McDowell details journey through COVID hospitalization

Joyce Miller
Rachel McDowell said she continues to feel the effects. It is by the grace of God, she said, that she survived the disease that has taken the lives of so many.

It has been a long road to recovery. Weeks turned into months. The sense of helplessness and isolation was, at times, overwhelming. COVID-19 is a lonely and frightening disease and for those who have been confined for days in an intensive care unit, the battle to overcome the virus and return to a normal lifestyle can be a difficult and painstaking process.

Although the days of struggling to take five steps and not being able to care for herself are behind her, Rachel McDowell said she continues to feel the effects. It is by the grace of God, she said, that she survived the disease that has taken the lives of so many.

Although Rachel was relieved when she finally was released from the hospital, it was a bittersweet day. A cousin who had been hospitalized passed away, making her even more aware of the devastating impact of COVID-19.

Rachel’s battle began in late August. After several trips to an emergency room in Jefferson City she was admitted to Lake Regional Health System on Sept. 1, one week after she began to show serious symptoms. It wasn’t until Oct. 19 that she was released to go back to work part-time and a month later (just last week) was allowed to return to full-time.

“Basically it’s been almost three months and I’m still ‘recovering’ from certain aspects of this illness,” she said. “No matter how you feel about it, please respect what it can do. When it’s someone you love, it really sheds a whole new light on this. I could go on and on about the pain and misery of this sickness but I thank God every day for his healing touch and saving my life.”

Rachel said when she was diagnosed with COVID pneumonia, nothing prepared her for what was coming. On Day 7 when she was admitted, she said she felt like she had a brick in her chest and couldn’t breathe. Her condition was worsened by her asthma. She couldn’t stop coughing, her body ached, she had a fever. Breathing treatments weren’t providing any relief, her oxygen levels were dropping.

“My doctor told me that typically Day 10 was the worst. I looked at him and asked, ‘I’m going to get worse?’ In my mind I could not imagine getting worse but he assured me it was coming. He told me that they were simply putting bandages on my symptoms until the Covid was gone from my body,” she said.

By Day 10, Rachel could no longer mover herself around in the bed. She had no strength, could barely speak, eat or hold her head up. Although she was being given the maximum amount of oxygen without being on a ventilator, her levels continued to drop. Days 10-13 were the worst.

By that time, Rachel was getting the anti-viral drug Remdesivir every night through IV for 10 days, the steroid Dexamethasone every morning, cough syrup and cough pearls every four hours, steroid and albuterol inhalers every four hours, shots in her stomach every 12 hours to prevent blood clots, and constant oxygen. Chest X-rays and blood draws periodically. Short of being put on a ventilator, she was given a CPAP and told to lay on her stomach, on her sides and to move.

“It all sounds easy but when you cannot even use your arms or legs to move yourself, it’s difficult. The CPAP was super difficult for me. I had to have anxiety medication and morphine because they needed me to sleep,” she said recalling the days she spent in ICU. “I would blow on those things they give you in the hospital and could not even get to 500. I was not making my own antibodies so they gave me a plasma transfusion with Covid antibodies in it and said it should help within 72 hours.”

Rachel ended up spending 13 days in ICU. She lost 17 pounds, most of that was muscle mass and when she came out she didn’t have the strength to comb her hair.

The battle wasn’t only the debilitating physical condition of the virus but the mental and emotional strain of being alone and isolated. At one point, she said she had a meltdown and broke down with tears streaming down her face.

She was worried about her family at home and kids who had also tested positive. It was hard for the normally busy mom of five to be away from her kids and husband, Tony. Her son was having to postpone his wedding so she would be there to see one of “her babies” get married. The medical staff did their best to ease her fears but it was still overwhelming.

The turning point for Rachel came on Sept. 7. Her family and friends gathered on the parking lot of the hospital and held a prayer vigil. That, she said, was the beginning of her recovery.

“I started making a complete turn around. I was able to walk from my bed to the chair a few feet away with help and sit for several hours, eat small amounts of food and lie on my stomach as much as possible,” she said. “I was walking five feet or so to the bathroom with help.”

When she was finally released, she was sent home with oxygen and went to stay with her parents. With Tony at work, there was no one at home all day to care for her. It was tough, she said. But with the support of her family, she was eventually able to go move back home. Several weeks later, she had a setback and spent four weeks on steroids. Slowly she has been able to return to her routines and eventually work.

Rachel said she counted her blessings every day and when she accomplished a new task she “wore her face of victory.” Every day tasks became a cause for celebration…driving for the first time, having the energy and stamina to load the dishwasher and take her first trip to the grocery store.

She is grateful for her family and friends who have helped her get to this point, although she admits after spending weeks with her mom, she missed her company and cooking. And, yes, she did get to see her son get married and even managed to get in a dance with the groom.