Former oncology nurse struggles to recover from after effects of COVID | Latest Headlines

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Nineteen months after being diagnosed with COVID-19, Kathy Sharp still copes with the physical and emotional scars the virus has wrought upon on her life.

Sharp, 64, is a former oncology nurse practitioner who retired when the effects of “long COVID” – extreme fatigue and memory issues also known as “brain fog” – refused to dissipate. COVID claimed her husband Danny’s life and nearly hers. She spent two weeks in the hospital, remained on oxygen six months and still deals with some impacts to this day.

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Sharp’s story isn’t uncommon. Ongoing studies suggest up to half of the patients diagnosed with COVID-19 suffer some lingering effects from the virus and for many – like Sharp – can continue for months, sometimes years.

For someone who was “never sick” and “never hospitalized,” before testing positive for the virus on New Year’s Eve 2020 it has been a daunting path.

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“Probably, 15-16 months into this, this past spring, I woke up one day and I felt like myself for the first time,” Sharp said last week. “I’d been trying to gain energy and stamina … I still struggle sometimes with COVID brain, I still struggle with fatigue. I can’t work all day – I’m about good for half a day. I still cannot walk a long way even though I keep trying to build that up.”

Walking one mile was cause for celebration.

“I still get winded with exertion and I think that’s probably as good as that’s going to be,” she said. “Fatigue is the worst part. Most people work up to a point, they get tired and stop. With COVID fatigue, boom, you’re there. You have to quit now.”

This region was under siege from COVID-19 in the fall of 2020. In early December, Sharp’s former employer Ballad Health held a news conference to warn the public about dire conditions inside its hospitals and plead with them to heed public health warnings. At that time a refrigerated morgue trailer was in use at Johnson City Medical Center because the hospital morgue couldn’t hold all the corpses.

In mid-December the first doses of vaccine became available for health care workers.

“They said they wanted front line, high risk people in the ICU, ER, EMTs, urgent care workers to go first,” Sharp said. “We were in a very controlled environment, so I let the first date go by with the intention of going the second time. I got COVID before the second round of vaccines.”

It wasn’t just Sharp. Her husband, mother-in-law and her twin sister, a brother-in-law and two caregivers all tested positive for the virus simultaneously.

“All of us got sick within 24 hours and are unsure where the exposure was,” Sharp said.

Some of their conditions soon worsened.

“We started the appropriate medicines, the doctors called and checked on us and for four days we thought we were going to be OK. Then my oxygen sats [saturation levels] dropped. Danny already had oxygen; we were checking sats for each other and were doing OK. Mine dropped to the low 80s [90-100 is healthy]. I couldn’t get my breath, I could hardly walk through the house and I knew I would have to go,” Sharp said.

She scooped up her cellphone, a charger and her CPAP [breathing device] and called 911. She was taken to Bristol Regional Medical Center and admitted on Jan. 5. She was placed on high-flow oxygen in an ICU step-down unit.

At 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 9, Sharp received a call that her mother-in-law’s sister was gravely ill. She was transported to the hospital and died a short time later from COVID complications.

“They called me when she died. I’m in the hospital but I’m her power-of-attorney. I had to call my mother-in-law and tell her she’s gone and had to arrange her burial from my hospital bed. About five hours later they called and said my husband was coming into the hospital – my world crashed,” Sharp said.

Danny Sharp had collapsed at home but came to and called 911.

He was placed in the temporary ICU on the hospital’s third floor – near his wife – but doctors discovered he had developed bi-lateral pulmonary emboli – blood clots in the pulmonary arteries of both longs. He was still recovering from valve replacement surgery and effects of cancer treatments.

“He texted me and said, ‘I don’t want to be on a vent. Don’t let them put me on a vent,’” she said. He remained in ICU, off the ventilator, but his condition continued to worsen.

“They arranged for me to go around to see him at 5:30 in the morning. Around 11, he started to crash and burn,” she said. “They wheeled me in there about 11:15 and he was struggling to breathe. I saw him just let go of life. He died a few minutes after 12.”

It was Jan. 13. On that single day, nine people on that single floor at BRMC died from COVID-19.

For Sharp, the memories within that unit remain vivid. Patient rooms were closed to limit spreading with the virus but the space was overrun.

“Rolling me down that hall was like running a gauntlet, avoiding equipment. There were IVs in the hall and vents in the hall. And everybody on that floor knew I was going to be with my husband who was dying,” she recalled. “In all the years I’ve been a nurse, I’ve never experienced anything like that. It literally was a war zone. I don’t think anybody on the outside has any idea what those nurses and doctors have been through at the height of COVID.”

The couple was married 43 years. Back in her room, Sharp made the arrangements for his burial. Isolated and alone, she came to terms with his loss.

“I wrestled with the Lord. I said, ‘Lord, I prayed for you to heal him,’ and He said to me, ‘But I did heal him.’ I remember Danny’s words – he was always fond of saying – Heaven is as healed as you’re going to get. And those words came back to me,” she said.

“There are more than five stages of grief, and I went through all these stages of grief in 24 hours. My emotions were everywhere. I was crying, I was bargaining. I won’t say angry, but a maybe a little angry. At some point, I realized and said, ‘Lord, your will not mine. Your will.’ When I acquiesced my will to his, it was like somebody poured warm water over me. It was that peace that passes understanding. It flooded me. I’ve been OK since,” she said. “Yes it hurts. I’ve been through a lot spiritually, but realized you don’t learn anything on the mountain top. You learn everything in the valleys. In a situation like this you’re totally dependent on God.”

Sharp struggled to regain strength but physical therapy proved grueling.

“It was everything I could do to take a step. They walked me to the door of my room and back and that was all I could do. She wanted me to step up and my legs were trembling. I had to have help to take one step up,” she said. “I was totally dependent physically on other people. It was hard as a health care provider to be in that position.”

Sharp came home from the hospital on Jan. 20 and needed help ascending the two steps on her front porch to enter the home. A cousin helped take care of her for months as she slowly regained strength.

“I had to farm my dogs out to the breeder for seven weeks because I couldn’t take care of them. I couldn’t let them out. Didn’t have enough oxygen to go out with them, didn’t have enough leash to let them out and I couldn’t go after them,” she said. “Everything about my whole world – my husband was gone, my dogs were gone — my life as I knew it was changed.”

Through the obstacles, she persevered.

“I always felt like I would make it. There were a couple of days I felt so bad I didn’t care. I’m a hopeless optimist anyway, but I’m also a realist. I had no idea how long I would be debilitated,” she said. “The fatigue is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life and it was like that for months.”

Beyond the fatigue, her next greatest challenge was randomly being unable to find the right word.

“The word you want, the thing you want to say is right there but you just can’t reach it. It’s frustrating. It’s scary because I can’t remember or can’t recall people’s names,” she said. “It feels like you’re getting dementia.”

In addition to regular walks she played word games and computer games to try and overcome the temporary bouts of brain fog. Ultimately, that led to her decision to stop practicing medicine.

“I don’t want to take care of somebody because I’m afraid I can’t remember things, what I’ve done or should do. I don’t feel safe,” she said. “I’m still having word-finding issues – not nearly like I was.”

A common COVID symptom was losing or lessened senses of taste and smell. While Sharp didn’t suffer that, she spent months smelling something that wasn’t there. Termed phantosnia, it’s a less common COVID symptom.

“I smelled a dirty ashtray for 10 or 11 months. It was awful. It was nauseating. It would come on initially and last for hours then the frequency diminished and the time it lasted diminished. My doctor told me she had another patient who smelled rotten meat,” Sharp said.

Emotionally, Sharp was also struggling with something else she found distasteful, the term widow.

“One of the biggest things for me is when it hit me I was a widow. I don’t know why that word – the connotation, the implications, the magnitude of it – was overwhelming,” Sharp said. “You think you know what other people go through losing their spouse, but you really don’t know the gravity of that. How it changes who you are. It changes how people view you. You’re not part of a couple. All of a sudden you’re different.”

Those realizations prompted her to begin a ministry for other widows at Tennessee Avenue Baptist Church, where she is a longtime member. About 30 other widows are members there and the monthly programs are open to anyone at no charge.

“We have a program. We’ve had fun things, inspirational things, singing, we watch funny movies. We do something that ministers directly to the widow,” she said. “It fills a need.”

Sharp and her husband traveled extensively throughout their marriage and planned for the time when both were retired so they could travel more.  Rather than let go of that dream, last year she purchased a motor home.

Accompanied by friends or family, she visited the Ark in northern Kentucky, returned to Amish country in Lancaster, Pennsylvania – one of the couple’s favorite destinations, went to the beach, visited family in Missouri and went camping in Pigeon Forge.

She has since sold the motorhome and replaced it with small travel trailer.

On a more mundane note, she’s learned to operate a zero-turn mower to take care of her yard and troubleshoot issues around the home.

“I’ve learned to do a lot of things I’ve never done before. If God had not looked out after me and given me so many wonderful family and friends who stepped in, I couldn’t get out of the house. God has taken care of me and given me people who enabled me to do what I’ve done,” she said.

Sharp’s experience with COVID has provided some new perspectives.

“I fought so hard to get where I’m at,” she said. “You have to go at it like you’re fighting, with a sword in your hand, and fight. Or you just lay down and let it overwhelm you.”

The experiences have made her “more compassionate, more understanding” but concerned less about what people think. She’s quicker to say what is on her mind, more sensitive to those who need help and more determined to do for others.

“People say you need to do this, you need to slow down. I am living life wide open because I’ve decided that’s the only way to live. You have to redeem the time you have left to make up for the time you’ve wasted. I have not always served the Lord like I should, but I’m trying to do that now and trying to live and have joy in every moment,” Sharp said.

“This has given me clarity and made me realize the brevity of life and if you’ve got a bucket list, you better get on it,” she said. “Don’t take anything for granted because we don’t know from one day to the next how much time we have. You have to live life everyday like it’s the last day you have and strive to bring glory to God.”