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An unseen coronavirus toll: fear, guilt, shame

‘They treated me like I had the plague … I guess I did have the plague.’

When the quarantine started in March, Jenny Diedrich tried to keep teaching her violin students virtually. But it’s almost impossible to correct the angle of a 5-year-old’s bow when you can’t touch their elbow.

So she decided on a Plan B.

At 54, she signed up to be a journeyman electrician — a trade she could learn on the job. She got hired to help wire a school in Riverview.

“I wore a mask, but most of them didn’t,” she said. “I tried to keep my distance, but you’re all on-site together. I’m holding ladders, handing them tools.”

In early July, one of her co-workers started coughing. Then another. Diedrich asked the contractor about shutting down the site, or at least sending those workers home. He wouldn’t.

The next week, three electricians tested positive for COVID-19. Diedrich kept working — until July 10, when she woke up wheezing. “My throat was so dry, it felt like I’d inhaled powdered sugar,” she said. She bit a lemon and couldn’t taste it. She drove to a testing site and got swabbed.

She called her five sisters and braced herself for the fever she was sure would come. She anticipated body aches, exhaustion, gasping for air. She knew she could die.

But she had no idea about the emotional toll the virus would take. The way friends and family would react. The guilt and shame to come.

“Fear stops some people from feeling compassion,” Diedrich said. “They treated me like I had the plague … I guess I did have the plague.”

Across the globe, everyone has been tallying deaths from the pandemic and talking about the millions who have pulled through. There hasn’t been much mention of the psychological assaults some survivors have had to endure.

The Tampa Bay Times talked to three people who got COVID-19 this summer: All of them recovered. Some of their relationships haven’t.

***

Diedrich lives alone, with her old cocker spaniel, Luke. Every evening, for the last couple of years, she and Luke would walk through their Meadowlawn neighborhood in St. Petersburg with a neighbor couple and their black Lab. Sometimes, afterward, they watched Jeopardy together.

The night after she got tested, Diedrich stood at the end of her neighbors' driveway and told them she couldn’t taste or smell and was waiting for the results.

Her neighbor asked: “How could you do this to us?”

For the next week, Diedrich stayed home and kept Luke in her backyard. She called some of her violin students to tell them, though she hadn’t seen them in more than a month. She called her boss at the job site. He never called back.

The headaches came before the test results. Breathing got harder. She was sleeping 18 hours a day. Her primary care doctor told her to take Tylenol — don’t come into the office. If things get really bad, he said, head to the hospital. “Even the doctor was rejecting me,” she said.

Her sisters, who live across the country, sent groceries. Her uncle suggested she contact the coroner, in case. She made a Google doc with all her paperwork. One sister wrote what sounded like an obituary on Facebook, reminiscing about all the good times, as if there wouldn’t be more.

No one came to check on her. The neighbors didn’t even call. Instead, he posted on her Facebook: “You should stay away when you know you have symptoms.”

When the test finally came back positive, Diedrich “felt like a leper, like I was carrying around a poison dart.”

No one blames you for getting a heart murmur or brain tumor or muscular dystrophy. But some illnesses engender scorn — linking someone’s fate to their choices. If you have lung cancer, you must’ve been a smoker. STD? Well, look at your lifestyle.

With COVID, the judgment swirls: Did you get too close to your co-worker? Go out to eat? Sing in a church choir?

“I’d never felt the stigma of being labeled,” Diedrich said. “It was like people thought I was intentionally trying to get them sick.”

Three months later, she’s still tired. And the emotional scars haven’t healed.

She’s scared to go out, to be around people.

She gets anxiety attacks now, which she never had before, which makes breathing hard, which makes her worry she might be sick again. She meditates more, to steady her nerves. She drinks coffee on her porch, gardens in her backyard, takes Luke for long walks — just the two of them.

“I had to block my neighbor on Facebook,” she said. “His wife brought me a dog toy the other day. But he thinks I should apologize.”

***

Dr. John Toney knew it was coming.

For weeks, he and his colleagues at the University of South Florida had been tracking the coronavirus on the other side of the world. An expert in infectious diseases, he knew that once it escaped China, the virus would end up in the United States.

“We were all worried,” said Toney, 65, who also works at the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa. “We were trying to do everything we could to protect patients and our staff. But we couldn’t find masks, even at The Home Depot.”

He read everything he could and tracked experts working on vaccines. The virus wasn’t behaving like outbreaks he had studied.

“We had no idea what this one would do,” he said.

Toney lives with his wife, Teresa, 66, and daughter Liz, 35. During the second week of March, before the state shut down, Liz drove to the Tampa airport to pick up a friend. He had been in Indiana and flown through Chicago. On the drive to his Lakeland home, he told her he’d never been so tired.

When she dropped him off, she told him to get some rest. The next morning, he called. He had a raging fever, a raspy cough, couldn’t smell or taste. He didn’t have health insurance, so didn’t go to a doctor. Only a few COVID-19 testing sites existed then.

“Liz quarantined herself in her room,” Toney said. He and his wife left meals outside her door, and she’d only come out after they had gone to bed.

On the third day, Liz started feeling feverish. The next day, she started coughing. She didn’t want to go to the doctor, didn’t want to expose anyone — or end up at the hospital. “She was scared to death they would put her on a ventilator,” Toney said.

Liz had been sick for two weeks when Toney came home from work tired. That night, March 26, he got the chills. He sent his wife to sleep in the guest room and called his colleagues. He had been spending a lot of time in his office, so hadn’t been in close proximity. “But they all got very anxious, of course,” he said. “I told them all I was sorry, truly sorry, for all the anxiety I was causing. I never meant to cause anyone any harm.”

The next day, he went to the hospital to get tested — and took Liz with him. Doctors sent him home. But kept Liz.

He got so weak he could barely get out of bed. His fever spiked to 102. His lungs “felt like two watermelons with a thick rind on them, so they couldn’t expand.”

When he started coughing up bloody mucus, he told his wife, “I gotta go.” It was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

He didn’t know what would happen to her, if she got sick and was alone in the house. He didn’t know if he’d ever come home.

Liz was two rooms down the hall at Advent Hospital. But he wasn’t allowed to see her. He kept asking the nurses how she was, what was happening. Doctors wanted to give her a tracheotomy to help her breathe, or put her in a medical coma and insert a ventilator. When she started clotting the next day, they finally convinced her.

Toney told his wife to get tested. She was positive, too. They kept waiting for her to feel symptoms. But she never got sick.

After a week in the hospital, he got to go home for Easter. He had lost 20 pounds and visible muscle mass. No one in his office, or at the VA hospital, caught it from him.

After three weeks in a coma, his daughter recovered enough to be released at the end of April. She had lost 40 pounds and could hardly speak; the ventilator had damaged her voice. “But it’s what saved her,” Toney said. Liz’s friend is also better now.

Six months after the ordeal, he and Liz are feeling mostly whole again.

But he worries about lingering side effects. “We have no idea what we might be dealing with.”

He fears they might catch it again — the fifth re-infection case in the world just turned up in Nevada. What if the second time is worse? “We’re all being super cautious,” he said.

He still pictures his wife’s face, when he told her he had to check into the hospital. “The toll this takes on family members is huge,” he said, tearing up even after all this time. “It still hurts.”

Teresa Toney, at left, Elizabeth Toney and John Toney all contacted COVID-19. "I had Corona Extra, my mom had Corona Premiere and my dad had regular Corona," Elizabeth Toney joked, referring to their different symptoms. She is holding family pictures she kept in her hospital room during recovery.
Teresa Toney, at left, Elizabeth Toney and John Toney all contacted COVID-19. "I had Corona Extra, my mom had Corona Premiere and my dad had regular Corona," Elizabeth Toney joked, referring to their different symptoms. She is holding family pictures she kept in her hospital room during recovery. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

***

They were trying to be careful, sticking around the house, getting groceries delivered, only going out once a week or so, to Home Depot for some backyard projects.

Andi Kuhn Graham, 43, is CEO of a digital marketing company in downtown St. Petersburg. In mid-March, she sent her 20 employees to work virtually. Her husband Adam, a literature instructor at Pinellas Park High, started teaching from home after spring break. Their daughter Piper, 11, began classes from their living room.

“We were really scared at first. Not for ourselves, but I was terrified for my parents,” Graham said. “They’re in their 70s, in pretty good health, but you never know. And I surely didn’t want to be the one bringing it to them.”

After two weeks of lockdown, Graham called a family meeting. Her parents, brother and sister-in-law, plus their children, all live within a mile. Did they still feel safe seeing each other? Could they be a bubble — and promise not to risk undue exposure?

“We were all trying to make sense of what was going on and follow the experts' advice,” Graham said.

In April, she and her husband took their daughter to a downtown protest — weighing the risk of exposure against the benefit of supporting social justice. They cleared the march with their family first, wore masks and socially distanced.

In June, after school was out, Graham’s parents were supposed to take Piper to Wisconsin while she and Adam traveled to Amsterdam for a biking vacation with two other couples. The trip had been booked for almost a year. Since they couldn’t fly abroad, Graham found three houseboats to rent in Charleston, S.C. Their friends reassured them that they had been careful. They felt comfortable bringing them into their bubble, and their family agreed.

After their daughter left with her grandparents, Graham and her husband went out for dinner. Once. Only four other couples were in the restaurant. It felt so great to eat out. Adam also went to the eye doctor before they left.

On the way to Charleston, Graham’s throat started feeling scratchy and her head began to ache. She thought she was tired, dehydrated.

She felt better the next day, hung out on the boats with their friends. Two days later, her husband woke with a fever, dripping sweat. They waited five hours in line at a drive-in testing site, went back and told their friends. “I felt terrible, being the one who might have exposed them all,” she said. “But I had no idea where I might have gotten it.”

By the time they packed their car and headed back to Florida that night, two of their friends were coughing and a third had a headache. Adam was freezing, and put on all his clothes, plus her sweater.

When they got home, he was struggling to breathe.

The South Carolina health department contacted them two days later, confirming they both were positive. But no one asked for any information to do contact tracing.

Graham called her parents and her brother. Called everyone she could think of who she had been near during the last two weeks. She didn’t post anything on social media, because she was sure someone would criticize her for traveling — though she likely caught it before going away.

But her mom told her aunt who told her cousin who posted on Graham’s Facebook that she should be ashamed to have been out galavanting, endangering everyone around her.

“So I wrote a very long post, trying to explain:”

Right now, I bet a lot of you are judging my behavior, evaluating every photo I’ve posted, where I’ve been and who I’ve been with over the past couple weeks. That’s what we do, right?

But there’s no shame in being sick, and if we make people feel *guilty* for getting sick, they’ll never share openly about being sick, and further spread this damn virus all over the land.

It can happen to anyone, in any way. I have no idea how I got it, but I do know that it wasn’t caught from any of the people in any of the pics you’ve seen of me lately (those folks have been tested tho). I know that because I’ve contacted every single person and place of business where I’ve spent time to let them know.

I feel confident that my own behaviors did not put anyone else unknowingly at risk.

Most people commented with concern, hoping she and her husband felt better. Others wrote, “I’m not surprised, the way you’ve been out and about.” One good friend’s post really hurt, as if Graham intentionally jeopardized strangers — and friends:

I’m sorry you got sick. And I’m going to be unpopular for what I say next. You can’t be confident that you didn’t spread it on to anyone else. Everyone you encountered then became a new vector… I have so many friends who aren’t being as safe and careful as they could be and it breaks my heart because it means that they don’t care enough about my family to do the hard work.

Graham tried not to feel guilty, to remind herself of all the precautions they had taken. She knew that those being critical were just scared, feeling isolated, and looking for someone to blame.

Her husband stayed in bed for a week. She didn’t get a fever, or feel truly awful. On July 4, while their daughter was still away, Graham and their friends who had gotten sick had a pool party — assuming they all had antibodies.

When some students went back to school in August, Adam volunteered to teach in-person. Since he might be immune, he wanted to protect fellow teachers who weren’t.

But their daughter didn’t catch the coronavirus. So they’re keeping her home.

Adam Graham and Andi Graham both got COVID-19, but their daughter, Piper, didn't. Also pictured is their pup, Huxley.
Adam Graham and Andi Graham both got COVID-19, but their daughter, Piper, didn't. Also pictured is their pup, Huxley. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Contact Lane DeGregory at ldegregory@tampabay.com. Follow @LaneDeGregory.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had Jenny Diedrich’s name misspelled.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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