Morgan Smith, along with his wife Sarah Lavender Smith and their two children, lived in Piedmont for many years before moving to Colorado last year. Smith recently turned to Facebook to share the story of how he contracted COVID-19, the alarming course of the infection, and his current recovery back at home. We are reprinting his story here with permission in the hope that it helps drive home the seriousness of this illness.
I am not normally one to post on Facebook, but I figured this was a good exception since I have gone through the process of COVID-19 onset of viral pneumonia, the symptoms, and into recovery. That makes me a really lucky and unlucky person at the same time.
I thought I’d share since there is little information out there on this development of this illness in the more severe cases. Most stories in the media focus on two true facts: 80% of cases are mild and those that die tend to be older with health problems like degraded lungs, diabetes or other issues. All certainly true. But if you look at the opposite side of that 80%, those remaining 20% with “not mild” cases occur pretty evenly across most all age groups from teenagers to advanced ages. Luckily kids seems much less likely to get anything more than a mild case. So by those odds, with a family of 5 very healthy people all above the age of 15, on average, one of those people will have a “not mild case”. Sheltering at home is the way we can slow the progression, but the progression will continue until there is a vaccine or everyone has been exposed.
I’m not sharing this for sympathy since I’ve already received lots of that, but just to give a heads up on this topic that is front and center in our country and thought people might find it useful.
First, what is a mild case. I know [what this looks like] since basically everyone else in my family had that. We are quite sure we were exposed when we went up to Boulder, CO on March 14 to pick up my son where he is a Freshman at CU. There were a number of confirmed COVID-19 cases on campus when CU closed down, including at least one person who worked at the main food service area where Kyle ate at regularly. While driving him home to Telluride (Highway 70 across the continental divide in March and about 30 degrees outside) he was asking us to turn on the air-conditioning because it has hot, which made no sense. He slept most the way home but had a small cough that lasted a few days and resolved. He likely had a small fever while in the car and then had a cough that lasted a few days. Basically that was the extent of all his symptoms but it was all that was necessary to transmit it to others.
Later that week after he was home in Telluride, both Sarah Lavender Smith and my daughter also developed low level fevers (either below 100 or barely above 100) with slight headaches. My daughter’s symptoms continued for awhile longer with some light fatigue. In short, that was the total extent of all the symptoms for those lucky 80% who have “mild symptoms”. Although the key to remember about all those people with “Mild” symptoms is that they are infectious likely before they show any symptoms, and during the time they have little to no real symptoms. This is why this spreads so easily and so hard to stop. Since Telluride was an early city to require everyone to stay at home, we did that, and luckily likely did not infect others.
So what’s it like for the other 20%? Obviously, not so good. This is my story.
6 Days post exposure: I started with showing signs of tremendous fatigue. I woke up, had breakfast and promptly fell back asleep for three hours, had lunch then fell asleep for three hours and pretty much went to sleep after that for the night. I also developed a similar cough to what Kyle had, but I never had fever.
Days 7-12 post exposure: Really pretty mild symptoms during this whole time, but I kept up pretty full activities. Since I work from home with the rest of my staff in Oakland and Sacramento, I was mostly dealing with business issues but still got outside a lot. I probably had some shortness of breath, but it’s hard to tell with living at 9000 feet. I started developing aches on my body that were unusual mostly around the back and arms and my skin started becoming sensitive to the touch by the end of this time, but all really seemed mild. I should add that none of us got tested because we knew it was impossible to do so unless you were in the hospital with severe symptoms so that was not available.
Days 13-14 from exposure: I was trying hard to get our paddock ready for bringing our horses back home to altitude and building a chicken coop and definitely felt like I overdid it and was exhausted beyond reason from the activity I actually did. I started sleeping as a full-time job (pretty much not getting our of bed for anything, and was taking the maximum dose of Tylenol that I could daily to control the painful body aches). This was Thu 3/26 – Sat 3/28. I called the doctor and they had me hold my breath for ten seconds, which I could do without issue, and with my breathing sounding ok, they said I was probably fine to stay at home but I could add Ibuprofen to the Tylenol by alternating between them. So during this time, I was in bed all day and taking the maximum dose of both Tylenol and Ibuprofen to try to control the aches and pains on my back and arms that felt similar to having shingles. At the start of this period I started to develop a mild fever (like 100) that would come and go. I also had a cough.
Day 15 from exposure (late in day Sat 3/28): This is the day/night all hell broke loose. I really could no longer get out of bed and was unable to do any activity. I was telling myself that my body was doing what it needed to do to get better, so that it’s all good. The rest was allowing my body to make the antibodies necessary to fight what I assumed was COVID-19, and so I just had to let it do its thing. I called the doctor again that day and still could hold my breath without coughing for like 10+ seconds and did not have chest pain at all, but told them I literally could not get out of bed. I decided to let my body heal and sleep more. About midnight, Sarah woke me up saying that I was rapidly breathing and sounded bad and I should go to the hospital. We took my temperature and it had shot up to 103. Being exhausted, I did not want to and wanted to go back to sleep but she made me because I did not look good. As I tried to get ready, I noticed I had lost coordination and balance and could barely get dressed, and just moving was causing difficultly breathing.
So I arrived at the Telluride Medical Center a little after 1 a.m., which is not really a hospital, but they have very good imaging equipment available because of all the serious ski injuries and they do have a 24-hour emergency room. The hooked me to the machine, and turns out my oxygen saturation level was at 74% (normal at sea level is 99% and about 95% average at this altitude). With this lack of oxygen and fever of 103, I was likely incapable of making my own decisions, so thank God Sarah forced my butt out of bed at that time.
I was given oxygen and that was able to get my levels back to normal as long as I have a continuous supply. They tested me for the virus but said it could still take a week for the result. They also tested for regular flu and that came back negative. They recommended a CT Scan of the chest to check for pneumonia (since they do have really nice imagining equipment!). My result showed the classic sign of the COVID-19 pneumonia pattern in both lungs, which is patchy spots all over the lungs bilaterally. With this the radiologist could unequivocally state I had COVID-19 virus. The pneumonia was shutting down my oxygen intake, even though I had no chest pain and could still hold my breath for 10 + second without any issue.
This point is a really big deal since a number of ER doctors have commented on how unusual this virus is from normal bacterial pneumonia. With normal pneumonia you get lots of symptoms of pain that precede the spread and typically you can hear it easily with a stethoscope. With COVID- 19 you can have massive spread of the pneumonia with little breathing symptoms until it hits like a ton of bricks and might be too late to do anything about it. This is why you see some really healthy people dropping dead from this disease even without any underlying medical conditions.
Another ER doctor friend of mine said on that low level of oxygen people are presenting with at the ER as I did with a 75% level: “Weird thing about this virus is that people show up in ER’s with oxygen saturation of 70% or 75%, which would normally make you extremely short of breath, but [people] are not feeling it. Very weird. Sneaky. Normally if you dropped your O2 sat to 85% you would be gasping and freaking out… hypoxia is a very strong drive.. normally.”
So back to my story:
Montrose Hospital: Since I had to go to a “real” hospital, Sarah got me in the car and drove me the hour and a half to Montrose Hospital. Sarah was not allowed outside the car since she is obviously a potential carrier, so I had to get myself in and be put in an isolation room where I was allowed no visitors. Sarah had to drive home alone, and wonder if, or when, she would see me again. The medical staff at Montrose were all wonderful and amazing knowing the risk they are putting themselves at by taking care of people like me. The doctor told me that, basically, there is no actual treatment for this viral pneumonia, but we’re following the recommended doses of antibiotics and we’ll know soon if it helps or not. So in short, if it helps, you’ll get better, if it doesn’t, you’re probably screwed. Knowing that an antibiotic should not have any effect on a viral agent, I was not feeling supper strong about my chances.
Luckily for me though, the antibiotics started working is some fashion very soon and combined with the oxygen, which I have now and will continue with until healed, I did not need a ventilator and I was released a couple days later and feeling a good deal better from where I started. The antibiotics will not get rid of the viral pneumonia, but they did work to help my body so that my body can develop the antibodies necessary to kill the virus over time. I will be recovering for a good long period and I have to have a continuous supply of oxygen for the foreseeable future, but I’m out of the zone of worry! Since coming home, I still have symptoms of night sweats (drenched with sweat at night), easily fatigued, and headaches, but no fever.
I guess the key takeaway point of all this is to watch out for this virus. It is sneaky, hard to detect, and hard to tell the difference between a mild case, which can be little or nothing, and the unlucky 20%. The reason we have all upended our lives and we are taking all these precautions makes a whole lot more sense when you realize what this thing can do if it’s allowed to infect everyone without limitation at the same time. I was very lucky to be in a small town that has not yet been hit hard so I received all the care I needed when I needed it. Others are not so lucky right now.
The good news, as always, is that 80% will have little or no symptoms, also the vast majority of those 20% with serious cases will actually survive, but damn this is not a virus to play around with!!
It does explain why we as a country are going to such lengths to try to “flatten the curve” to allow proper treatment for those who need it. My heart goes to all those in places like NY that are dealing with these issues under the most unimaginable conditions possible, and patients going through this and dying alone due to necessary visitor restrictions. I was very lucky to have great medical care and attention in a place not yet overwhelmed.
I hope this helps some people out there.