After experiencing shortness of breath, coughing and fevers, Sharon Tapp learned she had COVID-19. As her health worsened, doctors admitted her to the hospital. For the next 117 days she stayed, undergoing treatment for COVID-19 complications. She has finally returned home but faces weeks of therapy before she fully recovers. Still, she feels grateful to be home.
“It feels great,” the 60-year-old nurse told TODAY. “Everyone was pleased and happy to see me standing up. They were just overjoyed."
From monitoring symptoms at home to a long hospital stay
As a nurse case manager at VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Tapp was a vocal advocate for her patients and deftly helped difficult to discharge patients find arrangements for their aftercare. She suspects she contracted the coronavirus at work.
On March 18, she went for a test and doctors told her to quarantine and monitor her temperature as she awaited her results. Soon, her symptoms increased.
“I started losing my taste for food and then I started having fevers,” she explained. “My temperature kept going higher … I was still having chills and felt very weak. I just felt so bad my boyfriend took me to (Johns Hopkins) Suburban Hospital.”
Staff rushed her to the ICU, but they soon realized Tapp, who was in a coma, needed more specialized care and on April 7, they sent her via helicopter from Bethesda to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Doctors placed her on an ECMO machine, which pumps and oxygenates blood to relieve stress on the lungs and the heart. She relied on a feeding tube for nourishment and IVs snaked into her arms to deliver medicine.
“My doctor said that my (infection) was the worst that you can get,” she said. “I was very, very, very sick.”
She doesn’t know why she became so ill as she has no underlying health conditions. When she finally woke, she felt as helpless as an infant, needing help to do just about anything.
“I was just like a newborn baby in a diaper,” she said.
Slowly, she improved and she moved to a regular floor, then an acute rehabilitation hospital for three weeks. Dr. April Pruski, who led her rehabilitation team, said three weeks was a long stay. Yet, many patients hospitalized for COVID-19 require extensive rehab.
“These patients are really just systemically affected by COVID itself,” the assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins Medicine told TODAY. “They can have problems with their lungs and breathing. They can have problems with their kidneys, where they need to go on dialysis. Some people have brain issues … and some develop confusion or they get cognitive issues.”
Patients can also develop clots, thrombosis, pulmonary embolism and stroke. Spending a lot of time in bed often leads to “muscle breakdown and disability.”
“They’re prone on their bellies,” Pruski said. “They are often intubated for a very long time.”
This can lead to post intensive-care syndrome, which can impact both the patients and their families.
“There’s a lot of delirium that goes on in the ICU and it can persist for a very long time. There’s also the psychological complications of anxiety and depression,” Pruski said. “There are sleeping problems. There’s family anxiety. All of these problems just don’t go away.”
That’s why the hospital starts rehab for patients as soon as possible.
“The earlier we start … the less negative outcomes,” she said.
From constant care to returning home
For Tapp, needing help to do everything was overwhelming.
“I was the type, I took care of everybody. Now, everybody wants to take care of me,” she said. “They’re just trying to see that I am taken care of but I hate to be dependent on people.”
Her desire to care for others encouraged her during her 40-year career as a nurse.
“I like helping people. That’s just my nature,” she said. “I really enjoy when they get better and I have something to do with it.”
As the patient, though, she wasn't used to the nurturing. Friends and family called her daily and prayed for her, which helped her through her recovery.
“They had a prayer chain. My niece would call me every day to find out what I did,” Tapp said. “I know prayer changes things because the doctors had called my sisters and told them they didn’t know if I was going to make it.”
She had to relearn how to do so many things she took for granted, such as swallowing so she could eat. And, she had to build up her stamina to walk again. She has a rolling walker and a quad cane.
“A little bit, I walk by myself, without anything. But I don’t want to fall and hurt myself,” she said.
While she has a wound from the tracheostomy that helped her breathe, it should heal. But she’s noticed her voice changed, though doctors didn't notice any damage after examining her throat with a scope.
“I have a hoarse and raspy voice I did not have,” Tapp said. “The speech therapist will help me with some vocal therapy.”
Even though she knows she has more speech, physical and occupational therapy ahead of her, Tapp is looking forward to returning to work.
“It’s more than possible. It's a matter of Sharon getting her endurance back and Sharon being ready to go back,” Pruski said. “She will do it because she has hope and she wants to and she can.”
CORRECTION (August 3, 2020 10:50 a.m. ET): This article has been updated to change a typo in a quote.