When Jackie McLennan, 55, and her friend left for a week-long trip to Miami on March 13, the novel coronavirus still seemed like a faraway problem.
“It wasn’t crazy out in the world yet,” the Markham, Ont., resident told Global News. “It was mostly all overseas … creeping its way over, so we kept our plans.”
But when McLennan woke up on March 14, everything was different.
“Everything kind of exploded that weekend,” she said. “All of our friends were texting us all day … saying we should come home, that they might close the borders.”
So the pair cut their trip short, travelling back to Toronto on March 16. The next day, McLennan woke up with telltale symptoms of COVID-19: fever, cough and shortness of breath.
“ got so much worse so quickly,” she said.
By March 18, McLennan was struggling to breathe. She texted her brother, a physician at Markham-Stouffville hospital, to get his opinion.
“He said, ‘What are your biggest symptoms?’ and I said, ‘I can’t breathe,'” McLennan said. “He said, ‘You should get tested.'”
McLennan drove herself to the hospital to be tested, and she was admitted for overnight stay within hours.
“All I had to say was I just came back from travelling and that was it,” she said.
“They admitted me because my chest X-ray didn’t look good.”
By March 20, McLennan received her results: she tested positive for COVID-19 — but this was only the beginning.
The hospital stay
So began McLennan’s 14-day stay in an oxygen-controlled room at Markham-Stouffville Hospital.
She was on oxygen and completely isolated, except for the very few times she was visited by doctors and nurses.
“They would try to minimize the number of times when they come in, so when they do come in, they do everything,” McLennan said.
Anyone who entered the room would be in full personal protective equipment — even the person dropping off her food.
That includes “the face mask, the plastic shield, the gloves, the boot covers, the yellow gowns,” McLennan said.
“God bless them. These people are out of this world.”
Anything used in McLennan’s room was placed into the garbage immediately, even food trays.
“They were throwing everything out because … they just had no idea,” McLennan said.
She was told they didn’t want the food tray going back to the kitchen and someone washing it and potentially spreading the virus.
“For a while, I got a sandwich in a little paper bag,” she said.
After a week, McLennan started to feel better — her fever broke and her oxygen saturation levels were improving.
However, she developed pneumonia, leaving her lungs in “really bad shape.”
“My brother, being one of the radiologists, sent me a picture of my lungs,” McLennan said. “He said, ‘This is just the worst thing. These look horrible.'”
On a recent phone call, McLennan told her brother she still felt pressure in her lungs.
“He said it’s going to take a really long time for to bounce back to where they were,” she said.
The hardest part of the whole thing, said McLennan, was being away from her kids. She has four children between the ages of 19 and 25.
“They were scared out of their minds,” McLennan said. “We hadn’t even hugged yet because I after coming home from my trip, and two of them had just come home from university right before I’d gone into the hospital.”
It was especially scary for her kids because their father died in a car accident in 2010. They were worried McLennan’s health would take a turn for the worse and they wouldn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
“There was a lot of worry, a lot of tears,” McLennan said. “They said, ‘You’re in there we can’t see you. What are we supposed to do?'”
They spoke via video call on occasion, but it was difficult because the internet access was spotty and McLennan was quite sick.
“Luckily, I wasn’t in the ICU on a ventilator … but it’s not like anybody can promise you you’re going to be fine,” she said. “I guess this is what severe illness is like.”
“You’ve got all the symptoms of your illness, but then, on top of that, you’re just crying and you’re worried and you’re alone.”
Isolation only made matters worse.
“Being in isolation isn’t good for your sanity at the best of times,” she said.
“I was lucky to get a window with some pretty trees outside. Otherwise, I would’ve lost track of day and night.”
Finally, McLennan was strong enough to leave the hospital.
She walked out alone, weak and short of breath. She had to drive herself home, too, since she wasn’t allowed to be around others until she tested negative for the coronavirus.
Seeing her kids again was “the greatest feeling,” she said, even though they couldn’t hug or touch.
Once home, McLennan began self-isolating in her bedroom, still experiencing symptoms, but relieved to be back in her own bed.
“Even when I got home, I could only go a few feet … I could go as far as the washroom and then I would need to sit down again,” she said.
“But I was feeling way better. To get to be at home and know your kids are outside your door, it really makes it all better again.”
It wasn’t long before McLennan was ready to be re-tested for the coronavirus. She would need to obtain a negative test result before being able to rejoin her family in the other parts of their home.
She was tested three times; the first, about a week after leaving the hospital, came back positive. Luckily, the next two came back negative.
Now, she’s hoping this experience might protect her in the future — but she’s nervous about all the unknowns related to the powerful virus.
“Nobody can promise that you can’t get it again.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.
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