Vacek: COVID-19 symptoms led to ’very tough 48 hours’

Staff Writer
Glen Rose Reporter
Dr. Steven Vacek

Editor’s note: This column was written by Dr. Steven Vacek for the Glen Rose Reporter, accounting his personal experience recently with COVID-19. Vacek is the designated public health authority for Glen Rose and Somervell County.

Currently, the burden of the disease called COVID-19 is declining. The debate about whether to mask, or not to mask rages on, getting more intense as the number of new cases decreases. Often I get asked my opinion on this debate.

I wear a surgical mask at work whenever I am with a patient, or out of my desk space. I have been wearing an N-95 mask when taking care of patients in the hospital and the emergency room. In preparation for going on vacation to see my elderly parents, and knowing that I have been exposed, I was tested with a PCR-based test. I was feeling fine. Imagine my surprise when my phone rang and I was told “you need to go home, you are positive for COVID!” I immediately tried to figure out where I had gotten it, and if I had broken protocol when treating any high risk patients. I could not think of an obvious exposure.

With my vacation going up in smoke, I confess that I used some salty language. Then it hit me, two days earlier, I had a headache and some body aches when I went to bed. I was very restless that night, and in retrospect, it was the first hint of my bout with COVID-19. While driving home, I called my wife, and then my parents to give them the news. I was grounded, and would be in quarantine for at least 10 days. I let my office know that things had changed, and I would not be out of town after all!

That was a Thursday, technically Day 2 of my disease, counting the Tuesday night headaches and muscle aches as day 0. The “fun” was yet to come. During the next 48 hours I developed severe fatigue.

I didn’t really have any other symptoms during that time, however, the fatigue could be overwhelming.

Making a PBJ sandwich was exhausting, and eating it was a challenge. Even using the restroom caused enough fatigue to induce a nap. Between days 8 and 9, the respiratory symptoms hit. I developed a low-grade fever with a mild cough. I did have severe shortness of breath, and a decrease in my blood oxygen levels. I was unable to take a deep enough breath to fully inflate my lungs. It hurt to breathe deeply. Mornings were the worst. As measured by incentive spirometry, I was down to about half of my lung capacity, volume wise. It was a very tough 48 hours, including needing supplemental oxygen at night. Most of the time, people with these circumstances should be in the hospital. I was close to needing to be there, but due to the wonderful folks I work with, I was able to stay home and ride it out.

Sunday morning, Day 12, miraculously, I felt human again. All my symptoms lifted as fast as they had come, except for the shortness of breath. I found though, that if I practiced taking deep breaths, I could improve those symptoms as the day went on.

I was gonna make it! In the end, it took four weeks for my lung capacity to return to normal, as well as my strength and stamina to come back. I had lost over 8 pounds during this illness, despite taking both oral and inhaled steroids.

I was a lot sicker than most infected with this virus, yet I wasn’t nearly as sick as some. I feel lucky that my family was out of town on vacation. I didn’t have to worry about infecting my wife or my children. I was able to find out about my illness before going to see my parents. I had the good fortune to have a great work family who helped make sure I was OK. Some families have not been so lucky, including some here in our area.

So, after all that, do I think we should wear masks? After all, I probably contracted the virus while wearing mine. My perspective is that there are clearly high risk activities and locations. Wearing a mask can reduce a persons risk, but not eliminate it. More importantly, if a person is asymptomatic, wearing a mask can substantially reduce that person’s contagiousness to others, and until a good vaccine comes out wearing a mask is the best way to help get back to “normal” life. Whatever that is.

A shout out to Carter Blood Care. If you have had COVID-19, consider being a convalescent plasma donor. Some science has shown benefits to transfusing patients with this plasma to help their system fight off the virus. It only takes about an hour, and a single donation can help between two and four patients.