The long haul

RANGELY I Thanksgiving dinner preparations were underway last November when Rangely’s Wendi Gillard noticed she couldn’t smell the homemade cranberry sauce simmering on the stove or the turkey roasting in the oven. Or anything else. 

Gillard thought maybe she was just used to the cooking smells from being in the kitchen all day. She headed outside, and halfway back from the barn she was hit with sudden, crushing chest pain. 

When she went back in the house, she still couldn’t smell anything. The chest pain continued, and she couldn’t taste any of the food she’d prepared for the family’s Thanksgiving meal. 

Gillard, 41, is the compliance officer and quality/risk manager at Rangely District Hospital, and an EMT on the Rangely ambulance crew. Nearly a year into the COVID- 19 pandemic, she knew the symptoms. 

“I was scared,” she said. 

The next day more symptoms emerged, and Gillard learned others who had been in close contact with her were also sick. Her COVID test came back positive. 

As her illness progressed, besides the loss of taste and smell, symptoms included fatigue, headaches, muscle aches and joint pain, and a “tiny” cough. 

“My biggest symptom was the chest pain. It waxed and waned, and I ended up going to the ER for an EKG to make sure I wasn’t throwing any clots,” she said. The EKG came back normal. 

Chills and hot flashes, coupled with night sweats and insomnia, added to her discomfort for months. As days and weeks passed by, Gillard struggled with “brain fog” and extreme fatigue, skin rashes, memory loss and trouble finding the right words in conversation. 

“I did go to work. I’m the only ‘me.’ I worked from home and would call in for meetings. I did my desk job, very slowly.” Gillard was just released to return to her role as an EMT in the last month. 

“I felt like I was walking around with 15 10-pound bowling balls on each side of my body, just carrying them around,” she said of the fatigue she experienced. 

Just walking up the stairs with a laundry basket was exhausting, and she was physically unable to finish unpacking the house from their recent move to the family’s ranch. 

The chest pain continued. Gillard described feeling “every part” of her heart being “agitated or angry.” Her pulse rate fluctuated from more than 150 beats per minute (while sitting on the couch) to below 40. 

Cardiologists ruled out myocarditis and pericarditis, and she started medication that helped ease the continuous chest pain, but in December, she started experiencing shortness of breath. Her lung function had decreased by 25%. That decrease continued over three subsequent visits. She now carries three different inhalers to help her breathing. 

Gillard has been traveling to Fruita to a special post- COVID clinic for the last three months. “I just wanted to get my life back,” she said. Doctors there told her she was Vitamin D deficient, and said that’s common in younger, healthy people who have serious COVID illness. 

Doctors also prescribed speech and physical therapy. 

Anecdotal reports that COVID vaccinations improve long-hauler symptoms prompted Gillard to get vaccinated in April. She noticed some improvement after vaccination. “I could make it up the stairs with the laundry basket,” she said. 

At the beginning of July, Gillard found herself “teetering on the edge,” grieving the life she once knew. The post-COVID clinic prescribed a four-day course of human-grade Ivermectin. The anti-parasitic drug has yet to be fully reviewed for its efficacy in COVID patients and is not currently listed as an official treatment, but Gillard was willing to try anything. 

Ivermectin has been a source of controversy in recent months, as some people have self-medicated with the livestock version and overdosed. Gillard emphasizes that she got a prescription for the human formula with the dosage based on weight. 

Two days after finishing the treatment course, most of her symptoms abated, so much so that she was able to swim 41 laps at the Meeker Rec Center during the county fair. 

After 233 days, she finally had some relief. 

In the last month, however, she’s begun experiencing tremors in her upper body and hands bad enough that she can’t sign her name, type, or turn the pages of her Bible. She’s trying to get an appointment with a neurologist to determine the cause. In some of the long-hauler groups Gillard belongs to on Facebook, she’s found others who are experiencing similar neurological symptoms. 

“It [COVID] doesn’t behave like any other virus we’ve ever seen. It’s not linear. There’s no clear start point or end point and it attacks every single human being differently and different organ systems.” 

She thinks her A-positive blood type may have played a role in the severity of her disease. There has been some anecdotal evidence worldwide that people with blood type A may be more likely to experience long-hauler syndrome. 

But it’s not black and white. “You really can’t predict who will get really sick and who won’t.” Gillard had none of the comorbidities that would indicate the possibility of serious illness. She’s talked to others who’ve had mild or asymptomatic cases and are now having serious cardiac issues, or other long-hauler symptoms, months later. 

“I’m sure there are masses of people who are having crazy things happen after having the disease or having it and not even knowing it,” she said. 

“It’s had a huge impact on my whole family,” Gillard said. “You feel like you’re crazy, like everybody thinks you’re faking. You feel like you’re never going to get your life back again.” 

Even with insurance, travel time and costs to see specialists, testing, and prescription co-pays have been a drain. 

Surprisingly, no one else in the Gillard family fell ill, although they were all together and exposed. No one else in the family showed symptoms. They tested twice, and none of them came back positive. 

Five of the couple’s nine children, who range in age from 10 to 23, are getting vaccinated. 

Her husband, a combat veteran, remains vaccine-hesitant, and is concerned about the potential loss of freedom that may come from actions taken to fight the pandemic. “There are definitely things going on out there that are a concern,” Gillard added. 

In talking to others about the virus and her experience, Gillard says she tries to explain her personal situation and is concerned about the politicization and emotional charge to everything. 

“Take all of the emotion and politics away and look at the whole picture,” she said. 

“It’s definitely something to take seriously on every level. Not just because you may die from it, because you may just live like this forever.” 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gillard shared her personal experience as a citizen, not speaking on behalf of the hospital.