Newman professor shares COVID-19 experience

Dec 09, 2020
Teresa Wilkerson

Written by Teresa Wilkerson, professor and assistant dean of the School of Business

Remember the fantasy movie and subsequent video game “Jumanji,” where the sole purpose is not simply to play it but survive it?

That is the best description I can think of that describes what having COVID-19 was like for me. Over the years, I have had a typical cold, influenza, pneumonia, etc., but never have I ever experienced any type of virus that is so unpredictable in nature while it ran its course through my body nor differed in such extreme symptoms.

While the description of my personal encounter with COVID-19 is presented with humor, it is my way of dealing with difficult situations. For me, it helps me mentally stay focused and positive. However, this is a profoundly serious situation.

This virus is extremely dangerous and deadly to many. But to others, there are absolutely no signs or symptoms, yet they are infected and contagious to others. That is what makes this virus so unpredictable and dangerous. It can be stealthily spread.

Personally, I have had three friends die within three weeks’ time. I have friends who developed pneumonia and are facing a tough battle, and some who have told me they have family or friends in the hospital now being placed on ventilators and fighting for their lives.

While everyone’s COVID experience is different, I would like to share with you what my version was like.

For me, it was like dealing with a virus that is bipolar in personality and constantly changing — sometimes literally by the minute. Many people have asked me, “So, what was it like to experience it?!”

I tell them, “It felt like I was playing a 12-day crazy video game of Jumanji-The COVID-19 Version.”

Level 1: The game usually begins with a slight cough and some head congestion. A bit of a headache. Slight body aches. A chill wafts over you. Your throat feels a little funky. You may or may not have a fever or your temp might even drop. Difficulty level is GREEN. Easy peasy. Is this a little cold or allergy? Ha! Couldn’t be COVID-19 could it??? I don’t feel that bad. This will be a cinch!

Game Note: Playing can begin at any level, which brings tremendous challenges to the game. Some people jump right in at Level 32 with a high 104 temp, massive diarrhea and simultaneous vomiting, along with a tremendous lack of lung capacity — like the air has been completely squeezed out of your lungs as if an elephant is sitting on top of you leaving you gasping for air. Your O2 level drops to below 90. The body aches are so bad that the gentle shower water feels like needles penetrating your skin. If this is your starting point, get ready and hold on tightly because your “’Rona Ride” is about to get seriously C r A z Y! Difficulty level is rated RED and entry at this higher stage is NOT recommended unless you are a very experienced gamer with proficient multitasking skills with toilet paper, a plastic bucket and skilled at playing in a semi-unconscious state. Good luck, gamer! You will need it.

Level 2: Once successfully passing through Level 1, you advance to the next round: Massive Coughing. Get ready for the aerobic adventure and be prepared to fully utilize those lungs. For this turn, using the Mucinex cheat code is highly recommended to keep the congestion loose in your lungs and easy to cough up. It’s important to check your oxygen level throughout play using an Oximeter. (Yes, additional playing pieces are recommended such as this and can be purchased for around $40 at your local Walgreens or CVS.) Your O2 is over 95%? Outstanding, my friend.

Level 5: All of a sudden, you notice you can’t fill up your lungs completely as if a python snake is slowly wrapping his slithery body around your chest and squeezing tighter and tighter. You’ve jumped a few levels and this round has a hazard zone — lack of oxygen. Difficulty Level: YELLOW. This is a good time to use that Phone-A-Friend game option and contact your physician as prescription steroids or advanced medical care may be required for successful competition throughout the remainder of the game.

Note: It is critical you check your O2 level and assess your ability to comfortably breathe. If at any time you are unable to take a full breath, or your O2 level drops to the low 90s or below, please seek immediate medical help. This is no joke. You successfully master Level 5 and immediately all coughing ceases. Like poof — it’s gone. Was it the medicine you might have taken? Perhaps you are over the hump and getting better? Who cares? You are feeling good again and you select a Chance card with your next move. You are excited because it provides you a jump of several levels and rewards you with eating! Bring on the tacos and ice cream and welcome to the next level. You start to get excited — you are winning this game!

Level 10: As you take that first bite, you realize something is wrong. Something is very, very wrong. You have just entered The Twilight Zone level. (Cue the music.) You notice a new sensation in your mouth. A feeling unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. What. Is. Going. On? Then it hits you. In horror, you realize your taste buds are slowly disappearing. You still have a sense of salty, sour, bitter and sweet. Just. No. Flavor. Nothing. What is that creamy and cold, sweet, semi-frozen, flavorless gooey substance? You look at the container to confirm. Yes. It’s vanilla ice cream in your mouth. Green mushy stuff? You confirm again. Guacamole. And that once minty mouthwash you liked? Forget about it! Just relish in the tingly sensation of liquid bubbles popping and dancing in your oral cavity-without taste. Your mouth feels fresh but strangely odd.

Level 12: You start to think, “So what? It’s just a few tastebuds.” You are feeling good otherwise and on the road to recovery and the end game is in sight. But au contraire! Your good fortune of improved health changes and you find yourself grabbing on to anything around you to steady yourself as the coughing becomes out of control. It’s like a strong Kansas wind is being forced from your lungs and then as fast as it hits, it ceases. All. Coughing. Halts. What was THAT all about, you think?! It was short-lived, but wow! Perhaps there is more to the game than you thought? Welcome to the next level of play: Fire and Ice!

Level 15: Like a sharp north wind in February, the icy blast hits you and you start shaking so badly from chills that you can barely hold on to your blanket. Grab as many blankets as you can, my friend! There is no limit of coverings in the game. You’ve entered the F R E E E Z E zone! Shiver! Shiver! Shiver! Grab more sweatshirts! Grab more blankets! And just as you finally get comfortable and start to relax, the environment changes as the blazing fires of hell engulf your body from head to toe. Sweat! Sweat! Sweat! You TOSS YOUR BLANKETS AND SWEATSHIRT OFF as fast as you can. Bonus points for an under 15-second removal. This round is a long one and usually lasts most of the night. It’s finally morning. You get up thinking you feel better — a few coughs and the day begins. “Am I over it or am I being fooled again?” you think. No, you really feel great! Shhh …you’ve just started the next round: The Stealth Zone.

Level 20: The Stealth Zone is a tricky level. Your energy is good. Coughing is fairly under control. Your taste starts to return, and you enjoy that warm cup of hazelnut morning coffee. The birds are singing. You gaze out the window watching the beautiful fall leaves slowly waft to the ground. You have a few light, slight symptoms throughout the day until evening when out of nowhere you stand up only to realize in horror that invisible weights have been locked around your arms and one leg. You. Are. Weighted. Down. What the ever-loving heck??? You slowly make it to your bed and collapse. You fall asleep and then wake up in the middle of the night to find you have completed Level 20. The heavy-weighted feeling is gone. You slip back to sleep only to wake again. Then slip back to sleep. Then awake! Welcome to your next level: SleepWakeSleepWake.

Level 22: The SleepWakeSleepWake round begins by falling peacefully asleep only to wake up within minutes. Repeatedly. You drift back to sleep for a minute or two only to be forced awake again. This is not like normal insomnia or when you wake up at 3 a.m. ruminating about stupid things like, “Why don’t the hairs of my eyebrows continue to grow over my eyes?” No, you go hard-core with your thoughts. You start thinking about stories you heard about years ago on the news of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay experiencing sleep deprivation treatment with nonstop playing of the Barney theme song and start wondering and panicking if this might be where you actually are? Cuba? Prison? Where am I? Your mind starts to drift and you wake-sleep-wake-sleep for hours pondering your whereabouts until the sun rises. You finally wake and realize you are at home. “Thank you, sweet baby Jesus!” you pray. You are not in an offshore Cuban detainee prison, after all! You head for that lovely morning cup of coffee and celebrate last night’s survival mission with sugar-free pumpkin spice creamer. You are becoming a COVID Jedi fighter!

Level 30: For those fortunate enough to experience low-level symptoms such as the ones mentioned, the last round finally begins, and you are on the home stretch. However, this is the most dangerous round: Heavy Lung Mucous and Congestion. I know. It sounds disgusting. But it’s my understanding from previous players and medical professionals that this is a huge HAZARD ZONE with a potential difficulty level rating set as RED — and where many get into trouble. It is at this point, you think you have managed pretty well, and you become a bit lax at checking your O2 level and monitoring the ease of your breathing. The tricky part is because you have been ill for so many days, and experiencing so many different symptoms, it’s easy to overlook the fact you may need medical help because your breathing might not be as good as you think. From my medical friends who work in the ER with COVID cases, they tell me this is what is causing folks to end up in ICU because the congestion has gotten so thick and built up, it’s difficult to expel and/or pneumonia has set in.  This can lead to the ventilator. It’s bad stuff.

It has been about a month since I first fell ill, and I feel almost back to normal. I am still having some post-recovery issues such as bouts of fatigue, I get winded quickly, and my eyes are a bit blurry at times and feel heavy. It’s weird. Other friends I know who have had COVID-19 are experiencing similar symptoms but also are facing other oddities like losing their hair. I have two female friends who have been told by their hairdresser that roughly 40% of their hair has fallen out.

Further, I have read stories of people who are losing their teeth, have trouble concentrating and are mentally fuzzy, and a sad story of a healthy 20-year old who needed a double lung transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Illinois after battling COVID.  While we continue to hear that most people survive COVID-19, what is being completely discounted is the post-recovery problems people are encountering. This is bad stuff for a lot of folks. Once you get through it, you may not be over it. It is the virus that just keeps on giving and giving and giving and certainly not in a good way.

After going through this, I’m most grateful to God that my family members (yes, we all had it) and I have been extremely blessed to have experienced this without hospitalization or anything more than a short dose of steroids and some over the counter medicines. But for too many people, COVID-19 has ended in a very unfortunate outcome.

Further, this has unfortunately become a major political issue and I had many friends, and regrettably, in a condescending way toward me, ask during my recovery, “I thought masking was supposed to protect you from getting COVID? Your family was resolute in masking and yet you all still got sick, hmmm. Looks like masking doesn’t work, does it?” Frankly, I believe the entire point of encouraging protective measures is being misunderstood and missed by many.

Nothing is 100% effective, and I do not recall anyone saying that masking and preventive measures such as washing your hands and social distancing will keep you 100% safe from contracting the virus.

Much similar, the flu shot is not 100% effective among all people, or wearing a seatbelt or having an airbag deploy in your car cannot guarantee 100% you will be protected in a car wreck.

However, taking some simple defensive steps to diminish your chances of getting ill due to the virus is what wearing a mask, washing your hands and social distancing is all about — just like getting a flu shot or wearing your seat belt.

Hospitals and ICUs are filled to capacity. Our first-line medical professionals are becoming ill and overwhelmed. We need to slow this virus and we can. But it takes us all working together. So, please, pop on a mask. Wash your hands. Keep your distance. You and your family do not want to experience this.

“It’s a Simple Task. Wear a Mask.”