Updated: Jul 13
DAWN CARDWELL, AGE 44, ICU NURSE, DEDICATED TO CARING FOR COVID-19, "NAVAJO NATION" PATIENTS, (BUCKEYE, ARIZONA)
My Covid-19 story, began the first week of March, in Banner Thunderbird Hospital, in Glendale Arizona. I am an ICU Nurse and when the Coronavirus hit, I, like many other nurses, began working with Covid -19 patients. I flipped from the day-shift, to the night-shift, to be able to dedicate 100% of my time to caring for Coronavirus patients.
Early, the first week of March, the "Navajo Nation", was hit really hard with the Coronavirus; we had families coming in that were all positive, and very sick. It was always very sad, when a patient crossed our floor, as it was known that about 80% of ICU COVID-19 patients, sadly did not recover.
I knew every night that I came home from work, that I had a higher chance of contracting the Coronavirus, due to my patient interactions daily. The risk of infecting my family was always in the back of my mind, and for that reason, I would separate myself nightly, after work. My husband, of 15 years, Steve (also my high-school sweetheart) would sleep in the downstairs bedroom. My children, Austin, 22, Rachel, 26, and Justine, 20, would always stay about 6 feet or further away from me, or stay in their rooms, if I was home. I would also quarantine, in my room or if I were out near my family, I had a place far away from them on the couch, that was MY dedicated spot. No-one sat on or went near that couch, to be sure we were all kept safe. Our 2 dogs- Jack and Marlie…. and our 3 cats, Tiger, Bear, and Kalie round out our family. I didn't want to get anyone sick, including my pets.
I’m a stickler for taking important precautions, and would always wear masks, wherever I would go, as well as sanitize and wash my hands often. I kept my distance from all of my family members and did everything necessary to keep them safe; as well as everything I could do to keep myself safe at work.
I remember the day that I was exposed, it was May 2nd. I remember that I was helping another nurse with a Bi-pap patient. I was passing by the room and although it was another nurse's patient, I could see that she needed my help, so as I was passing by the room, I put on my PPE and entered the room, to help her. I was wearing my N-95 mask, goggles, gown, and shield, but at that time, we were re-using masks, instead of discarding them. When a patient has on a Bi-pap mask, the Bi-pap forces air into the patient's lungs, to help them breath. Due to the force of pressure that the machine puts out, it aerosolizes the room more with droplets. So, the virus becomes air-born. As we were re-using masks, the virus droplets could have gotten on the mask, and as we continued to wear it day after day, my colleagues and I would unknowingly expose ourselves to the virus. Those of us who were infected on the COVID-19 ICU floor, realized that it was the masks that were the culprit and the reason that we contracted the virus.
The day that I had my first symptoms, I didn’t realize they were symptoms, I assumed that it was just my body being sore from working long shifts and my bones hurting, for being on my feet for a long time. The exhaustion was due to little sleep, in my mind. By the time I got sick, I was coming off of one full week, my 5th shift that week. Saturday, May 2nd, was the last shift that I worked and the last time that I have been back to work. (I'm a resource pool nurse, so I work when I want to go in; my schedule was typically 3 shifts per week, 12.5 hours shifts (overnight).
Tuesday, May 5th, I woke up with really bad bone pain. I thought my vitamin D was low. (As mentioned, I had worked five-12.5 hour night shifts and thought I was just sore) I had a headache, but thought I was just exhausted from the long hours that I had put in during that full week. At that particular time, all of the local hospitals in our area were packed with very sick Navajo Nation patients, and they were split up between our local hospitals. As we were so full with additional sick patients, outside of the Navajo Nation, our rooms were full and would require longer shifts and more "on" days than normal.
The next day I had bone pain again and took an old prescription of 50,000 IU Vitamin D. My stomach was uneasy, although I never vomited. My skin started to hurt in an odd way; if something touched it, I would feel odd pin-prick type sensations, upon touch. My muscles hurt as well. On Thursday everything started to subside, so I called in to see if my hospital needed help. They put me down for Friday, the next day.
On Friday, before going into work around 7:00 p.m. (I work a 7 p.m., to 7 a.m. shift) I took my nap and woke around 4 p.m. When I woke up , my eyes were burning, they felt on fire. My skin was burning, my bones hurt and I had a horrible headache. (No matter what medicine I took, nothing helped this headache.)
I called my 22 year old son, Austin, to come upstairs, and bring me a thermometer. When I took my temperature, it was 100.9, at that point I knew I had it.
I called my Supervisor, to report that I was ill; the center at the Fair-grounds where they would test locals, was closed, so I made an appointment to test the next day, mid-day and called my friend, Angela, another ICU nurse, and I told her that I had the virus and gave her the directives that I wanted to happen, should I go on a ventilator. I didn't want to go into ICU badly, and told her I would fight and to please help my husband through this. Being an ICU nurse, I was with patients that had this virus, daily, and I know how bleak and grave the situation can get. I needed them to know my wishes, before I could no longer tell them. We cried together and she told me that I would be OK. My next call was a call to my sister, Shannon. (I have 4 sisters), Shannon had been battling her own battle with lung cancer, but she was so selfless, in the way that she tried to give me hope and tell me that I was going to recover and that everything would be OK. I should have been comforting her, yet, in my dark hour, she was the one comforting me.
I made sure that the family also knew my wishes, and once we were done talking, I was emotionally drained and physically feeling sicker than I have ever felt, in my whole life. I took Tylenol, laid down and fell into a fitful sleep, due to my body hurting and being so exhausted. I slept the rest of the night, into the next morning. I woke up, to get up and take a shower, thinking that my husband could take me to Fair Grounds for testing, but when I called, they told me that they wanted me to drive there alone, as he would not be able to go in with me. That drive was over an hour away and I could barely walk, so we decided that I would have my him drive me to the local Urgent Care, to test.
It took every ounce of strength for me to get into the shower; as I was turning the water on, my Apple Watch showed that my heart-rate was 150 bpm and I realized that I couldn't breathe and that I was going to pass out! I had 2 steps in my shower that I needed to step over, and I realized that I wasn't going to make those steps. I was able to call my husband, on my Apple watch; he was downstairs. I was quickly able to get out the words, "I'm going to pass out, I need you to come upstairs, I'm in the shower". He came running up the stairs, and said that he heard me hit hard on the shower floor, on his way up. I hit my head hard when I passed out. He came in and got me out of the shower and laid me on the bed, and then ran downstairs to get his phone; he was going to call 911. (I was not dressed, and there was no way that I was going to go to the hospital, in my birthday suit, so when I came to, I somehow made my way into the bathroom, to put on my clothes and I proceeded to pass out a 2nd time) Once my husband got me out a second time, it dawned on me that I don't live near where I work, and I knew that an ambulance could only take me to the nearest hospital, and I wanted to go to my own hospital. We decided that he would just drive me there.
We quickly went downstairs and prior to rushing out the door to the car, I gave a tearful goodbye to my children, Austin and Justine . (I knew how this worked, and I knew the chances of coming home could be very slim) Steve drove me to the hospital, his face turned towards the window; I knew he was silently crying the whole drive, trying hard to hide it. He was also doing his best to comfort me.
He brought me to the entrance of my hospital, told them that I worked there, and before they wheeled me through the double doors, he kissed me on the forehead. They wheeled me through the Emergency room doors, with only my cell phone, charger, i.d. and insurance card, the doors closed behind us, leaving my husband on the other side of them. He had no idea whether he would ever see me alive, in person, again. He cried all the way home.
I was not taken to the respiratory unit, where they would take a patient having the issues that I had. I was taken to a separate room, I believe, because I was "hospital family". They took very good care of me. One of my ICU nurse friends came to hold my hand, as word was spreading that I was there, my co-workers and friends were coming to check on me and would come to the window. (You don't realize how important this human interaction and comfort is, until you desperately need it and you don't have your family there to give it to you.) I am forever grateful for my hospital family and friends for being there for me.
I was hooked up to IV fluids and antibiotics and given a COVID-19 test. Being an ICU nurse, I focused on my vitals. I knew how fast I needed to breathe, to keep my oxygen saturation levels up, to a point where I didn’t need intubation. They drew my labs, and as was expected, my blood was a darker color. COVID positive patients have darker blood color, so this confirmed my fear, that I had it. I was given a chest X-Ray, and I told them that I wanted to look at it. I knew what I was looking at. There were ground glass particles in my lungs, I had bilateral pneumonia, worse on right than on the left. My D-Dimer levels were elevated, so I was placed on blood thinners. I was very lucky that I had the benefit of being a nurse, as my co-worker's believed my "self diagnosis", knowing that I was experienced, and positive that I had COVID-19. They put me on every necessary medicine, quickly, because they believed me. Their reaction time to treat the virus was extremely fast, and this was before I had officially tested positive for the virus. I was confirmed positive by the next day.
Most of my stay in the hospital was hard to remember day to day, it was mostly a blur. I do recall that breathing was so hard that it was almost impossible to expand my chest and move air into my lungs, almost like there was a rubber band wrapped tightly around my chest, constricting my ability to move air and to breathe. Trying to move air in and out, I can only describe the feeling as, all the spikes you see on the picture of the virus are moving up and down in your lungs, poking painfully, as they roll up and down. (A very painful, feeling that I wouldn't wish on anyone)
I was septic, had heart palpitations (PVC's), and although I had a normal Echo, I experienced both bradycardia and tachycardia (slow heart rate and fast heart rate over 100 bpm). My blood pressure was going up and down, higher and lower than normal.
My family told me that the times that they saw me on FACE-TIME, that I had NO strength. I couldn’t lift my hands to eat food or drink water and I couldn’t lift my head; I had no neck strength. I was so exhausted, many times, I couldn’t open my eyes. I felt like a bobble head. I tried hard, during the times that I could turn my head, to keep an eye on my O2 saturation levels, to do everything I could do on my end, to breathe, so that I could get them up to a level that would keep me off of the ICU floor.
I was very ill, and had to use my walker to go to bathroom. I fell in the restroom in my room, when I was using the toilet ,after the CNA walked away for only a brief moment. Everything suddenly went black and I pulled the chord and yelled, but it was too late; I woke up on the ground with the nurse behind me. She called critical rescue, who discussed taking me to ICU. I begged them not to, promising that I would fight hard in my room, and that there was no need to transfer me to ICU. I was hyperventilating, I could not breath no matter how hard I tried, it was very painful. They bumped the oxygen on my nasual cannula from a 2-6 and thankfully, that helped.
My whole stay there, I made sure not to panic, I was able to think about things and breathe through the hardest moments; my end goal was to remain in that room and not cross into the Intensive Care Unit. This virus causes so much anxiety and I believe it affects our nerves and drive to breathe. My nursing experience helped me to remain calm, luckily my oxygen levels stayed high enough, on a low enough level of oxygen, to keep me out of ICU.
In total, I was in the hospital for about 7 days. I was discharged on May 15th, just in time to celebrate my husband's birthday on the 17th. (I had done everything I could to get better, to be out in time to celebrate him, in person)
I still struggle with shortness of breath and energy issues. I also started having a horrible cough about 4 days in the hospital and it wasn't bad, until I got home. I am still not fully recovered, at the writing of this story, September 1st. I am on W/C and haven't been back to work since May 2nd. The after-effects that I am experiencing are, right sided weakness and tremors, in my right arm & leg, short-term memory loss, comprehension issues, word finding issues; focusing is hard. I require oxygen, through a nasal cannula, at night now, as after being home for 6 weeks, they did a pulse-ox study and I was dropping down to 88% for more than 30 minutes at a time, when sleeping.
I have post-Covid asthma. I’m in physical therapy and speech therapy. MY OT doesn’t know if they can fix my tremor, and thinks that it might need to be fixed with medication. I still have chest pain, chest burning, lung stabbing. I was having headaches daily, until they prescribed me Topamax ; now they are under control.
It seems that I have a relapse, of some sort, every 6 weeks; a relapse in pain levels or energy. I'm currently working through the cognitive issues daily.
I'm what the COVID-positive society calls a "Long-hauler". Not a title that I would wish on anyone else, as I know what after-effects come with that title.
The advice I have for those who haven't gotten COVID-19 yet are to wear your mask, social distance, wash your hands often, do anything you can do to keep from getting this devastating virus; if not for yourself, for someone else, those who care about you.
Some of my hospital friends, the same ones who tried to break in to see me, in the hospital and bring me coffee. They came to visit when I got home.
Dawn and her husband Steve and her children Austin, Rachel & Justine on a family trip Post-Covid (She removed her oxygen to take this picture)
Dawn, ICU Nurse in some PPE
Family- "My Everything"