Locals share realities of virus


    Panic set in for Stacy Van Buskirk on July 6, when she was told her family had been exposed to the coronavirus at a church service. Quarantine started immediately at their Brasstown home, and she began canceling plans and appointments.

    On July 10, the Cherokee County Health Department informed her she was a close contact, and she made an appointment to be tested. She was tested on July 12, while her 5-year-old son was tested on July 16.
    As people return to normal activities, more of them unfortunately will become a number on a dashboard tracking COVID-19.
    More than 3,000 people have been tested in Cherokee County, and businesses all over the county have been affected, Health Director David Badger said. Every zip code in the county has had someone who tested positive, according to data provided by the N.C. Department of Health & Human Services.

Mayor’s family infected
    Murphy Mayor Rick Ramsey was among those who first thought the virus was just “a new strain of really bad flu.” Then his 35-year-old daughter in Canton, Ga., tested positive. He was concerned as she told him the results, as well as the symptoms she had that inspired her to get tested.
    “It was a total game-changer for me,” Ramsey said.
    A few days later, he got another phone call. His 6-year-old granddaughter had also tested positive.
    “I totally had this sense of somewhat panic,” Ramsey said. “I knew if the husband went down, the 2-year-old is the only one left in the house.”
    He had a hazmat suit from city hall, with gloves and cleaning supplies, ready in his vehicle.
    “I told my daughter I’m on my way,” Ramsey said. “My feeling was I had to go there.”
    She pleaded with him not to because she did not want her 64-year-old father to risk getting sick. He’s listened – so far.
    While his granddaughter – who had a temperature of 102, was nauseous and in a great deal of pain –  only suffered for two days and is fine today, his daughter has been sick for more than two weeks. She has been isolated upstairs in the bedroom, while the kids and her husband are downstairs. She’s a jogger, but she has been so weak, pained and fatigued she could barely shower.

‘You do not want this’
    His son-in-law was still waiting for his test results as of Monday. He had been waiting 10 days, and they were hoping he was positive so he’d possibly be near the recovery point. Any symptoms he had experienced were very mild.
    “This COVID is a box of chocolates,” Ramsey said.
    His daughter’s temperature has gone up to 104 degrees. In addition to pain, fatigue and fever, she’s had diarrhea, and her doctor has told her to eat and stay hydrated. Every day at 5:30 p.m., her doctor checks in on her to review her condition.
    Ramsey said the virus is hitting her mentally, too. Not only has she been a little foggy, but being isolated every day for so long is getting to her. She was feeling like she could participate in a work-related videoconference meeting this week, but her family was concerned of her overdoing it.
    There’s no medication to help her. The doctor thinks she could be up and down, then feeling better for about two more weeks.
    “You’re doing your best to coexist with this awful virus until it decides to leave you alone,” Ramsey said.
    Now that he knows what it’s like, he would like to encourage people to wear masks, helping protect their families and themselves.
    “I don’t want to wear a mask, but I’m wearing one,” Ramsey said. “You do not want this. It is not the flu.”

One resident’s story
    While the first confirmed cases were discovered in March as testing became available, there are people who believe they had the virus as early as January and even November. The health department offers antibody testing at $70 as a peace-of-mind service to patients, and is not tracking those tests. Badger said not many people have done the antibody testing, and it’s unlikely anyone who did not leave the area during those months had the virus.
    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention explains that antibody tests may show if a person’s body had a past infection. While antibodies can provide protection from getting a disease again, scientists are still studying COVID-19 to determine if a person who has recovered from the virus could get infected again.
    One resident, Ann Lukens of Unaka, may have had the virus even though she never tested positive for it. Before she started feeling sick, she was in good health for her age, and rarely got the flu. She had a health and even a pandemic planning background, and had been following global health news about the virus.
    She and her husband, Jan, made jokes at first about her having the virus, but thought she simply had the flu. Her symptoms started in January, and she did test positive for a strain of the flu, but by mid-to-late February, as her fevers and symptoms continued, her thoughts changed.
    “I started thinking this is not typical,” Lukens recalled last week.

‘It’s not like the flu’
    She was taking a class at John C. Campbell Folk School in January and, matching her timeline of symptoms, it’s apparent that’s where she could have caught it – especially since once she starting feeling sick, all she and her husband wanted to do was stay home. Lukens publicly shared on social media what she went through.
    “I was using inhalers, nebulizer, decongestants and trying to function,” she shared on July 9. “I was extremely short of breath with any exertion, my pulse would race and my oxygen saturation would drop quite a bit. I was prescribed oxygen, and have been on it at home and sleeping with it.”
    During that time, she went to four different doctors searching for answers. When she took a test for COVID-19 in mid-March, it came back negative.
    While her fevers stopped March 23, she continued to have fatigue and shortness of breath. She’s since taken a second COVID-19 test and an antibody test, both of which came back negative.
    On July 7, she visited a pulmonologist in Atlanta who was recommended by friends who are nurses. He told her he believed she had the virus and was having a prolonged recovery.
    He advised her to make her lungs work – like garden, walk and walk uphill – so the lungs relearn how to respond to increased oxygen demand. After a week of exercising, she’s getting better, but has been told she may not be able to return to full lung capacity.
    Lukens wants people to know they don’t need to be horribly sick or hospitalized for this virus to be a life-changer.
    “It’s not like the flu,” she said. “People need to know it can be a long, drawn-out thing.”

‘Panic attacks’
    As Van Buskirk awaited the results of her test, her son’s came back negative.
    “When I’m busy, I’m fine,” she said. “But, when I’m showering or doing something where I’m lost in my thoughts, I have panic attacks. … I worry about something happening to me while my kids are young.”
    Van Buskirk learned that about 10 people from her church tested positive. Some had mild symptoms, but two had gotten so sick they visited the emergency room. Several employees of a local manufacturing business attend her church, and those employees were all tested for exposure at work.
    No one in her family has had a fever or experienced any major symptoms. Van Buskirk has had a burning sensation in her sinuses and has felt more drained. She has asthma and allergies, and has had other sinus issues as a result. She’s heard her husband and kids cough at times, but nothing that appeared sick, yet.
    Van Buskirk said she was always very cautious about the virus, but got lax as the local case numbers went down.
    “There is no one to blame. Not myself, not the church, not people’s work places,” she said. “It’s a virus, we could’ve literally caught something anywhere, but at least we knew quickly so we could slow back down and keep our family safe.”
    On Saturday, she got her results – she tested negative. She plans to continue slowing down and taking precautions. On Sunday, her family attended church from home by watching online.