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For nurse who contracted COVID-19 back East, virus proves perilous journey

Juli Fisher, 51, had opportunities flying at her.

In early March, the Vancouver resident was fielding a number of job offers to be a temporary traveling nurse. Fisher accepted an offer at an assisted living community in Connecticut with no coronavirus cases. She packed her bags for an eight-week contract and flew to the East Coast in late March.

Upon her arrival, Fisher received a call from her recruiter. The senior care facility she was scheduled to work at now had two COVID-19 cases; both had just died from the disease.

Fisher wasn’t too worried, she said. She was in good health and did not feel she was at risk for severe complications if she did get infected.

The next morning, Fisher arrived for work and found out that the facility now had 15 confirmed cases. Fisher was handed an N95 mask and goggles in a paper bag.

“Don’t lose these,” she was told, because there weren’t replacements.

The outbreak escalated her first week in town. Residents who tested negative for the coronavirus were sent to a hotel to isolate. All that was left in the facility were sick residents. In a two-week span, Fisher said, staff had to call the local mortuary nine times to come pick up dead residents, not including those who died in the hospital.

Staff called family members to inform them of a relative’s death.

The environment was unlike anything Fisher had experienced before, and she’s used to being around death as a nurse in senior care facilities.

“We didn’t know these patients,” Fisher said of the traveling nurses, “but for the people that work there long term, it was hard to see them go through that. They had attachments to these patients.”

About 10 days after starting work, Fisher developed a horrible headache, stuffy sinuses and a tickle in her throat. She was extremely fatigued. Fisher got tested for coronavirus.

The day after her test, Fisher’s symptoms escalated. She had a fever of 103.8 degrees, she was extremely dehydrated and the body pain was overwhelming. She called 911.

“I felt like I was being twisted and crushed,” Fisher said.

An ambulance picked her up and brought her to the emergency room, where she got confirmation that her COVID-19 test returned positive.

Fisher was given prescription medicines and sent back to her hotel. The next six days are a blur, Fisher said. She remembers crawling around her hotel room to get to the toilet.

She set her alarm to wake her every few hours so she could take pills.

Days later, Fisher began to have difficulties breathing. She had an oximeter on hand, which showed her oxygen level was at 74, much lower than the ideal target of 95 to 100, Fisher said.

She mustered all the strength she had to crawl to the phone to call 911. She’d spend the next five days in the hospital before being sent back to the hotel. Her symptoms continued to cycle on and off.

Fisher said she started to go stir crazy, alone by herself in a hotel room for weeks. She called her family, crocheted, watched TV shows and ordered clothes for herself online because she could not do laundry.

Her family sent her a care package of coloring books and markers.

“It was just crazy sitting in that hotel room by myself and not seeing another person,” Fisher said.

In late May, Fisher tested negative for the virus. She flew back home May 22, almost exactly two months after she landed on the East Coast.

Since returning, Fisher has continued to experience COVID-19-like symptoms. Fisher is concerned about long-term ramifications from the coronavirus. That’s something researchers and health officials still don’t know much about.

“It’s just so weird,” Fisher said. “I wish they would hurry up and figure out this stupid thing, but I know the medical community is still learning, just like the rest of us.”

Fisher sleeps with an oxygen concentrator, and she uses an oxygen tank during the day when moving around. She has fevers, chest pain and shortness of breath.

Fisher said she has trouble with word recall, too. She loves the outdoors and hiking, but does not have the stamina for that.

When Fisher was in high school, she started working as a certified nursing assistant in senior care facilities. She wanted to attend college for nursing, but abruptly gave up that dream to raise her four children.

She did some schooling while raising kids, and she finished a nursing program in 2014. Now she’s unsure of what her future looks like. Her doctor expects her to be off work until at least mid-October.

“This is not a hoax. This is real,” Fisher said of COVID-19. “There’s thousands of people across the globe right now that have gotten this stupid virus, and months later are still suffering. This isn’t always one and done. This could be lifelong for me.”


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