Patient Stories

Recovering from Severe COVID-19

Jul. 27, 2021

After witnessing the devastating effects of COVID-19 firsthand, Vadisha Steward, RN, never expected to experience the same fate as her patients.

Before COVID-19

“I remember that impending doom. I told myself if I don’t do something now, I am not going to make it through the night,” said Vadisha Steward, RN, reflecting back on the critical moments leading to her second hospitalization for COVID-19 back in October 2020.

Before that day, the day where everything changed for Vadisha, for the most part, things were looking great for the 44-year-old mother of four. She was staying busy, traveling with her husband to watch her daughter’s tennis tournaments, spending quality time in her garden that she loves very much and had even just recently began her career as a nurse, something she had been working toward for a long time.

Vadisha had worked as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) for 19 years. Taking care of people at the bedside was always her passion. During that time, she was honored with the Linda Delaney Award in 2007, nominated for a Florence Nightingale Award in 2008 and was inducted into the Alpha Delta Nu Nursing Honors Society in 2019.

She then went on to graduate at the top of her class in nursing school. “It was amazing, I didn’t believe I could do it, and I did it,” she said.

However, that is when things began to shift. Two days before she took her NCLEX-RN exam, her family was devastated by the loss of her uncle whom Vadisha saw as “like a father” to her.

“I took the NCLEX and passed my first time taking it, crying my whole way through it,” she said. “As soon as I finished the test, I got in the car and drove all the way to St. Louis, Missouri, and had to plan a funeral. From then on (July 10, 2019), it’s been tragic.”

The First Hospitalization: Suffering From Asthma and COVID-19

Shortly after Vadisha and her family suffered the loss of Vadisha’s uncle, COVID-19 began to impact the world, and as a freshly certified nurse, she was called into action. Working part-time in the intensive care unit (ICU) of two different hospitals, Vadisha stayed at the bedside of many COVID-19 patients and saw its devastating effects firsthand. Months went by as she was working to save lives, never expecting that in October 2020, she would face the same struggle as her patients.

She recalls that day all starting with minor symptoms, such as coughing and shortness of breath, however, as someone who had suffered from asthma her whole life, she didn’t pay much attention to it. Explaining to herself this was all normal, she used her inhaler and continued about her day.

But when she found herself needing to take her inhaler far more frequently than usual, she began to suspect that something was off. She started to develop a migraine and chills, but her temperature was only slightly higher than usual at 99 degrees Fahrenheit.

The next morning, Oct. 30, 2020, Vadisha seemed relatively fine and without a fever, but things quickly turned for the worst. Her symptoms had greatly worsened, and she had developed a dangerously high fever at 104.

“I went from being OK to not being able to breathe in a matter of minutes, “she explained.

Struggling for each breath, Vadisha got in the car and rushed herself from Kenwood, Ohio, to the Emergency Department at UC Medical Center. She remembers getting worse and worse and as a nurse who has seen this before, she knew that she was getting closer to full respiratory distress.

Once she arrived in the Emergency Department, she was put on oxygen and was given a full workup complete with a bedside echo of her heart and chest X-rays. She was then tested for COVID-19, admitted to the hospital and remained on oxygen for 24 hours. Her COVID-19 test came back positive.

“I remember finding out that I had COVID-19 when I was in the hospital. I cried that entire day because I remember having patients in the ICU and knowing what COVID-19 could do to asthma patients. I didn’t want to die,” she said.

After four days, a moment of relief followed as Vadisha and her care team at UC Medical Center suspected she was coming up on the end of her illness. After receiving oxygen, Vadisha felt much better and looked forward to going home after what seemed like a whirlwind of events. Events she was hopeful to leave in the past once she left the hospital. To think everything started with what she thought initially was an asthma attack.

The Second Hospitalization: Finding Hope at UC Health

Three days had passed since her hospital stay and any wishful thinking of Vadisha’s battle with COVID-19 ending had long gone away. She knew her health was once again declining.

“For 24 hours I couldn’t lay flat, couldn’t get up to go to the bathroom, couldn’t talk and couldn’t walk,” she recalled.

Vadisha knew that if she did not act, she would not survive. Not wanting to frighten her husband with this news, she calmly went to pack a bag for a hospital stay. This stay she knew deep down would be much longer than her last. Her husband quickly caught on and jumped up to help grab her stuff and helped her down the stairs to the car. She recalls this taking what seems like forever because she could hardly move.

As they pulled up once again to the UC Medical Center Emergency Department, Vadisha’s husband helped her out of the car and she instantly collapsed. A police officer inside rushed out with a wheelchair to help them and escorted her to the back where she was immediately put on oxygen.

Once she was able to catch her breath, she remembers insisting to the care team that she wanted plasma treatment and asking if she qualified, wasting no time in using her experience to involve herself in care decisions. She was then admitted, taken upstairs and was given the plasma treatment as requested.

After two days under the care of staff at UC Medical Center, she was starting to feel better. But there was much recovering to do. Her heart rate still spiked every time she got up to move and she still needed to stay on oxygen. After a 12-day hospital stay, a request was put in for her to begin pulmonary rehab and she was given oxygen to take home with her.

Recovering from COVID-19 with the help of Nationally Recognized Experts

After her discharge from UC Medical Center, Vadisha was then quarantined at home for 30 days. She started pulmonary rehabilitation on Dec. 4, 2020, and a week later, she met with Anjali D. Pearce, MD, UC Health primary care physician and assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, for the first time since her hospitalization. Dr. Pearce is Vadisha’s doctor.

At that visit, Vadisha remembers Dr. Pearce thanking her for being an advocate for herself throughout that time and an advocate for pulmonary rehab being a part of the recovery plan for COVID-19 patients.

“I think our pulmonary rehab team has really helped her. Although she is not fully recovered, she has found a creative path to use her nursing skills and has finally returned to her nursing role. Her quest for recovery has also helped teach our practice to refer similar patients to rehab with good results,” Dr. Pearce said.

Since starting pulmonary rehab with the UC Heart, Lung and Vascular Institute Cardiopulmonary and Cancer Rehabilitation and Wellness Program, Vadisha has made great strides in her recovery journey.

“When I first got there, I couldn’t even finish the six-minute walk test without having an asthma attack,” she said.

Vadisha went on to explain that her pulmonology care team helped her and other patients work on getting stronger through weight training, cardio training, pulmonary training and diet management, as well as education on key health topics to aid in their wellness plans. The Cardiopulmonary and Cancer Rehabilitation and Wellness Program customizes personalized exercise programs for cancer patients and patients like Vadisha who are recovering from either a cardiac or lung-related illness.

“The UC Health Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program is individualized for each patient’s diagnosis and goals. We have a multidisciplinary team of nurses, respiratory therapists and exercise physiologists. Each of these clinical specialties assist with aiding the patients to reach their personal goals and vision of wellness,” said Yvette Gerdes, director of Cardiac, Pulmonary, Vascular and Cancer Rehabilitation and Wellness at UC Health.

Now, Vadisha no longer needs to use her at-home oxygen all the time. Instead, she only needs it after being out on her feet for extended periods of time. She is also able to complete her hour-long therapy with the oxygen off — something she was unable to do when she first began her pulmonary rehab. In fact, she has recently completed her first mini-heart marathon with those who are part of the rehab program at UC Health.

“That was a goal of mine. I was so happy that I was able to join them, it was a blessing. It took me a while, but they walked with me and when I needed to stop, they stopped with me and waited,” said Vadisha.

Bringing Together the Power of Academic Medicine

Vadisha describes her relationship with her UC Health care team as being like family to her now and notes that she would not be where she is now in her recovery without them. UC Health is the region’s only adult academic health system, which brings together highly skilled subspecialized clinicians who can provide the highest standard of care for patients. To help provide the care Vadisha needed, UC Health connected her to a collaborative multidisciplinary team that included experts in specialties like pulmonary medicine, cardiology, general internal medicine, rheumatology and the UC Headache and Facial Pain Center.

Throughout the course of Vadisha’s patient journey at UC Health, several physicians provided expert care to her in clinic such as her primary care physician, Dr. Pearce, along with Richard C. Becker, MD, director of the UC Heart, Lung and Vascular Institute, director of the Division of Cardiovascular Health Diseases and professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the UC College of Medicine. Dr. Becker led the creation and development of UC Health’s COVID-19 Clinic.

Other members of Vadisha’s care team included Robert Burkes, MD, instructor of pulmonary disease and critical care medicine at the UC College of Medicine and a UC Health physician; and Vincent Martin, MD, director of the UC Headache and Facial Pain Center and professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the UC College of Medicine.

“COVID-19 can affect one or more organs of the body and for many patients, has an early phase and a prolonged phase. Optimal care requires the collective knowledge and expertise of a team of dedicated clinicians across multiple disciplines of medicine,“ said Dr. Becker.

Recognizing the complex care patients like Vadisha often require, UC Health also offers a post-COVID-19 support group. This group is designed to help with the psychological stress COVID-19 survivors often face.

“UC Medical Center is my hospital now and they will be my hospital forever. I will always choose UC Health,” said Vadisha.

Her recovery has been hard, and she knows that there is still a long way to go, but she holds out hope that one day she can do the little things again that she once loved to do so much.

“Being in my garden and on my hands and knees in the dirt was something I loved to do. I love color and there I would get lost in it,” she said. “It’s one of those gardens where all the flowers grow together like a carpet. When I was out there, everything else would just go away.”