A beautiful Berkshire view. Photo: Rita Dichele

‘The body aches could knock you down’: Personal stories of living with and recovering from COVID-19 in the Berkshires

Mark quarantined himself in the basement of his house for five weeks. During that time, he said, “I felt trapped. I often wondered how I got here and when was I’m going to leave.”

I recently had the opportunity to interview three Berkshire County individuals who have recovered from COVID-19. I commend all of them for coming forward to share their stories because sometimes COVID-19 patients can be thought of as having leprosy, tuberculosis or even AIDS; receiving dubious support from a society pushing for quarantine in a remote location. Thus far, this highly contagious infection has remained a mystery in Berkshire County except for the statistical information regarding the number of cases and number of deaths. I hope when you hear Liv’s, Mark’s and Sandy’s stories, you will understand the virus better and find that behind the Berkshire statistics are our brave neighbors who have suffered physically, emotionally and financially. I might add that they are sharing their recovery to let others know the seriousness of having COVID-19. They all advocate wearing a mask and can’t emphasize enough that this is not the flu. They want you to listen to those individuals who have been infected and the scientists who collect the data and not be influenced by misinformed individuals.

Liv (anonymous), Berkshire County

Liv is 45 years old and resides in Berkshire County in Massachusetts. Looking back, she thinks it was the end of March when she got infected with COVID-19. At that time her symptoms were similar to allergies such as a sinus infection, and absent of flu-like complaints and fever. Because her symptoms did not run the typical course of COVID-19, her physician was unable to get her tested. The criteria at that time for getting tested were strict and only if you had at least one common symptom or had visited a foreign country with a COVID-19 outbreak could your physician make a referral for the test. It wasn’t until she couldn’t smell or experience taste that Liv was able to get tested. During this turn of events, Liv recalled: “It was so bad I wasn’t able to smell bleach. It was like waking up without arms.” This was around April 17, approximately 14 days after the suspected incubation period began. After speaking with her physician, Liv went straight home only to leave her house April 20 to go to Berkshire Medical Center to get tested. She said: “I felt some anxiety around being tested, mostly because it seemed really unreal that I could have the virus. Other than the loss of taste and smell, I felt relatively healthy.”

Liv waited alone at home for the test results. She was notified April 21, 24 hours later, she had tested positive for COVID-19. She said, “I was horrified, really upset.” Liv also said: “I struggled with the thought I had put someone else at risk. I could have potentially caused awful harm.” Liv self-quarantined for two weeks, missing work and other routine activities such as grocery shopping. She said, during that time, she ruminated about how she could have put her co-workers in harm’s way, especially a pregnant woman near her delivery date. However, she repeated often to herself “take a deep breath, and thank God,” as no one at work became infected by her. Because she went through a period of being asymptomatic, she could have exposed someone, albeit unintentionally, although, she pointed out, “I honestly believe, because I wore a mask, it prevented others from becoming infected by me.” Liv started wearing a mask a week before her symptoms began. She said, “I believe then, as well as now, that masks are the number one way to prevent community spread.”

After a brief convalescence, Liv went back to work and resumed a limited amount of routine activities. Subsequent to her recovery, she acquired a new set of symptoms unlike the ones she originally had. The biggest complaints today are fatigue and shortness of breath, two common symptoms often reported during COVID-19 sickness. The fatigue is so bad, she said, “I fell asleep standing up while gardening in my backyard.” She also added, “The shortness of breath can happen after walking 20 feet on a flat surface.” When I interviewed Liv via the telephone, I could hear her become winded as she walked around her kitchen. As such, Liv described her post-COVID-19 health issues as “impactful in my life.”

Furthermore, Liv knows all too well the uncertainty of post-COVID-19, as she recently experienced leg and arm edema, requiring a visit to the ER. Fortunately, the CAT scan did not show any pulmonary blood clots, which sometimes occur in COVID-19. However, she doesn’t feel she is out of the woods, thinking, if the edema isn’t a problem, something else could happen. According to Liv: “This is a disease where we don’t have all the information, don’t know the long-term trajectory. It’s a crapshoot.”

Liv does not know how she became infected. She does work with the public, and with the initial exposure believed to be the end of March, it is possible it happened at her job, given few people were wearing masks at that time. Even though she considers her case a mild one with a brief recovery period, the aftermath of new symptoms has not been easy. She told me, “This is not fun and I’m not sure if the virus will remain in my body forever, and if I will develop new symptoms in addition to the ones I already have.” Furthermore, she said, “It has been a rather daunting experience, especially my recent trip to the ER.”

Mark McGovern, Egremont

Mark McGovern. Photo: Mark McGovern

Mark McGovern is 69 years old and resides in Egremont. Mark’s symptoms started sometime in April but are difficult to determine since he had two false negative tests. Because he was extremely ill, had common COVID-19 symptoms and was unable to go to work, his primary care provider treated him as if he had COVID-19.

For five weeks Mark experienced some of the more common symptoms associated with COVID -19: fatigue, low-grade fever, night sweats, body chills, lack of appetite, chronic insomnia, body aches, a strange feeling like there was movement within the center of his body, diarrhea and nausea. Mark’s lack of sleep increased the already debilitating fatigue. He would go to bed each night at 11 only to fall asleep at 5 a.m., and if lucky, get one to two hours of sleep. He also had some neurological issues — poor concentration and an inability to focus — which made it difficult to watch TV or read a book, two activities he typically enjoys doing. Mark found that his symptoms came in waves, with different ones each day.

Mark quarantined himself in the basement of his house for five weeks. During that time, he said, “I felt trapped. I often wondered how I got here and when was I’m going to leave.” Mark’s wife never tested positive and did not exhibit COVID-19 symptoms nor did anyone else who knew Mark. Mark attributes this to wearing a mask at work, given he was an essential employee and was required to do so.

He received tremendous support, but it could be overwhelming at times. In fact, sometimes he would have to turn off his cell because he was too exhausted to talk. Nevertheless, he welcomed his well-wishers and was extremely grateful for their attention and concern, especially since that was how he spent his days.

Mark McGovern sans face mask. Photo: Mark McGovern

Mark eventually returned to work, but the first three weeks were difficult. Unfortunately, the fatigue consumed him both mentally and physically. His stamina was not good and he had a great deal of emotional anxiety to contend with.

Even though Mark had several symptoms, he never sustained organ damage or lost the ability to smell and taste. However, subsequent to his recovery, he has had lingering symptoms, which he has found concerning and bothersome. For instance, the fatigue is constantly present, which has affected his lifestyle. He has shortness of breath, especially when he goes up a flight of stairs, something he never had prior to COVID-19. In addition, he can be emotional with angry outbursts as well as have crying jags. He also continues to have neurological symptoms: short-term memory loss, slight confusion and an inability to focus. Notwithstanding these symptoms, he said, “I am improving even though there are times they are exaggerated, which can be alarming.” Nevertheless, he shared, “I recently had a great week almost symptom-free and am enjoying it while it lasts, as this is a virus that clearly comes in waves.” He is, though, hoping to sustain this and wonders if the post-COVID-19 symptoms have dissipated for good.

Mark’s case is an unusual one since he had two false negatives for the COVID-19 test and a false negative for the antibodies test. He said: “This was frustrating as well as it made me angry and depressed. I knew I had the virus and all I wanted was it to be medically confirmed.” In any event, he described the infection as a moderate case. He said: “I don’t want anyone to get this. It was not the flu. It was 10 times worse. It was awful”! Mark also said, “I don’t want to get it again and am being abundantly cautious, taking nothing for granted.”

Sandy Schnaithman, Dalton

Sandy Schnaithman. Photo courtesy Rita Dichele

Sandy Schnaithman is 45 years old and lives in Dalton. Like Liv and Mark, she contracted COVID-19 early, possibly March 13, the first day she recalls not feeling well. In Sandy’s situation, she knew how she possibly got infected, as she was notified via contact tracing.

Sandy was tested March 21 in Pittsfield at a location near Berkshire Medical Center. The testing center was outside under tents and she drove up to it. She was greeted by someone in a uniform, who she believed was the National Guard, who verified her identity with her driver’s license. The nurse obtained the specimen to be tested by inserting a long Q-tip-like swab up her nose. She said: “It was uncomfortable but doable, lasting only 20 seconds. The whole process from check-in to the time spent with the nurse took five to eight minutes.” Sandy received the results March 23, three days later. The results were positive and Sandy shared, “I felt relieved with what was going on with my body, and now I knew how to handle things.”

Shortly after Sandy was diagnosed with COVID-19, she learned her mother, Darien Schnaithman, was also diagnosed with the virus March 26. Darien lived out of state in an assisted living facility. Sadly, she died 10 days later after being admitted to the hospital. During that brief time, Sandy was only able to FaceTime her mom once. As you can imagine, this was difficult for Sandy, since she could not leave her apartment to say those final goodbyes to her mom. Sandy said, “I had no other choice but to be in survival mode.” Sandy’s mother was 70 years old.

Sandy Schnaithman with her mom, Darien Schnaithman. Photo courtesy Rita Dichele

During Sandy’s 40 days of recovery, she dealt with multiple symptoms apart from the initial ones that qualified her to be tested. According to Sandy, “The body aches could knock you down and the fatigue was so bad I could barely get up to go to the bathroom.” She also said, “I had an annoying sore throat, post nasal drip, high fever and got winded going up one flight of stairs.” Often she went without eating, hallucinated from the fever and her oxygen saturation dipped below 90.

Unfortunately, her partner, a physician living in New Rochelle, was treating COVID-19 patients and was unable to come to Dalton. Nevertheless, she had contact with neighbors and friends via FaceTime, cell, text and, of course, social media. In addition, Sandy, by profession, is a licensed mental health counselor and said, “Because I knew how to use the resources, it kept me out of the hospital.”

Sandy has technically recovered because she has had two COVID-19-negative tests. She was also tested for antibodies but the results were negative, indicating a possible false negative. Clearly she was infected, but in some instances, false negatives do happen. The scientists just don’t know enough about the virus and why these things occur.

Meanwhile, Sandy does continue to struggle with post-COVID-19 symptoms. Her current symptoms include fatigue, low energy, headaches, body aches, chills and occasional fevers. According to Sandy: “I am full of doubt that the virus has not gone away. It is very scary to continue to have symptoms.” She also said, “It’s something you might have to live with for the rest of your life.” On a final note, Sandy believes she had a moderate case and hopes the majority of our community does not get the virus.

Final remarks

Liv said: “I’d like to remind people to take care of those they love and wear a mask. Don’t be stubborn about wearing one or feel it is an inconvenience. If you choose not to wear one, you don’t know what you are risking. You don’t want to be sick, nor do you want your family or friends to become sick.”

Mark shared, “I encourage everyone to heed the warnings of the scientists and practice wearing a mask, washing/sanitizing hands, and maintaining social distancing of at least 6 feet.” Mark also shared: “Because it is a silent virus, it can give a false sense of security. Everyone needs to be vigilant to stay well and alive.”

Sandy remarked: “You have to be abundantly cautious and wear a mask, wash/sanitize your hands, and practice social distancing. Listen to those of us who have gone through it. Take COVID-19 seriously. It’s no joke’.’

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Author note: Hopefully, you have learned from these testimonials that COVID-19 is real and alive in Berkshire County. Furthermore, you also recognize the underlying importance of being compliant with government mandates, no matter how inconvenient and even annoying they may be. This is only a short-term gap in our lifestyles, but a necessary one.