It’s been almost two months since Calgary filmmaker and video producer Judy Gabriel went to the doctor with a cough and a sore throat. Although she initially asked if she needed a COVID-19 test in late February, it was a month until she was given one — and even after she was confirmed to have it, she nearly didn’t end up in hospital.
Now, three weeks after she was discharged from hospital, she’s nowhere near recovered. She’s still coughing, her lungs ache and the breathing exercises she’s been told to do hurt her chest and back.
She was diagnosed with bronchitis, then pneumonia and eventually COVID-19.
She spent five days in intensive care, fighting not just the virus, but also the side-effects of the medication she was given, which included an anti-malaria drug.
She’s never experienced anything like it. When she was in intensive care, she didn’t know whether she would survive. She remembers trying to cough up fluids from her lungs and not being able to breathe — all at the same time.
“I thought I was I was going to die,” she said.
“You know, trying to take it all out and kind of breathe at the same time is quite hard.”
Gabriel, who is in her 40s, wants a retest to ensure the novel coronavirus has left her body, but provincial health officials say it’s something they do only in rare circumstances, usually involving front-line health care workers.
It started with a cough
Gabriel, who recently moved to Lloydminster for consulting work, developed a cough on Feb. 27 and went to see the doctor, who suggested it was bronchitis.
Gabriel says she asked to be tested for COVID-19, but the doctor said it wasn’t necessary.
She was given some antibiotics, a nasal spray and some cough syrup with codeine. She says she started to feel better a few days later and returned to work.
About a week later, her cough returned and it was back to see the same doctor, who suspected pneumonia. Gabriel says she had a fever, her body ached and her lungs were “crackling and hurting.”
An X-ray was ordered and she was given flu medication and an inhaler.
At a followup appointment with the same doctor on March 20, a test for COVID-19 was ordered.
Two days later, someone from Alberta Health Services called her to say she had tested positive for COVID and that she must stay home to self-isolate.
Dr Raffath Sayeed, a retired physician in Lloydminster, Alta., helped to convince Judy Gabriel to seek medical treatment after testing positive for COVID-19 last month. (Skype)
Gabriel says her condition quickly deteriorated. She said she felt weak, fatigued and sore. She was nauseous and was getting sharp pains in her lungs every time she took a breath. She says it felt like someone was sitting on her chest.
She says every breath she took felt like her lungs were being cut.
“It feels like a knife cutting it, and it’s burning,” she said.
She was coughing, her head was pounding and she was sweating.
She reached out for help on the Alberta Health Services’ 811 health line, but she couldn’t get through, so she called 911.
Gabriel says paramedics came to her apartment but were hesitant to go in. They gave her the option to either stay home or go to the hospital. She decided to stay home and fight.
Retired physician intervenes
Gabriel says that, during her illness, Dr. Raffath Sayeed, a retired physician who is a friend of a colleague, reached out to her and urged her to demand immediate medical attention, to call 911 and insist that she be taken to hospital.
She recalls he told her that she needed to get into the hospital right away and that her condition was going to take a turn for the worse.
“I heard what he was saying but I was so disoriented because I was just coughing, just trying to breathe,” she said.
Sayeed told the CBC he was very concerned about Gabriel’s health, considering “the way she was breathing, the way she was unable to speak.”
The other concern Sayeed had for Gabriel was that she lived alone and didn’t have anyone checking on her.
“I said, ‘You have to call 911. And if you don’t call 911, I will call 911 for you.'”
On March 25, she made the call to 911 again, and this time she was taken to the Lloydminster hospital, which is on the Saskatchewan side of the city, a community of 30,000 people that straddles the provincial boundary.
“I believe that she would have died,” Sayeed said.
‘Just trying to breathe, get stronger’
Gabriel, who has worked in television and radio for two decades, managed to record several video clips with her phone while she was in intensive care, where she stayed for five days.
“Just trying to breathe, get stronger … it’s not easy,” she said in a whisper during one of the videos.
“It doesn’t stop, it feels like my lungs are being stepped on,” she said in another video.
In another clip, she referenced being on the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) and antibiotics. She said her potassium levels were low and she was feeling very tired.
Gabriel says it was the second or third day in ICU when she thought she wasn’t going to survive.
She says trying oxygen to breathe, while coughing and vomiting fluids from her lungs, was unbearable. She says she struggled to find “a pathway to breathe.”
“You just keep holding onto that breath and you breathe and try to go but it’s hurting.”
She says her heart rate felt “low” and it was scary.
“You just feel like you’re going, just going to shut down,” she said.
Recovering at home
Gabriel was discharged from the hospital on March 29.
Since she’s been home, nurses from both Alberta Health Services and Saskatchewan Health have called daily to check in on her.
She’s still coughing and has lots of aches and pains when she does her breathing exercises. She wants to be retested to make sure the virus has left her body and she’s fully recovered.
A retest seems unlikely. Alberta Health Services says a person is considered recovered if they haven’t required re-hospitalization or treatment in the 10 days following their date of discharge.
Alberta Health is not reporting specific details about how many of the approximately 1,230 confirmed recovered patients have been retested.
Gabriel says she knows it’s going to take a while for her body to recover from the ordeal.
“I’m a fighter. I don’t quit,” she said.
“You gotta keep going. Nobody else can help you but yourself.” (Text courtesy CBC News)