What It's Like to Be Diagnosed With COVID-19 as a Travel Nurse

"I was really scared that I wouldn't wake up because I'd just stop breathing in the middle of the night."

While most of us have been doing our best to follow stay-at-home guidelines to help stop the spread of coronavirus, there are still some people—doctors, nurses, and other essential workers—who must put themselves in situations of COVID-19 exposure. And sometimes, that exposure leads to a coronavirus diagnosis of their own.

That's what happened to Claire Dimaculangan, BSN, a registered travel nurse who was exposed to and contracted the disease while caring for patients in a hospital setting. In terms of best practices for preventing COVID-19 infections in hospital staff, nurses, doctors, or other staff members would ideally wear goggles, a mask, and a gown for each patient they saw—but as supplies became scarce, it became harder to put into place those best practices. "You were told to use the same masks, use the same gown the whole week unless it was soiled," Dimaculangan tells Health.

Dimaculangan says she can pinpoint the moment she realized the had contracted COVID-19 after working with stroke patients for two weeks. "This [was] a time where not every patient was wearing a mask unless they had a cough or they traveled," she says. During the last week of her rotation, she noticed initial symptoms. "Two weeks' worth of this, of just straight-up exposure [to COVID-19], it had to be it, because when I would go home, I wouldn't go out; the only place I'd go is work and back."

Her illness started off as a sore throat, a bit of a runny nose, and a headache. "Two days after that started, I felt my taste and smell go, and I was like I need to get checked," she says. Her test results proved a COVID-19 diagnosis, and she immediately began to self-isolate—that's when her low-grade fever and shortness of breath started. "I have asthma," she says, adding that her breathlessness made it feel like she was "drowning in the shower."

As a nurse, Dimaculangan already knew of a few treatment techniques being used to help COVID-19 patients feel more comfortable, so she channeled her medical knowledge to help herself. "I don't naturally sleep on my belly, but that's called proning, and that's what we were doing in the hospital, so I started to prone or sleep on my stomach," she says. She was also lucky enough to have some medical equipment available for her use. "I slept with a pulse oximeter on," she says. "Usually we would hospitalize people under 95 [pulse ox reading], and here I am at 88 at home."

That reading worried her, says Dimaculangan, but she was hesitant about going to the hospital, so she stayed put. "I kept just saying, 'you know what, there's still other things you can do to help yourself,'" she says, noting that she was using her inhaler, taking Tylenol, and getting plenty of fluids and rest. "Someone else can use that bed, you're not critical yet," she recalls telling herself. But as much as she could reassure herself that she was doing everything right, Dimaculangan couldn't shake a big fear. "I actually was really scared to go to sleep," she says. "I was really scared that I wouldn't wake up because I'd just stop breathing in the middle of the night. It was just so hard to breathe."

RELATED: This Is What Health Care Workers on the Frontlines of COVID-19 Want You to Know

When she was finally feeling better and cleared to go back to work, Dimaculangan faced another obstacle. "The first few days leading up to my first day back to work, I almost kept telling myself I had a little bit of PTSD because I was so scared," she says. "I was so scared of the thought of work and seeing someone in the same position I was in."

Dimaculangan details one experience she had after returning to work with a critically-ill COVID-19 patient. "I was unfortunate and fortunate enough to have a patient who was passing, and I was the one who had to hold the iPad...because we didn't have visitors so there was no family at the bedside," she says. "The family members are talking to the patient, but the iPad's not holding itself, so I'm standing there in this conversation with them, answering questions for the family while they're speaking to and consoling [the patient] for a good 20 to 30 minutes." It was a huge responsibility, she says, but one "that really made me so grateful that I made it through, but so sad that this is what it's come to."

Overall, Dimaculangan says the biggest thing she wants people to know is that it's still absolutely essential to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing. "The amount of time and effort [it takes] to put on a mask...is nothing compared to your grandmother or someone younger getting sick unintentionally and knowing that all you had to do was wear a mask or social distance," she says. "It really is wear a mask, save a life—that's it."

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