Elsie’s Fight for Her Life.

The Story of Elsie and Virgilio

In my last article, you were introduced to Virgilio, a community health nurse who left Manilla twenty years ago to complete a stint of service in rural Kentucky.  Several years after that, he married Elsie, also a nurse, and also from Manilla.  They have been together over fifteen years, and work at large metropolitan hospitals.  

Elsie describes herself as shy, and not usually given to talking about herself.  But on a sunny afternoon more than a year after a very serious case of COVID, there was nothing shy about Elsie.  It occurred to her during her six weeks of COVID-forced isolation, that she wanted to use this experience to teach others about this disease and what she had learned from it.  And so, she agreed to sit for this interview, along with her husband.   

For most Americans in January 2020, the “Novel Coronavirus” was nothing more than a vague far off thing somewhere in remote China.  For these two nurses from Manilla, they were accustomed to staying tuned to international television.  What they saw in China in December of 2019 and January of 2020 frightened them.  By the time the first case hit the United States, they were already masking up, and keeping social distance, even from one another, and Elsie’s fragile, live-in mother.  

How Elsie Caught COVID

Elsie was healthy, relatively young, with no underlying conditions, but even in the early days, Virgilio knew that his diabetes and heart condition made him vulnerable.  As February gave way to March, he attempted to wear a protective mask in his hospital work.  Fearing that this would scare patients, Virgilio’s supervisor forbad him to wear it.  As a result, Virgilio took FMLA.  Like her husband, Elsie is passionate about her healthcare vocation, and with no underlying conditions, she continued to work in a hospital procedure center.  Unable to be fit for an N-95 mask, she could not go up to the COVID unit to work with patients.  Patients from other parts of the hospital were brought to her.  On a fateful April morning, a man was brought to her for a procedure who was coughing and showing other suspicious symptoms.  A later test revealed what Elsie feared:  he was COVID positive.  In those early days, healthcare workers could only get tested if they showed an array of symptoms.  The following week, while climbing no more than five steps, Elsie noticed exhaustion and coughing.  The next day she spiked a fever.  A COVID test revealed what she already knew.  She had become infected by a patient who was soon to die of the disease that he had passed along to her.   

The Fight of Her Life

For the next two weeks, Elsie fought for her life.  “I don’t mean to brag,” she explained, “but my husband is the best nurse in his hospital.”  His expert care eased, but did not remove her fear.  The safety procedures utilized in their home to keep Virgilio and Elsie’s vulnerable mother safe, were more meticulous than the hospital’s COVID procedures.  Blankets and towels formed a tight seal around her self-contained room and bathroom.  A camera set up in her room, along with an Alexa speaker paired with Virgilio’s cell phone, allowed him to monitor her at all times of the day or night.  A Pulse-Oximeter kept track of her oxygen levels.  Careful use of an N-95 mask, and hand washing were utilized for trash removal.  A food table set up outside her bedroom, allowed Elsie to slip out and then re-seal the door that kept the viral load contained.  The large window in the bedroom that looked out on the backyard allowed them to text conversations and see each other.    

Only once in my life, when I swam under and came up behind a pounding waterfall, have I struggled for breath.  The panic that ensued made breathing even harder.  That episode resolved in mere seconds!  I kept imagining that feeling as Elsie described her desperate struggle for life’s most basic requirement:  breath.  That experience for Elsie lasted two weeks!  Despite Virgilio’s excellent care, she wasn’t sure that she would survive.  This insidious disease attacked nearly every organ system in Elsie’s body.  Her struggle for breath, robbed her of the sweet relief of sleep. At one point, the pain in her chest became so acute, she was tested for a pulmonary embolism.  Scans removed that fear, but revealed a mass on her left breast.  The weight of that news, on top of all the rest caused threatened Elsie’s psychological buoyancy.  A biopsy took away—at least–that fear!  As if the loss of smell and taste weren’t enough, diarrhea, and vomiting ensured that even the simple pleasure of a meal was stripped from her as well.  A high fever lasted for ten days that brought long bouts of shivering under three comforters.  Occasional hallucinations showed up in her peripheral vision.  Her hair fell out and rashes covered her skin.  At one point she lost her voice, a symptom that re-emerges more than a year later, when she is overly fatigued.  Elsie described a kind of “brain fog” that took away her ability to multi-task.  That fog has mostly lifted, but fatigue continues to be a frequent companion for this long-hauler (i.e. a COVID survivor who manifests symptoms long after the disease).  Expert knowledge is a double-edged sword.  It provides the tools and weapons to fight the disease.  It also strips away the denial that we non-medical civilians use to comfort ourselves.  In addition to fighting all of these symptoms, Elsie knew quite well that she was fighting for her life.   

A Resilience Lesson

In his book, Deep Survival (1998), Lawrence Gonzalez interviewed survivors of nature accidents to determine what allowed them to escape death, when others did not.  Among the list of common factors in his subjects was the ability to engage in a grieving process.  By way of illustration, those who succumbed were not willing to face the jarring facts of their crisis.  “I can’t possibly be lost,” they reason, “I just left my ski lodge for a hike three hours ago!”  With this false hope, they just hike faster.  The survivors, by way of contrast, allow themselves to feel the alarm of their situation.  Their ability to deal with the emotions of fear, and even dread, allowed them to take a first step toward their survival (for example, constructing a shelter to keep warm, or melting snow while the sun was still up).  

The aim of every successful grieving process is to achieve a deep acceptance of what is, rather than the soothing palliative of what I wish were true.  Armed with that acceptance, the successful mourner can take practical steps to engage with the visssissitudes of life.  Their early research into the alarming truth about the mysterious “novel coronavirus” allowed Virgilio and his mother-in-law to take the proper steps to live next door while Elsie fought for her life.  A radical acceptance of “what is,” rather than what they wished were true, allowed Virgilio and Elsie to fight their insidious foe with every scrap of their formidable professional expertise.

Our world is balanced right now on the head of a pin.  The Delta Variant is threatening to surge into our communities to take lives, and our way of life.  At this crucial moment, resilience requires of all of us, a turning toward the reality of our common foe.  Allowing the discordant feelings of this present moment, will allow us, like Virgilio and Elsie, to take those steps to finally snuff out this disease, and open the doors of our classrooms and businesses for good!  If you know anyone who still doubts the lethality of this disease, or fears the potential side-effects of our RNA based vaccines, please share this article with them.  Reading it will allow for a better cost-benefit analysis in their discernment!  Fighting for her breath and life, Elsie determined  to give meaning to her suffering by sharing her ordeal with as many as she could in the hopes of saving lives.  Please help her with that mission, and pass this along to as many as you can.     

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