In late October, Adam and Nia Hoefler of Normal and their two children got the news that we’ve all come to dread: the entire family had tested positive for COVID-19. But despite having the same virus, the Hoeflers each displayed very different symptoms.
The family fell ill despite being careful. Adam said the family has been adhering to CDC guidelines since news of the virus first broke in March.
“We stopped going to restaurants. We basically stopped going out for anything except grocery shopping. Mostly, we stayed home," he said. "We took it pretty seriously."
The first to get sick, Adam suspects he was exposed to COVID at an automotive store. He was there for around 45 minutes waiting for his car battery to be replaced.
“I was keeping as distanced as I could from the guys who were helping me, but they were wearing masks, like, half off their face, or pulled down at the nose. They also had three different customers who came in, and not a single one wearing masks. That was the only place that I’ve been exposed to that degree.”
Days later, he came down with what might be considered “classic” COVID symptoms: fever, body aches, cough, and loss of smell. The rest of the family underwent different experiences.
At first, Nia had only mild symptoms, like a headache and fever that subsided over the course of a week. Their 5-year-old daughter had a fever that lasted only hours. Their 3-year-old son was completely asymptomatic.
But tests confirmed the family was positive for COVID, so they began the recommended 14-day quarantine. Friends dropped off supplies like food and board games, and the Hoeflers hunkered down. With everyone’s symptoms abating, they appeared to be on the mend.
Then, on the morning of Halloween, Nia woke up with chest pain and shortness of breath. Knowing that COVID patients can take sudden turns for the worse, she decided to head to the emergency room just to be safe. But by the time she was in the car, the decision was no longer a precaution.
“I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “And I thought I was going to die.”
Of all the seeming cruelties COVID has brought, the isolation it requires is one of the starkest. Patients admitted to the hospital are isolated in an effort to protect others from contracting the virus. And while that protocol may be scientifically sound, it has resulted in untold anguish as many of the more than 250,000 Americans claimed by COVID-19 have died alone, with no family by their side.
Rushing to the hospital, Nia struggled with what to say to her children, not knowing if she was saying goodbye. If she didn’t come back out, she told them, their dad would always be there.
“But who will read me stories and help me when daddy’s at work?” her daughter wanted to know.
“I had no idea what to tell them,” Nia said. “I just told them it would be OK, and that I loved them, and that I would hopefully see them soon.”
Nia was able to come home, but nearly a month later, she still struggles with after-effects like difficulty breathing and brain fog.
“I still can’t run around after the kids,” she said. “Going up and down the stairs two times will get me winded.” She worries that if her young son were to dart away from her outside, she wouldn’t be able to catch up with him.
And she suffers from a constant mental fatigue, making everyday tasks exceedingly difficult.
“I can’t think straight,” she said. “I was trying to send out an email for the past three hours because I kept forgetting what I was saying.”
Things she used to love to do, like cooking, are a challenge.
“I burned dinner three times in a row,” she said, “because I couldn’t smell the smoke.”
As Thanksgiving approaches, the Hoeflers said they’ll again be following the advice of the CDC and Illinois Department of Public Health. They’ll be celebrating at home--alone--and aren't planning to participate in any large gatherings until after a vaccine becomes available.
“I would never want my family or friends to go through what we went through,” Nia said. “Even if you don’t die from it, the after-effects can be terrible.”
And for anyone still planning large holiday celebrations, Adam cautioned that they “seriously weigh the risks.”
“All it really takes is watching a few videos of what intensive care units looked like over in Italy at the beginning with people not able to breathe. Or, if you want to go look at pictures of vans that they’re piling COVID victims in.”
“Take your pick,” he said. “Because reality’s going to hit you in the face.”
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