Cara Yerman awoke about 1 a.m. March 18 to the light being switched on in the Baltimore hospital room where she’d been placed the night before, hooked up to an IV and on oxygen, with a bucket to pee in so she didn’t contaminate the adjacent bathroom.
“You’ve tested positive,” said the kind Sinai Hospital nurse who woke her, she recalled. Yerman was being moved, to a room on a more isolated floor.
Her diagnosis — COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus — weighed on her, heavy like her breath. Leading up to that night, Yerman had been through the wringer: a high fever, chills, vomiting, severe weakness and a pounding heartbeat.
“I thought I was dying,” the 26-year-old speech and language pathologist said in an interview. “That sounds dramatic, but it’s true.”
Across town, in Mount Vernon, a 22-year-old Baltimore resident named Mike was at home. Like Yerman, he’d first felt a throat scratch more than a week prior, on March 9. Like her, he’d gone to a local hospital — Mercy Medical Center — to get tested. Like her, he would later test positive. But his symptoms were far milder.
While Yerman felt wretched and would be diagnosed with pneumonia, requiring a dayslong hospital stay, Mike — who asked to be identified only by his first name, to maintain his privacy — felt like he had the flu, and was left to recover at home.
Both in their 20s, both otherwise healthy, they experienced the same virus in wildly different ways. It’s a disparity playing out in cases all across the globe.
The new coronavirus can devastate the lungs. It has spread to nearly 1 million people around the world and has killed almost 50,000. The United States now has the most cases of any country, with a massive cluster in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, where both Yerman and Mike had traveled just before they got sick. More than 5,100 people have died in the U.S.
‘I was extremely scared’
Yerman, a self-described “cat person,” is bubbly and lives a healthy life, she said.
She woke next to her fiancée March 9 with an itch in her throat. Within days, she was hospitalized, using oxygen to breathe.
Yerman said she never would have visited New York on March 7 had she known what the city would look like a few weeks later. At that point, bars, restaurants and shops remained open; normal life continued.
She retreated from her Baltimore apartment to her parents’ home in Baltimore County as her symptoms worsened. Her parents did what they could — but nothing helped.
As her fever spiked, Yerman said, she felt nauseated. A doctor tested her for the flu and sent her home with Tamiflu and antibiotics, she said.
“You’re fine,” she repeated to herself. Her body, however, felt otherwise.
She didn’t improve. Eventually she was advised by phone to go to the emergency room, where Sinai workers screened her at the door and asked about recent travel. When she said “yes” to having been to the New York area, they looked concerned, she recalled.
Staffers swabbed up her nose and took chest X-rays, then sent her home with an inhaler, she said.
The next day, she was back, with a fever of 102 degrees. More X-rays showed severe bilateral pneumonia, she was told. Nurses in head-to-toe protective gear isolated her in the room, attached to machines. Later came the bucket.
Yerman said a staffer hung a sign on the door: “PUI,” for patient under investigation.
“I was extremely scared,” she said.
Dr. Matt Poffenroth, LifeBridge Health’s chief clinical officer, who oversees Sinai and other hospitals in the network, said he could not comment on Yerman’s case because of privacy laws.
Most patients he considers “worth major concern” are 60 and above. However, those who show severe symptoms, like Yerman, or who have recently traveled should be tested, too, he said. Positive patients are moved to negative pressure isolation rooms, he said, but the system doesn’t have enough.
Yerman’s mother wasn’t allowed with her in the isolation room. She spent the next few days battling a strange virus alone.
“You’re young. You will fight this," the kind nurse reassured her, Yerman recalled. She would cling to those words for days.
‘It might be the flu’
At first, Mike went to work at his banking job despite his sore throat. But after a day and a half, he started to feel worse and began staying home, he said. That Thursday, March 12, he decided to get tested.
“I was light-headed, had headaches. I was very lethargic and tired for most of the day. I felt nauseous at points, and I still had the cough, the sore throat,” he said. “I figured it might be the flu, but with corona going around I couldn’t be too sure.”
He said he went to nearby Mercy Medical Center, where workers tested him for the flu. He then went home to await the results.
The next day, the hospital called back, told him he had tested negative for the flu, and asked him to come back. When he got there, staff met him in the parking garage, he said, and ushered him into his own room.
He was tested for the flu again, he said, and again came up negative. Then came the coronavirus test, a swab up the nose, he said.
Mike again went home to the apartment he inhabits with two roommates, in a big rowhouse that shares an entrance with another apartment where four people live. Mercy staff told him to quarantine himself until the results came back, which he said he did.
That weekend, the symptoms “got a little bit worse." Plus, “I lost all sense of taste and smell,” he said — an experience reported by other coronavirus patients around the world.
Finally, on March 26, just as he was starting to see the first signs of “real improvement,” and nearly a week after being tested, Mike was told his test was positive, he said.
The same day, someone from the Baltimore City Health Department called, “asking me where I’d been the two weeks prior, if I had done anything in the week where I had felt sick but hadn’t been tested yet,” Mike recalled. “They asked me about my symptoms and whether they had worsened over the days.”
They also told him that he would have to quarantine himself for the entire time he had symptoms, and for at least a week after the last of his symptoms had abated, he said.
“Before I do anything else, I have to get tested again and get negative results,” he said.
Neither the city health department nor Mercy would comment on Mike’s case. However, city officials confirmed his experience was consistent with how the health department is responding to cases.
Mike is still not sure how he caught the virus, but he had just visited his parents in New Jersey.
He informed his parents, other family, friends, his boss and his roommates. And he told his landlord, who told the tenants upstairs.
Since then, he and his roommates have been quarantining themselves, he said, trying to stay apart and keep shared spaces clean.
Jaime Ramirez, who lives in the upstairs apartment, said since their landlord informed them of Mike’s illness, he and his roommates also have been staying at home, venturing out only for groceries.
“For the most part, we’re all pretty level headed about it, knowing that [Mike’s] doing well, which is awesome,” Ramirez said. “We kind of have a routine down where if one of us is in the kitchen, we give each other space.”
Yerman spent two more days recovering in the hospital before being discharged, at times playing her favorite Bruce Springsteen Spotify playlist to lift her spirits.
She went back to her parents’ home, where she quarantined herself in a private bedroom and bathroom, her parents delivering meals to her door wearing protective gear. Now she’s returned to her apartment, showing only minor symptoms.
Yerman’s mother, Michele, said the last few weeks have been among the most traumatizing of her life. Aside from watching her oldest daughter fight off a potentially deadly virus, Michele Yerman said she felt uneasy not knowing how to treat the coronavirus or to lessen the rest of the family’s chance of exposure.
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“I couldn’t comfort her the way I was used to comforting her — with hugs and kisses,” Michele Yerman said. “It was rough and not easy and not expected. I was like, ‘Wait, I thought she was going to be fine?'"
As of last week, Michele Yerman had tested negative for the disease, “a miracle” considering how much time she spent by Cara’s side, she said.
Today, Cara Yerman’s pain and discomfort have largely subsided. She set up a blog to document her experience in the hope it would reach others and motivate them to stay home and slow the spread.
Like the virus, the blog spread fast, far and wide.
“I’ve had numerous people reaching out and saying, ‘Your article made me stop going out,’” she said. “It was a wake-up call, and I didn’t know people needed a wake-up call.”
Yerman said she knows people who will disregard calls for social distancing and expects others to disbelieve her account. It’s their loss, she said.
“I was taking it very seriously, and I still ended up in a situation where I got it,” she said. “I hope they don’t learn the hard way.”