The United States has more than 1 million total cases of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In Wisconsin, the cumulative number of coronavirus cases has surpassed 8,500.
A global pandemic and numbers like these can be a little hard to grasp — until coronavirus affects you or someone you know directly. For us here at WUWM, our former staff member Danielle Nelson is that someone.
Nelson is a healthy, 37-year-old woman living in West Allis. With no preexisting conditions, she was seemingly low-risk for contracting the new coronavirus. However, the chest pains she initially dismissed escalated to her being hospitalized with COVID-19.
The chest pains started around March 12, which she thought were due to stress. But then more symptoms developed — fever, heavy fatigue, and a general sense of feeling "off" — so she went to the emergency room on March 19 to get tested. After going back home, things took a turn for the worse.
"It got to the point where it was really hard to walk, I was resisting the urge to crawl to get around the house," she recalls.
Nelson was admitted to the ER on March 24. She spent six days in the hospital to get her oxygen levels up, stabilize her blood pressure, and control the constant fever. Fortunately, she didn't reach the point of needing a ventilator.
Before things escalated for Nelson, she says the coronavirus pandemic felt abstract.
"When I look at the list of folks or conditions that might put me more at risk, I don’t meet any of them. And so it was another reason I kind of looked past the chest pain initially just because I thought I shouldn’t really be at risk, so maybe I could worry a little bit less. Obviously, that was my mistake," she says.
After being released from the hospital, Nelson decided to share her story online as she recovered from home. Her Facebook post has been shared over 29,000 times.
Being in the hospital with COVID-19 was a "really scary and really isolating" experience, says Nelson.
"I had been messaging someone on Facebook who is in the hospital now with COVID in a different part of the country, and she kind of compared it to being a zoo animal. And when I read that I kind of choked up because that had been my experience as well," she says.
"Understandably, doctors and nurses are afraid, and I felt that very much so. And just having that limited contact was very scary when you're spending so much time alone with your thoughts," Nelson adds.
When Nelson was at her lowest, she said goodbye to her fiance and mom.
"I kept thinking, 'I can only get worse for so long' ... so it's not that I wasn't hopeful that I would get better, but my body wasn't getting better and it was causing me to worry," she recalls.
During her time in the hospital, when she wasn't sleeping, Nelson tried to use a meditation app to help her focus on breathing. She also stopped listening to the news, went off social media, and even watched the movie Julie & Julia multiple times.
"I was hoping it would spark a desire to eat because that was a big issue ... and it didn't work, but it's a great movie and now I know all the lines," Nelson jokes.
She would occasionally text or video call friends and family, but it was difficult. "I was so out of it most of the time and just kind of dealing with my own demons — it was hard," Nelson says. "I know I wasn't looking very good and that I looked very sick and weak, and I didn't want to scare my friends and family any more than they already were."
Nelson was sent home after a chest X-ray showed enough clearing in her lungs for her to continue recovering on her own. "By the end, I felt like I was ready to go home, even though I wasn't even sure I was ready to go home — I was scared to go home. And even now being at home there's good days and bad days still," she says.
Nelson says the recovery road is long for COVID-19 survivors. She still doesn't have her usual levels of energy and there's still "a lingering feeling" in her chest. But what scares her the most isn't getting sick again.
"I'm terrified of infecting someone else. The thing that has been the most frustrating about having COVID is just how nobody knows anything ... So I've been cleared and they say I'm not contagious, but now I have a little bit of doubt in my mind and I'm just mentally a little anxious about that risk because the last thing I want to do is hurt anyone," Nelson says.
She wanted to share her experience because of the loneliness she felt going through hospitalization and then recovering at home. "I wanted ... others to know that they weren't alone, that there was someone out there who had had a similar experience and I kind of wanted to put myself out there. That actually since has really helped in my recovery to make me feel less alone and less isolated," says Nelson.
"I think it is important for people to hear that someone actually has experienced COVID right down the street from them in [West Allis]," she adds. "Stories are what connect people to each other and I think make it more real for people, and I'm hoping that's what my kind of opening up about my experience will do."
In fact, Nelson's story and encouragement of others undergoing COVID treatment and recovery have led to people around the world reaching out to her. She created the website Better By Each Other to have a place for people to connect over their COVID-19 journeys — but it also serves as a call to action.
"This whole situation with COVID has made me realize how connected we are and how much we can impact each other," says Nelson.
So, whether it's wearing a mask or limiting your trips outside of the home, she asks that people be more thoughtful about their actions.
"Those little things, they have a ripple effect," she notes. "And I think the more we can do better by each other, the better off we're going to be during the pandemic and the stronger communities we're going to have."
During this pandemic, WUWM's Bubbler Talk is focusing on the coronavirus and its impact on the Milwaukee area. If you have a question, submit it below.