BRAINERD, Minn. — Amy Borash sat alone in her vehicle in the hospital parking lot for hours, repeating to herself something she desperately wanted to believe: Everything will be fine.
Somewhere inside Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd, nurses and doctors tended to her 53-year-old husband, whose labored breathing on the eighth day of suffering from severe COVID-19 symptoms could no longer adequately enrich his own blood with oxygen. His temperature topped out above 101 degrees and every muscle and joint ached — so thoroughly exhausted, racked with chills and body-shaking coughs, the strength to leave his bed evaded him.
“I was terrified. I’m not going to lie,” Amy said Wednesday, Oct. 21. “I downplayed it as much as I could to my kids and my friends, but I went home and cried. It was scary because I couldn’t be there. And I couldn’t hear what the doctors were saying and I couldn’t see how he looked, or how the doctors looked when they were looking at him. You can tell a lot about somebody’s condition by seeing the body language and facial expressions of the people who are treating them and of them themselves. And I couldn’t do any of that.”
Not long after arriving on the night of Oct. 17, 20-year Brainerd High School geography teacher Dave Borash was admitted to the intensive care unit. A chest X-ray revealed fluid in his lungs, the early stages of pneumonia triggered by the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. He would remain there for five nights, his breathing assisted with supplemental oxygen, his body doused with a cocktail of Remdesivir, dexamethasone, zinc and Vitamin D. He listened to the deep, rattling cough of the patient next door, knowing another down the hall was recently sedated and intubated.
But Dave’s journey would not follow that path. Thursday morning, he walked up his Baxter driveway to his waiting wife and daughter Libby, both of whom he’d been unable to touch or even see in person for nearly two weeks.
“His personality is starting to come back, he’s starting to sound a little bit more awake and alert. It’s been really nice and I feel really relieved,” daughter Sylvia said. “I feel so lucky because I know that the drugs that he was given in the hospital, sometimes they work on people and sometimes they don’t. He was one of the lucky ones and it did get him to be released.”
The family considers themselves among the fortunate, they said, as those who could once again lay eyes on their loved ones after watching the hospital doors close behind them. And they hope Dave’s brush with mortality will serve as a warning to others — this virus is not only real, it’s unpredictable, unforgiving and relentless. It has the power to incapacitate a healthy, active man with no preexisting conditions, and to send that same man’s daughter to the emergency room with debilitating chest pain.
The Borashes are grateful this harrowing stretch appears to be behind them. Yet, they do not know what lies ahead. Will Dave develop new afflictions in the wake of the virus’s invasion, as more and more survivors are reporting? Will Sylvia, the 22-year-old fitness instructor and dance teacher — the first Borash to fall ill with COVID-19 just weeks before her father — shake herself of the soreness she feels with each breath she takes? And what of the potentially tens of thousands in medical bills they may soon face?
“I hope this is the worst of it. I hope once he gets home, he just continues to get better and he doesn’t have any long-term effects. I hope this isn’t going to be something that’s in our lives now,” Amy said. “What if … the damage is permanent? We don’t know. We just don’t know. He could live to a ripe old age but never be able to go hiking. She could live to teach and never be able to perform again. We just don’t know.”
‘This was completely different’
Dave is one of 980 Crow Wing County residents confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 as of Friday, and one of 19% who have no idea where they caught it. He’s also among the 5% whose symptoms reached a level of severity requiring hospital-level care.
But Dave isn’t among those expected to be at higher risk — the Brainerd native has no preexisting conditions, he said. He isn’t overweight, doesn’t smoke or drink and maintains an active lifestyle including bicycling, hiking, hunting and physical labor at BHS south campus in the summers. When he first felt symptoms Oct. 10, they lined up with those associated with COVID-19, but he never considered the possibility of hospitalization. He just knew he felt awful. Test results confirmed his suspicions two days later.
“I’ve had the stomach flu before. I’ve had the common flu before. This was completely different,” Dave said from his hospital room Wednesday. “This one just knocked me down to where I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to walk. I didn’t want to do anything, because there was just no energy whatsoever.”
Dave stayed in the basement while Amy occupied the upper floors of their home, preparing meals for her husband and texting him so he could vacate the main area before she delivered them, double-masked. In seemingly a stroke of luck, Amy never contracted the virus from her husband, even though he was likely contagious before noticing his symptoms.
Using an oximeter Amy bought in April in preparation for the possibility someone in the family may become sick, Dave forced himself to wake up every hour or so, even throughout the night, to monitor his blood oxygen levels. At first, they hovered around 93-94%, just slightly below the normal range of 95-100%. He found he could increase the number by standing and walking around a bit. But after a week, the number dipped to 87% and stayed there. Based on advice from a call to Essentia Health, Dave knew what this meant. It was time to go to the emergency room. He drove himself there while Amy followed.
Hours away, the Borashes’ young adult daughters tried to focus on enjoying themselves as bridesmaids in a cousin’s wedding. But secretly, the words in a text from their mother nibbled at the edges of their consciousness. Dad was in the hospital and there was nothing they could do.
“It was really scary, but at the same time, we were at our cousin’s wedding, so we didn’t tell anybody until the next morning. We wanted everybody to be happy and enjoying the wedding because it’s their day and we didn’t want to make it about us,” Sylvia Borash said. “ … From what our mom had texted, it sounded like it was a precaution. We later learned it was a necessity, not a precaution.”
Despite the seriousness of Dave’s virus symptoms, he did not dwell on the potentially devastating outcomes the disease can bring. He said he was reassured by the calming and professional demeanor of his caretakers, and he instead spent most of his time feeling guilty for missing so much time with his students.
“These people are amazing, truly amazing. They’re heroes in my book,” Dave said of his health care team. “ … They tell me exactly what’s going on. They tell me what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. … So to be honest, I am up here; I feel completely safe. From the second I got in this room I never worried about it.”
Instead, his worry is focused on his daughter Sylvia, who continues to be haunted by lasting effects of her own bout with the disease.
Like breathing through a straw
Sylvia said she’s in the best shape of her life while working out for a living at Pure Barre in Arden Hills, a fitness center focused on ballet-inspired strength, cardio and flexibility classes. That’s saying something for a former dancer of 15 years with Brainerd’s Music General dance studio and an avid tap dancer, who now teaches classes at Northland School of Dance in Champlin.
On the morning of Sept. 17, Sylvia awoke with a fierce headache that no amount of medication seemed to tame. She soon had muscle aches, chills and a cough. But at first, she thought she felt unwell because she’d hardly slept the night before caring for her sick cat Appa.
“I had been definitely burning the candle at both ends for about two weeks,” Sylvia said. “ … I thought it was just exhaustion. I really hadn’t been sleeping well, and I was up all night making sure my cat was OK.”
It took four days with no improvement before Amy encouraged Sylvia to get tested for COVID-19. At the same time, Sylvia learned a fellow fitness instructor tested positive while asymptomatic, and she knew there was a chance she’d been exposed. She and her roommate Katrina Determan sought tests together, thinking if one was positive, they likely both were. But while Sylvia learned she’d contracted the virus, Katrina tested negative.
“She got tested like three times within the span of two weeks because both of us were just like, there’s no way she’s negative. We live together and we share a bathroom,” Sylvia said. “I stayed inside my room constantly. The only time I ever left my room was to go to the bathroom or to get food from the kitchen. We both wore masks outside our rooms in case we did run into each other in the common areas.”
Working with young dancers, Sylvia said she’s somewhat accustomed to catching colds and seems to get sick about once a year. But this time was different.
“I don’t remember the last time I felt that sick,” she said. “ … I’m usually able to work through it. I don’t feel that great while I’m doing it but working out, moving, that will usually kind of take my mind off of it. But I couldn’t get out of bed for at least a week. It took all of my energy to get out of bed. … I could breathe, but it kind of felt like I was breathing out of a straw. It was really hard to take deep breaths.”
As Sylvia began feeling better, her cough held on and she noticed twinges of pain in her chest. But it was nearly two weeks later, well after most of her symptoms were gone, that Sylvia realized the pain was no longer limited to deep breaths or coughs. Her chest hurt all the time now — a sharp, constant pain. She called urgent care for advice, concerned her physical activity might be exacerbating it. After describing her state to a triage nurse, the response was somewhat alarming.
“He just basically told me, ‘You need to get off the phone with me and immediately go the emergency room,’” Sylvia said.
Tests, bloodwork and a chest X-ray later, everything returned normal results, leading doctors to offer two possible causes: She may have pulled a chest muscle, inflamed the lining of her lungs or both due to the incessant coughing. The only remedies were ice, ibuprofen and time. As of Thursday, Sylvia said she’s still experiencing significant lingering chest pain.
“It can literally happen to anyone, no matter what your age is, or healthy or unhealthy you are, and what you do for a living, and it’s debilitating,” she said. “It’s an awful thing to go through.”
More than survival
The Borashes count themselves among those who’ve been extra cautious in following recommendations of public health experts. They’ve stayed close to home, wear masks consistently and don’t spend time in large groups, they all said. Dave said he’s been extra diligent with masking in the return to school, donning it in his vehicle before entering and not touching or removing it until he’s out of the building for the day.
“People keep telling me, ‘You’re the poster child for social distancing, the poster child for wearing a mask, you’re the poster child for being extra cautious,’” Dave said. “And I am. So to get hit by this is kind of surprising.”
But while the measures are intended to lessen the spread, it’s nearly impossible to completely eliminate the risk, particularly when the actions of others are part of the equation. Cloth masks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are a tool to protect others by containing respiratory droplets, not for protecting oneself.
“Some of us are just going to get it. I understand that. But if I can prevent someone else from getting it by my actions, I think it’s worth it,” Dave said. “And to be honest, to wear a mask is nothing, right? It’s nothing. It doesn’t take more than a second to put the thing on.”
Amy said she’s losing her patience with those who aren’t taking COVID-19 seriously, and she’s concerned about the trajectory of spread in the lakes area. Even a Facebook post she made about her own husband in intensive care garnered skeptical comments and suspect medical advice from people she didn’t know. She said she knows many people assume the illness will be no worse than a cold, and while that may be the case for some, there are no guarantees.
“That’s the thing. My daughter is fine. She’s not dead,” Amy said. “But what is fine? Does her being still in pain not constitute for anything? Does her having to sit down in the middle of teaching — sit down, at 22 — not matter? I think people really need to consider, what’s your definition of fine? … Surviving is a pretty damn low bar. We should want more than survival.”
She and Sylvia emphasized the importance of not only wearing masks, but wearing them properly. This does not include wearing them below one’s nose, which is just as much a potential source for infected respiratory droplets as the mouth.
“Take it seriously. I just wish I could stress that as much as I can,” Sylvia said. “ … It is a big deal and cases will continue to rise if people aren’t careful. The mask goes over your nose. Please wear it right.”
Libby noted at 19, some her age don’t seem to understand the seriousness of the pandemic.
“I feel like if I hear somebody my age, if they say that it’s a hoax, I want to tell them you don’t really know what’s going to happen or how long it’s going to last,” she said. “People are allowed to have their opinions, but I think they need to be careful what they say. Because they don’t know what it’s like in first person — having somebody you love go through it. It’s really hard. I definitely stand up for my dad and my sister or anybody that has to go through this.”