Hospice Nurse dedicating her life to dying patients, contracts COVID-19 while doing what she loves.

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

Mary Sullivan, Hospice Registered Nurse, St. Louis, Missouri

Mary's story:

My Covid-19 story began, April 8th, 2020

I am a hospice nurse. I chose the hospice profession, as I took care of my dying mom, and realized how special it was to be with someone you loved and cared for, in their final moments. My patients became personal to me.

My hospital career was always with the disadvantaged, disenfranchised, addicted, homeless population. These wonderful souls, typically didn't have people jumping at the idea of working with them; due to the poor conditions that they lived in, but for me..... "they were my calling".

My last patient is where I likely contracted COVID-19. She was dying of metastatic breast cancer. My sweet patient wasn’t so sweet the first time I met her, as she sadly suffered from severe mental illness as well as the breast cancer. She called me the "b" word, the first time that I met her; I thanked her for the compliment, telling her I had been worried that I lost my edge. She smiled and sweetly told me that she loved me and I returned the feeling.

She was very poor, living in a house infested with cockroaches, inoperable plumbing, except for the bathtub faucet. There was raw sewage in the toilet. None of that bothered me, because everyone matters, in my eyes.

I saw her the day before she died. I wanted to be sure that even though her life on this earth had been extremely difficult, her death would have dignity with no pain or anxiety. My goal was met and she peacefully slipped away the following day,

Not too long after my final day with her, I began having extreme fatigue. I remember on April 8th, telling a friend I thought I was getting old because I was sleeping 2 hours in the afternoon. By April 15th, 7 days later, I was displaying the following symptoms- A loss in my ability to taste and smell, severe body aches, the sensation that my chest was being squeezed tightly, an oral temperature of 96 degrees, a raspy voice with no cough, and diarrhea,

I was pretty sure I had contracted COVID-19, as a friend from NYC who was positive, had just told me her only symptom was loss of smell.

I did a virtual screening through the SSM hospital system. The next day, a nurse called and suggested I go for the Coronavirus test. I told her I felt better and in perfect nurse style, she said, “Well just call me back when you get worse.” I laughed and submitted to the test that day, telling the nurses this was payback for me, for all the nasopharyngeal swabs I had done to patients in flu season. I was hoping my fear of having the virus was only just a fear, but the test result came back the next day as “detected.” I had to read it twice. Then the journey began.

My doctor, Judit Farkas, had a nurse call me every day. I was considered a severe at home case. I was well taken care of by the team and then a week later, my oxygen saturation trended quickly down to 90% with shortness of breath and remained low. I called 911 and was transported to DePaul General Hospital, in Bridgeton, Missouri.

On my way to the hospital, I remember trying to be calm, but as a nurse, my mind immediately went to the thought of "what if I needed to be intubated". I needed them to be sure to save me, as my daughter Alexandra was marrying her fiance', Joey, and their wedding was October 10th, and I had to be there!

By the time I got to the ER bay, my oxygen level was up to a higher level. I was greeted by a team of five at the ambulance. When I talked to the ED physician, I apologized to him for coming in, since my saturation levels didn't get worse as I had expected, and I knew that there were other patients that could use his care, more than me. He told me he had seen the virus do similar things with people's O2 levels (bouncing up and down) and to come back if it happened again. It happened almost daily, but I knew what to expect with it returning to slightly higher levels within 30 minutes. It caused, in my opinion, severe fatigue. I am grateful to say that my symptoms never progressed to the point of needing hospitalization. I was very sick for a little over 30 days, but managed my symptoms and care at home.

I was required to quarantine from all family and friends, so I remained in my home, with my trusty dog, Buster by my side. My brother and sister n law would visit and check on me frequently, from the safety of my front window.

I had many calls from friends and family every day. I knew if I did not answer them all, they would panic. They sent me puzzles and crossword books. I couldn't concentrate on the puzzles, so I just did the simpler things; I had trouble keeping my eyes open long enough to read.

Although I am certain that I contracted COVID-19 from a patient, when I was working, I had been doing what nurses do to decontaminate after they work, to keep myself safe.

I would remove my work clothes in the laundry room, and wash on a hot cycle. All my inside doors were left open, so as not to touch the doorknobs. I went immediately to the shower, cleansed, then set about decontaminating my car. I had hand sanitizer with me at all times, in the patients’ homes and cleansed my hands between each process of the visit, after leaving my car, before I touched the patient and after I finished taking care of the patient. I sat at least 12 feet from the patients when I was gathering information with a mask on. I kept the mask on until I left the home. I discarded each mask after each visit. I cleaned my stethoscope during and after each patient. I used bleach on all counter-tops at home, as well as the bathroom and any doorknobs (even though I wasn’t touching most of them). I thought I had protected myself as best I could.

At the writing of this story, September 9th, I still have low normal oxygen levels at times and continue to have fatigue, along with the horrible chest tightness that makes it difficult to take in a full breath. I have occasional diarrhea, but am not complaining, as I had it for a full month, when I was battling the virus infection.

Long after my diagnosis. I have new issues of brain fog, meaning I forget that I have said something entirely and sometimes search for words to describe things. My symptoms are not relegated to day or night, it is random. (I have learned through research and talking to health-care professionals and other Coronavirus warriors, that these can be some of the common after-effects of this nasty virus)

My experience changed me, and I no longer work as a hospice nurse. I don’t go to my local grocery store, instead I have decided to have my groceries delivered, for the next year.

Prior to being affected by COVID-19, I had been affiliated with a disaster team, Team Rubicon. I now work remotely for them as the Lead Safety Advisor for the United States Consolidated Food Services, with our on the ground teams working with Feeding America.

Before COVID struck, I was on Team Rubicon’s International Medical Team, deploying to disaster areas in Africa, South America and the Bahamas as a nurse; I hope to return to that, in the future, once a vaccine is found.

Out all of the symptoms that I experienced, the fatigue was and still is the worst. It keeps me from being able to live the life I used to enjoy. I used to hike and was a very active person. I am trying to get back my body strength, by bicycling. Even though I have fatigue, I push myself to ride, hoping it will improve my oxygen levels. I am looking for someone in the St. Louis, MO area that is researching “long haulers", to both share my experience and to find answers, as to how long after-effects can be expected.

The advice that I can offer those who have not yet gotten the Coronavirus, are to wear your mask and wash your hands for 20 seconds frequently, stop touching your face and stay away from crowds. This is temporary, but the longer people don’t heed caution, the longer this will go on.

My new son n law, Joey, and my beautiful daughter, Alexandra, before they got married.

Buster, my faithful companion and quarantine buddy.

Me and my "Team Rubicon" team, re-building homes in Houston, after a hurricane.

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