COVID-19 and a sense of doom by Marcy O'Brien



Warren Times Observer Newspapaer article


Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts regarding an individual’s experience battling COVID-19 and the efforts of those who work at Warren General Hospital.


It started with a cold on a Tuesday morning . . . just a normal winter congestion, I thought.


Oh, wait a minute, don’t some of the COVID infections begin with colds and go into upper respiratory distress? Nah, couldn’t be me – we’ve not gone anywhere.


Dear Richard has done all the shopping and errands out of the house since March. I have a few of those “underlying medical issues” so it only made sense for him to be the go-fer.


But I commuted to physical therapy three mornings a week through the summer and since my third knee replacement surgery in September. Masked, temperatures, hand scrubbing, socially distanced, the therapists have worked diligently to keep us safe. I’ve thought they might need all new leather equipment by 2021 for the amount of scrubbing the leather receives after every use.


I canceled at the therapists Wednesday morning because the cold wasn’t improved; in fact it moved into a fever Wednesday evening. Thursday night was worse, prompting me to drive through the federal testing site at Warren State Hospital Friday morning. Sitting in the traffic line I began to lose my optimism – I felt crumby and shaky and drove home to an extra sweater and a blanket. That night my temperature went even higher and I headed to bed miserable – and pretty sure I had it.


Saturday morning I could barely lift my head. Couldn’t wash, eat, or concentrate. I lay flat all day as my oxygen count went down and the thermometer went up. By evening I told Richard that I had to surrender to the Emergency Room. I could barely walk. I know I took a shower before I went, but don’t really remember how. I was running on empty. Down and out.


A nurse friend advised me to call the ER to tell them we were coming. The ER nurse told us to call from the parking lot when we arrived. They did the basic check-in over the phone then called back when it was time to enter. “Do you need a wheelchair?” I declined. “Then walk in alone and check with triage who will admit you immediately.”


I’m still using a cane from my surgery. The most enfeebled, slowest walk of my life was into that ER. My breathing was rapid, then patchy, then gasping. I’m a strong, sensible woman. But, for the first time in my life, I felt as if I could be walking to my doom. I stopped at the door for a second, wondering if it would be the last door I’d ever enter willingly. I didn’t turn to wave to Richard – it seemed overly dramatic … but I should have. Is this it? Is this how my old age winds down – at a COVID door I’ve been avoiding for nine months? Do I get to come back out of here?


Richard watched my slow crawl from the car – equally terrified. “I really wondered if I’d ever see you again. I’ll never forget that picture in my mind as you walked soooo slowly away from me.”


Once inside, the prevailing bustle was all business. Room 4, into hospital gown, X-Ray attendant arrives to take lung pix just as they finished inserting the intravenous lines in both arms. Immediate oxygen began to calm my gasping, and frankly the anxiety that I felt. The nurses were incredibly busy, efficient and very, very kind. I felt I was in capable hands. My IVs were used for a steroid and my first dose of Remdesivir, and I think a big dose of vitamin C. – and more.


In a few hours, the Hospitalist arrived to tell me she had admitted me but there were no beds available upstairs. The nurses found a pillow and some heated blankets, but before I bedded down for the night, they asked when I’d last eaten. After learning I’d only managed a yogurt all day, they found me an egg salad sandwich and a bottle of water. The sandwich tasted just like the raspberry yogurt – nuthin’ — but it filled an empty crack as I bedded down for the night in ER Room #4.


I somehow managed to sleep from 4:30 to 10 a.m. The nurses were swamped but they tried to allow the four of us waiting for beds to sleep a bit. I heard them pad in monitoring during the night, but it was only an awareness, not an awakening. Luckily I was the first one sent upstairs around midday. And that was when I began to learn the reality of what Warren General, our award-winning small-town hospital was all about under the worst possible overwhelming conditions.


I had to tell you about this – it’s hard to imagine what the hospital has accomplished, let alone living inside the reality of it.


Our hospital has a half dozen Zero Air Pressure rooms for infectious patients. I imagine most hospitals of any size provide these necessary facilities. The rooms are initially constructed so the air sweeps all the bad germs outside through custom air-exchange systems. But six of these specialty rooms is a drop in the bucket for this COVID emergency so the hospital converted another 18 rooms – a whole wing. Naturally, given the infection rates, all patients are in individual rooms.


The nurse who pushed my bed from the ER to my new digs on the third floor COVID wing was from the detox unit. The nurse who settled me in and got my basic supplies was from maternity. Everyone else working on floor three was running — out straight.


These two helping-out nurses learned along with me:


All professionals are hard masked plus plastic shields, and most wear a third mask between the two layers. They enter the specially converted rooms by donning gloves and long, yellow plastic gowns over their scrubs. A plastic wall has been installed floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall about five feet into each room. They don the protective gear in this area and strip it all off before leaving the room, throwing gloves away and depositing the yellow gowns into a huge covered bin. No protective gear goes back out into the corridors, only scrubs. I found during my stay that nurses don’t forget much, because it means stripping down and re-dressing for every trip in and out. And of course this includes the aides, the lab staff, the docs, the respiratory therapists, everybody.


Access through the wall into the bedroom is entered by raising room-height zippers straight up from the floor; there are two zippers to allow a bed to slide through plus the nurses can access both sides. The makeshift wall cuts off the bathroom access so each room has a potty chair. A large air compressor/exchanger sits on the floor in the patient room. It processes all the room’s standard inbound air before sending it through a foot-wide aluminum tube snaking twenty feet to a specially sealed exit at the window. It all looks, and sounds, sort of sci-fi – a quiet roar.


MONDAY: Road to recovery takes plenty of hospital heroism.


Marcy O’Brien, a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, resides in Glade Township with Dear Richard and Finian, their Maine Coon Cat. She can be reached at





‘Good fortune’ in making return home


Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts on a Warren woman’s first-hand account in her battle with COVID-19. Part one was published Saturday.


It took two days for me to figure out the hot and cold. These rooms at Warren General Hospital weren’t built for this crazy adaptive use. The second night it got down to 54 degrees and I was shaking. The kind therapist that came in found a heat switch, put it on low, and within about an hour my room went from Anchorage to Aruba.


That was great until it got so warm in Aruba I was hoping for an umbrella cocktail to cool off. Blankets came off and I polished off my ice water. So we reversed the procedure, but not before a repairman came and sealed the window and a lot of cracks with duct tape. This time the cooling off didn’t go all the way to Anchorage, maybe just Ashtabula.


Changed linens are bagged up tightly and removed daily. No trays are allowed in the rooms. Food comes up in boxes, bags and to-go type packages with plastic. Hot food is only a memory, but then again, so is taste. . . COVID took both my taste buds and smeller. Maybe I’ll taste chocolate by Valentine’s Day.


Everything that enters the rooms is thrown away. It’s like camping. . . carry in your supplies and carry out your trash. One nurse said as she zipped the wall open for probably the tenth time (in just my room), “I don’t think I’m ever going to camp again. Tent flaps will remind me of this for the rest of my life.” We laughed – ‘cuz what else can you do?



I started to get better and hoped to leave day three, but the lungs weren’t clearing out quickly. At least my fear of being at death’s door was calming and the docs were talking about sending me home. On Day four, blood work indicated some potential for a clot so I remained into day five. The most important development for me was that I was up and functioning, not the near-cadaver who had initially dragged into the ER.


They worked round the clock to get me better – they removed my second IV line on day three. There were the usual rounds of blood work and poking, but the medical protocol took root. I have what nurses lovingly refer to as “alligator skin;” it’s hard to push the needle through and as it finally punches in, it blows the vein it’s aimed at. It frustrates nurses who hate to hurt a “bad stick” like me. I met nursing supervisors, managers and instructors who took over, but they were also suited up and staying over.


Every nurse that wasn’t working a 12-hour shift was working longer. People were staying because they were needed. A surgical nurse finished his shift in the O.R. and came down for four hours every afternoon. I’ve never seen such teamwork. I was stunned at everyone’s can-do attitude, and I never heard one complaint – from anyone. They wish they had more help, but it’s simply not available. Anywhere. So they all just worked harder.


I felt privileged to hear some laughter in the halls. It meant to me that they’re coping and somehow surviving this grueling year. They have been forbidden to vacation. Leaving would mean a two-week quarantine upon return.


Now that I’m home, I’m overwhelmed by my good fortune. As I was leaving, the discharge nurse made me promise to follow my instructions so I don’t wind up back in the “campsite.”


“You must be diligent and vigilant with your instructions and prescriptions.” Not a problem – once was enough. In five days their dedicated medicine and personal magic had converted me back to the hopeful senior who had life yet to live. I was glad to find her again. I was grateful that my children don’t have to sit vigil hundreds of miles away . . . wondering. No, I didn’t want to return.


I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated our small town as much as now. Compared to what we’re seeing on the news each evening, we live in a cocoon of hunkered-down, caring professionals. And I’m finding it’s my neighbors and friends who have volunteered to feed us, shop for us, and check on us while we’re on lockdown quarantine. Dear Richard, my devoted caregiver, has finally tested positive, but is fortunately asymptomatic


Warren General, like every hospital in the country, was ill-prepared to roll with this kind of punch. But roll they did, and they are caring for as many of us as they can cram in and bed down. We keep hearing that we’re all in this together, but boy, I have witnessed togetherness for the common good that exceeds anything I’d ever contemplated and I’m so proud of my adopted home town. 42 years after coming here, I think I’m alive today because I did. Going forward from here, life, the one I wasn’t sure last week that I was hanging onto, is more beautiful.


Stay safe, everyone — we do indeed need each other. And although it’s different, please have a joyful Christmas season. It’s now the first Christmas of the REST of our lives.


Marcy O’Brien, a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, resides in Glade Township with Dear Richard and Finian, their Maine Coon Cat. She can be reached at


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