Domonique Kimbrough, 49, is a medical unit receptionist. A MUR, as they’re known inside the hospital, is basically an air traffic controller for patients and team members on her unit at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center. She answers phones, patient call bells, all the time juggling endless little details that flow through a nurses’ station. She works nights, but that doesn’t mean her shift is quiet. Patients have needs in the middle of the night, too.
She’s endured the unimaginable since COVID-19 struck last year. She worked on COVID units, which are among the most demanding floors in the hospital. She got a rough case of COVID herself. And she lost a sister to the pandemic that has now killed more than 700,000 Americans.
“Oh, my God,” she said, when asked what she’s been through. “Last year, I worked in the ICU – the COVID ICU. And, those patients are on ventilators (also known as life support). They couldn’t see their loved ones, because we were on strict lockdown – no visitors. I was able to talk to families that couldn't see their loved ones to give them updates, relay messages.”
She has seen members of the same family – husbands and wives, parent and child and siblings – in the ICU with COVID. Her current medical-surgical unit has 48 beds total, and 38 of them are reserved for COVID patients, and they essentially stay full.
“The majority of our patients are non-vaccinated,” said Patsy Michalak, nurse manager for the unit. “If they're not vaccinated, they're usually like, I'm getting it as soon as I can – or I wish I’d already gotten it.”
Domonique Kimbrough got COVID herself last year and is now one of the long haulers whose symptoms linger. Her sister, Zanthia Kimbrough, also got COVID and died Aug. 3 at just 52.
Kimbrough didn’t pass COVID along to her sister, or vice versa. Her sister had her gallbladder removed and had a home health care worker coming in to change the wound dressing as it was healing. She contracted COVID during her convalescence.
“I've cried every day since her memorial service,” Kimbrough said.
It’s not clear how Kimbrough got COVID last fall. When she first started feeling sick, she thought it was just a sinus infection. It was – but she also had COVID. And then pneumonia and respiratory failure. She was in critical care – just one step away from the ICU – at Novant Health Kernersville Hospital – for more than a week. She was given Remdesivir, the same drug former President Trump got when he was hospitalized for COVID.
After she was sent home, she still had trouble breathing. She went from one specialist to another, had one scan after another, and no one could give her a definitive diagnosis.
“I know my body,” she said. “I knew something was wrong with me and it wasn’t just in my head. I kept going to doctors until I found one who could tell me what was wrong.” She had COVID long-hauler syndrome, or post-COVID complications that can make breathing difficult and everyday tasks exhausting.
Kimbrough suspects her immune response was low when she contracted COVID. “I lost my grandmother two years prior to COVID, and every day, I grieved,” she said. “My immune system got weak from stress.”
Like a tornado
Anyone can get COVID. It does not discriminate.
"I have equated COVID to a tornado,” said Michalak. “Tornadoes have their own path. They'll hit a row of houses and then skip one street and then destroy the next one over. COVID will do the same thing. Somebody you might think would be affected by COVID because of all their comorbidities (chronic health problems or other risks) may not be as affected as somebody who is perfectly healthy. It doesn't matter what color you are, what you do for a living or where you live.”
“Domonique had no real health problems,” she said, by way of example. “And she had a severe case and has had a lot of residual effects.”
Some people think of masking and getting vaccinated as being political, Michalak added. “But I don't think it's political at all. I think COVID is meant to teach us – as a society – something, but I'm not sure what it is. I mean, I've learned a lot, and my unit has learned a lot, but someone, somewhere is not learning the lesson we are meant to learn."
Michalak learned her lesson the hard way. Last September, she got COVID and passed it on to her husband, Eddie. “Because I love him so much,” she said with a laugh. (In the midst of a crisis, a sense of humor helps.)
She was out of work for 10 days; her husband was out for a month and still has issues with taste and smell – proving her tornado analogy accurate. There’s not much logic to how hard someone can be hit by COVID. You don’t know if you’ll be lucky and have a mild case … or land in the ICU.
Michalak got the vaccine as soon as it was available to her: “I had my first dose on Christmas Eve and my second one mid-January.”
Kimbrough has been back at work since last November. She reports having good and bad days. She was out again for a week last December when she was too sick to work.
She’s gotten the COVID-19 vaccine – two doses of Pfizer – and wishes more people would. “It’s really about respect for others,” she said. “Wear a mask and get the vaccine. That’s it.”
There are days her oxygen levels drop to uncomfortably low levels. “I get upset because I'm not used to it,” she said. “I used to go, go, go.”
Michalak said the same thing. “Domonique has always been like the Energizer bunny; she’s always going, going, going. And this has really slowed her down, which has started to mess with her. She can't go like she used to, and then she second guesses herself, and that makes her mad because she's questioning: Why is it like this?”
“I worry about Domonique,” she continued. “I worry about all our teammates and their mental state. I think we’re all going to have a little bit of PTSD from all of this. We’ve seen such sick patients. Lots of them. I think it’s something we need to be aware of going forward – the mental toll this is taking on everyone, whether it's patients or their families or team.”
“I'm proud of Domonique for how she's handled all of this,” Michalak continued. “I think she's starting to accept that she needs to sometimes move at a slower pace.”
Kimbrough said, “I will honestly say I would never wish COVID on my worst enemy. And there are some people I do not care for.” (Her sense of humor remains fully intact.)
Michalak wants people to know COVID is “a very real thing.”
She asked rhetorically, “Why would you chance it when there are things you can do to prevent it or at least decrease the severity of it? Why would you not use them?”
Ready? Let's do it.