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Not Everyone Recovers: A Covid-19 Long-hauler’s Harrowing Tale

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Jeff illustration
Jeff F,
Michigan

“They start voicing concerns, not about being around me, but not wanting what happened to me to happen to them. I got pulled aside and I got talked to. I'm just placating the fear. I'm not looking out for the shop. I'm not looking out for the dealership. And I need to do a better job of being a leader.”

Jeff was used to running at a hundred miles per hour. He would work sixty-five hours a week running parts and services for two car dealerships and managing his 30 employees. Then he’d come back home, fully participate around the house with his family and three kids, stay up late until around two and then wake up around six and do it all over it again. At 41, he was full of energy.

“Looking back at [the pandemic] now, it seemed like it was a million miles away. Nothing was going to happen. It was just something that was on the news.”

March 9th seemed like just a normal day after a normal weekend. Jeff took a long lunch to look at houses. When he came back to work, everything was fine. Things were really busy, and he was knocking stuff out. Then around 6:30, 7:00, he started not feeling good. Normally, he would just rough it out. He despised leaving work early, but that evening, he was feeling so bad that he flat out knew that he was done for the day, and he had to go home.

“The next day, my alarm went off. I’m like, nope, not a chance in hell I’m getting up and going to work. And that’s just not me.”

Jeff had experienced the flu and pneumonia, but this was something different. When he had pneumonia, he went to work and got through it just fine, but he barely could get himself off the sofa.

Jeff on couch stressed and having a headache illustration

After a few days of this, it got so bad that on that Thursday, March 12th, his wife told him that he was going to urgent care, whether he liked it or not. Over there, they swabbed him for different strains of the flu and he tested negative for them all. They told him it could be some sort of virus and it was possible it could even be the new one everyone’s seeing on the TV, but they doubted it since there were so few cases in Michigan at that time. They couldn’t test him either. The whole state only had 400 test kits, and he didn’t qualify.

He was told that if after 24 hours the fever was gone, he could go back to work. However, if he felt worse or if he had trouble breathing, he should call the hospital but not go to the emergency room. It seemed like a weird thing for them to say. 

Still, urgent care didn’t seem that concerned. The idea that he had Covid-19 felt absolutely crazy. He just kept on thinking that maybe one of those flu tests wasn’t accurate or maybe he had mono. He had been watching a lot of TV; maybe it was just in his head. With a little rest and hydration, he’d be fine.

But it was hard to stay at home when his boss was hounding him to get back to work.

“So as soon as my fever let up on the next day, I went back to work, and I worked until shutdown.”

Jeff’s symptoms subsided after roughly a week. On the 16th, he was feeling fine. Everything was great. He was hammering through work and everything. It was about this time when headlines on the risks of the virus were ramping up. There was talk about everyone having to start wiping down everything, which sounded crazy. He had a virus, but it wasn’t that bad. How bad could this coronavirus be?

This feeling of being well lasted for almost a week, but then during the week of the 24th, everything took a hard turn for the worse. He started getting these crazy fevers. It felt like fire going through his body, and he was still going to work.

The governor was talking like there would be a shut down. Everybody worked two more days at the dealerships, and then on the morning of the last day, right before the shutdown, he was stuck in bed, but he knew he needed to get to work and to do the payroll. His employees were going to need their money before they shut down.

“I couldn’t get to work – even though I was trying like hell – before twelve o’clock, and I kept a bottle of Tylenol hidden in my pocket just so I could get through the day and get payroll done.”

He barely made it through the day, and then they were shut down.

“The next week, there were three to four days that I thought that was it. The weird part is during the day, I don’t want to say I felt fine, but I felt like it wasn’t horrific. Then every night, I kept an eye on the clock, it got to be like six thirty, seven thirty at night, and it was like a bomb would go off in my body. It felt almost like a fire going through me. I don’t say it to a lot of people because even subconsciously it makes you feel crazy saying it, but I could feel it trying to take me.”

And each morning, he’d wake up and think, wow, he couldn’t believe he was still alive.

Watching TV compounded the fear that he was going to die. He saw semi-trucks pull up at hospitals and people being thrown into them. Being so scared, he flat out told his wife that if she woke up and he wasn’t there, he was in the parking lot of some hospital. He didn’t want to die at home and have his kids find him.

Jeff illustration: on couch with fever, wrapped in blanket

During the worst of it, he had these horribly extreme fevers and immense body pain. It was like the worst flu he could imagine, times ten. It felt like fire pulsating through his body. He also had nightmares and bad abdominal pain, and the headaches were so awful that it felt he couldn’t open his eyes. He’d pull a hoodie over his eyes and still have to put a blanket over that to stop the light from making his eyes feel like they would pop out of his head.

The hardest night was the night his wife started to not feel good and his five-year old also had a fever.

“I start thinking: Oh, my God, somebody is not going to hear from us, and they’re going to come here to check on us, and we’re all going to be in this house dead.”

Even though he was sick himself, he had to take care of his family. He knew they weren’t feeling well. There was no information on what to do. The only medicine he or his family could take was Tylenol. He heard that Motrin was going to make it worse, and that’s all they had. At that time, the government wasn’t telling people about masks, so he’d throw his gloves on.

“As soon as you feel good enough, you go to the store and you go on a scavenger hunt in the middle of the night… And then you feel like you won the Super Bowl because you found a bottle of Tylenol.”

There were other things they needed. He would go out to stores late at night to avoid people. He’d see people physically sick, and he’d see people fighting over toilet paper. It was really uncomfortable to be in the stores.

Illustration: Jeff going to store while sick

“There were a couple times in the stores where it felt like civilization was about to go out the window… because somebody didn’t have what they wanted and somebody else had it, and you’re all standing in these massive lines. People are freaking about how long they’ve been in the line. This person had this in their cart. I couldn’t get this, and I was in line and you could see somebody just grabbing stuff and just walking out the door.” 

Illustration: Jeff shopping in store while surrounded by people

His family did get better. His wife was sick for roughly a week and a half but fortunately did not suffer long-term symptoms. His five-year old had a fever for two days. His ten-year old got it and had a fever for a day. And Jeff’s third child never got anything or at least never showed any symptoms.

For Jeff, the fevers eventually went away, but his whole body continued to feel weak. His legs felt like they had just got done pushing a car around the block. Back at the time when he had the flu really bad, he had that feeling and it disappeared after two weeks. But this time, that feeling just never left, and other symptoms kept on popping up as well.

“The best way I can describe it is it’s like on the Price Is Right you get the big wheel you spin. Every day since then I have numbness and weakness in my legs. Some days it’s just extreme lethargy. Some days it’s horrible headaches. Some days it’s my eyes can barely focus. Some days it feels like my brain barely works. It’s almost like you went out, partied, and drank too much, and the next day your brain just doesn’t function and you can’t think straight… But the consistent one is just extreme weakness, fatigue.”

Jeff’s boss called him during the first week of April to come in. Working with cars, his job was considered essential. Manufacturers were dropping cars off, and they were having customers. If their vehicles were deemed an essential emergency, they would be dropped off. 

Upon returning to the job, Jeff told the people he was closest to at work that he thought he had Covid-19. He told them about what he experienced and how he was feeling, but nobody really believed him. They would look at him like he was crazy, and he got a lot of weird looks from his boss. It was still like Covid was a different America’s problem. 

Knowing how sick he was, Jeff was haunted thinking that he could have gotten everybody else sick. If one of his workers had passed from it or one of their family members had gotten sick, it would have been just awful. He didn’t know how he would have handled it. Fortunately, nobody else did get sick, and that amazed him. 

Jeff continued working despite feeling awful for about four to five hours a day. He had to move cars around and get things ready for more vehicles. His job gave his cell phone number to customers, and of the ninety different calls he got, majority were from people wanting non-essential oil changes. It was frustrating how people were not taking the situation seriously.

Jack talked to some of the guys he worked with and told them that he didn’t feel that their dealerships were really essential. 

“One guy looks at me and says, ‘You’re right. We’re not essential. We’re essential to make their money.’”

On April 27th the dealerships opened back up for the public, and the lack of care people had just got worse. At his business, there were no masks, no sanitizers, no nothing, and they had to work for two weeks with huge lines of people coming in with their cars.

“It’s nothing but elderly people without masks for non-essential work, like, ‘Oh, I wanted to get my oil change. I figured I’d get out of the house. I’d get my tires rotated.’”

Illustration: Jeff in mask helping elderly woman with car

It was frightening. These people were of the highest risk, and not only could they spread it but they could spread the virus to his workers. Jeff wanted to turn them away, but he couldn’t. His boss wanted all the business he could get because he had shut down.

“You have all these people come in and act like it’s no big deal, putting everybody that you spend sixty five hours a week with and their families [at risk] and you want to do everything you can to protect them. People are coming in their cars and they have masks hanging from their mirror, snot rags on the seat. And we’re not allowed to tell anybody to get out of here. Can you imagine having to go work in that car with all that knowing with everything that’s going on and not having the tools to protect yourself or your workers? It’s just awful.”

May came and he heard that they were starting antibody testing in Michigan. After a few dead ends, he finally tracked down a place and got tested. He just wanted to know. People were treating him like he was crazy when he said he thought he had it. He wanted to know for sure. The next day, while he was driving to work, they gave him a phone call and told him that he had tested positive. It was a huge relief and a validation of how he was feeling.

Once Jeff found out that he had antibodies, he told his boss.

“He’s like: ‘Who did you tell? How many people did you tell? What did you tell them?’ I got accused of spreading the fear, and that was not a good feeling.”

It basically came down to that what Jeff had been going through wasn’t convenient for business, and thus, he shouldn’t say anything about it because his boss didn’t want the other employees to be scared from that, and Jeff learned that he really shouldn’t be talking about it.

The symptoms didn’t go away, though. Everyday Jeff was still working and struggling. Then in late June, he suddenly became extremely lethargic, and he just couldn’t breathe. He had to go to the emergency room.

Ilustration: Jeff in a hospital bed

While in the hospital, they retested him to see if the virus had been reactivated. He tested negative. They checked to see if he still had antibodies. He did. His heart and lungs checked out fine. They also did a CT scan and a bunch of blood work. His D-dimer levels were abnormally high. D-dimer is used for monitoring clotting. Five hundred is the cut off for good. Jeff had fifteen hundred, which made them really concerned that he was having blood clots. And every time he walked around for more than a minute, his blood oxygen level dropped by 15%.

In the end the doctors told him that they thought his muscles were not processing the oxygen from his lung, but they didn’t know the cause. They just did not know enough about the virus to say anything more. 

The big treatment that he got seemed like a joke. They got on telling him that there was nothing wrong with his lungs, but then they wanted him to use a COPD inhaler and albuterol, which are used for asthma. Jeff was like, “Why am I doing this?”

“With me being in the car industry, that’s the equivalent of like, ‘Well, we don’t know what’s causing this yet. We’re just going to do this to mask over it and try to help out until we figure out what’s going on. It’s just as logical as we’re going to boost the amount of oxygen going into your body and that should help you. It’s simple. They might as well give you a jar of leeches.”

Jeff spent three days in the hospital. While he was lying in bed, he heard this noise like an alarm clock. At first he seemed like it was one of those monitors that was signaling something bad because of his blood clots, but it was his phone. His boss was calling, asking him why he was there, what was really going on, if he was okay, and when would he be back. They needed him back at work.

He went into the hospital on a Tuesday and didn’t go back to work that week. The following Monday he went back to work with a doctor’s note saying that he should work reduced hours. That didn’t go over very well. Now, instead of his normal sixty-five hour work weeks, he’s been working forty hours. The doctors also didn’t want him wearing masks and had him wearing face shields. His job also gave him crap about that.

Then everyone started talking to him and wanted to know how he was doing and what he was going through. All his workers knew he had had been in the hospital.

“They start voicing concerns, not about being around me, but not wanting what happened to me to happen to them. I got pulled aside and I got talked to. I’m just placating the fear. I’m not looking out for the shop. I’m not looking out for the dealership. And I need to do a better job of being a leader.”

At the same time, he was trying to manage his own health, but that wasn’t working out either. The lung doctor at the hospital initially wanted Jeff to make an appointment in July. When he called the doctor’s office, they told him to see a neurologist first and they gave him a list of three numbers. Jeff called every single one of them. Each one of them asked about his medical information and insurance.

“Then all of a sudden, each one of them, one by one [said], ‘Well, I’m sorry we didn’t know this upfront, or we wouldn’t have wasted your time. We’re not seeing Covid patients.’ ‘Well, not now, I had it back in March. I’m still having some issues from it’, and each one of them, ‘Yeah, sorry. We’re not taking any chances.’ One of them actually just hung up the phone.”

For each doctor’s office he contacted, it just seemed like he was getting the run-around. Covid long-haulers were just not understood, and no one would see him. He couldn’t make an appointment with the lung doctor. 

Medical bills are also worrying. His insurance company advertises on TV and radio all the time that they were covering a hundred Covid-related issues, but he still keeps on getting bills in the mail. They keep on coming, and his family is still waiting to find out if they’ll be covered.

One of the most frustrating things about being a Covid long-hauler is that he hates sitting still. He was always very active, but now at times he’d go outside to play with his kids and a couple minutes later he was feeling so bad that he needed to go back in.

He’s still working 40 hours a week, but by the time he comes home, he’s exhausted. And on the way home, there are times he’s falling asleep at red lights. He’s been taking his pulse and oxygen levels at home. He’ll get home and take his pulse at the bottom of the stairs. It’s 60, but the time he’s at the top, it’s 135. He gets so winded going up those stairs that many nights he sleeps on the couch rather than in his bed upstairs. Something is still wrong with his body.

But he still goes forward. 

“I take pride in what I do. I want our shops to be the best that can be. I want everybody to make all the money they can. I got to do my part. They have families and I want to make sure that they can take care of them the best they can.”

Sometimes it’s hard to be there, though. To this day, his boss is telling everybody at work that Covid is just like the flu and everybody’s overreacting because it’s an election year, and they know Jeff’s experience. This kind of talk discredits the hell that he’s been through.

Jeff has been feeling a little better since he found the Long Covid Support Group, which has more than 18,000 members, all of whom have had long-term symptoms. When he reads the stories and sees that other people are having the same problems, he doesn’t feel like such an alien. He sees people are getting better, and it gives him hope. Maybe if he waits it out, he’ll be fine. 

Read more with a short story about a coronovirus journey from sea to shining sea.