What it’s like to be immunocompromised during the coronavirus

What it’s like to be immunocompromised during the coronavirus

The last time Paige Noelck got a cold, it took her out for almost four weeks.

The symptoms weren’t what most people might experience, either: A high heart rate, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue.

“I couldn’t do a normal grocery trip to Superstore or something without being in a wheelchair,” she said.

Noelck has postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a condition that affects the heart rate. Every five days she goes to the hospital to get IV therapy, a treatment of lactate and saline that helps combat POTS. But on Sunday, when she and a friend who also has POTS arrived for their treatment, they were put in isolation together to be tested for COVID-19.

Since March 11, Noelck, a 24-year-old apprentice service dog trainer who lives in Sherwood Park, Alta., had been increasingly experiencing symptoms such as a sore throat, shortness of breath and a slight cough. Two days earlier, her friend’s father had been put in isolation after returning from a trip.

Hospital workers were worried that Noelck and her friend could have COVID-19 — which can present as nothing more than a common cold or flu for some, but could be deadly for immunocompromised people like Noelck.

At the hospital, Noelck was experiencing tachycardia — her heart wouldn’t go below 140 beats per minute — and she was given four times the usual amount of fluid she receives during treatment. She was also exhausted, and spent most of the day sleeping.

Now, Noelck is isolated at home with her fiancé, who is showing similar symptoms. She was tested for COVID-19 on Sunday and was told the results would take 24 hours. That got extended because the lab was backed up, she was told — the results arrived on Tuesday instead.

The results bore good news: Noelck does not have COVID-19. She’s still sick, however, and plans to continue self-isolating until her symptoms go away, and then practice social distancing to avoid contracting the novel coronavirus.

Meanwhile, she can’t go to the hospital for her regular treatments until at least April 9. This means that soon, she’ll start experiencing the extreme fatigue and weakness caused by POTS, where even a trip up the stairs necessitates taking a rest from the effort.

Noelck said she doesn’t know how bad her symptoms need to be before she should go back to the hospital, especially with the POTS symptoms added into the mix.

“It gets exacerbated when I’m sick,” she said.

As she watches the world react to the pandemic from her home, waiting for her results, Noelck said she’s frustrated by two extremes: Those who are overreacting, and those who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously enough.

“I feel like people are panicking too much,” she said, pointing out that there are people like herself who need the face masks others are stocking up on — she wears those daily during the annual flu season.

“You don’t need a mask if you’re not immunocompromised,” she said, adding that the mask she normally buys is out of stock until June.

And next to the social media posts showing grocery-store shelves empty after panic buying, are photos of crowds across North America, many celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with little to no regard for physical distance.

Noelck said it bothers her to see people not taking the pandemic seriously.

When she was at Costco stocking up alongside many other Albertans, she overheard people talking about travelling during the pandemic, telling each other not to worry because they were in good health.

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“It’s like, ‘Oh, thanks. I’m right over here,’ ” she said, adding, “They don’t really understand herd immunity.”

Noelck said she hopes people will start to take the pandemic more seriously, and also to think about more than just themselves — whether that means only buying one pack of toilet paper or self-isolating for a few weeks.

“It’s not that bad to have to stay in your house for two weeks. A lot of people with chronic illness do that anyways.”

Rosa Saba

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