Skip to main content

Our Team Member’s Journey Back to Health After COVID-19

By Charlene Macielag | October 9, 2020 | 5 min read | Healthy Lifestyle, Coronavirus

Hospital hallway with stretcher

One Wednesday morning in July, Renae Cates woke up with an excruciating headache. The pain was located in the very back center of her head.

By Thursday evening, Renae felt intense pressure on her chest. By Friday morning, she was suffering from shortness of breath. All the while, her headache persisted.

“It was like nothing I’ve ever felt before,” she said.

When she finally called the local urgent care center that Friday morning, Renae was immediately transferred to a COVID-19 hotline. After a brief phone screening, the doctor determined that she should be tested for COVID-19.

Renae was then routed to an urgent care center in Durham. She figured she’d be home within the hour. After a litany of tests, the doctors sent her to the emergency room. Although members of the medical staff wanted to admit her to the hospital overnight, Renae was released around 1am after her blood pressure and heart rate stabilized.

She arrived back home thirteen hours after she left – exhausted and unwell. Little did she know that the worst was yet to come.

“It was just like they show on the news”

At home, Renae’s symptoms progressively worsened. Nine days later, she was admitted to the hospital for low oxygen levels.

“I had every symptom on the chart,” Renae shared. “Coughing, shortness of breath, loss of hearing, loss of taste, and GI issues. But the worst of it was that this illness affected my mental stability. I’m a mother, a wife. As my health deteriorated, my husband and I started talking about life insurance. ‘Did he have access to all of my bank accounts?’ we wondered together. I thought about everything that you normally don’t have to – and shouldn’t have to.”

For four days and three nights, Renae sat alone in her hospital bed. Visits from doctors and nurses were infrequent, and when they happened, they were impersonal. When the medical staff entered the room, they had to dress from head-to-toe in personal protective equipment (PPE) and completely strip down post-visit.

“It was just like they show on the news. There were hours that I would be in my room alone. It felt like the walls were closing in. I was able to text and call my family, but, of course, I wasn’t allowed to have visitors. For the first two days, the nurse practitioner and doctors called me on the phone from their offices in the hospital. It was very lonely and very scary,” Renae said.

On her second day in the hospital, Renae received convalescent plasma therapy. By midday Wednesday, she began regaining her appetite. It was the plasma and oxygen, she believes, that saved her life.

“The million dollar question”

Her road to recovery was far from over. After she was released from the hospital, she still couldn’t return to work. Aside from the mental strain of feeling like a prisoner in her own home – quarantining herself in a single room to avoid contact with her fourteen-year-old son and husband – Renae’s physical symptoms left her fatigued.

“How do you think you contracted it?” friends and colleagues would ask.

As Renae says, “That’s the million-dollar question.”

Like most others, Renae isn’t exactly sure how she was exposed. During the five days preceding the onset of symptoms, she had only ventured out of her home once to the local grocery store.

“I’ve been doing my grocery shopping once a week since March, like health experts recommend. Same grocery store every time, and always with a mask.”

But as Renae indicated, there’s no way to pinpoint that particular outing as the source. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it can take up to two weeks after COVID-19 exposure for symptoms to appear.

The first emergency room physician that treated her stressed a hard fact: COVID-19 is rampant right now, and you can pretty much get it anywhere.

“All I know is that it’s real.”

Three months have now passed since she contracted the virus, and Renae is still dealing with its long-term health effects – from hearing loss to shortness of breath. But there have been small moments of celebration on her journey. Renae is now walking 10,000 steps again per day – a feat that has taken her over two months to build up to. Until recently, even with the support of her inhaler, a long stroll was too stressful on Renae’s weakened lungs.

Renae is thankful for each new step she’s able to take on her journey to well-being.

She also feels blessed to be employed and insured by Blue Cross NC. Due to her insurance benefits, Renae never had to worry about the cost of her COVID-19 care. “They changed our member benefits in March to cover all tests and treatment related to COVID-19 and waive all cost-sharing. That means that I don’t owe anything.”

And as for the time Renae needed to take off during her illness? “Many people would have been without pay,” Renae said, “but Blue Cross NC expanded its sick leave policy for COVID-19-related illnesses. It was very comforting that I never had to worry about my job during that time at home or in the hospital.”

Even with support and medical care, though, the virus took an incredible mental and physical toll. Now Renae is left with another, bigger question, and it’s one that most symptomatic COVID-19 victims will face: “Can I get it again?”

“All I know,” said Renae, “is that it’s real. It’s no joke. Is it akin to the flu? If they’re related, they’re as far away on the family tree as possible. Take it seriously. Be conscious.”