The newest coronavirus has dominated our consciousness and conversations for weeks. Up against a constant barrage of don’ts and death tolls, it can be hard to find the light. To the thousands who’ve lost people they love, statistics offer little solace, but in the tumult of it all, it’s important to remember that the great majority of us would survive a coronavirus infection.
Detroit has been hit especially hard, and here, four locals who were diagnosed with COVID-19 share their stories of survival. Social distancing mandates have slowed the spread, science’s greatest minds are huddled together working toward a vaccine, while our most powerful prayer warriors conjure the divine. This virus is smart – but we got this.
It’s early March when LaToya Henry first starts feeling … off. Prone to allergies, the Lathrup Village resident thinks she likely has a sinus infection. “I said to myself, ‘OK, get past the presidential primary, and if you still feel bad, call your doctor,’” Henry says.
The March 10 Michigan primary came and went, Biden had mined 73 delegates and by March 22, Henry is feeling lethargic and registering a fever of 100 degrees. She calls her sister in Maryland, a nurse, who tells Henry to keep monitoring her temperature, to take some Tylenol, and if no better by morning, to call her doctor’s office.
At her allergist’s office the next day, she’s diagnosed with a severe sinus infection, which Henry says causes them to rule out COVID-19. Her doctor tells her, typically, “You either have one or the other.” She’s given medication, sent home and, a couple days later, her fever spikes to 102.
She calls Beaumont and they tell her they’re testing and that she can come get in line. They examine Henry and her heart rate is accelerated, so they put her on an IV drip. She’s told to operate as if she has COVID-19 but that they aren’t going to test her, because her oxygen levels are where they should be.
She’s told to go home and self-quarantine, try to break the fever and drink plenty of fluids. If she experiences any shortness of breath she’s to come back in. “I’m concerned, but what can you do? I was there from 9:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m.”
The next day, the coughing starts. Henry says, “So, now I’m lethargic, I’m developing a cough and fighting this fever.” The following day: “It’s just horrible.” And the day after that there’s blood in her urine and stool. She calls her primary care physician and they tell her to come in right away.
Her doctor does a chest X-ray and she has pneumonia. She’s given a note to take back to Beaumont and try again to get tested, but again, she’s told her oxygen levels are fine, there will be no test and to go home. “So, now I’m frustrated because I can’t get any help.”
Back home, Henry says, “I just get worse. I can’t keep any food down, but I’m trying. I’m drinking Pedialyte, Gatorade, I’m taking vitamin C. I’m doing everything to get better, but nothing is working.” It’s not long before she’s vomiting and then there it is: the portentous shortness of breath. She yells to her parents to call 911. “They call and they come, and I can barely make it out of my room. They had to pretty much help me out of the house to get me onto the stretcher.”
She’s taken to Providence and finally, on March 28, tested for COVID-19. She gives permission to the staff to share information with her sister in Maryland. “Because she’s a nurse I knew she would understand what they were saying and talking about,” Henry says. “And if decisions needed to be made, that was fine.”
She spends about 20 hours in the ER, and then she’s moved to a room; this is the last thing she remembers for a while. As told to her later by her sister, they’re giving her oxygen but she’s not receiving it, and they’re trying to break her fever with more Tylenol to no avail.
On March 31, Henry is intubated and placed on a ventilator where she stays until April 6. “I lost a whole week,” she says. She slowly improves and is taken off the vent, moved to the ICU for a day and then to the critical care floor where she spends three more days before being discharged.
When we speak on April 21, Henry is self-quarantining, and she still has a lingering cough but nothing like when it was at its worst. “That cough was a body-wracking cough.” She has to do physical therapy at home and she’s told that it’ll be a while before she gets her energy and strength back completely. Right now, “Things are still a little wobbly.”
Henry says she’s incredibly grateful to be alive. “I know it was God. My doctor even said, ‘We did all we could and we had to let God do the rest.’ I know there were a lot of people praying for me.” Aside from having what she says is “more weight on me than I should,” Henry is a fairly healthy 43-year-old.
To the people not taking this pandemic seriously or rushing to get back to normal, she says, “I wish they could take a tour of the hospital. It’s filled with nothing but COVID patients.” She says we all need to “have faith, have hope – and stay home.”
As a lab technician, Rolanda Moore says, “I was on the front lines,” so when she starts having chills, finds herself intensely fatigued and spikes a fever of 102 around March 21, she has a pretty good idea of what’s happening. The 42-year-old Detroiter calls Integrated Health Associates, who email her a questionnaire to complete about her symptoms, and then they send her a prescription to get tested for COVID-19. She’s swabbed on March 24 and her results come back on the 26th. As suspected, she’s positive.
She’s told to hydrate, rest and self-isolate, but over the next few days her symptoms only get worse, and now she’s losing her sense of taste. “My breathing was very shallow and I was very fatigued,” Moore says. She calls her doctor who tells her to go to the hospital.
She goes to Henry Ford’s main campus, and her oxygen levels have dropped to 81. They admit her and she’s diagnosed with pneumonia and an infection in both lungs. She spends four days in the hospital being monitored and treated with antibiotics and hydroxychloroquine, the much-buzzed-about malaria drug.
By late April, Moore has improved significantly but she’s still experiencing shortness of breath, exacerbated by asthma. “My normal activities, just daily activities, from showering to going up and down the stairs, is very difficult because sometimes I still get out of breath really quick. My doctor told me that it’ll take a while for me to get better because I have the asthma working against me, I have the infection and I have the pneumonia, and it’s going to take a while before I fully recover.”
It’s also her mental health that she’s concerned about, because she’s forced to recover alone away from friends and family, and forget about a walk to clear her mind. She can barely make it to the basement to do laundry.
She’s lost friends to the disease that she beat. But she’s staying positive. “I thank God that I’m still here and alive, and I can recover at home. I’m claiming that I’m going to do better, I’m claiming that it’s gone away and that I’ll be able to be back to my normal self.”
Moore shares the text that her sister sent to the family as an update when she was admitted to the hospital. It ends with, “Let’s all continue to do our part and send prayers and love her way and she will get through this with all of our love and support.”
Health care worker Carmen thinks she can attribute the symptoms that start in early April to commonplace seasonal allergies, but when she faints at home, she knows this isn’t hay fever. Because she works with physicians, it’s easy to get a prescription to get tested for COVID-19.
She takes advantage of the drive-thru testing site that the Coronavirus Community Care Network enacts at the Joe Dumars Fieldhouse at the State Fairgrounds. She says the whole thing takes no more than five minutes, and she gets her results in about a week. She’s positive.
She’s told to self-quarantine and treat her cough, fever and chills as best as she’s able. Carmen is also experiencing loss of taste and fatigue. “I slept a lot. I went to bed sleepy; I woke up sleepy,” she says. But she’s been able to recover at home. “I was afraid to go to the hospital. I was hoping … the hospital was going to be my last resort. I just started to pray and treat the symptoms. I was able to stay home, and I was able to get the rest and just focus on me.”
The 48-year-old has been most concerned about her mom, who lives with her in Detroit. “She’s been doing everything right. She hasn’t been outside, she hasn’t really done anything to put herself at risk, and here I come home and expose her,” Carmen says. The pair has taken care to divide the house as much as possible, wear masks when around each other and meticulously clean common areas.
When we speak in late April, it’s her first day back to work. She’s got a cough that lingers and her strength is still at half-mast. “I’m kind of taking it slow because my stamina is not the best. I’m like an Energizer bunny (normally). I’m on the go, I’m moving and shaking, I’m here and there, and I’m not really able to do that yet. I feel better, but my energy level is not where I’m accustomed to it being.”
Carmen wants to remind people that most who are exposed to the coronavirus recover without needing any serious medical intervention. “When you say that you have COVID-19, the first thing people think is that you go to a hospital and you’re going to die. Nobody talked about how you can stay home and manage your symptoms – it’s not a death sentence. If you don’t get to the point where it’s extreme and you can’t breathe, you just take care of yourself at home like you would do if you had a flu.”
*name changed at interviewee’s request.
Quran Buchanan is among the 600 or so to join the National Brotherhood of Skiers’ Black ski summit in Sun Valley, Idaho, a weeklong gathering that ends March 7. He develops flu-like symptoms when he returns to Southfield, and soon discovers that others from the group are feeling ill, too. As The Wall Street Journal and other outlets report, several attendees would test positive for COVID-19 – including Buchanan.
Before his diagnosis, he continues to work that first week but gets progressively worse each day until, by the weekend, it can’t be ignored. “My wife said I was asleep at least 22 of the 24 hours in the day. I couldn’t get myself to do anything, and then the fever started to kick in (and) the chills started to kick in.” He calls the hospital and is told to stay home and self-quarantine, “But my breath was getting shorter and shorter, and it felt to me as if it was like altitude sickness mixed with pneumonia mixed with the flu.”
The 46-year-old can’t muster enough wind to make it to the bathroom, and all he can eat for a week straight is applesauce. He calls ahead to Beaumont and explains his symptoms; they think it’s something else, but they allow him to come in and finally get tested. Buchanan is in back within 10 minutes, and, “This guy put a swab further up my nose than I knew I had space.” Before the results of the COVID-19 test come in he’s diagnosed with bilateral pneumonia and admitted.
He’s set up in a negative pressure room overnight where a special ventilation system drops the pressure in the room so that air can flow in but potentially contaminated air cannot escape. He’s then transferred to a private room where none of the staff enters without personal protective equipment. It takes a fair amount of finagling for his wife, unable to visit him, to get a pair of glasses to him.
While in the hospital, Buchanan eats as raw as possible, because “live cells breed live cells,” he says. “I ordered vegetable trays, fresh lemons; all I drank was hot water. The nurses were saying, ‘You know, you’re doing well. You’re healing a lot faster than the rest of them. Whatever it is that you’re doing, keep doing it.’”
But when his oxygen is still low for the second day, they want to intubate him. “I just dropped out and really just focused on breathing. I took every bit of energy I had in my body and just focused purely on just breathing.” Something works, and the next day his oxygen levels are improved and he continues to steady until he’s released after seven days.
Because tests are still short, he’s not tested again before he’s discharged but told to quarantine for at least another three days. Buchanan isolated himself away from his wife, kids and mother-in-law; none of them ever show any symptoms. He’s recovered but says the first week and a half was tough. “Your body is just wrecked.” Through it all, he’s called on the power of will and positivity, determined to “will myself to be.”