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Before & After: One Nurse’s Story of Surviving COVID-19

Sharon Showalter outside, smiling

RN Sharon Showalter contributed this post. She's been a nurse for 40 years, working mostly at UVA. She retired in 2019 but returned to work in UVA's COVID-19 clinic last year. There, she's given covid tests, treatment, and vaccines.

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It’s been a little over a year now. It was the beginning of the pandemic. It’s sad that we can now say the beginning was over a year ago. The pandemic has dragged on all of this time.

My mother died due to COVID. It was early in the pandemic, and little was known about the virus. She was elderly and had underlying health issues. She was hospitalized for fever and shortness of breath. X-rays revealed “pneumonia.” It wasn’t called anything more than that.

This was before masks and social distancing. No prevention practices existed in the hospital yet. So, I sat with my mom. Later, patients would die alone due to COVID visitation restrictions. But I was able to be with her those last two horrible weeks. I was lucky.

We had beautiful moments. I cherished when she was lucid and talked about her childhood and young adult years. She told me things I hadn’t heard. At other times, her fever was high, and I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying.

Her cough got worrisome. It was hard to watch her struggle to breathe. As days went by and the decision to intubate her was looming, my sisters and I decided to declare her DNR (do not resuscitate). We knew she would want this. She had always talked about how good it would be to die at home. But taking her home to die was no longer an option. We were fortunate to have in-hospital hospice services the last two days. She was, as they say, comfortable.

It was only at the end of her illness that doctors began talking about COVID, saying something like “this is what we’ve been hearing about.”

Waking Up With Weird Symptoms

It was about two weeks after my mother died that I noticed it. I had been lighting a candle every night in her memory. Suddenly, I couldn’t smell the typically fragrant candle. I was perplexed, but I didn’t give it much thought. The next morning, I couldn’t smell or even taste my coffee. This got my attention, but I still went on with my day.

I awoke the next day with a sore throat and mild fever. I remember thinking “Well, I’m getting sick. Must be all of the stress and grief I’ve been feeling.” It wasn’t until day four that I realized this wasn’t my typical illness. I simply felt strange. And exhausted. I didn’t feel short of breath, but I noticed that my respirations increased while lying in bed, and I had an odd chest ache.

Healthcare providers were beginning to understand COVID more at that point. People were talking about these symptoms. I knew I had COVID. Most likely, I contracted it from my mother, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing about my time with her. I recovered within a week or so but continued to feel tired for several weeks.

Signing Up to Help

It was still early in the pandemic when the medical community began talking about the need for a vaccine. As a nurse for over 40 years, I understand the importance of research. I immediately signed up to be a volunteer in a vaccine trial (though there were no such trials at that point – just talk).

As part of the research, I was tested and learned that I had an antibody after having COVID. But no one knew what this meant. Was I immune? Would I get COVID again?

I was hopeful that vaccine trials would happen. It felt important for me to participate because, without research, we wouldn’t have even the most basic treatments (like Tylenol).

Signing Up to Help — Again

I had decided to retire from nursing a short while before the pandemic began. But as the pandemic continued, the need for healthcare workers grew. I remember thinking that I might be able to help. I returned to UVA as a nurse in the COVID Clinic. I thought I’d try to help here and there.

I was part of the team testing hundreds of people when the number of tests and positive results quickly rose to levels none could have predicted. None of us knew what COVID would bring, how lives would be forever changed on many levels. All of these many months later, I am still nursing in the COVID clinic.

Every Test is a Story

Each test was a human with a story. They included:

Some had a runny nose. Some were quite ill and needed immediate transfer to the emergency room. Some had no symptoms. Regardless, the common thread was fear. Everyone was so afraid.

Renewed Hope

And we, the healthcare providers, were getting tired. The daily challenge of caring for patients with or without COVID became more demanding, emotionally and physically. We began treating patients with monoclonal antibody infusions, and it felt great to offer treatment. Still, something had to change.

Vaccines provided that change, finally. I remember walking to the vaccine clinic feeling excitement. I recall the pharmacist who gave me my shot; she was kind and talked to me about mundane things. I remember leaving with a wonderful, long overdue feeling of hope. Hope. I returned weeks later for my second dose and, again, felt renewed hope.

The Miracle of the COVID Vaccine

I had heard about side effects. People reported anything from feeling aches to feeling like they had the flu. But I thought back to my mom lying in that hospital bed. I reflected on my own illness and my current “long haul” issues. I recalled so many of my conversations with patients over the months, the sadness, the isolation, the frustration, the anger, the ever-present emotional fatigue, the fear.

I knew without any doubt that the vaccine and any potential side effects were so, so much better than having COVID or watching a loved one suffer from it. So I embraced the wonderful, perhaps even miraculous, opportunity to receive a vaccine.

Get the COVID Vaccine

Anyone 12+ can get vaccinated at our Charlottesville clinics.

I know that, as a hospital and a nation and a world, we need to find some way out of this mess. We need to find a return to life as we knew it. We need a chance to heal on all levels. Vaccination is that way out. It’s important that we protect ourselves, and it’s important that we take care of each other.

Before & After & Soon

We’re hearing that, once fully vaccinated, we can get out and about more, perhaps even shedding those masks in certain situations. Wearing my mask has become habit, but I think I’m going to go outside with friends today without that mask. I can do this safely, without worry, without fear. We’ve earned this privilege. It’s about time.

Months will go by. We’ll return to a world once familiar and missed. I miss my mom. But I’ll be glad when we find ourselves saying, “before we had the vaccine.”

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