My experiences with COVID

By Dr. Julie Willoughby - For the Sidney Daily News

Julie and John Willoughby

Julie and John Willoughby

SIDNEY — COVID seemed like something that wouldn’t happen to me. From the Governor’s reports in the spring, the hotspots in the state were in the big cities like Cleveland, Columbus, and Dayton. Small cities like Sidney, Ohio, were not really affected. We were a little sheltered because of our wide open-spaces and distance from the big cities.

My social circle was tight. I had been around my husband, John, my children, my parents, my siblings, some nieces, nephews, and just a few friends. We ordered our groceries with a curb-side pickup with most other orders from Amazon. We used Clorox Wipes on door handles, wore masks during necessary store trips, and sanitized our hands often. We also quarantined our young adult son in the bottom level of our house a few times, if he had traveled out of town. We stayed entertained with safe outdoor activities like biking, hiking, and kayaking.

Regardless, COVID ended up affecting our family in multiple ways. It all started early last spring.

My mother had been fighting cancer for over a year. During the Stay at Home Order, she stopped treatment and transitioned to home hospice services. We knew that she was at risk of getting COVID. We also knew that our time with her may be limited. I wore a mask when in my parent’s house until seeing each other face-to-face was more important than the risk of not wearing a mask. My sisters and I are all in education and we were fortunate to be able to work from home during that time. My brother and his wife were off of work too and were often able to be there and my other brother came every day after work to be with Mom. The Stay at Home Order gave us time to spend with Mom and help with her needs. So, in a way, COVID gave us the blessing of time with Mom and Dad. Unfortunately, Mom passed away in late April.

Funerals were ordered to be private and just for close family. Our immediate families, Mom’s siblings, and their spouses attended the funeral. The funeral director said that her funeral could be streamed live for others to view. A funeral is not something that really should be on the internet, but there were many people that we knew that wanted to be there and couldn’t, so Dad decided to let that happen. Some other friends and family were waiting at the graveyard with most grieving at a distance. I knew that my cousins and friends that were not permitted to come to a visitation or to the funeral were thinking of us, but I missed talking and spending that time with them. My grandmother, who was in an assisted living facility, was not allowed to leave for her daughter’s funeral. That was heartbreaking for her and for the rest of the family.

In late May, my aunt was able to get my grandmother out of the nursing home for the weekend. She met my dad and me at Mom’s gravesite to talk and spend some time together. I remember hugging her and telling her that I loved her. She saw the tears in my eyes and told me that now was not the time for her to be sad. She needed to be happy while she had some time out of the nursing home. My aunts and uncles did their best to make the weekends that grandma could get out of the assisted living facility special for her. One of my aunts posted (on Facebook) Grandma getting her hair done by the group. Grandma had eight living children to dote on her every chance that they were allowed to.

When Grandma was in the facility, the family was able to see her through her window. The window was not allowed to be opened, so we made signs to tell her that we loved her and sent air hugs and kisses. Being isolated most of the time and the loss of her daughter took a toll on her spirit and her health. She was in all of our thoughts and prayers.

A new ‘normal’ life

Life started returning to a new normal for me in June when I returned to work in the office instead of working at home. When we worked from home, we had meetings with teachers and administrators through online Zoom meetings where we could see and hear each other. When we returned to the office, not much changed for administrators because we continued having Zoom meetings; but instead, we were now Zooming from our separate offices. During other summer Zoom meetings, we met with teachers to prepare for the school year to make classroom sizes smaller, provide an online option for our families, and ensure other important safety measures for staff and students.

The new office normal took a bit to get used to. Besides Zoom meetings, I spent most of the day in my office alone and only visited with other staff in a brief masked hallway visit. At the end of the workday, I was anxious to get home and see my husband’s unmasked face and talk to him face-to-face. I could not imagine going through COVID without having family and few friends to visit and talk with. I continued to worry about Grandma’s ongoing isolation from everyone else. I knew that window visits just were not enough.

In August, Grandma’s health worsened and one immediate family member was allowed to visit her once a day because of her declining health. Dad went to see her and told me that visitors had to wear a full protection suit and a mask when visiting. I sent a few short videos to the nurses and to my aunt so Grandma would know that I was thinking of her. Many of my cousins were able to reach out in similar ways as well. I asked Dad if it was possible that I could come in for a quick visit, and he shared that I probably didn’t want to be in there because there were a few residents that had tested positive for COVID. Grandma had been tested for COVID a few weeks back and the results were negative. Shortly after Dad’s last visit, things took a turn for the worse and Grandma passed away in mid-August. I was sad to lose her but happy that my mom and grandma were now back together again.

Things had changed since my mother’s funeral in the spring. Unlimited family and friends could now attend funeral services. For my grandmother’s service, there was to be a viewing in the back of the church before the funeral mass. My grandparents had ten children, many grandchildren, many siblings, and many friends. We knew that there would be a crowd. On the morning of the funeral my dad, sister, my husband, and I talked about the exposure (to COVID) that we might be facing. My sister even said maybe we should wear a heart sign that we would not be accepting hugs.

When we arrived, the viewing room was already filled with people. Everyone wore masks and there were huge bottles of hand sanitizer, but no one was social distancing. How do you not hug your aunts and uncles and cousins when you just lost someone so important? The loss of my grandmother was hard enough, but I felt like the loss of my mother was there all over again. I got to see cousins that I didn’t see in April during Mom’s funeral. It was a time to talk and grieve together. In the very back of my mind, I worried about the Pandemic, but I couldn’t let it get in the way of honoring Grandma and I felt that everyone else felt the same.

Just a few days earlier, my young adult son had been out to see some friends, and some new people had been around him that he hadn’t been exposed to before. I didn’t even think about him not going to Grandma’s funeral or that he might have been exposed to COVID. I needed him at the funeral with me. He came later than most, drove separately, and left immediately after the church service.

In the church, our pews were separated and we mostly sat with our immediate families. After the service, we went to the graveyard and all family members kept on masks. One of my uncles was concerned that he might have been exposed to COVID so he only came to the graveside and stayed back away from everyone else. After the grave service, we went to my aunt’s house for a carry-in lunch. We sat outside talking to each other in the lawn chairs that we brought. I think the general unspoken feeling was that we would be okay without masks since we were outside and there was lots of airflow.

I did notice that one of my aunts had been keeping to herself; and so when I saw her outside eating lunch, I sat across from her to see how she was. She said she wasn’t feeling well and had recently been tested for COVID. I got up and moved over a seat to continue our brief conversation.

Grandma’s funeral was on Tuesday and a few days later my son came home from his job early saying he was suddenly very tired but had no other symptoms. He was thinking about getting tested (for COVID). On Thursday, he called me at work and decided to be tested that day. I called the doctor to find out what he needed to do to be tested. At that point, I was feeling fine, but I had been exposed to him so my worry slowly started to build.

I called the superintendent and told him my situation. He said to take extra precautions to stay away from other staff; and if I felt any symptoms, I should go home. I had plans to meet with my secretary that day, so instead of talking face-to-face, I talked with her in a Zoom meeting.

Each year before students come, our teachers start with a variety of professional development, and organizing this professional development is one of my roles. This year we decided that professional development would be delivered virtually so that staff members would have less exposure to one another. The day that my son was tested and the day after that, I attended several professional development sessions in my office with the door shut.

On Friday (the day after my son had been tested), my throat began to feel a little tight but I chalked it up to getting worked up about even having the possibility of being exposed to COVID. I threw on a blanket because I was a little chilled, but I tend to do that in the summer air conditioning. Normally, I can make myself feel sick even when I am worried about getting sick. So, I did my best to fight off what I thought was paranoia that I might have COVID and we went out that night to meet my brother, his wife, my aunt and uncle, a cousin, and her husband. We sat outside around a picnic table eating pizza and enjoyed each other’s company.

A positive COVID diagnosis

On Saturday, I woke up feeling an increased tightness in my throat. I didn’t really think I had COVID because I did not have a fever; and from what I read, a fever was something that typically came with having COVID. Still, the worry was there, so I went to urgent care. When I shared my symptoms with the check-in nurse, she also thought it was probably a cold. I thought maybe it was strep throat because the soreness was worsening. Again, I shared all of my symptoms with the nurse practitioner when she came in, and I shared that my son had been tested for COVID but hadn’t gotten the results back.

When I asked her what she thought I should do, she said it was up to me but it might be better to get tested (for COVID) especially because I work for a school system. I explained that I do work for a school system but am not typically in contact with students and work at the central office. Still, she said that I would be working around people that are in contact with students so it was important to be as safe as I can. I took a strep throat test and COVID Test. Strep throat came back negative and the COVID test could take up to 7 days for results. My husband met me in the parking lot and our worry started to increase. We would both need to quarantine until results came back.

My concern immediately went to my dad and I called him. We were together at a family funeral earlier that week; and if I had COVID, I might have gotten it from relatives at the funeral or from my son. Either way, Dad was around my son and he was at the funeral. I knew older people were at risk for more serious COVID complications, and I was also facing the newfound fear of having only one remaining parent.

He reminded me that Grandma was in a facility that had COVID positive cases. He said that he was feeling fine but my sister was not feeling well and had a fever. I called her explaining everything again. She said she wasn’t concerned and was not going to get tested. After our phone conversation ended, she changed her mind and went in for a test. While she was out, my son got his results back and he was positive with COVID. I was afraid for him and everyone in my family.

I called urgent care explaining that my son was positive. The nurse practitioner verified that I was likely positive. I needed to immediately self-isolate and start to do some contact tracing- letting people that I had been exposed to me in the last two days know that I likely had COVID. I had been isolated at the office for the last two days at work, but I did let my boss know. Then I called my sister and the family members that I met with the night before. I was starting to feel worse right away, but I think it was really the panic that I probably had COVID and I might have exposed other family members the night before. I now had a sore throat, a minor cough, chills, and headache.

The guilt that I felt for going out the night before was weighing heavy on my heart. I worried that I put people in danger and I wondered what they were thinking about my carelessness. My aunt that I had been out with the night before reminded me that we had all been together earlier that week at the funeral and we just really didn’t know where this came from. She felt tired too but chalked it up to feeling exhausted from the funeral week she had just been through. I wish I could say that my mind stopped thinking about where this came from but it is something that I thought about often in the weeks to come.

I called my Godmother because I had a longer conversation with her on the day of the funeral, and I wanted to check and see how she was doing. She told me that she wasn’t feeling well but she too thought she was just worn out from the funeral week. I told her that she might have COVID. Her husband, my Godfather, had not been doing well with his health for some time and I was also concerned about him. I thought that he had not been at the funeral so I was not as concerned about him at the time of my phone call. My godmother said that she had a call into her doctor and was going to stay positive.

On Monday our family doctor said that my husband and I would need to quarantine for 10 days regardless of the test results because we had been exposed to someone with COVID. He reminded me that we likely had COVID as well. The doctor said that the recommendations for time in quarantine had changed and I could return after 10 days as long I was fever free for 24 hours.

I would need to work from home for at least a week and was grateful that all of the professional development that would happen with our staff in the upcoming week would be virtual. I had to guide and organize much of the professional development that week and as the week moved forward I started feeling very tired. As I pushed through my work, a more consistent cough started to creep in. My son was already saying he felt fine. By Tuesday, my husband had a temperature and chills. He called the doctor explaining his symptoms and what was going on in the family. He got tested shortly after.

It seemed to be taking too long to get the test results, so I started calling urgent care daily for results. I still didn’t have a fever and was really hoping that we got lucky and didn’t have it. Besides being very tired and having a cough, I felt alright. Thursday morning, six days after my test, I got the call that I was positive with COVID. My husband tested positive shortly after.

I started finding out that many family members that were at the funeral had tested positive and were sick with COVID. In total, 19 family members got sick and both of the singers at the funeral got sick as well. Five family members had been hospitalized from COVID, including my Godmother and my Godfather. The two of them had been moved to different hospitals due to the severity of their illnesses. My Godfather had already had some very concerning health issues, and he unexpectedly passed away in the hospital. It was extremely heartbreaking to think about my aunt being in the hospital with COVID when her husband passed away in a different hospital. I couldn’t believe how strong she was during that entire ordeal. At one point, the medical team told her that she probably would not be out in time for the funeral. Thankfully, my uncle’s funeral was delayed so that she could get well enough to attend the funeral. During the funeral, she self-isolated from other family members as a precaution. I felt not just sad but angry about what COVID had done to her and everyone in the family.

My twenty-something son, who had felt fine on Thursday, started to feel worse later in the week. He said that he was having trouble breathing and didn’t understand why he wasn’t completely better by that time. My chest was starting to feel extreme tightness and felt like someone was sitting on it all of the time. I was researching COVID frequently and read that sometimes pneumonia would set in the lungs without people even knowing it. I had heard that lung scans were being done in emergency rooms for some patients.

At one point, I took my son to the emergency room to get his and my oxygen checked. They would not even let us in the ER. We had to wait on a bench outside. A nurse came out to check our oxygen and said it was okay. Shortly after, I ordered a pulse oximeter to measure our oxygen levels at home. That device helped us to feel better and not be so anxious about what was going on with our oxygen levels.

One night the chills came on so strong that I went to bed with piles of blankets and still couldn’t get the chills to leave all night long. As a family, our symptoms were all over the place. My sense of smell was off and everything had a sick smell, my son lost his sense of taste, and my husband fought high fevers and body aches.

After my son and I had seemed to be more in the clear, my husband’s symptoms got worse. His temperature got as high as 103 and his oxygen levels became low. I insisted that he go to the emergency room calling on the way explaining his symptoms. When we arrived, they took him to a different entrance of the hospital to be evaluated. They would not allow me in the hospital with him. Remembering what had happened to my godmother and godfather I didn’t like leaving him and immediately felt bad that I had pressed him to get checked. He was in for only an hour or two and thankfully they sent him home because he was doing better.

All of my family is now out of the hospital and most are fully recovered. Two of my aunts continue to need doctor care related to COVID. One aunt still struggles with oxygen levels and continues to need oxygen at home. My godmother is due to see a specialist soon.

Not a day has gone by since my first family member was diagnosed with COVID that I don’t pray that the world is free from COVID and a vaccine is found for this virus. It has taken lives, damaged our health, and taken us from a normal life where we can interact with others as we are supposed to. Of course, I had no way of knowing that going to a funeral and being around family could lead to all of this; but in some ways, I believe that we all suspected that we were taking a risk. Now we know that large gatherings, such as weddings and funerals, can lead to outbreaks.

I am grateful that my employer had good precautions in place and that prevented me from spreading COVID at work. If we had been having face to face professional development during that time, I could have been around many staff members across the district. If we weren’t required to wear masks outside of our office or developed comfort in using Zoom meetings, I could have exposed my secretary and other staff in the office.

So, where do I go from here. Many say that if you have had COVID you have built up an immunity and can’t get it again. I recently asked my doctor to verify this. She said that I did likely build up an immunity but there is no guarantee how long that immunity will last. I have been fighting the fear and anxiety of getting COVID again or having other family members or friends get it. I don’t want to live my life in that fear; so I choose to use the precautions that have been proven to help. Until I have taken a COVID vaccine, I will continue to keep my social circle small and follow precautions including social distancing, handwashing, using sanitizer, and wearing a mask in public.

Julie and John Willoughby and John Willoughby

By Dr. Julie Willoughby

For the Sidney Daily News

A Sidney resident, the writer is the director of curriculum and instruction at Urbana City Schools. Her husband, John, is employed by the Midwest Regional Educational Service Center and is the varsity boys basketball coach for Sidney High School.

A Sidney resident, the writer is the director of curriculum and instruction at Urbana City Schools. Her husband, John, is employed by the Midwest Regional Educational Service Center and is the varsity boys basketball coach for Sidney High School.