December 17, 2020

COVID-19 in the community: Employees suffer, too

(SACRAMENTO)

Anastasiya Ivanko is used to running. The 22-year-old junior specialist in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine played soccer in high school and college. She’s also sprinted up and down soccer fields as a referee. Her job keeps her moving as she meets with clinical trial patients at various UC Davis Health locations in Sacramento.

Anastasiya Ivanko was a healthy, active 22-year-old until COVID-19 struck. Anastasiya Ivanko was a healthy, active 22-year-old until COVID-19 struck.

But these days, just going from the parking lot to her office is exhausting. Trying to carry something up a flight of stairs leaves her breathless.

Ivanko is still recovering from COVID-19. She tested positive for the virus in early August. She didn’t return to work for two months. One of the many UC Davis Health employees who’s fallen ill from the disease this year, Ivanko has no idea where she got infected.

“No one from my office tested positive,” said Ivanko, who ironically has been working on vaccine clinical trials at UC Davis Health. “The contact tracing team couldn’t figure out where I might have gotten it. It’s totally possible I contracted it at the grocery store.”

Along with endless coughing and nausea during the height of her illness, Ivanko suffered intense pain and trouble breathing. She was fatigued and slept a lot. Twice she visited the emergency room when coughing made it difficult to speak and low oxygen levels made her fear pneumonia.

At one point, Ivanko says her “entire body was just throbbing” and she couldn't walk because everything was so painful. She also lost her sense of taste and smell, which haven’t fully returned. Fortunately, her brother smelled a pan she’d left on the stove recently, because she was unable to  smell the burning food.

“This entire thing has been a shock,” Ivanko added. “It was shocking to my doctors. It's crazy how it affects you.”

A healthy life turned upside down

COVID-19 also shocked Janine Carlson. A nurse coordinator for the Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement (TAVR) Program, Carlson had to take five weeks off work to grapple with her illness.

“I am grateful that my symptoms were never severe enough to have to go to the hospital, but I am one of the ‘long haulers’ with persistent symptoms,” said Carlson, who fell ill in July and has had bouts of fatigue, nausea and headaches since then. “My life of constantly being active, checking off my daily ‘to-do’ list and feeling productive has been turned upside down.”

Like many other COVID victims, Carlson lost her sense of smell and taste, and it has yet to fully return. She also felt so poorly for more than a week at Thanksgiving that she thought she had been re-infected. Her primary care provider said it was likely just another troubling aspect of the virus: that it waxes and wanes, allowing people to feel good for a while and then hitting them hard just when they thought the illness was completely gone.

A grandmother of two, Carlson is nearly certain she contracted the illness from her mother. She’d picked her up from a Central Valley hospital and they drove home together, unmasked, in the confined space of the car. Her mother was asymptomatic and never became ill. Carlson, on the other hand, started feeling sick within a day. By that night, she was suffering from a high fever, severe body aches and cough.

“As I lay in the bed, I knew then that my husband, who falls into the high-risk population, was being exposed to whatever I had,” Carlson said in a post on her Facebook page. “But in my misery, [I] could not bring myself to move.”

She tested positive for COVID-19 the very next morning. Fortunately, her husband, who was highly exposed, never had any symptoms and tested negative several days after the onset of her illness.

COVID-19 brings unexpected challenges to new employee 

Brian Scates normally would have been excited to get an interview for a new job at UC Davis Health. But when he got the call about it, he was waiting for his wife outside the emergency department of an area hospital. Scates’ wife Tina was inside suffering from COVID-19.

He says that after Tina became ill in late July, she had all the classic symptoms: difficulty concentrating, loss of taste, cough, low-grade fever and low oxygen levels. Her illness led to pneumonia and, eventually, to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

All of this happened right in the middle of Scates’ transition from another local health provider to UC Davis Health. He’s been on the job about two months as a clinical applications manager in the IT department. Before he made the move, he was working from home full-time. That meant juggling a lot of responsibilities. He had to make sure his two teenagers were set up each day for their remote classes. And he also had to help his wife with her symptoms.

“We ended up getting a pulse oximeter [a tiny device that measures a person's blood oxygen levels] because her oxygen levels would drop off,” Scates said. The low levels meant that Tina had trouble walking and would fall. The couple ended up going to the emergency room three times during the height of her illness, which lasted about four weeks.

Today, Tina is wrestling with other lingering issues besides her COPD. The 43-year-old still has blurred vision, and one eye is significantly worse than the other. An active, vibrant person, she now has days of fatigue, months after first getting COVID-19.

“The doctors say she's a ‘long hauler’ with these ongoing things,” Scates said. “But she's alive and we're very grateful for that.”

Grace toward others

Janine Carlson’s debilitating illness and recovery has given her new insights and sensibilities about the public health controversies arising from attempts to control the pandemic. She offers advice that comes from a truly awful and scary experience. 

“I feel strongly that we all need to take this seriously, and set aside ‘our rights,’ political agendas and minor inconveniences that a small gesture such as wearing a mask represents,” said Carlson. “We need to be kind and feel good about doing our part in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Have grace toward those who don’t see eye-to-eye with us. We are all in this together, and it’s time we start acting like it.”