By August, Kim Partee had devoted 17 months to caring for COVID-19 and other patients as a front-line nurse at the W.G. (Bill) Hefner Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salisbury, North Carolina. Life was full at home in nearby Rockwell, too. Her son Nick, 18, daughter Kara, 27, and Kara’s two young children kept the house lively, while son Xavier, 24, lived nearby.
Nick was excited to return to in-person classes for his senior year of high school. Within days, he contracted COVID-19. Kim knew what to do. She had cared for so many patients with this punishing disease already. But it’s different when it’s your son.
Kim’s sister, Pratrice, called Kim regularly to check on Nick. Only a year apart in age, the sisters were close, like best friends. When Kim admitted she was lingering in Nick’s sick room perhaps a little more often than necessary, Pratrice felt free to admonish her. “You gotta get out of there!”
“I just want to see his face,” Kim confessed. She knew why Pratrice was so worried. Kim had planned to get her COVID-19 vaccine, but hadn’t done it just quite yet.
Within a couple of weeks, Kim realized her back hurt. Then she started developing ulcers in her mouth, a symptom Nick also experienced.
Nick was still recovering when Kim was diagnosed with COVID-19. Nick was bouncing back relatively quickly, and Kim assumed she would, too. Her illness didn’t subside, though.
Pratrice came to stay with the family. She did what she could to nurse Kim back to health while maintaining her full-time job as a manager with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
As it turned out, things were just getting started.
Delusions, a BiPap machine and life support
Kim’s condition worsened. She couldn’t breathe. Following treatment at a local hospital, she experienced another setback at home.
Pratrice knew it was essential to monitor her sister’s oxygen level. The level dropped so low on Aug. 31 that Pratrice called an ambulance. By that point, Kim was delusional, refusing to get into the ambulance and making crazy statements: “My children are grown. They don’t need me anymore if anything happened to me.”
Pratrice was frightened. This was the coronavirus talking, not the sister who doted on her children and grandchildren. Pratrice called their father, who cajoled Kim into obtaining the treatment she needed. “You can’t say no to your dad,” Kim explained later.
At Novant Health Rowan Medical Center in Salisbury, Kim’s chest X-ray showed the symptoms of pneumonia, according to Dr. Abayomi Agbebi, director of infectious diseases.
Kim’s team at the hospital administered oxygen and kept increasing the dose over the next few days. So far, the treatment wasn’t helping. Her breathing grew more ragged. The hospitalist (a doctor who specializes in hospital care) gave the order to switch her to a BiPap machine, which delivers oxygen through a mask or with nasal plugs. He made that call to avoid putting Kim on a ventilator, also known as life support.
Agbebi didn’t pretend the BiPap machine would be easy to bear. He explains to patients that the sensation is like “someone’s in a car going 100 miles an hour. You’re putting your head out the window and someone’s forcing that air down into your lungs. It’s not comfortable.” But he hoped it would be enough.
It wasn’t. On Sept. 5, the critical care doctor concluded that a ventilator offered the best – and truly, the only – chance for Kim to recover. Still, he knew the odds. About 20 to 25 percent of patients sick enough to require a ventilator at Novant Health eventually get well and return home.
A nurse called Pratrice at 4:53 a.m. about the plan for a ventilator. Pratrice could hear Kim gasping in the background, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”
She gathered all her courage to reassure her sister. “We’re going to get you the help you need.”
Pratrice was experiencing “a ball of emotions” inside but didn’t have time to care. While Kim was in the hospital, Kara, Kim’s daughter, had come down with COVID, too, which left Pratrice as the sole adult caregiver in the household. Between work, calling the hospital to get status reports on her sister, caring for Kara and the children, and sanitizing the house to prevent the kids from getting COVID, “it was a lot,” Pratrice said.
She especially didn’t want her great-niece, great-nephew or parents to see her crying. She felt she had to be strong, to lead the charge and encourage everyone that Kim would be fine.
Even if she wasn’t positive that was true.
Protect yourself and your family.
A tearful call home
Kim stayed sedated on the ventilator for eight days with a breathing tube in her throat. Agbebi saw her every day to encourage her about her progress. Her team gradually turned down the level of oxygen until it was safe to remove her from the breathing machine.
On her final day on the ventilator, Agbebi told her, “I know you’re ready to get that tube out.” A few hours later, she was sipping a Pepsi. It tasted all the sweeter after her days on life support.
Her voice had weakened to a whisper because of the ventilator. While no one could really hear her well yet, she knew who she wanted to call first: Pratrice.
“When I was able to talk to my family, I just cried,” Kim said. She had never been away from her children that long in her entire life.
Now she tells everyone to get the vaccine. “I don’t want anybody to have to experience what I experienced – the loss of time and the burden it put on my family, just to see me in that condition.”
She added: “If I could do it all over again, I would have gotten the vaccine early on, because it’s the responsible thing to do.” Depending on the day, all or nearly all COVID-19 patients on a ventilator at Novant Health are unvaccinated.
Agbebi seconds Kim’s recommendation and urges even people who have already had COVID to get the vaccine. It’s not safe to assume that antibodies – a protein the immune system uses to fend off viruses – will protect you. The level of antibodies after a case of COVID varies by person, “so you don’t know how much protection you have,” Agbebi said. The immunity that antibodies offer is not long lasting, either.
When Kim finally left the hospital with Pratrice on Sept. 21, their extended family was waiting for them at home. Their dad revealed how family members had been praying for Kim in different shifts.
Pratrice teared up telling this story, knowing how it might have ended differently. She found courage in her faith. “I couldn’t deal with the other option that she wasn’t going to make it.”
More than a month later, Kim is still on supplemental oxygen at home and plans to return to work once she gains endurance and her body heals. Recovery from COVID-19 sometimes takes weeks, if not months.
She is grateful to her Novant Health team for “taking time out to save my life, because I mean a lot to a lot of people.”