“One day you will give away your last breath. You may not know when, how and where that will be. The only one who knows is neither me nor you, but God the giver of life.”
—Gift GuGu Mona (South African born poet, philosopher, songwriter and philanthropist).
You were meant to breathe; it is the natural biological process that sustains your very being. But what happens when this very organic action seems to be escaping you? “It’s a fight for that last breath that never comes,” as COVID-19 survivor Vanessa Borrell put it.
The 49-year-old mother of three from Diego Martin who has been residing in the US for the past decade experienced the most frightening ordeal a month ago when she was diagnosed with the coronavirus, which left her hospitalised for five shadowy days.
Often she believed she would not make it, looking for God but not being able to find Him, she tells Guardian Media. “I felt like there was a brass heaven over me,” Borrell illustrated.
The tunnelling event has caused the Public Health Educator and Physician Liaison Outreach and Training Specialist to hold on to every breath in a different way—with gratitude; acknowledging it was the breath of God in her lungs that preserved her life, she shares.
The New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene employee, spoke with Guardian Media from her New York home, opening up candidly in our Q&A about her experience with COVID-19.
DIXON: When were you diagnosed with COVID-19? Describe the period leading up to your diagnosis?
BORRELL: I was diagnosed on March 17, 2020, following symptoms that resembled COVID-19. People were unsure exactly what infection with the coronavirus looked like. At the time there was very limited access for testing. There was a disconnect between consistent information among national resources like 311, ERs and doctors offices. After much back and forth seeking accurate information about testing availability, I eventually heard from a colleague about an urgent care facility that was performing COVID-19 tests.
I got the test conducted but was unaware that I had to wait five days for the results. So I was ordered by my doctor to go home and self-quarantine and start Z pack (azithromycin) antibiotics for four days while in isolation.
DIXON: Can you remember what you felt and the thoughts that may have bombarded your mind when you were informed your test was positive?
BORRELL: By the time I got my COVID-19 results I was already in hospital. I was very concerned about getting quick treatment and staying alive because of the high levels of mortality, the infection with this disease was causing. I was in disbelief for the first few minutes but had to quickly come to reality.
DIXON: Can you recall what was your most frightening moment spent in those five days at the hospital? And which hospital was this?
BORRELL: I had several frightening moments. While in the ER, constantly seeing individuals getting intubated, and also dying was traumatising. To be unable to breathe despite an oxygen mask worn consistently for 24 hours on my face was distressing. In one instance, I was gasping for breath while being tidied by a nurse. I was gasping for breath so much that slapping in my back to allow me to recover quickly and catch a breath. With the fourth slap, I began coughing and vomiting, which she said was what was needed for me to catch a breath. I feared every night, falling asleep and not getting up. Often, I would jump out of a sleep gasping as if my breath was intermittently cut off.
DIXON: You developed bi-lateral pneumonia as well as an embolism. What does this mean for someone fighting for their life with COVID-19? Were you informed by doctors, at this stage what could be the worse?
BORRELL: Pneumonia complements a coronavirus infection, this causes inflammation, affecting the tiny air sacs in the lungs which causes fluid to develop in the lungs. Patches are seen on the lungs upon a CT scan of the chest. Some patients get such an infection in one lung while others like myself, in both. When this happens it is very difficult to breathe. Breathing becomes very shallow and rapid. As your body struggles to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide. This results also in rapid heart beating. The pulmonary embolism or blood clot is formed when the virus gets in the body. Such a condition can lead to death. I was never informed of this condition only that I needed to get daily blood thinner injections in my stomach which were very painful.
DIXON: People who have survived severe cases of COVID-19 have described the ordeal in various ways but with one common description—not being able to breathe. Your description in your testimony of what it felt like comparing it to “being locked in the trunk of a car with a plastic bag over your face with just a pinhole for oxygen” is unimaginable for anyone who breathes normally. Can you speak of this experience?
BORRELL: Yes, it was a very dark scary place to be. Having to fight every minute of the day for breath and having to rely on an oxygen mask to breathe during routine minute to minute activities like drinking some water, just changing your position on a bed, using a bedpan or just going to the bathroom. I was unable to walk due to severe fatigue and breathing difficulties like severe shortness of breath. It was terrifying and lonely. I still am experiencing flashbacks and find it traumatising to hear of persons experiencing the same thing it did.
DIXON: Do you know how you contracted it?
BORRELL: I believe I contracted the COVID-19 virus after frequenting a hospital in Long Island where I would go to visit a good friend of mine who was terminally ill. At the time there was no urgency to wear a mask or practice social distancing. More emphasis was placed on hand-washing and hand sanitising and covering a cough.
DIXON: What encouraged you to keep fighting? And did the thought, this might be the end, ever crossed your mind?
BORRELL: Many times I thought I could not make it. I was hyperventilating when I could not breathe. I was about to give up. I felt so tired and weak. My heart was racing constantly. I did not want to be intubated because I was told by my sister Alicia, that would reduce my chances to survive, so I fought even harder. I recall a doctor visiting me two days in a row, she held my hand, looked tenderly in my eyes and begged me to stay breathing one more day, asking me to promise her to I would remain fighting. I said I would try but I am not sure, I was so weak. I was praying to God to keep me alive. Even though I could not pray aloud, I prayed in my heart and hoped that God would hear as others were also praying for me to get through this ordeal.
DIXON: Pre-COVID-19 infected and diagnosed, were you taking the virus and precautionary measures seriously?
BORRELL: I was following New York State precautionary requirements and would wash and sanitize my hands often, cover my coughs, and keep hands away from my face. And did not shake hands. I kept surfaces clean and sanitised. That was much as what was expected of the average citizen. There were no instructions at the time to cover the face or to keep four feet away by social distancing. There were no restrictions on hospital visits or to public places when I was infected. In other words, people were moving around in this early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York, who were presumably asymptomatic.
DIXON: Because of its quick and almost effortless transmission, we know that families are not allowed at hospital bedsides or even able to view the body if an infected person does not make it. There are no opportunities for goodbye. Can you describe the eminence of that loneliness mixed with fear?
BORRELL: Very isolating. No one to talk or to help with basic needs like getting some water or adjusting your pillow. Nurses and assistants were overwhelmed, and you were lucky to get their attention when passing by. Loneliness and fear caused my faith to weaken at times. It was a dark place of uncertainty with many thoughts of whether I would live to see another day. I would think sometimes that I did not get a chance to even make a will for my beneficiaries. I would constantly have to fight to keep the faith and to remember that God has a purpose for my life.
DIXON: Vanessa you have survived this pernicious virus that has killed tens of thousands and numbers continue to climb when you do an internal summary of your experience, where do your thoughts go?
BORRELL: My thoughts are that I made it! Thanks be to the power of Jesus Christ only. I am very saddened when I hear about individuals succumbing to this COVID-19 virus. My instant thought is that could have been me because it was ‘touch and go’ for me many times. I continually pray for victims, families and health workers.
DIXON: Are you scared, that perhaps it can happen again? Globally, we have seen some have become re-infected.
BORRELL: I think about it everyday…about a re-infection. There is so much inconclusive medical information on the issue of re-infection. My family has almost become germophobic. My husband and son who were also infected with COVID-19 are very concerned to go outside. So staying inside is not a struggle for us after our experiences.
DIXON: What are you going to do differently in your life now knowing, what it was like to fight for one more breath to live one more day?
BORRELL: I live my life with more purpose. I appreciate that man does not give life. I know it is the breath of God in my lungs that keeps me alive. I will keep praising and living to serve God. I now take life a little less seriously and try to live a more stress-free life.
DIXON: What message do you have for the world in this day of COVID-19?
BORRELL: This is an unprecedented time in our era. There is much uncertainty surrounding the long and short-term effects of COVID-19 on mankind. What we know is that this virus does not discriminate and there is no cure. What we are required to do is to work together to fight this ‘monster.’ We need to consider what we have learned from this pandemic. If I may, one such thing is learning how to give up what we have no control over. We need to understand this coronavirus is bigger than we are, but it is not bigger than or superior to God and Jesus. We need to become more sensitive about how this pandemic can affect others and take time to think about how to act.
Even though all the requirements to stay safe and stop the spread of the virus are new to us, we need to become more understanding and accepting of these societal adjustments. We need to evaluate information before spreading false information and we need to grow through this pandemic. Focus on the positive, count your blessings and spread hope. Live in the present—one-day-at-a-time, but also focus on the future. More importantly, we need to thank and appreciate others who have sacrificed to keep us safe and protected like the doctors, nurses, and all other medical professionals risking their lives and the lives of their families daily to take care of those in need of care during this COVIID-19 pandemic. Let us pray for each other for safety and protection. God answers prayer!