'Smiling eyes behind goggles': Coronavirus patient, 26, shares 'love letter' to her nurses

After spending six days in the ICU and being cared for by kind nurses, this young med student wanted them to know just how much they meant to her recovery.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Meghan Holohan

In the middle of March, Anna Grace Downs, a 26-year-old medical student in Kentucky, spent six days in the intensive care unit with COVID-19. Even though her parents couldn’t be with her, she never felt alone thanks to the nurses, nursing assistants and technicians that cared for her.

If she vomited, a nurse soothed her. When her fever spiked, a nursing assistant offered ice water. Three weeks after leaving the hospital, Downs shared her “love letter” to the hospital staff on Facebook and it quickly went viral.

“When I was alone and terrified, these nurses became my family, seemingly taking care of me as they would their own children. From every ‘Sweetheart, what can I do for you?’ to every ‘You’re gonna get through this,’ I felt their commitment and caring spirits,” she wrote in a post on the private Facebook group, Pantsuit Nation, which has received more than 50,000 reactions. “I could not have my family with me in the hospital but knowing that these capable and brave women were taking care of me left me feeling safe.”

When Downs first became sick on March 9, she knew about COVID-19 but didn’t think she could have it. She was not aware that she was exposed to anyone with it or who had traveled outside the country. At first her joints ached, she had a fever and some gastrointestinal issues. When she didn’t improve, she left the University of Louisville, where she is a fourth-year medical student, to her parents’ house in Lexington.

“I was expecting to get better in a few days and I just continued to get worse. It became more clear that it could be COVID-19,” she told TODAY.

On March 17, she visited the emergency room as breathing became a struggle.

“It was such a strange combination of symptoms and I’ve never been that sick in my life,” Downs said. “It was certainly a little bit scary because at that point being in the first wave of infections, I didn’t really know what my clinical course was.”

Also, she’s very close to her parents and being isolated from them made things harder.

“I did not have them there during one of the hardest experiences in my life. It was challenging for sure. I was able to FaceTime them. But there were days that I was too weak to even pick up the phone,” Downs said.

Anna Downs believes that her experience with COVID-19 in the intensive care unit will influence her as she becomes a resident in internal medicine and pediatrics this summer. Courtesy of Susan Harrison/University of Louisville

Her oxygen levels worsened and doctors thought they would have to intubate Downs to put her on a ventilator. But her oxygen levels started improving in a “strange” twist. Even at the scariest moments, having the staff by her side helped. One nurse, Kelleigh, made a lasting impact on her.

“She asked me about my life and made me laugh with her unforgettable laugh. She was a godsend. She did everything to ensure a good night of sleep for me, which (was) essential to maintaining my sanity,” Downs shared in her post. “I requested her specifically. Looking back, I realize I was so desperate that I did not realize my request was putting her in harm’s way.”

Yet the unwavering kindness and compassion helped her.

“Kelleigh was just upbeat and would kind of joke around with me and ask me about my life. I really needed that,” Downs said. “Things had felt so kind of topsy-turvy for so long. She was reassuring and just really helpful.”

While Downs feels better in some ways and is now coronavirus negative, she’s still resting and processing her experience.

“It's very mentally difficult. I was a healthy 26-year-old medical student and all of a sudden, I'm critically ill and by myself and can't do anything,” she said. “I’m just really trying to be proactive about my mental health and my physical health right now.”

After learning she was negative for coronavirus, Anna Downs donated plasma that will hopefully help others. Courtesy of Anna Downs

Downs thinks her experience with coronavirus and being in the ICU will shape her future as a doctor and her relationship with nurses, assistants and technicians. She will be pursuing internal medicine and pediatrics as a resident at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio this summer.

“It has affected me profoundly because I've experienced the fear and uncertainty that so many experience,” she said. “Having one foot in the medical world and then having another foot in the patient experience gives me a bit of a unique outlook and hopefully it can encourage people to continue to take coronavirus seriously.”