While living with COVID-19, Laura Hillenbrand '89 writes, "I wake to the weight of the fallen sky on my chest."
March 14, Saturday. The sway of an Oregon road. Light scattered over pavement. A creek. A breeze sings through trees. I stop my car and breathe it in.
My chest feels strangely compressed, as if bound. My lungs feel dense. Pulling air is effort. I inhale, exhale, listening: A sifting sound. I cough but it’s dry. My throat and mouth are raw, and my tongue tastes metallic.
The COVID-19 pandemic is coming. In my little town, people are frightened. Schools are closing, gatherings banned. Shoppers scuffle over toilet paper, summoning police. COVID tests are in extremely short supply. Officials are pleading for PPE donations from veterinarians, nail salons, anyone. A local doctor has been forced to use a scuba mask. Up in Seattle, people are dying in exponentially growing numbers. Feeling a flicker of worry, I drive home and quarantine myself.
I’m breathless. Brushing my teeth, I pant. I’m shimmering hot, then rattling with chills. I suck chocolate to cool my scorched throat. My bones ache. I take a walk but turn back two houses away, exhausted. When speaking, I stop mid-sentence to catch air. I cough in jagged fits, feeling like I’m breathing through a pillow.
All week, I rollercoaster. One hour I’m struggling to breathe, the next better. I ride out the crises, waiting for the ebbs. Toward week’s end, my chest feels freer. I’m through the worst, I think.
I’m not. On day seven, a walk to my kitchen leaves me so winded I sink onto a step. I’m down for 10 minutes, stunned. My lungs feel bruised, as if my chest has been struck. That evening, a friend gets me on the phone with an ICU chief. He’s worried. “I can hear it,” he says of my obstructed breathing. He has an ER doctor call. They give me a presumptive diagnosis of COVID but don’t think I have to go to a hospital tonight.
Day eight. I wake to the weight of the fallen sky on my chest. I rise gasping, lightheaded. My lungs feel as if they’re collapsing.
A health care worker friend races over with a pulse oximeter. She tosses it to my porch and watches through a window as I hold up fingers to show blood oxygen readings. The numbers fall and fall. I’m stammering and can’t think cogently. Chills shudder through me. I text the ICU doctor. Get to an ER now, he says.
Expecting a flood of patients, the hospital is building tents in the parking lot. I must go in alone, they’ve told me, in a mask. I have a good mask for wildfire smoke, but I can’t pull enough air through it. I tug it off and fumble to get a lighter mask on. I reel in, woozy, moving through a drowning dream. They’ve closed the glass windows at the desk, so I have to nearly shout. Calling out the letters of my name is too much. I stagger, my back slaps a wall, and I slide to the floor.
They tell me to stand outside, by the ambulance door. No one comes. My coat has slid halfway off. I’m too weak to pull it up, so I stand in swaying disarray, chest heaving, shaking violently. I sink to the concrete.
The doors open. I push myself up. They hurry me into a sealed room. On the bed, I’m breathing hard, trembling in tooth-chattering bursts. The staff swirls around me, wearing elaborate gear, running tests. I answer questions, groping through mindfog, stifling my cough.
Hours pass. I breathe better. Another ebb has come. They let me leave, telling me to assume it’s COVID. If I nosedive again, come back.
Weeks pass. I don’t get better. A pulmonologist at a COVID clinic confirms I have the virus. With luck I won’t crash again, he says, but it’ll be a long road back. My internist says massive inflammation has shut down some 75% of my lung capacity.
I write my siblings about ventilators and the decisions they might have to make if I deteriorate again. I ask them to have no regrets if they have to let me go. I write people I love, saying the things I never said.
Friends leave groceries in the driveway. The exertion of calling out thanks fells me. My boyfriend takes me on drives in the countryside. On bumpy roads, my lungs jar painfully. Once, I get out and try a slow downhill walk. After a few dozen yards, I sink into a ditch, gasping, and return home simmering with fever and wrecked by exhaustion. I fall into sobs but have to smother them. I can’t breathe and cry at once.
It’s been seven weeks. I rest, meditate, sleep and hope I’m healing. I live in this moment, this breath, all I have, all I need. I have jagged, grieving hours, but most shine with an unlikely, overwhelmingly grateful joy.
How precious is the ephemeral beauty of everything.
Yesterday on our drive we came upon a sheep in labor in a field. I got out and walked to her. I sat in the grass, realizing my legs had carried me there with effort, but without failing. My breaths came in constricted pulls, but they were enough.
A tiny brown lamb slid into the world and rose to her first trembling steps. I sang out with gratitude. I’m here.
Laura Hillenbrand '89 H’03 is the bestselling author of “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” and “Seabiscuit: An American Legend.” In an update, Hillenbrand reported that after two and a half months, her symptoms finally began to ease. She’s now confident that she’s on her way to a full recovery.