A journal, Day 9: COVID-19 test negative. What next?

**Editor’s note: Target 8 investigator Ken Kolker was tested for COVID-19 on March 17 after returning from a conference where two participants tested positive. This is another installment in his daily journal.

>>Journal: Days 1-6 | Day 7 | Day 8

March 26:

Get a text from my doctor just after 4 p.m. today: “Test negative — that’s good news.”

His office had tested me yesterday after an initial test came up negative. He was worried because of my possible exposure (in New Orleans and Los Angeles, both hot spots), because of my autoimmune issues, my history of blood clots in lungs, because my symptoms won’t quit and because there’s been a problem with false negatives.

About 24 hours later, as promised, he got the results from a Grand Rapids lab. Results from the earlier test had taken 8 days.

Dr. Steve Triesenberg explained his reasons for the retest like this:

  1. Test was for several respiratory viruses, a common available test (influenza/etc).
  2. Testing for COVID-19 is now more available through commercial labs, although often self-pay, unfortunately.
  3. Testing accuracy depends on quality of specimen obtained.
  4. You are still very ill with unknown cause yet.
  5. Ideally everyone ill with typical symptoms should be tested for COVID-19; system is at fault here for being unprepared.

The new test found no other viruses, but he diagnosed me with post-viral reactive airway-disease and said I’m now “very high risk” to get COVID-19. Will treat with steroids.

Before getting test results, though, I got an inside look I’d rather not have had at what COVID-19 has done to one ER, Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.

I wake up almost breathless around midnight. This must be what an asthma attack feels like. Never had one of those. Even with blood clots in my lungs last year, I’ve never felt this.

My wife Hope calls my doctor, who tells her to take me to Spectrum Butterworth ER. We get there and are blocked in the middle of the street by a security guard and an ambulance from Charlevoix, of all places. A roadblock. They direct us to a parking lot across the street from ER.

ER doctors and nurses are amazing. There’s no way nurses get paid enough.

Spectrum Health has turned the covered ambulance parking area into triage, all tented in. I’m wearing a mask as I walk into a triage tunnel. My wife has to stay outside, alone in her car, and I learn later she was crying. No visitors allowed. Period. I can’t imagine how people who are dying are dealing with this, with being alone in their rooms without the faces of loved ones.

There are three stations for initial intake. A young woman wearing a mask is in front of me, seated and looking scared, being screened for what I don’t know. I have to stop to tell my story three times to nurses and a doctor wearing protective gear: Recent possible exposure to COVID-19, waiting for new test results, heavy chest and cough, occasional low-grade temperature, then this asthma-like attack. This ER is very orderly, no panic. It’s really not that busy.

They wheel me inside to a small observation room with a sliding door. Nobody can enter without surgical masks and gloves and gowns. Door stays closed. This is the new norm. Every day, they say, protocols are updated to keep them and us safe. Heidi is my main nurse. When she leaves, I say Heidi-Ho, and her face lights up. (At least her eyes did, since that’s all I could see). That’s what her dad calls her, she says, and that’s her license plate. There’s a lot of love in this place.

When they leave the observation room, they say, “dirty,” and then remove some of the protective equipment (I couldn’t see exactly what). They are being really careful, thank God. Last thing we need is for the front line to get sick, including Heidi-Ho.

After a few hours (I lose track of time) and some treatment with an albuterol inhaler, I’m breathing a lot easier. They send me home. They treat me for bronchial spasms, basically bronchitis. They say it could have been caused by a virus or any manner of things. Normally, they would have sent me home with albuterol, but Nurse Heidi says hospital supplies of that were critically low. I get a prescription.

Later in the day, I’m home and breathing easier, but still heavy in the chest and coughing. I look outside my front door, and there’s my 3-year-old granddaughter, Joey, with her grandma, Terrie, drawing chalk hearts for her “Bobba” on my driveway. She calls me Bobba. It was the best medicine yet. I can’t believe I can’t run out and hug her. How many grandparents practicing social distancing are missing their hugs?

I wonder if I can go and hug her now?

PS: Thank God for prayers and for doctors, nurses and everybody else on the front lines.