At the end of July, 2020, Lisa Steffen thought she had come down with a case of bronchitis.
Steffen had a persistent cough and had a hard time talking, which were the symptoms she’d had in the past.
She went to her doctor at Crawford County Memorial Hospital (CCMH), where she also works as a surgery nurse; Steffen has been a nurse for 30 years.
“I usually get a steroid, an inhaler and usually an antibiotic, a cough suppressant and a nasal spray because I’ve had it (bronchitis) several times,” Steffen said.
Because she works at the hospital, her doctor told her she should probably get a COVID test.
That was on a Friday. On Monday she received the results of the test, which were positive for COVID-19.
For the next few days, the symptoms still felt to her like bronchitis – but on Thursday morning everything changed.
“All of a sudden I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t move,” she said. “I just sat on the floor.”
She sent a text to a friend who then made an appointment for her at the CCMH clinic for that afternoon.
“One of the nurses called me back and said, ‘Oh, Lisa, I think you need to come sooner than 4 o’clock,’” she said.
Steffen told the nurse she didn’t think she could walk very far to get into the clinic, so she would have to park close to the door.
The nurse met her outside the clinic and took her directly to the emergency room instead.
“There they did the normal chest x-ray, EKG, labs and breathing treatments,” Steffen said. “Then they admitted me in Denison (at CCMH).”
She was given oxygen, steroids, breathing treatments and a blood thinner, because of the known possibility that COVID-19 can cause blood clots.
Steffen said she needed help just getting to the bathroom and then back to bed.
“It was crazy – I couldn’t take a breath,” she said. “I really thought I was going to die.”
She made videos for her kids because she thought she was not going to make it.
When her breathing worsened, she was instructed to lie on her stomach for part of the day.
“That opens up the lower airways so you’re able to breathe better,” she said.
Only one of the four nurses on the wing could go to her room to keep the chances of staff exposure down.
She was treated very well, she said.
“They (the nurses) sent notes in my food and my coworkers in surgery would call and text,” Steffen said.
She stayed in the hospital for five days.
“I went home on oxygen on the (August) 10th,” she said. “I didn’t really want to expose anybody. At that time we still didn’t know how long you could be infected or be infectious.”
She decided to drive herself to her home in Ute so she wouldn’t infect anyone else.
“And that was really the wrong thing to do,” Steffen said. “I was able to make it, but it took me a very long time to get home.”
She was so short of breath when she arrived that she couldn’t get into her house.
Steffen drove by the Ute Fire Department where firefighters were outside grilling.
Three of them took her home and helped her inside.
She did not improve much during August.
“It would take me a while to shower and about an hour to recover from that - and then I could go and brush my teeth,” Steffen said. “It took me forever to do anything.”
She wasn’t able to leave her house for a month except to try to walk a little bit outside.
“I was really short of breath and my chest was tight and heavy,” Steffen said.
She couldn’t even think clearly, which she attributes to working so hard to breathe.
“I’ve had influenza before and this is nothing at all like influenza,” Steffen said.
She couldn’t even cook for herself for the first month at home, so her family members took food to her.
By September 8, Steffen thought she was feeling well enough to go back to work.
“I could only make it three hours and I was just totally exhausted,” she said. “I could hardly walk, I was short of breath and my brain was tired. I was a mess.”
She hasn’t been able to go back to work since then and remains on short-term disability and short-term leave with the hospital.
“You wouldn’t want your nurse coughing on you and short of breath,” Steffen said. “I just don’t have the energy yet so I have not tried it again.”
She felt terrible about not being able to work in December, which is always a busy month for surgery at CCMH.
“I love my job and I really love my coworkers,” she said. “I felt terrible that I couldn’t be there to help them, but I just couldn’t.”
She has made some improvement over the last few months
“Every month I feel like I have gotten some better, but this last month I have not seen a lot of improvement,” Steffen said.
She spends her time on bad days in bed or in a chair; on those days she can’t concentrate enough to use a laptop.
On good days she sometimes feels well enough to drive to Denison to get groceries.
“The first time I tried to make it through the grocery store I just about couldn’t make it all the way through and I just got part of what I needed,” she said.
The next time went a little better, though she needed help back at home to get the groceries inside.
Now, on her good days, she is sometimes able to go to several stores on one trip.
She works out on the machines in the hospital’s exercise room.
“I can’t walk very fast on the treadmill, so I set it on ‘one’ and I can walk,” Steffen said. “The most has been ten minutes.”
There aren’t many COVID-19 “long haulers” in the local area, but she has been able to get help from several groups on Facebook.
“That has sure helped a lot to know that I’m not the only one,” she said.
She doesn’t know if her doctor will recommend that she take the vaccine when it becomes available, but she thinks the vaccine is a good step forward.
“I think the vaccine for COVID is awesome and absolutely everybody should take it if they can,” Steffen said.
She never imagined the illness could go on for this long.
“I just keep hoping and praying that I can get back to work and feel normal again,” Steffen said.
“I’m so happy that I’m alive and I didn’t end up on the ventilator, but life is definitely not the same.”