Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Long Hauler Calls COVID a Beast of a Virus
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Ashley Houston retired as administrative assistant for the hospital on Friday to start a new career as project administrator for Magleby Construction.
   
Sunday, October 4, 2020
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

The hardest moment was when Ashley Houston picked up her six-month-old baby and nearly dropped her.

“I’ve lost functionality in my hands since coming down with COVID. I’ve been dropping things,” she said. “Sometimes, I get this hot burning pain that starts in my feet and surges throughout my body to my hands—a hot tingling pain I’ve never felt before. I’ve had two children and I would take being in labor over COVID any day.”

Ashley Houston was just 35 and a model of health, reveling in trail running, bicycling and hiking, when she contracted the novel coronavirus in March. Everyone, it seemed, was getting it as it raced through the Wood River Valley taking even doctors by surprise.

 
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“My husband has really taken the reins in all this. I call him the best husband and wife a girl could have.”
 

Today she counts herself among the so-called long haulers—those who are still experiencing fallout from the infection nearly seven months after contracting it.

“I wake up every morning taking stock. How am I feeling? Am I better than yesterday? Now, I’m having more good days than bad when before I had more bad days than good. But it is still very much with me,” said Houston.

Houston, who grew up in the Sun Valley area, knew something was wrong when she felt a tightness in her chest in late March. It felt like a big tight rubber band had her in its grips, taking her breath away. Her body hurt like it had never hurt before. And she had no energy.

Trying to walk up the stairs left her winded. So did a simple walk on the bike path.

She developed a fever of 101.8 that lasted for 13 days. She lost her sense of smell and taste. And she developed an excruciating headache that wouldn’t go away, along with a hacking cough she couldn’t get rid of.

“I’ve had migraines since I was in 4th grade—I had recently gotten rid of them,” she said. “These headaches are worse than any migraine. They feel like a halo on my head, creating enormous pressure down to my toes. And they make me so nauseous. But I have a 1- and 4-year-old. To be out of commission is not an option.”

On the day Houston went to get tested, she arrived at the testing site, drenched in sweat. Her eyes,  sensitive to the late winter light, felt as if someone was stabbing them.

The nurse looked at her bloodshot eyes peering above her face mask.

“I’m positive you’ve got COVID because of your eyes,” she told Houston as she administered a test that would confirm Houston was positive.

A month after contracting the virus, Houston returned to work at St. Luke’s Wood River where she worked as administrative assistant to the director of nursing and the hospital foundation. But she could tell things were not getting better.

She continued to be tired and fatigued. Her blood pressure shot up, teetering on dangerous levels. She’s developed horrible itchy bumps on her arms.

She would be in the middle of a conversation and forget what she was talking about. She had trouble dealing with cold, even though it was summer. And she continued to drop things.

When she lost the feeling in one leg, she went to the Emergency Room, worried that she had a blood clot. Doctors tested her for rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune disease and other issues. Eventually, they diagnosed her stabbing burning pain as neuralgia, an inflamed nerve.

 The virus has attacked your nervous system, they told her. That’s the reason for your headaches, for your leg losing feeling. It’s the reason you’re dropping things.

“Originally, the doctors thought it would be a three- to six-month journey. But I’m not anywhere close to being healed,” Houston said. “But the medication they gave me is helping me get through my activities.”

That said, Houston still hasn’t regained her sense of taste or smell.

“I’m a meat and potatoes person, and I can’t taste them. I love pickles, and I can’t eat them now because the acidity is overpowering. I have found that some things make me feel better. I can’t get enough greens, like salad, broccoli, asparagus. It’s like my body is trying to heal itself.”

Summer-- her favorite time of the year—was a struggle as she had to forgo trail runs. Instead of hiking Proctor Loop, she had to settle for short walks on the bike path. And the farthest she could ride her bike was from Ketchum to the hospital.

“I keep thinking: Get through this year and it’s going to be better next year,” she said.

Houston is grateful that she never had to be admitted to the hospital where she would have been quarantined from her children.

“The power of touch is huge—children need that. And my son had already been pulled out of school where he was around a lot of people to being home where he was in near isolation. Some days I just laid next to him, just holding his hand. For us to spend that much time together was a blessing.”

Joy Prudek, a spokesperson for St. Luke’s Wood River, said hospital officials realize that Wood River Valley residents are suffering COVID fatigue. And it’s showing in a surge of cases the past couple weeks as people have let down their guard while around others.

Health officials fear that out-of-control community spread risks infecting more vulnerable populations, filling the hospitals and leading to death.

But, said Prudek, “People need to know that young healthy people like Ashley end up very sick, as well, and that this virus can have long-term impacts. We still do not know much about this virus, but we do know it is very contagious. And, while we may be done with the virus, it’s not done with us.”

Houston said she wants everyone to understand how serious COVID is.

“People say it’s like the flu. But I’ve had flu. I’ve had mononucleosis. And this is neither like the flu or mononucleosis. It’s a beast of a virus that takes us on a journey that we don’t want to go on. And it’s very real.”

Houston says she just wants to see people wear masks, social distance, wash their hands and be kind since not everyone is on the same page when it comes to the virus.

“I believe that COVID has been a journey for everyone, whether they’ve had it or not,” she said. “At first, they said this just gets people who are older or immune-compromised. But at this stage we know it will take anyone and everyone. I’m a healthy, active person. I eat healthy and it took me down. And my journey is far from over.”

 

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