Young, healthy Southern Illinois woman recounts painful battle with COVID-19
GERMANTOWN — For 10 days, Carrie Kehrer tried to fight out her COVID-19 illness isolated in her bedroom, away from her three children and husband. An active 41-year-old in relatively good health, Kehrer figured she had little to worry about beyond a few uncomfortable days.
But as she’s learned, and health officials have continuously stressed, even people who are not in high-risk categories for the disease sometimes become extremely ill, and in worst case scenarios, die.
Kehrer, who lives in the small Southern Illinois village of Germantown, experienced typical COVID-19 symptoms during the first few days: fever, fatigue and body aches followed by a cough. On the fifth day, she developed an itchy rash on her back and diarrhea.
By the sixth day, shortness of breath set in and worsened daily.
Completely zapped of energy, she slept most of the day and forced herself to eat an occasional small meal.
By the tenth day since the onset of illness, a time when many people who experience nonlife-threatening symptoms start to turn the corner, Kehrer could barely walk to the bathroom. By the time she walked the four feet there from her bedroom, she was breathless and had to grasp onto the door frame to steady herself. After using the restroom, she decided to brush her teeth, thinking a little freshening up might lift her spirits. But the task proved monumental.
“I tried brushing my teeth and I had to pause three times because I couldn’t breathe,” Kehrer said. “I was so worn out from brushing my teeth that I actually laid on my bathroom floor for about five minutes before I even tried to walk the four feet back to my bed. Back in bed, I laid there and I thought to myself, ‘OK, this is not good, you have to call your doctor.’”
Her provider at Clinton County Rural Health, part of St. Joseph Hospital, Breese, directed her to check into the emergency room as soon as possible. She used what energy she could muster to gather her things and set out for the hospital in Breese, a roughly five-minute drive from her home.
Her children, ages 17, 14 and 11 — home quarantining at the time — were concerned about their mom. The youngest asked why she had to go, and was upset. The oldest asked if he needed to drive his mom to the emergency room. Not wanting to alarm them about her condition, she downplayed how sick she was and said the doctors just wanted to check her over to make sure everything was OK.
As she went to close the front door behind her, her son called out “Hey, mom” and then said “I love you,” as she turned to see what he needed.
“I love you too, bud,” Kehrer told him and kept walking, not wanting them to see her cry. For the first time since receiving a confirmed positive COVID-19 test on Sept. 2, she worried for her life. An avid reader, Kehrer was aware that the vast majority of people her age in good health survive COVID-19, but she had also read the stories of those who didn’t.
“I honestly, when I left them that day, it was scary, because I’m thinking in the back of my mind, I may never see them again,” she recalled.
After getting into her car, away from where her kids could see her, Kehrer broke down.
“Because at this point, I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I felt absolutely miserable. I knew how bad I felt, and feeling bad is one thing, but if you feel bad and like you’re drowning in air, like you can’t breathe and you’re suffocating just sitting there, it’s a feeling you can’t really explain. It was weird. No matter how deep you breathe, you can’t get enough air.
“Then the anxiety kicks in, and I’m crying because the kids are worried. I sat in the driveway for five minutes before I finally said to myself, ‘Ok, Carrie, pull it together and get yourself to the hospital.’”
Upon arrival, Kehrer said she was taken to a special room and underwent a battery of tests. Her blood oxygen levels were in the low 70s percentage sitting still, and dipped into the high 60s percentage when she moved around. A reading below 92% is a red flag. She was also diagnosed with double viral pneumonia in her lungs caused by COVID-19, and had an elevated blood level indicating the potential for life-threatening blood clots.
The medical team at St. Joseph’s worked with an infectious disease specialist at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in O’Fallon to determine a treatment plan. A CT scan was performed on her lungs, and thankfully, Kehrer said, no blood clots were detected. At that point, she was prescribed dexamethasone, a steroid treatment, as the hospital made arrangements to have her transported via ambulance to St. Elizabeth’s for more intensive care, should she need it.
Within four hours of taking the steroid, and upon arriving at her new destination, Kehrer started to feel a little better for the first time in two weeks. Overnight, her fever broke, and the rash on her back started to subside, as did the diarrhea.
“I ate breakfast that Wednesday morning and it was the first thing I had eaten that didn’t go straight through me,” she said. Her blood oxygen levels also began to improve. By that evening, she was able to maintain a level above 92% while sitting still. That meant she could be discharged.
But her nightmare with COVID-19 was far from over.
Because she could not maintain healthy blood oxygen levels with movement, Kehrer was sent home with a prescription for oxygen supplement. She was hooked to an oxygen tank by a 50-foot tube in her home for two weeks. She continued to isolate in her room until she could clear three full days without a fever, at which point it was considered safe to be around her family. Within a few days, she was starting to feel better, but was still extremely fatigued and sleeping much of the day.
By the following week, she decided to venture to the grocery store with her portable oxygen tank to buy ingredients for dinner. After the trip and spending over an hour in the kitchen making soup, it was all she could do to make it back to the couch and lie down.
A few days later, she went back to work at her job as a bank IT specialist, dragging along her portable oxygen tank. After one half-day, she returned full time, but after work for several days, she had to go straight to bed.
In the weeks that have followed, Kehrer said she’s started to feel stronger — day by day. She doesn’t need the oxygen supplement any longer. But she’s still not 100% back to herself. Kehrer and her husband have a cabin in Southern Illinois where they are staying this week, and after a mile and a half walk through the Shawnee Forest on Monday, Kehrer was wiped out.
This is hard for her to accept since she and her husband had visited Colorado only a few months before she fell ill where they did numerous 5-mile-plus hikes in much more challenging terrain.
Kehrer said her cousin, Dr. Jeff Ripperda, a Southern Illinois physician, informed her that the lingering symptoms she’s experiencing are typical for people who have had a serious bout with any virus. It’s called post-viral syndrome and typically lasts two to four months, and sometimes longer. If her shortness of breath doesn’t clear up by then, Kehrer said she will schedule further tests to determine if there is lingering damage to the pulmonary functions of her lungs.
Kehrer said she hopes her story is a reminder that even young, relatively healthy people who do not fall into any risk categories can suffer serious, long-term consequences from COVID-19. Kehrer said it was a wake-up call to her, as she even had the thought at one time that she wouldn’t mind getting the virus to get it out of the way.
“I thought, ‘If I get it, no big deal. It will be OK.’ And I know a lot of people my age, or they know people or family about our age who have gotten it, and it seems like they’ve all had very light symptoms,” she said. “I don’t know why it hit me so hard. I was, I guess, one of the unlucky few, and the problem is you don’t know who that next unlucky person is going to be.”
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