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‘I don’t think I knew how sick I was:’ Troup County COVID-19 patient tells her story

Gayle Marie Truitt is not just a statistic on a report from the Georgia Department of Public Health.

She is one of the people those numbers represent who has been diagnosed with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Troup County.

Truitt is 45 years old, an elementary school teacher, a mother and a grandmother. However, in three weeks, COVID-19 hit her so hard that she didn’t have the energy to lift a fork to eat despite extreme hunger.

Truitt is recovering at her LaGrange home, waiting on April 2 for her self-quarantine to end so she can see her sons, grandchildren, mother-in-law and church family. But for now, she’s focusing on achieving everyday goals like unloading the dishwasher or folding laundry without running out of breath or avoiding a coughing fit.

Truitt’s life came to a screeching halt once she started getting sick at the end of February. She had gotten married right out of high school and worked for Milliken for 18 years. She endured a divorce, went back to school at 32 years old to obtain an early childhood education degree from LaGrange College and struggled to find a full-time job while substitute teaching at George E. Washington in Meriwether County to support her children.

Luckily, in 2012, she landed her dream job as an elementary school teacher at George E. Washington in Meriwether County.

“I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember,” Truitt said.

COVID-19 has thrown a slight wrench into her life. However, slowly but surely, Truitt said she’s recovering with some good days and some bad.

First signs

of sickness

It was Friday, Feb. 28, when Truitt felt a mild cough start to develop. There were 16 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. total and zero cases in Georgia. Truitt said she wasn’t experiencing a dry cough and didn’t have a fever or shortness of breath, which were the symptoms health officials were saying could be a sign of coronavirus.

Truitt said on that following Monday, her health started to go downhill, but like many Americans, she continued to work because she didn’t think it was that bad.

However, on Thursday, March 5, she said she “felt like death warmed over.”

She worked that day but felt she would most likely call in sick that Friday. But, when she woke up, she said she was fine. She went to work and felt fine all day. She even went to dinner with her friend. The next day, she picked up her grandchildren and had them all weekend, went to church on Sunday morning and participated in her small-group church session Sunday night.

All this time, she said she continued to take her temperature just to be sure she was OK, and it was usually about 97 or 98 degrees.

She went to work that following Monday again and was fine once again, so she thought whatever was ailing her was over. However, when she woke up on Tuesday, March 10, she had a 101-degree fever.

On March 10, there were 937 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. There were 15 cases in Georgia. None of those cases were in Troup County.

She went to Summit Urgent Care in LaGrange, where they treated her for bronchitis. She said she had a bout with it in the past, so they gave her a breathing treatment and sent her home. Truitt said she was given instructions she could return to work on Thursday, March 12.

After considering her options, she emailed her principal and said it would probably be best if she stayed home throughout the week because she wasn’t sure how productive she could be. That Thursday night, she awoke once again with a fever.

The next morning, on Friday, March 13, something happened that Truitt said most likely led to her getting the care she needed to treat the virus.

While in her bedroom Friday morning, she hit the center of her eye on her bedroom door handle. She said she was bending over to grab something while it was dark, and the door must not have been shut all the way.

“I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t hit that door,” Truitt said.

Her mother-in-law came over and took her back to Summit, but once again, she said she wasn’t feeling ill and didn’t have a fever or cough.

She was instructed to return to the office on Saturday to ensure the eye was healing, but while being examined, she said she wasn’t feeling well.

“The second the doctor put the stethoscope up to my back, she kind of stepped back and was like, I think you need to be tested,” Truitt said.

This was Saturday, March 14. Truitt said she tried to get tested at WellStar West Georgia Medical Center and in Newnan but couldn’t get anyone to test her.

Health officials in the area during that time were admitting that test supplies were extremely limited and were only testing very high-risk people. The number of cases in the U.S. had reached more than 4,000 cases. Georgia had 66 confirmed cases and was one day removed from reporting its first death. Troup County still had zero cases.

After failing to get tested, Truitt went home but refused to let anybody stay with her and she also refused to stay with anybody else.

“I couldn’t take that chance, so I came home and I went to sleep,” she said.

Getting tested

On the night of Saturday, March 14, Truitt was awakened by the sound of her mother-in-law banging on her front door to take her to the emergency room. She had emailed the governor’s office about Truitt’s story, and within 15 minutes, she got a call from the state health department, according to Truitt.

The mother-in-law was instructed to take Truitt to the emergency room, get a mask on her and WellStar was expecting her.

At first, Truitt said health officials were still reluctant to test her but did learn she had pneumonia. However, Truitt said because the public health department was involved, the hospital was mandated to test her.

After her test, she was isolated to the intensive care unit and eventually moved to another wing of the hospital for patients under investigation, or PUIs. It would be another week before she learned of the test results.

She was in the hospital from that Saturday night until Thursday, March 19.

“I don’t think I knew how sick I was,” Truitt said. “I guess you can get to that point where exhaustion takes over. There were days that all I would do is sleep. People were bringing me food, but even eating was so exhausting at that point.”

While waiting for results, she thought there was a 50 percent chance it was COVID-19, but the results weren’t going to have an impact on her except for the fact she needed to notify her family. And, by the time she got the results, she said most of her family would have been in isolation for 14 days.

Truitt said that while in the hospital, she probably slept 18 to 20 hours a day.

One of the parts of Truitt’s story that scares her the most was that she doesn’t know when she would have been sick enough to take herself to the doctor if it wasn’t for hitting her eye.

“I just don’t know if I would have taken myself to the doctor,” she said.

Going home

Truitt was sent home from the hospital on March 19 without knowing her test results. She had implicit instructions to stay at home for 14 days, regardless of the test results.

By March 19, there more than 15,000 confirmed cases in the U.S., 287 cases in Georgia with 10 deaths, and two confirmed cases in Troup County.

Truitt said she was one of the first patients released from the hospital wing dedicated to PIUs at WellStar. When she went home, she continued to sleep most of the time.

While home, she said the exhaustion of the illness continued to be the worst part. She said she couldn’t go to the restroom or get a drink of water out of the kitchen without being completely worn out.

“I can’t describe how overwhelming the exhaustion was,” she said. “That is what has taken me the longest to get over, which in some ways is good because I needed to rest.”

Guilt-ridden

Truitt got her test results on Saturday, March 21, confirming she had COVID-19.

By that Saturday, she would have been the fourth confirmed case in Troup County.

She said the primary reaction to the news was thinking about all the people she interacted with before going to the doctor, and ultimately, into isolation.

“I was very guilt-ridden,” Truitt said.

She said her three-month-old and 18-month-old grandchildren were with her for a whole weekend. She went to her son’s talent show at school. She went to church, saw her sister and mother-in-law. She went to dinner with her best friend, who has Parkinson’s disease.

All those interactions went flooding into her head, especially her mother-in-law, who is older, and has heart problems and asthma. Luckily, Truitt said she isn’t experiencing any symptoms.

“I cried for like six hours that night,” Truitt said. “I was so emotionally exhausted. Because the news didn’t impact me, I was actually healing, but I felt like I had just gone out and contaminated all these people.”

Little victories

Since she’s been home, Truitt said the recovery has been a rollercoaster, similar to how she felt when she was first sick. She said this past Tuesday, she woke up with a fever and feared the virus was back, and she would re-experience everything she thought she had just been through.

“I was up most of that night running a low-grade fever and had the chills,” Truitt said. “I’m not going to lie, I was scared and had a little bit of a panic attack because I was like I can’t go back to feeling like that again.”

However, she has had other days where she has gotten up to make breakfast, which felt like a win. Even though, afterward, she is worn out. She said unloading the dishwasher sometimes requires breaks, but it can still be done.

Truitt now sets goals for herself, like walking around her home several times until she gets tired. Earlier this week, she went for a drive for the first time in two weeks. She didn’t go very far, and never got out of the car, but said it was an adventure for her.

Following her doctor’s advice, she’s in isolation until Thursday, April 2.

Once isolation is over, she’s looking forward to seeing her family again, including her church and school family.

“I usually have my granddaughter and grandson every weekend,” Truitt said. “When this is over, I will have gone an entire month without seeing them. I have never gone that long in their lives without seeing them.”

Truitt lives on her own, which has self-admittedly made this situation harder, but she has talked to family members every day through video chat on the computer or through phone calls and text messages.

“Even my grumpy teenage son has talked to me on the phone,” Truitt joked.

She also appreciates the care she received through WellStar.

“All the nurses were phenomenal,” Truitt said. “If I needed something, they were there as soon as they could be.”

She said the nurses had a running joke that as long as Truitt had orange juice, she would be happy.

Truitt praised the care she received from Dr. Melhim Bou Alwan, medical director of the WellStar Hospitalist Program, who was one the only doctors she talked to face to face. Bou Alwan also called her to check up on her wellbeing since her release.

Truitt has also interacted with Dr. Kenneth Horlander, pulmonology physician with Emory, over the phone.

“They have all been stellar,” she said. “I can’t say enough good things about them.”

‘Just stay home’

Truitt’s biggest takeaway from this ordeal is that people just don’t know enough about this virus to make their own determination. She said the symptoms reported in the media are changing seemingly day-by-day.

“I had no clue how I got this,” she said. “I realize people need to have necessities, but if you don’t need to leave your house, please just stay home.”

Truitt said this was one of her worst experiences, and it’s not worth taking the chance to spread the virus.

“I’ve had the flu, I’ve given birth to children, but this is worse than anything I have encountered in my life,” Truitt said. “I wish I could find a way to put into words that level of inability to care that you’re hungry, and it just doesn’t really matter because you’re not going to do a thing about it because that would mean getting up.”

As of Monday, there were more than 140,000 COVID-19 cases in the U.S., with 2,405 deaths. More than 5,000 people have recovered. In Georgia, the department of public health has reported 2,809 confirmed cases with 87 deaths. In Troup County, there are 11 reported cases and one death, a 61-year-old woman with an underlying health concern.