“I don’t know how graphic you want me to be,” said Hollister resident Tiffany Wyrick, “but in the intensive care unit, most of the time I did not think I would live. They had a respirator that had two big tubes they put up your nose taped to your face, and I was on that. All the alarms on the machines kept going off because my oxygen would go too low or my heart rate would drop. With every breath I took it felt like someone was stabbing me in the back. They wanted to put me on a ventilator, but I told them not yet. In my mind, I knew if they put me on it, I would die.”
Prior to her illness, Wyrick, 47, was a bartender with a passion for her 14-year-old son Colton and her family of dogs.
She, along with Colton, were early victims of COVID-19, who both contracted the virus in March. Colton finally became symptom-free three weeks ago, but Wyrick still suffers from serious symptoms and has little resistance to illness, with lingering sickness being a common side effect for many virus patients.
“With a virus, we often think in terms of how many people died and how many survived,” said San Benito County Public Health Officer David Ghilarducci, “but that doesn’t tell the whole story. There are strong healthy people who get the virus and it will cause problems for the rest of their lives. It can have an effect on the brain or the cardiovascular system. Unlike the flu, where you might feel bad for a couple of weeks, we are finding with this virus a fair amount of people will have permanent damage.”
Wyrick and her son believe they were exposed to COVID-19 on a trip to the grocery store, long before anyone knew how dangerous the virus was to people.
“It was on March 23,” Wyrick said, “during the time everyone was panic-buying toilet paper. I was in line at Nob Hill, like everyone else, shoulder-to-shoulder. I was wearing a mask, the checkers were wearing masks, but the lines were very long, and only about half the people were wearing masks. But I had thought, ‘I’ve run out of milk, I have no choice.’”
Wyrick started showing symptoms three days later. With no single specific symptom exhibited in all cases, COVID-19 has a wide range of ways it can show itself. With Wyrick, it was weakness and all-over pain.
“I didn’t have a cough,” Wyrick said. “I just woke up and my whole body hurt. I couldn’t walk—the bathroom is only about 15 steps from my bed and I couldn’t make it. It felt way too bad for me to still be alive.”
Colton, severely ill himself, helped the best he could. “It was really hard,” he said. “Seeing her feeling so horrible constantly and having to help her walk around or go down the stairs. It is the most terrible thing I have seen in my life.”
‘I was out of my mind’
By April 1, Wyrick was so weak that she needed to be taken to the emergency room.
“They had to call an ambulance to come get me because I could not make it down my stairs,” Wyrick said. “They had to carry me. They took me to Hazel Hawkins and tested me for COVID. It came back negative and they said I had severe pneumonia.”
Since that initial test, subsequent testing confirmed the COVID diagnosis.
Between her weakened condition and the medications prescribed to her, Wyrick said her thinking started to become foggy.
“They gave me steroids and antibiotics that affected my mind,” she said, “I was delirious and not of sound mind anymore. Somebody said something to me that upset me. I ripped out my IV and called my boyfriend to pick me up. I was out of my mind—I was not even wearing my clothes.”
At this point, Wyrick had a low-grade fever, headache and a sore throat, but no cough. She said “Every joint in my body hurt. I had a tightness in my chest, but no mucus. But I was so out of breath that I could not walk 10 feet without stopping. My blood pressure and my vitals were terrible.”
Wyrick ended up at Good Samaritan Hospital in San Jose, but she has no memory of checking in or even how she got there.
No medical directives
“I woke up with two IVs in each arm and a nurse telling me I had developed blood clots,” Wyrick said. “It was like an out-of-body experience. It was like I was not there at all. There were six doctors outside my door trying to figure out how to do an MRI on me because they had not done one on a COVID patient before. They were also trying to figure out where to put me because I was contaminated. But most of my memories of that time are blurred.”
Wyrick’s biggest concern was not wanting to be put on a ventilator, but the hospital had no instructions on her medical directives and she was too sick to be able to offer more than a weak plea for them not to do it.
“They had no idea of anything about me,” Wyrick said. “I was too incoherent to make my own medical decisions. And they never called anybody else to see if they knew my wishes. Nobody knew what religion I was or if I was ‘do not resuscitate.’ They were just trying to keep me alive at any cost. That is what they were focused on. But they did respect my request not to put me on the full ventilator.”
As her illness progressed, the treatment brought new symptoms.
“They put me on two different kinds of blood thinners for the clotting,” Wyrick said. “I was having mini-strokes. I started my period and I was bleeding so badly they had to give me transfusions. You have no shame at that point. I was laying there covered in blood. At this point, I was barely able to breathe and I coded several times.”
From her room, Wyrick said she could see the activity surrounding other patients, with doctors working to save lives threatened by COVID-19.
“Probably the lowest points were each time I watched a patient die,” Wyrick said. “I could see directly into their rooms and I could see the alarms going off. I could see the doctors scrambling, hearing them yelling for things, injecting things into their IVs. I watched that sudden flurry of activity and then I watched it stop. They would turn off the machines and stand there for a moment, then they all silently would leave the room. And you wonder if you are next.”
Wyrick was fortunate to receive hospital care. If a facility has an overflow of COVID-19 patients, beds will sometimes be unavailable for other patients.
“A typical flu season is manageable because we have vaccines,” Ghilarducci said. “People still die from the flu every year, but nothing compared to this virus, which has killed a quarter of a million people. And what that number doesn’t include are the people who die from not being able to get care because the hospital system was overwhelmed.”
In April, Wyrick spent 19 days in one hospital or another. Twelve of those days were spent in intensive care or negative pressure rooms. When she was released, she was still suffering from COVID-19 symptoms.
“I was still very weak and had to get help just to go to the bathroom again,” Wyrick said. “I could not sit up to eat or drink. I could not speak right. I would wake up in the middle of the night and start throwing up. And I would tell people that my head was wiggling, I was having terrible brain fog.”
Colton’s battle with COVID-19 did not require hospitalization, but the effects of his illness were severe.
“I woke up one night and Colton was in the bathroom with his head upside down pouring cold water into his nostrils,” Wyrick said. “I did not understand what was happening.”
Colton had developed what Wyrick called “jalapeño nose,” an intense burning in his nostrils that would hit him several times a week.
“The cranial nerve that feeds the nose has a direct connection to the brain,” said Ghilarducci. “One of the common symptoms of COVID is the loss of sense of smell. We still don’t have a good understanding of how the virus works on the brain.”
For Colton, it was a nightmare that lasted until the end of October.
“They tested me for strep throat but it turned out to be coronavirus,” Colton said. “I started going through this thing, a really painful burning in my nose. The cold water helped—it really hurt and I could not breathe. It is gone now, but I am very concerned that it might come back.”
Over seven months have gone by and Wyrick is still suffering from side effects, including weakness, a continuing brain fog and susceptibility to communicable diseases.
“I went to a family gathering a few weeks ago and was trying to be careful,” Wyrick said. “But one of the children had a cold and I caught it. I immediately went back into pneumonia. I have been weak and pretty much confined to bed. When I hear people say this is just like the flu, it makes me upset because they have no idea how horrible this virus is.”
‘Our bodies are not prepared for it’
Ghilarducci said we still have no grasp on all the damage COVID-19 can do.
“It is not just a cold, it is not just the flu,” he said. “People die every year from the flu, but we have vaccines and it is more manageable. This is not the flu and it is far more deadly than the flu, five or 10 times more deadly. It is a virus that humans have never seen before. Just like smallpox, when this virus is released into a naive community, our bodies are not prepared for it.”
Wyrick has become an online advocate for masks and social distancing, posting accounts of her ongoing struggle against the virus.
“It is so easy to wear a mask and keep up social distancing,“ Wyrick said. “I don’t understand people, particularly our leaders, fighting against the only things we can do right now to stop the virus and keep people safe. If they went through it, like me, or knew someone who had gone through it, I think it would be impossible to dismiss it so lightly.”
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