided to take a hot shower to air out my lungs. My dad was so worried about me that he actually stood outside my bathroom as I bathed. 

After the shower, my lungs and lightheadedness had decreased a bit. But then, as I was getting dressed, I had another asthma attack (#6). This time my ‘new’ inhaler did not help at all. So, not even 48 hours after being rushed to the emergency room, I was doing it all over again. This time, my symptoms were shortness of breath, extreme exhaustion, body aches, a headache, lightheadedness, and confusion. Now, these are all widely accepted COVID-19 symptoms, but back in March, that was not exactly the case.

Even though I had been to the same hospital not even two full days beforehand, the whole check-in process and emergency room layout had changed seemingly overnight. This time, my dad was not allowed to stay with me and had to leave after dropping me off. Moreover, I was sent to wait in a brand new tent for respiratory patients that sat next to the emergency room. As before, my asthma attack had subsided at this point, and after waiting for about 30 minutes, I was escorted into the emergency room through a side door and given a room. Given all my symptoms, the hospital staff decided to give me a plethora of tests, including taking a panel of blood from each arm, another nasal swab test for the flu and other respiratory illnesses, and a CT Scan due to my lightheadedness and confusion. Not to my surprise, every single test came back negative and they refused to take another COVID-19 test. 

“So, not even 48 hours after being rushed to the emergency room, I was doing it all over again.”

After my doctor and nurses had consulted for about fifteen minutes, they agreed to admit me to the hospital floor to figure out what was wrong with me. However, due to recent COVID-19-related changes in their admittance policy, I did not meet the requirements to be admitted. At that moment, I broke into tears, which unfortunately caused me go into another asthma attack (#7). However, due to hospital policy changes that had occurred since that Friday night, they were unable to administer me any medical aid as they did not want me possibly spreading COVID-19 if I had it. So, there I was, having a full-blown asthma attack in the hospital and I was getting zero help. Luckily, I had brought my inhaler with me and was able to use it. While I did not end the asthma attack, it got it under control and I was able to calm down. 

At that point, my nurse walked back into my room and gave me yet another inhaler. This one had the same medicine that a Nebulizer treatment had and it proved to be effective on the spot. I was then discharged with orders to take my two hospital-supplied inhalers around the clock in varying frequencies until I “felt better”. My dad picked me up and drove me home. Once again, I passed out from exhaustion. 

That Monday, my condition continued to worsen as I had two new symptoms: it now hurt to breathe and my kidneys were in pain. However, I continued to sleep the day away and only had one asthma attack (#8), which I quickly contained with both of my inhalers. But that night, everything changed. Even though I was still exhausted, I was unable to fall asleep as I could not take a full breath lying down anymore. I was scared to death to return to the hospital again because they threatened to intubate me if I came back for a third time. So, after a restless night, I called my primary doctor Tuesday morning, who advised me to go to a George Washington University Urgent Care Center as the doctors there have admitting privileges at the George Washington Hospital. She also prescribed me a third inhaler. I arrived at urgent care later that morning and was seen almost right away. At this point, although my oxygen levels were normal, it legit felt like my lungs were collapsing and the pain I had to endure to breathe was nearly unbearable. After a long conversation with the doctor and yet another examination, he decided to put me on steroids for five days to open my lung cavity.

I had not been put on steroids up to this point because in March, nobody knew how COVID-19 and steroids interacted. Before leaving to pick up my prescription, the doctor gave me a steroid booster shot and said if I did not see any improvement in my breathing within 24 hours, to go to the GW Hospital emergency room. Thankfully, the steroid, and my three inhalers, started to work and I had no asthma attacks for the rest of the week.

However, that Sunday, the day after my steroids ran out, I had another asthma attack despite still being on all three inhalers (#9). But, by that point, I had seen a decrease in other symptoms; the lightheadedness, confusion and body aches had disappeared. My remaining symptoms were shortness of breath, exhaustion, kidney pain, painful breathing and a headache. Monday morning, after yet another asthma attack overnight (#10), I called up my primary doctor again who prescribed me four more days of steroids. Just like that, I was feeling better again, and after the four days were up, I found myself, for the first time in two weeks and without steroids, not having asthma attacks. It took about another week for the rest of my symptoms to disappear, and then I thought I had survived COVID-19.

Receiving my COVID-19 test was an ordeal. After waiting five full business days, I received no result. On business day six, I gave the hospital a call, to which I got no response. Then, I gave the county health department a call and was told that most tests were now taking 7-10 business days to get a result. So I hunkered down and waited until the tenth business day. I still had no result. After calling the hospital yet again, someone picked up this time and I was told my test result had not appeared yet.

Feeling better at that point and completely off steroids, I gave my U.S. Congressman a call, who subsequently launched an investigation into my test result. I also contacted local news networks and got my story on the local ABC evening news. Finally, on the twelfth business day, I got an alert on my hospital app that my test result was in. To the shock of my primary doctor, my family, and friends, and myself, the test was negative. A few days later, a doctor from the hospital called to confirm the negative result, and even he was shocked given all my symptoms. At that point, I learned the nose swabs were only 70 percent sensitive to detecting the virus and it was very likely I got a false negative. 

Even to this day, I still experience residual complications. I have to take an inhaler every day to breathe normally and I have nightmares that I am having an asthma attack even though I am fine. I went for an antibody test a few weeks ago, which very surprisingly came back negative, although the accuracy of those tests are questionable, to say the least. 

“Moving forward, I insist on being near my doctors if I were to develop further complications, or actually test positive, for COVID-19. Moreover, while I appreciate the College of William and Mary’s preparations for the fall semester regarding the virus, I am not confident in the Health Center’s abilities when students return to campus.” 

While my family and I firmly believe I had COVID-19 in the spring, the tests have made it clear that there is no way of knowing for sure. Furthermore, there is no clear evidence that there is immunity and that it is lasting, and I have sifted through endless medical journals and news articles to learn more about this novel virus.

Moving forward, I insist on being near my doctors if I were to develop further complications, or actually test positive, for COVID-19. Moreover, while I appreciate the College of William and Mary’s preparations for the fall semester regarding the virus, I am not confident in the Health Center’s abilities when students return to campus. 

Campus life will also look very different this fall, and as much as I hate to say it, especially with all my classes online, I do not feel like I will be missing much since I doubt that the on-campus experience will be enjoyable. Whether it be wearing a mask in the library, getting to-go meals from the dining halls, or not being able to attend large, social gatherings, I do not see enough positive reasons for me to return to Williamsburg this fall. 

This brings me to my final point, and ultimately the main reason why I have written this article. I am not asking for sympathy or sorrow of any type related to my experience. Instead, I believe there will be students who return to campus with the mindset that the student body is young and healthy, and with the majority of faculty staying off-campus, should COVID-19 get onto campus, everyone will survive with no problem. Therefore, they will be careless and risk contracting and spreading the deadly virus. While I believe that will be a tiny minority of College students, they do and will exist this fall. 

To those students and in fact, all students: I ask you to reflect on my experience and understand that people with underlying medical conditions, while few, will return to campus. Not every student is in perfect health, whether it be diabetes, asthma, an autoimmune disorder or something else. Please think twice before you act on campus this fall and understand how those actions could affect others concerning COVID-19. It is a communal responsibility to assure that everyone stays safe because the consequences are potentially deadly. 

Email Daniel Miller at damiller@email.wm.edu.