Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series on area individuals deemed COVID-19 long haulers. Read the stories on Susanne Murphy and Jolene Wieneke in the Feb. 3 and 10 editions of The Globe, respectively.
SLAYTON — A Slayton woman who believes she’s had COVID-19 three times continues to endure the sometimes debilitating effects of the virus. Her story as a long hauler dates back to last July, when she spent five days in the Intensive Care Unit at Sanford Medical Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Margo Davis was transported there via ambulance after her husband insisted she go to the hospital.
“I was really sick at home with lots of fatigue, headaches, body aches like you’ve never felt — every hair strand hurt,” she said. “Then I started coughing.”
On July 15, Davis went to the local emergency room gasping for breath with fingers having turned a bluish hue. By then, she’d been sick for two weeks.
“I didn’t realize how sick I was,” she said. “I knew I didn’t feel good.”
At the hospital, Davis was asked to lay down, but doing so meant she couldn’t breathe. Her blood oxygen registered 70 — a clear sign she was in distress.
Upon being rushed to Sioux Falls, she was placed on oxygen. She had to hold a BiPAP mask to her face overnight because one that fit appropriately wasn’t available.
“People complain about a little cloth mask,” she said. “Wait until you go in and have all these different ones tried on you.”
During her first morning in the ICU, she gained a sense for just how serious her condition was. A nurse, who’d cared for Davis upon admittance, admitted she hadn’t expected her to make it through the night.
“People were coming in just to see me,” Davis said. Her anticipated fate shook her up a bit.
“They said one lung had no air movement and the other lung had hardly any, and they didn’t want my lungs to collapse,” she shared. “That is such a spooky feeling to be laying there and hearing them say, ‘We never dreamed you’d be alive today.’”
During her hospital stay, Davis received additional oxygen through a couple of different apparatuses. She was never intubated or placed on a ventilator, but was asked to lay on her stomach for at least an hour, four times per day, when not laying in the prone position.
“It helps your lungs drain and get (the fluid build-up) out of there,” she explained.
Davis also participated in a couple of experimental procedures while in the ICU.
On the sixth day, Davis moved out of the ICU and into a regular patient room where she was monitored. On the morning of her seventh day, she was told she could return home on oxygen support for the next two weeks. She praises the doctors and nurses who cared for her while hospitalized.
“The staff have to change constantly and have contained air in their suits,” she said. “It was the most wonderful care over there — it’s beyond belief.
“That’s why I get so angry that there’s so many people out there that don’t believe COVID exists,” she added. “It’s scary because these people don’t know what they’re facing. This is the scariest thing I’ve ever had happen to me. I could have easily not been here anymore.”
Davis gets frustrated by people who claim COVID-19 is a made-up disease, or claim fake numbers are used in reporting the death toll as some sort of government conspiracy.
“This disease is real,” she said. “Without you even knowing it, you can pass it on and kill your grandma.”
Seven months earlier
In December 2019 — the same month the World Health Organization announced a mysterious pneumonia was sickening dozens of people in the Wuhan province of China, and weeks before the first confirmed U.S. case of the novel coronavirus — Davis’ husband, Jerry, became sick. He had a cough and lost his sense of taste and smell. His doctor at the VA Medical Center in Sioux Falls ran tests and discovered something in his lungs, but they didn’t know what it was. At the time, COVID-19 was virtually unheard of in the United States.
Jerry was sent home on antibiotics, but was still very sick a week later. He was taken to the ER, and while doctors wanted to admit him to the hospital, he wanted to go home.
“He’d stay in the chair and just gasp for breath,” Davis said, noting her 78-year-old husband also has mild COPD.
Davis, at 64, caught whatever he had, though a milder case.
“Then the COVID (news) came and we listened to all the symptoms,” Davis said, certain it was what she and her husband had in December.
As reports of COVID-19 cases began to surface in southwest Minnesota in the spring of 2020, Jerry became sick again. This time, his symptoms were mild, and hers more pronounced with fatigue, fever, sore throat and cough. Both, however, tested negative for COVID-19.
“There were a lot of false negatives at that time,” Davis said, adding that in her own research, she’s found that the virus mutates every 90 days, making it possible to get COVID more than once.
Eventually, the couple felt better. Then, in mid-July, they became sick again. While Jerry didn’t take a COVID test, she tested positive at the hospital. That’s when she ended up in the ICU, her body already compromised by pre-existing conditions, including diabetes and Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease.
Not getting better
While Davis was cleared to return home after her hospital stay, she’s never truly recovered.
She has permanent lung damage from the COVID-pneumonia that attacked both of her lungs, as well as a lot of scarring and some fibrosis, she said.
She also has many of the same lingering effects as other survivors — the ones who are deemed by medical professionals to be long haulers.
“I haven’t talked to anyone who has completely gotten over the long haulers,” Davis said. “I’ve been at this a long time — it’s getting really, really old.”
Fatigue and short-term memory loss are among the worst, she said, noting how little energy she has and the frustrations of brain fog. One day, she went to the freezer to get a roast out for supper and was distracted along the way. It wasn’t until supper time that she realized her roast wasn’t ready to eat, but rather still in the freezer.
“I have important stuff to do during the day, but if I don’t write it down, I’ll forget,” she shared. “I wished my sister a happy birthday on the right day of the month, but two months early. I laugh about it now, but it was upsetting. I’m just not me.”
Davis also gets nagging headaches, dizzy spells, has shortness of breath and has problems with her vision. In early December, a new side effect cropped up — hair loss. Davis said she’s losing her hair by the handful.
“One thing COVID will do is take something you don’t know you’ve got — like arthritis — and blow it way out of proportion,” she added. “The pain was so awful, I’d sit and cry.”
The lingering effects are so debilitating, Davis doesn’t trust herself to go out of the house.
“I wouldn’t want to go anywhere alone right now — you don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said.
It’s taken a toll not only on her physically and mentally, but financially as well.
Davis, who operates a home-based computer sales and repair business, said difficulty concentrating means it takes her longer to repair items brought in by customers.
“You sit and your mind shuts everything off and you drift,” she said. “I get my work done, but it takes me longer. My mind wanders.
“I’m not like I used to be,” she added. “I would say that this (COVID) aged me 20 years — that’s what it feels like.”
Davis is on a list at Sanford to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. While she admits that she was initially afraid to get the vaccine because of the speed in which it was developed, she’s done the research and feels more assured it’s the right thing to do.
“I’m getting it just because I know for a fact I will not live through another bout of COVID,” she said. “I’m not afraid of dying from the vaccination.”