What it’s like to have COVID-19: Saint Johner breaks silence on illness

Kym Murphy was careful. She washed her hands. She practised physical distancing. 

But the usually healthy, vibrant 54-year-old still contracted COVID-19. 

“I was so careful with hand washing,” said Murphy, a motorcycle enthusiast and mother of one who works as a school bus driver in Greater Saint John. “I didn’t go out. I went on walks with my dog. That’s it. I didn’t have any contact with anybody.

“I joked at the beginning that self-isolation wouldn’t affect me because I stay home a lot anyhow.”

Murphy is an avid motocyclist and a mother of one son, 20, and is now self-isolating at home. (Submitted by Kym Murphy)

Nevertheless, she started experiencing “odd” symptoms on March 19, roughly one week after her last day of work on March 13. 

“It started with a congested headache,” she said. Throbbing pain radiated from the back of her head up to her temples. Her mouth, throat and eyes were bone-dry. 

“I started to get extremely tired and achy with sweats and chills,” she said. 

For the “surreal” week of March 21 to March 29, she struggled to get out of bed.

Strange symptom

Murphy knew she was sick. 

But she had none of the symptoms that warrant testing for COVID-19, according to New Brunswick’s official diagnostic criteria. 

“I didn’t have the fever, I didn’t have shortness of breath, I didn’t have the coughing,” she said

“But I just felt that there was something not right.”

What finally prompted her to call 811 was a symptom that didn’t appear anywhere in the government of New Brunswick information.

A Government of New Brunswick infographic lists only three symptoms of COVID-19: cough, difficulty breathing, and fever. (GNB)

“I could taste and smell nothing,” she said. 

She placed a few drops of tea tree oil on her hand. Her nose barely registered the pungent aroma — a loss of sensation that could be, a friend warned, a symptom of COVID-19.

“When that happened to me, I called 811,” she said. 

‘I’m going to die by myself’

She got an appointment the next day, March 26, at a testing centre on Loch Lomond Road in east Saint John. 

The centre was like “a tented drive-thru,” she said, staffed by security guards and nurses in hazmat suits. 

The drive-thru COVID-19 testing centre at 4347 Loch Lomond Rd., where Murphy tested positive for the virus. (Horizon Health Network)

She went home still firmly believing she would test negative.  

“I thought, I can’t wait to get this negative news and get on with my life knowing that I just had a bad flu,” she said. 

Until the following day. The phone rang. It was Public Health. 

“Once she said this is Public Health calling, I’ve got you on speakerphone and I’m sitting here with a doctor — that’s when I knew.

“The psychological aspect of it was pretty freaky. There were times when I thought, ‘Oh my god, when is it going to hit my lungs? I’m going to die by myself. What’s going to happen to my son?

“That whole gamut.”

Murphy quaratined at home as soon as she started experiencing symptoms. (Submitted by Kym Murphy)

1st community transmission case

Murphy spent “two to three hours” on the phone with Public Health that evening, retracing her every step over the past several weeks. 

Did she contract the virus on one of her walks with her dog, Lili Marlene? From touching a door handle? A stray cough from someone on the street? 

Murphy will likely never know. 

She said officials told her she was New Brunswick’s “first case of community transmission.”

Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health, announced the first cases of community transmission in New Brunswick on March 30. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

“They called me the province’s puzzle,” she said. “They can’t figure out where I contacted it from.”

She didn’t receive any prescriptions. No puffers. No pills to take. 

Just a daily phone check-in with a Public Health Nurse, and teas and herbal supplements she took on her own. 

“They told me to get lots of rest and drink lots of liquids. That was the only advice that I got,” she said.

She spent the following weeks in quarantine, not leaving the house for any reason. 

Re-testing concerns

She wants people to know the symptoms of COVID-19 aren’t as clear-cut as many people believe.

“I’m quite shocked that even now when you go on the website, and you do the self-assessment, that [more] symptoms aren’t there.”

Murphy is also concerned about re-testing for people who have tested positive for COVID-19 after their period of self-isolation ends. 

A swab used for a COVID-19 test. Murphy says she’s concerned that she was told she didn’t need to be retested for COVID-19 after completing her period of self-isolation. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Murphy said Public Health advised her that her isolation would end on April 4. 

When asked when she would be re-tested, she said the nurse informed her Public Health was “not doing that anymore.”

A request to New Brunswick’s Department of Public Health for comment was not immediately returned. 

“I’m not happy about that,” Murphy said. “I don’t want to go back out into the world without the certainty that I have tested negative.” 

‘People are terrified’

Murphy also experienced firsthand the stigma toward people with COVID-19. 

Sick in her bed at home, she scrolled through Facebook comments suggesting people who get the virus are “careless, or stupid, or travelled, or didn’t practise the necessary precautions.”

“That is not the case. I was very careful.”

When Dr. Jennifer Russell announced on March 31 that community transmission had been confirmed in New Brunswick, Murphy was disturbed to see people “demanding to know where patients lived, demanding to know how people could be so careless.”

Murphy with her dog, Lili Marlene. (Submitted by Kym Murphy)

“There’s ignorance, there’s lack of understanding. People are terrified,” she said. 

Despite her ordeal, Murphy considers herself lucky on two fronts. 

Before she called 811, the province had just announced “that they were starting to do wider testing,” she said. “And so I think I was just one of the lucky ones to slip in under that format,” she said.

Second, she said, the ordeal has given her a “new sense of positivity about my life. Maybe I’ll get more done, who knows.”

Murphy wants to go public with her private medical information to urge compassion toward people sick with COVID-19. 

“More than any other time that I’ve ever seen in my life, it’s so important that we have compassion for one another,” she said.

“There’s a minority of people out there who aren’t taking it seriously and they create this negative idea that careless people are transmitting this crazy disease,” she said. 

“That’s not the case. I really want people to understand that.”
 

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