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An Extended Conversation With Tracy Arthur On Being An RN Battling COVID-19

Tracy Arthur has been a traveling registered nurse for nearly two decades.  This year she found herself on the front lines once COVID-19 reached the shores of the U.S. and began spreading.  More than a quarter million of Americans have since died from the disease, and Arthur herself was afflicted with the novel coronavirus while working at a hospital in Texas.

This development hit home for KLCC's Brian Bull, Arthur's brother.  What follows is an extended interview about her fight against COVID-19 and how treatment has changed over the last eight months.

Brian: Roughly a year ago, the novel coronavirus was an outbreak overseas.  Did you ever think it’d come to the U.S. and be as widespread and deadly as we see today?

Tracy:  Well, y’know I think like a lot of Americans I was thinking we were in a little protective bubble. Something like that couldn’t get bad here. I was working at Ft. Defiance Arizona at the time on the Navajo Reservation.  And I got floated down to the ER - I’ve ER experience- and so…we weren’t too busy that night. One of the doctors I was working with, his name is Dr. Kelso, he’s an amazing doctor. He’s one of those doctors that keeps up on the latest going on out there, and we happened to be watching the news that night.  And I believe that the coronavirus had gotten to one of the Asian countries, maybe it was Taiwan. And he said “This is going to be bad, we’re not prepared when it gets here.”  He said not if it gets here, but when it gets here.  He said “It’s going to be bad, we’re not prepared, it’s going to be a disaster.”

And this gentleman, this doctor, he’s one of those doctors who’s just a natural leader.  So I really kinda sat up and listened to him.  And I thought oh my gosh, y’know.  When I got off work I called my adult children.  I said “Hey, we need to get ready.”  And I told them to start stocking up on supplies and food. And the very next day I believe was when we got the first case in Washington.  So, I really wasn’t prepared but just…happening to go to the emergency room to work that night and work with this doctor made me more prepared than I would have been.  But I never thought it would be this bad.

Brian: What was it like to be confronted with a disease that was spreading so quickly but not fully understood at that time?

Tracy:  It was really scary. Because we…I was working at an Indian Health Service facility at the time, and they’re government. They get all the latest information from the CDC and the FDA and so the management and higher-ups were in a lot of conference calls and meetings about this. And it was scary because we didn’t know what it was and we didn’t know how to treat it. When it first came, we were basically doing the treatment that we would do for septic patients.  Which were, we were hydrating them with IV fluids, we would do antibiotics, we would do labs. And in the beginning we were actually fluid-overloading people, because we just didn’t know. We were blindly trying to treat these people for something we had no idea what it was and now it was spreading or how to treat it. So that was pretty scary.  We weren’t even sure if our PPEs were protecting us effectively, but they were. Which is good (laughs)

Brian: Now over time Tracy, you became infected. When did you begin to realize that something was wrong?

Tracy:  Let me see, I was actually at work.  The last time I worked was on Halloween night, and I picked up an extra shift.  I was working, and I kind of felt run down, but I was working a lot. I believe that last week I worked, I had something like 60 hours in.  And so I thought I was just overworked, maybe catching a mild cold.  The isolation gowns we have at University of TX Tyler were plastic ones. So you’d put them on and you’d start to sweat underneath because they weren’t breathable.  So I kinda worked a lot of shifts drenched in sweat sometimes from these isolation gowns.  So I just thought at first I was catching a cold.  Because going into the pandemic, I already knew that I was high risk.  In the 19 years I’ve been a nurse, I’ve had pneumonia eight times.  And so I’ve been trying really hard to be careful with my health because I knew I was a higher risk for just not having good outcome if I had caught COVID. (sniffs)

So anyways I was at work and i started having really sharp abdominal pains…that’s how it started with me. And just feeling run down. So I finished my shift and got off the morning of November 1st and went to the ER.  And told them I wasn’t feeling well, that I wanted a COVID test. So they COVID swabbed me, and I also got tested for Influenza A and B, and also for strep.  And they did a chest x-ray at the time.  And my chest x-ray was clear, my strep was negative, my influenza A and B were negative. (Laughs) I didn’t really think I had COVID.  And a couple days later they called and I was really shocked, I was shocked that I had it.

Brian: When you were undergoing the worst of COVID, were you conscious and aware of your surroundings the entire time?

Tracy:  Uhm, You know I was thinking back to when I was first sick that first whole week seemed like it was a blur. I don’t think I went into the ER until about November 8th or 9th, but I got my results on the 2nd.  And I was just trying to say hydrated, and I did lots of sleeping. Looking back that first week and a half, it was just a blur. Trying to watch CNN on Election night for the election results, and I just don’t remember anything from trying to watch it.

Brian: Were there sometimes dreams or hallucinations, or other surreal moments while you had COVID?

Tracy:  I had one weird dream and that was it.  I was kind of worried about that part.  Because since the pandemic started, when I had gotten my first COVID patient that, that was something that a lot of them had in common.  They just had these really ghoulish nightmares, and a lot of times they couldn’t even tell if they were asleep or awake when they were having these nightmares and hallucinations. No, I didn’t. I feel lucky not to have those.  Because I’ve had patients, I would just sit in their room with them because they were so frightened of these hallucinations and nightmares that they were having.  I didn’t really experience that.

Brian:   Just a weird dream. Do you remember anything about that dream?

Tracy:  (laughs) Yes, in my dream, me and my youngest son, we were driving in the mountains in a pickup truck, and we saw Bigfoot. He was just on the side of the road, watching us drive by.  It was weird. It was kind of a cheesy Bigfoot too, he kinda looked like the one from the Jack Link commercial (Brian laughs).   Yeah.  So I didn’t really have hallucinations or nightmares or anything.  Yeah, it was kind of funny.

Brian:  You kept friends and family updated through your Facebook account. Did having that social media outlet help you? 

Tracy:  Yes it did.  It really helped. When I was in the hospital it really helped me.  I did a lot of Messenger calling with my grandchildren. And my grandchildren really, really kept me going when I was sick. My grandson and granddaughter, they’d just light my day up and just make me feel really good.  Then hearing from other people too, really helped. There’s so many people going through this COVID.  I’ve read that there’s a strain out now that is really contagious.  I believe it may have been in CNN that there was a hospital in Houston that was tracking COVID, and something like 98% of the cases two weeks ago was the same strain. And they’re able to sequence its DNA, so it’s…they believe the tenth mutation of the virus.   But this particular strain is really contagious.

Brian: Do you think that’s the kind you had?

Tracy:  Possibly. I was reading about it, and the little spikes on the virus are sharper. They pierce the cells and just get into your body faster, and more efficiently. Which is really what viruses do. They live to survive, yeah.

Brian: Then they gave you Remdisivir, didn’t they?

Tracy:   They did, that was like the second day I was there. The second day I was there, the infectious disease doctor came to see me.  I can’t remember his name but he was a pretty good doctor, and he told me they were going to start me on that. And I was really happy, that is one of the approved treatments for COVID, and so Remdisivir is an anti-viral approved by FDA for five doses.  You get one dose a day. And I was happy that I was getting it and really grateful. Because I’m going back to work probably in about another month, and I just feel like everything helps!  And even after my first dose of Remdisivir, I felt the difference. I just felt better (coughs).

Brian: At one point you were very upset when the hospital in Texas wanted to discharge you.  Why were you upset? 

Tracy:  Yes, so I had just gotten third dose of Remdisivir, it was the morning…the day I was to get my fourth dose, so the day shift charge nurse came in and she told me that I was going to be discharged after my fourth dose. And I told her no, I said “the FDA recommends five doses.” And she said, “Well now they recommend four.”  I’ve kept up on my treatment and the recommendations the CDC puts forth. I try to stay on top of what’s going on with these treatments. And so I knew that wasn’t true, and so I asked this lady, I said “If this is true I want documentation that this is evidence based practice backed by the FDA.”  I feel they were trying to discharge me because they needed that hospital bed. And I told her no, that I would not leave until I received my fifth dose, and I insisted on it.
And so then they send a doctor to talk to me, one of the hospitalists which is like an intern, a new doctor, and he came and talked to me.  He did confirm that the FDA does recommend five doses but it did get to a point where I had to call the patient care representative and voice my concerns. And so then the patient care advocate stood behind me and also the doctor, so I did get my fifth dose of Remdisivir.

Brian: And that made all the difference, I bet.

Tracy:  I think that it did.  It’s what the Food and Drug Administration recommends…and I looked it up again last night and it still stands as of yesterday (11/23/20) that what they recommend is five doses of Remdisivir.  And if they’re going to start a treatment like that, they need to finish it. (Coughs) Especially if it’s being recommended.

Brian: Now that you’ve been discharged from the hospital, are there any lingering effects from the novel coronavirus you’ve noticed?

Tracy:   Well, I get tired easy and kinda short of breath. The other day I went to get some tires at Wal-Mart and while I was waiting for my car, I had like 40 minutes, I was pushing a shopping cart around and I got really tired, and had to find a place to sit down for a while. And then after my car was done, I went back to where I was staying (laughs) and took a 3 hour nap. But I still get a little short of breath, not as bad as before. Every day I feel stronger but this is probably going to be a process for a while to get better.

Brian: Do you plan on going back to work as a traveling nurse again anytime soon?

Tracy:  Yes I do, I actually already have my next assignment. I’m starting December 20th in Fargo, North Dakota (Brian: Wow, that’s a hot spot too).  It is. So I’ve worked…I was on the Navajo reservation when it became a hot spot. And then I went to work at the University of New Mexico, and they’re the only level 1 trauma center in New Mexico…from around the four corners there in Albuquerque.  And then Texas is a hot spot too, but it’s just a different world down there. I don’t think that the people of Texas realize how bad it is there.  Right before I left, the hospital that I was working at, I was told by a friend that works there also that they were really short because lots of nurses were getting COVID there.

Brian: More than a quarter million Americans have died since COVID-19 came to the U.S. And still, there are people – from government offices to the sidewalks – who don’t seem to take this pandemic very seriously. What do you have to say to these people?

Tracy:   Oh my gosh, it’s real. And some people are…lucky enough not to have symptoms. But the symptoms are bad. For me, my worst symptoms were abdominal pain and nausea. You know, it just affects people differently. And even if you don’t have symptoms, you can pass it on to your friends, your family, your coworkers.  We just need to do the best we can to flatten the curve, get some kind of control over this.  And the COVID, it isn’t political. It doesn’t care what party you belong to you or who you back or anything. It can get anybody.

Brian:  Now having survived COVID-19, has this experience changed your outlook on life at all?

Tracy:  Yes it has.  I’m really anxious to get back home to my family. I really miss my kids and grandchildren.  (coughs) It also really made me grateful for the good nurses that I had. I had an incredible ER nurse, gosh she was amazing, I wish I could remember her name. And I had a couple of nurses that took care of me who were just outstanding nurses. I had some who were not as good but just having those people take really great care of me, really made me appreciative. I was thinking gosh, when I go back to work I need to maybe check on my patients a little more, make sure they’re comfortable.  Make sure that they have stuff that they need.   It just made me want to be a better nurse.

Brian:  Well Tracy, I’m so glad you’re alive and on the mend.  And your whole family and I are proud of you, as is the Nez Perce Tribe. (Tracy: Aaww, thanks!)  Thanks to everything that you and frontline health care workers have done during this pandemic.  Be well, keep doing great work, and I love you.

Tracy:  Aw, thank you too.  I love you too Brian.  And happy Thanksgiving (laughs)

Copyright 2020, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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