I'm a Nurse Who Hasn't Been Sick in Years. Coronavirus Almost Killed Me

I’m a 29-year-old nurse practitioner. I haven’t had a cough in 10 years, but COVID-19 nearly killed me.

I am a 29-year-old certified nurse practitioner. I'm an amateur bodybuilder. I follow a strict diet. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I use hand sanitizer every time I shake a patient's hand. I haven't been sick in 10 years. And yet, the coronavirus almost killed me.

I first noticed I had a runny nose on March 7, but with no cough, fever, or shortness of breath—the only three symptoms the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cited at the time—I thought it was just a cold or allergies. So I did what's common: I took Claritin, Mucinex, and a Z-Pak. I got a little bit better initially, but less than a week later, I started to take a turn for the worse.

On the night of March 13, I felt sicker than I had ever felt in my entire life. My fever shot up to 104. I was short of breath and I was having body aches and chills. Even with two quilts on me, I was still freezing. I took two Tylenol, hoping it'd help with the fever, but I knew the next morning that I had to go to the hospital.

When I woke up, I headed to Emory St. Joseph's Hospital in Atlanta, where I was an ER nurse for five years. (I now work in orthopedics and in addiction medicine at a detox facility.) I went to that hospital specifically because I knew I could trust the staff and that they'd make me feel comfortable.

When I arrived, I told the ER nurse my symptoms and that I wanted to be tested for the coronavirus. They swabbed my nose and were able to test there for the flu (which was negative), but the sample had to be sent out to a lab to see if it was positive for COVID-19. I wouldn't find out the results until three days later. Then, they did a chest X-ray. It didn't take long for the nurse to come in to tell me I had pneumonia in both lungs.

They continued to give me antibiotics, fluids, and Tylenol around the clock, but my temperature wouldn't budge, and it was getting increasingly difficult for me to breathe. I started to develop an awful cough. Then the migraines set in, and soon I couldn't even go to the bathroom without the help of an oxygen tank. As I started coughing more and more, I asked the nurses to collect a mucus sample to be tested for COVID-19. The nasal swab had come back negative, but I just had a feeling that's what was going on. Had I not asked for it, I don't even know that I would've been properly diagnosed.

coronavirus survivor lequawn james in lab coat
Courtesy of Lequawn James

But the worst part of all of this was the neglect. Nurses were scared to come into the room to help me. I understand that they feared the unknown of COVID-19—we all did—but as a patient and a former nurse at this hospital, I felt very, very neglected. It was like I was just deteriorating in my hospital room alone.

The night nurse clearly didn't even want to touch me, so she never did an assessment the whole time I was on that floor. I knew what a nurse should've been doing in the situation, and I knew I wasn't getting that level of care. I was a former colleague and I'm in the healthcare profession, and they still treated me like this. I couldn't imagine what people who don't know how to advocate for themselves—or what care they aren't getting—have gone through.

Over the next few days, my temperature rose again to 104, my oxygen levels plummeted, my pneumonia got worse, and my heart became enlarged. At that point, my doctor told me that I would be admitted to the ICU and that my best bet at that point—because I wasn't breathing on my own—was to be intubated. Hearing that crushed my soul. I know what intubation is, and I would have never thought that would happen to me. I started tearing up. I was terrified and I was angry. I couldn't help but feel like if I hadn't been neglected, maybe things wouldn't have gotten to this point.

But the absolute worst part was that I had to go through it alone. Due to the contagiousness of COVID-19, I couldn't have anyone with me. I had no one's hand to hold through one of the scariest moments of my life. I braced myself to call my mom, my dad, my sister, and my twin brother in South Carolina. I was so scared because I'm my family's Superman. I'm the healthiest person they know, and I had to tell them that I would be intubated and that I didn't know when or if I would be able to talk to them again. I had to prepare them for the fact that it was possible I wouldn't make it through this. They all broke down in tears. The hospital employees said my family could come see me through the window if they wanted, but by the time my father drove four hours to the hospital in Atlanta, I was already intubated and he was told "no visitors allowed." He couldn't even stand outside the window to see me.

I was completely alone and with a tube down my throat, I couldn't speak to the nurses and doctors around me. I would type messages on my phone or write things out on pieces of paper. I could barely sleep because I was so uncomfortable and the drugs they were giving me were causing me to hallucinate. One night, I was finally able to close my eyes and fall asleep, but what felt like minutes later, I woke up in extreme discomfort, gasping for air. My tube had gotten clogged. Words can't describe how scared I was. I knew it would take the nurses forever to get into my room to help because of all the personal protective equipment (PPE) they had to put on. I really thought I wasn't going to make it.

Because of the tube getting clogged, I had vomit and bile all over my hospital gown and the nurses still didn't change me. I'd never felt worse. I was exhausted and dirty. I couldn't speak and I couldn't take care of myself. In my entire time at the hospital, I was bathed one time. If it wasn't for the neglect, I would've had more hope. I smelled so bad and was so uncomfortable, I didn't sleep again for the entire time I was in the ICU.

coronavirus survivor lequawn james in hospital bed while intubated
Courtesy of Lequawn James

Even though it was hard to keep fighting, I was determined to get better so that I could regain some semblance of cleanliness and sanity. Slowly, the doctors started weaning me off oxygen and I was proving that I could breathe on my own. After four days in the ICU, I was finally released.

When I got to my new floor at the hospital, I immediately told the nurse that I didn't want any medication, I didn't want any assessment, and I didn't want to have my vital signs taken—all I wanted was to stand up and clean myself. Though I was wobbly at first—I hadn't been out of bed in more than a week, and I hadn't had any nutrition—eventually I was able to stand up on my own. I showered for an entire hour and I used a whole bottle of Dove body wash.

After having so many things taken away from you—not being able to shower, not being able to sleep, not being able to eat, not being able to breathe on your own, not being able to see family, not being able to go outside—you learn to appreciate life in a whole new way.

After three more days in the hospital, my lungs and heart grew stronger. I remember the relief and joy I felt when the doctors showed me my stats and I saw how much I had improved. Finally, they told me, I was allowed to go home.

Still, for about a week after that, I had trouble sleeping. And it took two weeks for me to get my voice back fully from the intubation. But now, I'm working out like I was before I got sick and I'm back at work, educating my colleagues on how to provide the best care possible, and educating our patients on how to stay safe. It's almost surreal and frankly, it's scary. I can't help but think I was almost about to die and now, I'm the Quawn I was two months ago.

As states begin to reopen businesses, we're all more likely to be putting ourselves at risk, African-Americans specifically. African-Americans are more prone to a lot of afflictions than other races—and coronavirus is one of them. We have less access to healthcare, we have less access to education, and we're more likely to be essential workers. But now is the time to be more compliant and safer than ever. Everyone needs to do their part. And the sooner they do, the sooner this can all go away.

Lequawn James, MSN, APRN, AGNP-C, is a 29-year-old certified nurse practitioner, amateur bodybuilder, certified health and nutrition coach, life coach, and CBD/THC advocate, based in Atlanta. You can connect with Lequawn on InstagramFacebook, and LinkedIn. This is his experience with COVID-19, as told to Best Life's Jaimie Etkin.

And for more on how to stay safe, check out 13 Safety Precautions You Should Take Every Day to Prevent Coronavirus.

Lequawn James, MSN
Lequawn James, MSN, APRN, AGNP-C, is a COVID-19 survivor and a certified nurse practitioner. Read more
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