More than a Number: Stories from locals who fought COVID-19 and won
We have all opened our phones, turned on the news, or listened to the radio and felt our heart sink as more and more COVID-19 cases were reported in the Kansas City area the past five months. As the numbers continue to climb, it’s easy to become desensitized to the individual stories and experiences of those in our community who are suffering at the hands of COVID-19.
We wanted to put a name and a story to the numbers we see in our news coverage. In our efforts to continue to social distance, mask up, and stay home as much as we can, it’s important to hear from those who have been on the other side of the virus. Here are five Kansas Citians who have battled COVID-19.
Aimes had tuned out of news coverage during his trip to San Francisco and Portland in mid-March. Like many of us, “when you’re on vacation you don’t pay attention to news much,” Schalles says. The Lawrence business owner didn’t suspect the trip would give him COVID-19, but on the plane ride home he developed a sore throat. When he arrived home, he quarantined himself.
After being turned away from the emergency room and county health department, he found himself in Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s triage department on March 18th. The only reason he qualified for testing was because he had recently traveled to places where the virus was already widespread.
“They had to suit up for testing,” Schalles says. Schalles was the second confirmed case in Douglas County.
After receiving his positive test results, Schalles and his roommates were spooked. They decided together to all hunker down and let Schalles use the whole house to isolate in, even at the risk of exposing the others. “We had an ‘all in this together’ mentality,” Schalles says.
Schalles experienced a sore throat first, and later had a headache, digestive issues, and lost his sense of taste and smell for three weeks. “I took a shot of apple cider vinegar, and it didn’t even taste like water, it tasted like nothing,” he says. Schalles explained that symptoms didn’t seem to overlap with one another: as one ran its course through his body another would be introduced. He didn’t experience any shortness of breath, but would complete breathing exercises for his mom on FaceTime.
One of the strangest symptoms Schalles experienced was severe confusion. “It was like dementia,” he says. He thought that people were speaking to him in a different language and had trouble completing tasks.
By March 23, Schalles started to feel better and received an antibody test that revealed a high number of antibodies. From there, he began donating plasma twice a week and has continued in the three months following his recovery.
The most frustrating part of the experience emotionally was the intersection of Schalles being a transgender man and the healthcare he received. Upon arriving at the hospital the first time, his previous name was listed in the hospital’s system, and upon learning that fact, the nurses and doctors that took care of him only referred to him by his “dead” name—the name from before his transition. Fighting for your health is hard enough, but fighting to be represented as your true identity is a whole other layer that nobody should have to do—whether or not you are fighting an illness.
When the hospital released information about Schalles’ condition to KDHE in a press release, he continued to be misgendered, which began to seep into his personal life. He was referred to as, “A woman in her 30s who just got back from the west coast.” The public misgendering caused nearly 50 people from Schalles’ past to reach out and personally misgender him. He recalls lots of, “Hey girlie!” type messages in his inbox following the release of the KDHE statement.
One of the main problems, aside from the social and mental implications of being misgendered, is that in the case of COVID-19, the makeup of your blood is extremely important in how the virus is looked at in an individual. Since beginning testosterone, Schalles’s blood makeup is that of a 40-year-old man, despite being a transgendered man in his 30s. This makes him more susceptible to high blood pressure and blood clots. Since COVID-19 is a vascular disease that often is directly affected by blood clotting, the consistent misgendering of a patient not only puts them emotionally at risk, but physically as well.
Schalles has made a full recovery since his encounter with COVID-19, but living in Lawrence presents its own challenges. “I’m afraid of the 20-something college-age kids,” he says. He remembers how he felt at that age, “invincible.” Schalles is worried about the many residents of his town that will not be thinking of the greater good and instead, prioritize going to bars, parties, and other public spaces instead of staying home and protecting themselves from spreading the virus. “It just terrifies me being in a college town right now,” he says.
The biggest takeaway from Schalles’ experience is to, “be a good neighbor,” he says. You don’t want the guilt of wondering who you could have infected if you have the virus, he explained.
Longhaulers. That’s what COVID-19 patients who have had the virus for over eighty days call themselves. Over twenty thousand Facebook users are a part of the online group titled, “The Longhaulers,” created for support, information swapping, and experiences to connect some of the virus’ loneliest sufferers.
Abbigail Singer is a 22-year-old Kansas City native who is one of many in that group. She suffered from COVID-19 infection for over ninety days, and only in the past month has tested negative for the virus.
On March 25, Singer was exposed to the virus at a wedding and by March 30, was exhibiting flu-like symptoms. By April first, she received her first positive test result and entered into her first 14-day quarantine.
Over the next fourteen days, she experienced breathing problems and fever. Singer began experiencing “breathing attacks” where she, quite literally, couldn’t breathe. One night she woke up to one so terrible she began to dial 911 but fainted before she could connect. As someone who lives alone, the fear of the severity of this virus began to set in.
After Singer’s first 14-day quarantine, she began feeling better and assumed she had beat the virus. Feeling just tired and sore, she assumed residual effects were running their course. She began venturing out into the world slowly, visiting her parents’ house and the grocery store.
By the beginning of May, Singer began experiencing unique symptoms: foaming at the mouth and coughing up blood. She decided to get a second test just to be safe and was shocked when on May 13, she received her second positive result. Singer was the first person in the Kansas City area to be a double positive case.
This discovery led to many questions: Had Singer recovered and contracted the virus for a second time? Had Singer never recovered in the first place? Is the immunity many thought they had after contracting the virus a hoax?
As Singer underwent her second 14-day quarantine, her breathing got considerably worse, and she ended up going to the hospital for x-rays of her lungs, thinking she also had contracted pneumonia. While no additional diagnosis was confirmed at that time, her medical team noted a cloudy look to her lungs: what they perceived to be COVID-19.
On May 22, Singer had a fever again that didn’t break for an entire month (yes, you read that right). Because it was not considered high enough-grade to be admitted into the Emergency Room (never got over 102°), she continued to fight the virus at home in her North Kansas City apartment, completely alone.
“I’m an introvert,” Singer says. But despite enjoying her time alone, not having someone to support her at home was extremely difficult: not being able to reach 911 in her moment of need, how great it would feel to just get a hug, how lonely it is to be throwing up with no one beside her to hold back her hair.
By the end of Singer’s second quarantine, she was still running a fever and experiencing breathing problems that only got worse. She began trauma counseling provided by the CDC to cope with the psychological effects of the virus, and she is currently on four different anxiety medications to cope. Singer notes that these medications do little to actually help her, as the psychological experience of being sick and isolated is very different than the normal anxiety she is usually treated for.
On June 5, Singer went for a third test. Inconsistencies in the testing center she went to at the Clay County Health Department deemed her results inconclusive, yet the presence of COVID-19 symptoms allowed her to receive a presumed positive result.
By June 11, Singer’s breathing improved dramatically, but she was left with debilitating fatigue and weakness. Battling weakness to get daily basic tasks done is one of the most isolating parts of the experience. “Sundays are the worst day of the week for me,” Singer says. It’s the day her family drops off groceries to the front door of her apartment and getting up to move them inside and put them away takes all her energy for the entire day. “I have only taken one shower standing up this entire time,” Singer says.
The rest of June, Singer experienced extreme insomnia and vivid nightmares, something many other longhaulers have validated through their Facebook group. She notes it as the lowest point mentally throughout the experience and recalls only getting 30 minutes of sleep a night. She was recently put on medication to help her sleep, which has improved dramatically.
Singer was tested for a fourth time on July 7 and finally received negative results. The next steps? Extensive bloodwork to see how her body is faring and whether or not the virus is truly gone.
Don’t count on Singer venturing out of her apartment anytime soon. Though she may not be actively fighting COVID-19, nobody knows how long she will be fighting the effects of the virus. “My immune system is severely compromised,” Singer says.
After attending a wedding, celebrating his birthday at a local bar, and traveling to Florida, it was no surprise when Tony Wallace contracted COVID-19.
On June 20, Wallace attended a wedding where over ten attendees later contracted the virus from the event, but Wallace was left unscathed. Three days after the wedding, Wallace celebrated his birthday at a local bar in Overland Park. The next day, he, his girlfriend, and eight friends all traveled to Florida.
After spending time in Ft. Myers for five days, Wallace and his friends returned to Kansas City on June 28. On the flight back home, Wallace began to feel, “like absolute shit.” He suspected that he was just hungover from his time in Florida, but he could barely keep his eyes open on the flight. “The fatigue was something I have never felt before,” Wallace says.
After returning home, Wallace isolated himself and realized that he may have COVID-19. He didn’t want to put his two daughters at risk, and still hasn’t seen them since he started feeling ill. “It tears me apart,” Wallace says.
Wallace notes experiencing, “COVID to the extreme when it came to symptoms.” Fever, fatigue, cough, diarrhea, loss of taste and smell, and body aches. Despite this, Wallace claims he would take COVID over the flu any time. “It’s mainly because the fever and the intensity of the symptoms weren’t near as severe,” Wallace says.
The curious part of Wallace’s case is that he has remained in close contact with his girlfriend, who ended up testing negative for the virus. She hasn’t gone back to work in the restaurant industry for fear of exposing others, yet the pair is confused as to how only one of them got COVID despite intimate contact. “How does that work? It’s kind of crazy,” Wallace says.
The virus derailed Wallace’s plans for the summer, including a Worlds of Fun trip with his daughters, Fourth of July celebrations, and just spending time with family. Despite this, Wallace has a somewhat relaxed attitude about the virus. “It hasn’t been fun, but at the same time it hasn’t been near as bad as the news makes it out to be,” he says.
Andrea Wickerstrom was one of the many presumed positive cases in the KC metro area. In late May, Wickerstrom began presenting symptoms of COVID-19 after staying inside for over three months. All it took was working on a puzzle with her sister who had been in a room with many others when taking her medical school board exams. Wickerstrom still managed to catch the virus after her sister took a shower and decontaminated herself.
On May 22, Wickerstrom and her sister began experiencing digestive issues and a general feeling of discomfort and illness. Over the next two days, the fever and chills began with “weakness that was overwhelming,” Wickerstrom says. She slept for 16 hours. “I just couldn’t be awake, my body was too tired,” Wickerstrom says.
As the days wore on, she began coughing and felt discomfort in her lungs, like they were full of water. “If you cough, you breathe better for a minute, but you also have to deal with the pleurisy that comes with it—feeling like you’re being stabbed with an ice pick. It is honestly a lose-lose all around,” Wickerstrom says.
After nine days of Wickerstrom being on round-the-clock Mucinex and Tylenol, her fever broke.
Like many others, the virus took a significant mental toll as well as a physical one. “It was honestly a mix of total brain fog and realizing that, ‘Well, this is the worst I have ever felt, and my anxiety presents as physical illness,’” Wickerstrom says.
After recovering from the virus, Wickerstrom believes that herd immunity is not possible. “If a relatively healthy 27-year-old is still experiencing fatigue and working on getting their singing voice back to where it was more than a month after recovery. We don’t know how many terrible side effects are going to come from this to plague those who’ve had it for years to come,” she warns.
Wickerstrom believes that the community needs to be doing more to safeguard themselves and others during this pandemic. Previously impressed with the way Kansas had handled virus containment, Wickerstrom is now disappointed in the way many are returning back to “normal” that is now causing the spikes in the metro area.
“Lord knows I miss doing things,” Wickerstrom says. “The government needs to do more for its people. And has failed us miserably during this time.”
Being one of the first cases in Kansas City, Courtney Forkum went through the entire process of having the virus before it was truly on everyone’s radars in the community. Traveling for work often, Forkum took a trip to Miami and New York City in early March.
At this time, word of COVID was just spreading to the Midwest, so Forkum didn’t see a problem in taking the work trip. She was taking precautions, though, and is not sure when and where exactly she contracted the virus.
She arrived back in Kansas City on Friday, March 13, and by Saturday she had a fever and headache—and fear. In New York, everyone was in panic mode, but back home in the Midwest, everything was completely normal.
Over the first few days, Forkum maintained a moderate fever around 102.5° along with a consistent headache and overall fatigue. By Wednesday, March 17, Forkum’s coworkers in New York were experiencing the same symptoms and had access to testing. That week, Forkum called area hospitals to see if she could get a test—all of which said they didn’t have access to any tests or procedures for COVID-19. She spent hours on the phone with the Kansas and Missouri health departments.
When her coworkers received their positive test results, Forkum was instructed to assume that she was positive as well and to stay home. As one of the first cases in Kansas City, “it was super isolating,” Forkum says.
As her symptoms continued, Forkum spoke to nine doctors in the area who were interested in monitoring her symptoms. At this point, the virus was not widespread in the Midwest, so she was in high demand by the local medical community—despite not having access to a test.
The following week, Forkum heard of a few tests available at area hospitals, but when she arrived to get one, she found that they were only for patients who needed ventilators.
In the last three to four days of her symptoms, Forkum developed severe breathing issues and considered going to the Emergency Room. She asked herself, “What is the risk of breaking quarantine to go to the hospital?”
Over a week and a half after her last recorded symptom, Forkum developed a severe cough and coughed up blood for three days. At that point, she went to the Emergency Room to seek treatment. She was isolated from all other patients, in a makeshift “room” made out of drywall and shower curtains in the hospital parking garage. “It’s not bad, but like, there were daddy long legs in the corner,” Forkum says.
During Forkum’s time at the hospital, the medical team did not deem it necessary for her to get tested, but she did receive an antibody test. She developed acute bronchitis from the lung weakness and was put on antibiotics.
By the end of April, six weeks after her first symptom, Forkum finally began to feel better. She had been isolating in her downtown apartment for the entirety of the illness and had not been exposed to another human. “I’m proud I was able to do that,” Forkum says. Through her entire experience with the virus, Forkum and her coworkers kept working from home to keep the company afloat. She needed insurance to pay for her medical costs, so keeping her job was a necessity.
The entire experience of having the virus has made Forkum hyper-aware of the public’s response to the pandemic. She urges members of the community to wear a mask and social distance. And for those still comparing it to the flu, she says one thing, “I’ve never had a six-week flu. Why would you risk someone’s health that could be worse than yours?”
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