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Former COVID-19 Patients Discuss Recovery


Months into the coronavirus pandemic, the United States leads the world in the number of daily confirmed cases, breaking its own daily record yet again this week. Yesterday, more than 68,000 cases were reported in just one day, fueled by outbreaks in Florida, Texas, Arizona, California and other states. It's a surge larger than the one this spring. More than 3 million Americans have now tested positive for the disease, a number experts say undercounts how many have actually been infected. More than 134,000 people have died. And while some politicians, notably the president, have downplayed the damage of the coronavirus, health officials, medical personnel, patients and families say it upends people's lives and continues to afflict their health even as they survive. This morning, we have stories from three people - Udean Mars Williams, Barry Neely and Alice Navarro who have all struggled with COVID-19.

UDEAN MARS WILLIAMS: I started to not feel well the last week of March. I had the severe coughing, the chills. Fast forward the week of April 10, I try to go and take a walk just down the street in my neighborhood, and I couldn't breathe. I was petrified.

BARRY NEELY: I felt a little bit of fatigue in early March. There was no cough. It was just fever, aches, loss of taste and smell. I didn't really feel scared about it until my lungs and heart started acting weird. It felt like a fluttering in my chest. And that's when I kind of became concerned.

ALICE NAVARRO: The first day that I noticed the extreme tiredness was June 17. I would have this low-grade fever and these uncontrollable chills. I know when - I go to the doctor, my oxygen levels are usually about 99%. They started out at 87%, so I knew something was wrong at that point.

SIMON: As their experience shows, COVID-19 is hard to predict what it does to the body, how severe it is and what recovery might look like.

WILLIAMS: I had vomiting, the headaches where my visions were blurred, hallucination. I was afraid to even close my eyes. There were days that I felt like I was losing my mind. The weird part about this disease - it's like a rollercoaster. It'll be two days where you feel OK, and then it hits you, and it's worse than the week before.


WILLIAMS: I don't remember much the first three weeks. If you send me a text message during that period and I responded, one of my friends says she couldn't even decipher what I wrote. That's to tell you how bad it was. Since then, just like simple words, can't remember how to spell. I don't have the temperature because I still monitor myself. But I get the headaches off and on. I have muscle pain, and I have the extreme fatigue. It's not as bad as it was. This, I could tolerate. I just figured it's just probably something I may have to get used to. And then because I've been sick, I don't know what that means. Does it I mean I don't get it again? Does it mean I could get it again? But they can't give me an answer. Oh, we don't know. We're not sure. You're supposed to have the antibodies, but that doesn't mean anything. Please be careful. I feel like months of my life has - is gone that I can't get back, and I don't know what my future holds.


NEELY: All the information said you will get better in three to four weeks. That just leaves you feeling completely alone when you still have the symptoms and you know you still have the symptoms. I actually have, like, a whole calendar here. March 6 - felt faint and fatigued; 3:15, took a bike ride. March 20 - lost sense of taste and smell, wrote Dr. Goldstein on April 4 that it was going well; two days later, wrote back to him said chest symptoms had come back (laughter). I feel like up until that point, my symptoms - I felt like they were going to go away eventually. However, I got a chest X-ray. My doctor called me and said, OK, so it looks like you have scarring in your lungs. Apparently, lung scarring is a permanent thing. And he just reassured me and I said, hey, listen, we need to concentrate on you getting better and we're going to think of it as rehabbing your lungs. So that was kind of permission for me to go out and exercise again.

So I'm very, very fortunate. I haven't been hospitalized. I haven't had the cough. If it's a matter of me having chest tightness and lung scarring for the rest of my life but I'm still able to do the things I want to do, then I consider myself very, very lucky.


NAVARRO: I am that first person in a lot of circles that was personally affected by COVID to the point where I was hospitalized and almost died.


NAVARRO: This was Friday, June 26. The doctor wanted me to do a walking test.


NAVARRO: I got up from my chair, maybe took three steps before I started coughing this dry cough. And the force of the cough was so strong, I urinated myself in my pants there. The doctor was like, sit tight. We're going admit you in. The one night that really stood out to me, I spoke to a nurse who also had COVID herself. She reminded me that I'm going to have good days and I'm going to have setbacks and that I need to have patience with myself. She adjusted my oxygen so that it would stay on my face. She rubbed my back, and that gesture really meant a lot to me during that time. (Crying) It just felt good to have somebody, somebody there to help you. (Crying) I'll never forget that.


NAVARRO: After 10 days of being in the hospital, I was finally discharged. The first thing I wanted to do, besides, you know, reconnect with my dog, was I wanted to smell my own laundry. I remember grabbing some laundry out of the dryer, and I buried my face in that laundry. And I started to cry.


NAVARRO: I still have some lingering symptoms. I have some trouble with my memory. I forgot that I made a cup of coffee the other day until three hours later, which is not my - that's not me. I can move around my apartment a little bit faster, but I get winded still. So considering how I feel right now compared to where I was while in the hospital, at this point I'm cautiously optimistic.

SIMON: That was Alice Navarro of Austin, Texas, Barry Neely of Los Angeles and Udean Mars Williams of Prince George's County, Md. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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