When Heroes Falter

Frontline Nurse in the Pandemic Contracts COVID-19

Fictional heroes provide a portal of fantasy and escapism with their larger-than-life invincibility; however, the COVID-19 crisis proved real-world heroes — with the same human fragilities and vulnerabilities as ours — stand among us.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, the number of health care providers testing positive for COVID-19 by early April had topped 9,200. As a registered nurse with Covenant HealthCare VNA Hospice in Saginaw, Tiffany Leiter stood on the front lines of the pandemic providing comfort and compassion to those in need. But the care provider became the person who needed care provided when she tested positive for the coronavirus.

The small symptoms — weakness, an elevated temperature — started abruptly April 16.

“Those symptoms were enough that my manager asked me to call the COVID hotline, which was protocol,” she said. “I was ordered a test and took the test on April 17. That day was a very bad day for me; I could barely get out of bed. … I was fairly certain it would come back positive—and if it didn’t, I guessed it may be a false negative because I had pretty much all the symptoms. I was miserable.”

Although Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimated that between 25% and 50% of people with the coronavirus are asymptomatic, Leiter wasn’t so fortunate. The remainder of April proved to be a grueling ordeal for her as she inched her way toward recovery.

Leiter attended nursing school at Delta College, securing a nursing position at Covenant HealthCare on the neurotrauma stepdown unit after graduation. In 2016, she moved into her current hospice liaison post.

“Hospice has been a passion of mine since 2009, when I had a niece born with Trisomy 18, and she had a loving hospice nurse who helped care for her for the five wonderful days she was with us,” Leiter said. “Something sparked an interest in that moment, and it ignited a passion in me.”

When the coronavirus was declared a pandemic and health care workers were spotlighted as the frontline warriors, Leiter said it was both a challenge as well as a feeling of being part of a strange moment in history.

“My manager had to make so many changes every day and sometimes multiple times a day as the information from the CDC came in,” she said. “Despite the many obstacles and changes, it felt surreal to be a part of it. It is quite taxing to the mind, spirit and physical body.”

After she tested positive, Leiter said the first five days were nearly unbearable. The burning in her lungs made it difficult to draw a simple breath and the pain stretched into her lower back and settled in every joint.

“During days two through five, I broke down and cried a few times because I was so scared it would get really bad and I would be hospitalized,” Leiter said. “My husband was so comforting during these moments.”

By day eight, the lung issue began to subside, only to be replaced by headaches and congestion. The weakness and lethargy continued for two weeks.

“I am now on day 15 and was finally able to walk just more than a mile without struggling to breathe or hurting,” Leiter said. “It’s a daily adventure. It was a rollercoaster of symptoms. It was the sickest I’ve been since I was 16 years old, hospitalized with an infection. … I learned that I’m just as vulnerable as anyone, but I also learned how strong I really am. I fought hard and I’m successfully recovering.”

Recovering and ready — at least mentally — to return to work and assist her colleagues.

“Our team has grown closer together since this pandemic hit Michigan,” Leiter said. “I feel such pride working for an organization that cares so much for each employee, patient and family member.”

She said she also feels humbled at the outpouring of support from the community.

“Every single person in health care — from the groundskeepers, nurses aids, housekeeping, pharmacy, the lab, sterile processing, DME drivers, nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and the executives who make the decisions as things constantly change — they all deserve the highest praise because they are all involved in patient care in some way,” Leiter said.