Chickasaw woman recounts family's battle against COVID-19
January 28, 2021
ADA, Okla. – Two months into a battle with COVID-19, Chickasaw citizen Nicole Willis hopes lingering symptoms will diminish but is resigned to the possibility "this may be the new me."
Mrs. Willis' fight is typical and atypical. Despite fighting the virus since mid-November, she still suffers body aches, fatigue, headaches, and the much more dangerous illness of COVID-19 pneumonia, a condition that landed her in the Chickasaw Nation Medical Center emergency room.
"I still have a difficult time catching my breath. When I become too physically active, I am quickly reminded that I am still recovering from pneumonia. Sometimes, even carrying on a conversation leaves me short of breath and exhausted," Mrs. Willis explained.
She lost her senses of taste and smell. The maladies still plague her.
"Unless food is very salty or spicy, I cannot taste it. My sense of smell is compromised as well. I can't smell my perfume. In fact, unless the odor is fairly strong, I cannot detect it," she said.
Her entire family, husband Michael, daughter Lila, 10, and son Cassius, 5, were infected. None of the family ever experienced a fever, one of the symptoms the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises victims to monitor.
But Mrs. Willis was stricken to a higher level than any of the family. Cassius did not show any physical symptoms. Lila had a few of the common symptoms but recovered quickly, as did Mrs. Willis' husband. "Thankfully, Michael came through it and was able to tend to my needs," she said. "I could not function at a normal level. Cooking meals, doing laundry and just going from the bed to the sofa was a fight for me. The fatigue consumed me. I still tire quickly even when attempting to do normal activities," she said.
The family was notified by Latta public school officials Lila was exposed to a positive classmate. On Nov. 16, the family tested positive at a Chickasaw Nation testing site. Mrs. Willis recalls her daughter telling her a classmate she sits next to was not feeling well and went home early that day.
"The classmate was quite ill. And, since they were in proximity, Lila's exposure was prolonged, which the CDC warns is a tipping point for contracting the virus," Mrs. Willis said. "When we learned this, we were almost certain she would become ill."
While the family took precautions, wore masks, ordered pickup groceries and distanced themselves from loved ones, the virus still emerged.
Mrs. Willis lauds the Chickasaw Nation's dedication to fight the virus and protect employees. While she was cleared to return to work Dec. 21, the pandemic forces families to make choices, particularly if the household includes school-aged children.
"The tribe has been great. They made it possible for me to work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. so that I could be home when the children get out of school," Mrs. Willis said. "When I was feeling the full effects of COVID, the children were home isolating too. My husband is self-employed and would not have health insurance if it weren't for the Chickasaw Nation. He was able to help the kids when I could not.
"For families who live in small homes, such as we do, isolation is next to impossible. If someone catches the virus, it is impossible to isolate entirely."
Faced with these challenges, anxiety is common according to medical experts. Mrs. Willis can attest to anxiety and an emotional rollercoaster when the virus strikes. "I do not know if people fully appreciate how important their mental health is when you are confronted with this illness. The tribe has programs available to people to see them through these difficult times, and I have taken advantage of them," she said.
While taking precautions to stay safe, the Willis adults are young and believed they would be okay even if they contracted the virus. They were more concerned about who they could pass it to if they were not taking the necessary precautions.
Mrs. Willis now believes differently.
"You need to do everything to stay safe and protect loved ones. I have no underlying health conditions, and this hit me hard. It affects each person differently. It is one of the mysteries of COVID-19, and you have no idea how it will attack you," she observed. To illustrate her point, Mrs. Willis said doctors prescribed a low-dose aspirin for her to take daily. "It thins the blood and prevents blood clots," she explained. "In a few weeks, I will go for more testing and my prognosis will be evaluated."
While doctors have discovered medicines that assist COVID-19 victims, there is not a cure.
Mrs. Willis was given a regimen of antibiotics and steroids by physicians to help her fend off the illness. She also did her own research and supplemented the fight with vitamins and melatonin, an over-the-counter sleep aid.
"I could not sleep. Lying flat on a bed made breathing difficult. I 'napped' in a recliner most of the time so my upper body was elevated. It made breathing easier. I purchased melatonin and it was a game-changer for me. It helped me sleep. The fatigue is overwhelming with COVID-19. It is pervasive and afflicts you constantly," she said. "Sleep is so vital to recovery."
She is still recovering, but believes she is improving. Many doctors posit COVID-19 victims may have an immunity to reinfection for 90 days. While she and the entire family were hopeful a vaccine would be available to them quickly, she must now wait for inoculation. Mrs. Willis works as a fine arts assistant for the Chickasaw Nation Department of Arts and Humanities. She lost a co-worker to the illness just before she was afflicted 60 days ago.
"I remember when the Chickasaw Nation made it possible for us to work from home in mid-March. I believed by the first of 2021, we'd all be back to normal with our usual work schedules. That isn't happening. My department is working on a rotation basis to mitigate the spread. Our hospital workers are exhausted. I am fortunate. So many families cannot visit their loved ones. My message to everyone would be to take this seriously, wear masks and wash your hands. Sanitize everything in the house. COVID-19 does not care if you're young or old, or have pre-existing conditions. It is debilitating."