I’m a fan of apocalyptic science fiction, so when I saw reports of a new, deadly, and exceptionally contagious coronavirus spreading in China in early February, I paid attention. Not a great deal of attention, because I was preparing to march in Krewe du Vieux on February 8.
Remembering the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, when that was contained without gaining a foothold in the U.S., I trusted the federal government to repeat that success with little to no disruption of my or anyone else’s lives. Still, noting the alarm raised overseas, I decided to stock up on flu medicine (which turned out to be useless), bought some extra canned food, and, yes, ordered a case of toilet paper from Amazon.
By the time Gov. Edwards announced school closures on March 13, I was already disinfecting everything and limiting the activities of my mother, Bobi Frey, who lives with me. But despite my precautions, the highly communicable coronavirus pierced the perimeter and got into my life anyway.
My mom got sick and I came very close to losing her last Saturday night.
My mom is 78. She survived lung cancer in 2017 with chemo and radiation. She has chronic high blood pressure, diminished kidney function, and issues with her spine and knees that limit her activity. She is a funny Mississippi-talking beauty who likes to draw and go shopping. She loves her grand and great-grandchildren, dogs, gardening, accessories, Bunny Bread, and over-packaged processed food. She smoked for about 50 years but was never a heavy drinker.
On Monday, March 23, Mom told me she had nausea and a headache. Her temperature was normal. She had no sore throat or cough. I set up a video-visit with her doctor for the next day and he prescribed medications for her symptoms.
She felt a little better on Wednesday, as the medicine reduced the nausea. She slept until very late Thursday morning and woke up feeling very fatigued. On Friday, she still wasn’t getting better. She had no fever or sore throat, but now had a light productive cough. Her appetite was a little better. I checked on her several times Friday night and she appeared to be breathing normally, skin cool to the touch.
All this time, I did not think my mom had COVID-19. She had been taking precautions, I knew of no exposure, and her symptoms were not those we had been warned about. She had no fever, no sore throat, no dry cough, and no trouble breathing.
On Saturday, my mom told me she was having trouble getting a deep breath. I sent a message to her doctor and called the state’s coronavirus information number. They told me to take her to Ochsner Urgent Care on Robert E. Lee Blvd.
When we arrived, I was asked to wait outside and they put a mask on her when she entered the building. The nurse practitioner told me on the phone that based on Mom’s chest X-ray, she believed it was coronavirus, and her oxygen level was dangerously low. She was sending mom to Ochsner Baptist in an ambulance. I was told there was no point in going to the hospital because I would not be allowed inside.
I had a battery pack for charging cell phones in my car, so I gave it to Mom as they put her in the ambulance. She was frightened and I tried to soothe her. As they drove away, I realized that I might not see her again.
I went home and sent messages to my sons and my niece. We were all frightened and frustrated that the situation didn’t allow us to be with her or gather with each other. My mom later told me that she spent several hours in the ER breathing oxygen, with the alarm continuously beeping to indicate that her oxygen had sunk to dangerous levels. She thinks the lowest it went was 80 percent; it’s supposed to be 100 percent. She had tried to bring it up by breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth and kept her back in an upright position.
At 7:19 on Saturday night, I received a phone call that made my knees go out from under me. The ER doctor told me that he was sure Mom had coronavirus, and her test results later verified it.
If she was “one of the lucky ones,” she would keep breathing with the aid of oxygen and go home in a few days. If not, her condition would deteriorate “rapidly,” and she would not be able to breathe unless intubated. With her age and history, “the outcome would likely not be good.” He said there was a high probability of death anyway, but also a significant chance that she would survive but never be able to come off the ventilator.
The doctor apologized for being so blunt and told me that my mom’s oxygen level was still descending. He told me that if she chose not to be ventilated, she would be given calming medication and allowed to die with dignity, and without fear and discomfort.
My mom and I, like many people, have had this conversation. Neither of us wants to live in a coma on a ventilator, but neither imagined having to endure this situation alone. I told her that she needed to tell the doctor her decision while she was still able to. I told her to concentrate on breathing and to text me when she was taken to a room.
I stayed awake all night, dreading any phone calls, stupefied that I might lose my mother like this. She sent me a few messages and then said she was sleepy. Her grandchildren sent her messages of encouragement, like you might hear at a prize fight, and she later told me she had been very down but rallied when she received them.
At 5:30 Sunday morning, I sent her a text: “Hey. You still breathing?”
Her response: “Yes. These vampires keep taking my blood.”
As the day went on, Mom related that the doctor said her nausea and headache, followed by the rapid onset of shortness of breath, had been the “hump,” and that her oxygen level had risen to 95 percent, indicating that she was over that hump. If she continued to improve, she could be released the next day and sent home with an oxygen tank. Mom later told me this doctor had several patients who died that day.
It turned out that my mom is one of the lucky ones, and she came home Monday, March 30. She is still very weak, slightly nauseous, and breathing with the aid of oxygen. But she is getting better, and I think she’ll be okay.
Kim Marshall is a New Orleans artist and attorney. She tweets under the handle @dangerblond.
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