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‘Just trying to breathe’: Baltimore couple describe fighting coronavirus at home, and why they fear for others

Fagan Harris, left, of Baltimore had COVID-19 in early March and was nursed back to health by his partner Meryam Bouadjemi, right.
Fagan Harris, left, of Baltimore had COVID-19 in early March and was nursed back to health by his partner Meryam Bouadjemi, right.(Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Between his long hours sleeping and her fitful searches for answers online, his forcing down meals he couldn’t taste and her cleaning, cooking and caring for him as best she could, there was the constant, unrelenting worry — gnawing at them for days as they hunkered down in their Baltimore apartment, waiting for his breathing to falter.

“There was about 72 hours there that were really scary, because we couldn’t tell which way this was going, and I didn’t know what to do,” said Fagan Harris, a local nonprofit leader who tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month.

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“I’m just trying to breathe,” he would tell his partner and caregiver, Meryam Bouadjemi, when she found him staring blankly at the wall one day. “I’m trying to assess whether this is getting worse, and we need to go to the hospital.”

For many people across the city and world, the coronavirus fight is just so: a homebound existence where there’s little to do but lay in wait, hoping it is you who defeats the virus and not the other way around.

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With a health care system in stress, patients like Harris, 33, are being sent home, or told to stay there, despite high fever, chills, a vicious cough and a shortness of breath just one step from alarming. The virus saps your strength but is considered manageable — until it isn’t.

“That’s the test," Harris was told by a trusted doctor friend. “If you can breathe.”

Spending days on edge about such a critical human function was perhaps the worst part of the entire episode, said Harris, who is now in recovery. But more broadly, the experience was defined, for both him and Bouadjemi, by the complicated logistics of being under quarantine and a deeply confusing experience with the health care system, they said — one that left them increasingly concerned for others who lack the resources, health coverage and support networks that they relied on heavily.

“Our success engaging the conventional health care system was limited, and instead, our most helpful guidance came from our social network," Harris said.

It’s an observation that has helped shape Harris’ plans moving forward, on the other side of his illness, as one of the more than 10,000 people in the United States and 240,000 globally who have recovered from the virus and may have some resistance to it.

By fluke or fate, Bouadjemi, 31, thinks she is in that cohort, too, though she lacks a diagnosis and never had intense symptoms. And she also wants to help, once their quarantine lifts.

For many people across the city and world, the coronavirus fight is a homebound existence where there’s little to do but lay in wait, hoping it is you who defeats the virus and not the other way around. Meryam Bouadjemi cared for her partner Fagan Harris after he was diagnosed with coronavirus.
For many people across the city and world, the coronavirus fight is a homebound existence where there’s little to do but lay in wait, hoping it is you who defeats the virus and not the other way around. Meryam Bouadjemi cared for her partner Fagan Harris after he was diagnosed with coronavirus.(Courtesy of Fagan Harris and Meryam Bouadjemi)

Neither knows for sure how they ended up sick, but they have their suspicions.

For Harris, the president and CEO of Baltimore Corps — which works to bring talented people into public service roles in the city — it began with a runny nose and what he thought was a cold March 7, four days after he’d had jury duty in a room with some ill-seeming fellow jurors, he said.

By March 10, when his office had already moved to remote work, he began having “full-blown flu-like symptoms,” including “a lot of chills, fever, sweating while you’re sleeping,” he said. “I thought there was something wrong with my mattress my body ached so much.”

Bouadjemi, pursuing a graduate degree in entertainment production at the University of Southern California, had by then already been sick on the other side of the country, after coming into contact with a professor she believes was also ill.

Bouadjemi had a “low-grade fever and tiredness,” and an 18-hour migraine, she said, but the worst of it lifted after a day or two. She had self-isolated for more than two weeks. And then, after her university moved its courses online, she decided to come back to Baltimore, wrapping herself up in a homemade “hazmat suit” for the journey, she said.

When she arrived to her and Harris’ apartment in Mount Vernon on March 13, he was already in the throes of illness. And though she didn’t have a diagnosis for her own sickness, she felt she’d likely already had the virus, and dedicated herself to caring for him.

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“I kind of risked being in this small space with Fagan for the entirety because I assumed I had immunity,” she said. “I felt really grateful that I was in a position that I could be caring for him.”

As the days passed, Harris — who has exercise-induced asthma but hadn’t needed an inhaler for years — got worse, and “the lung symptoms really started to escalate.”

On the morning of March 19, he knew something had to give.

“I woke up, I looked at Meryam and said, ‘I have to go to the hospital. I can’t walk to the bathroom without feeling like I’m going to pass out from not being able to breathe.'”

The next few days were a confusing blur of conflicting medical advice from his primary care provider at Chase Brexton and staff at the University of Maryland Medical Center, where he was referred for a chest X-ray. At first, he was put on an antibiotic for pneumonia, but came off it days later when his coronavirus test came back positive, he said. Hospital officials told him he didn’t need an X-ray, despite his doctor’s earlier recommendation.

And though he was told to head home and wait it out there, the directives didn’t come with much advice for how best to do so, he said.

Both UMMC and Chase Brexton declined to comment on a specific patient’s experience.

The couple began reaching out to family and friends in the medical field, unsure how best to address Harris’ symptoms while in quarantine. Bouadjemi contacted her cousin, a nurse practitioner. Harris, who is a trustee at Johns Hopkins Bayview Hospital, reached out to Dr. Richard Bennett, the hospital’s president — who said Harris was one of four friends and colleagues with the coronavirus whose progress he was tracking in recent weeks.

They asked about the prescription medicines Harris was on, the frequency with which he should use the inhaler and cough suppressant he was given, and the best foods for him to eat to power through the fight.

In addition to the medical advice, Harris and Bouadjemi relied on friends and family in Baltimore and the surrounding region to help them in other ways, including bringing them groceries, medicine and a thermometer, since they couldn’t leave their apartment.

The support “absolutely proved critical in my recovery,” Harris said.

As he continues to feel stronger, he and Bouadjemi said they now fear for others who may not have as many resources at their disposal, and urged anyone in a position to help others through such an experience to do so.

“Institutions and networks of people with access to expertise, knowledge, and insight should make every effort to be available to as many people as possible so folks can benefit from a responsible baseline of knowledge and support,” Harris said. “Without it, I fear individual judgments, or actual miscalculations in judgments, could lead to unnecessary tragic results.”

Harris said Baltimore Corps has already “shifted our entire human capital” toward responding to the pandemic, and is working to fill a range of related positions in the city — from nurses to social workers to food delivery workers.

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Once he’s out of quarantine, he said, he plans to use his experience — and whatever resistance to the virus he may enjoy — to be out on the front lines, helping others as he was helped.

“We all have this understandable fear of COVID, but I feel like I can’t be afraid, I have to just fight through and be out there to help people, because a lot of people need help," he said. “This is a time when we all have to come together to do that.”

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