LOUISVILLE – The day after Easter, Meghan Harpole was breathing 52 times a minute.
The assistant nurse manager sat on the edge of her bed, slipped on a pair of yoga pants and pulled a hoodie over her head. A hot shower hadn’t helped the cough that seized her body in such a violent tear that she threw up.
She’d had the coronavirus 20 days now.
Surely, the worst was over.
Her symptoms had started March 26. The next day she told her boss at a local emergency room that her arms were so heavy she felt exhausted.
Initially, she’d had a fever and not much else.
But days three to 11 were a blur of high fevers, vomiting, diarrhea and such savage coughing that she crawled on the floor one night and asked her 13-year-old son, Gentry, to beat on her back. She was choking on her own phlegm.
“My body hurt so bad it felt like my bones were breaking,” she said.
Meghan, 43, vomited for three straight days and was so dehydrated an emergency room nurse — a former co-worker — came to her Louisville home to hook up an IV.
She clipped a portable pulse/oxygen monitor to her finger. It dipped to 91 but never below.
Meghan sobbed on FaceTime with her brother’s wife, Jackie Beckley. The pair had been best friends since Meghan was 16.
Jackie thought Meghan seemed lifeless, her skin gray. Meghan had a defeated look in her eyes.
Nursing friends checked on Meghan at all hours. They encouraged the power yoga enthusiast to do headstands so the infection would drain to the top of her lungs so she could cough it out.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said.
By day 13 — or maybe it was 16, she’d been sick for so long she couldn’t be sure — Gentry showed signs of the virus, too. Low-grade fever. Sore throat. Body aches.
She called his pediatrician.
It was too risky to bring him in for a test. He might infect other children. He likely had the virus, too, so he’d need to quarantine.
Gentry’s symptoms didn’t worsen the way Meghan’s had. And her own symptoms seemed to ease.
She’d done everything she could to stay out of the hospital. She’s a single mom. And since Gentry had the virus, too, no one could take care of him if she lay in a hospital bed.
Meghan had signed legal papers with the state health department for court-ordered quarantine.
So, friends and family added grocery items to their Kroger Click Lists, dropped off meals on the front steps and later at the end of the sidewalk. Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
They called every day. Jackie and her daughter wrote uplifting messages in sidewalk chalk outside their front door.
Meghan improved so much that she stopped checking her oxygen levels at home. She even did some yoga.
But by Easter weekend, the cough returned, mercilessly. And by that Monday she coughed so hard she threw up again.
Gentry urged her to check her oxygen level. So, in her yoga pants and hoodie, she clipped the pulse/oxygen monitor to her finger.
She couldn’t believe what she saw.
“No,” she said to herself. “87% is hypoxic.” Not enough oxygen in the body.
“All of a sudden I started seeing the patients I take care of and the patients on the news. They go in and get intubated.
“Oh my God, this is it. I may not make it. I may be on a ventilator. I may not be able to see my son for weeks.”
She walked into the living room and told Gentry she had to go to the hospital — 87% was dangerous.
She knelt to the ground.
“You know I love you,” she told him. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. And you’re the best part of my story. So, I just need you to be real brave right now and know in your heart that everything is going to be OK.”
He wasn’t crying but looked at her with a puzzled, wide-eyed look.
“Mom, just promise me you’re going to be OK,” she heard him say.
Staying Apart, Together: A newsletter about how to cope with the coronavirus pandemic
Sign up here to get Staying Apart, Together twice a week in your inboxes.
She promised she would do everything she could.
Gentry got tears in his eyes.
What he didn’t tell her was that he was worried she might die. And that if she was dying, he wasn’t sure someone would bring him to see her.
He could tell she was scared but didn’t let on.
They hugged and kissed goodbye, and as soon as Meghan shut the front door, she sobbed.
“I can’t imagine being 13 and thinking my only person may die,” she said. “I just can’t.”
She called Jackie to let her know. They had a plan if Meghan was put on a ventilator. People would sign up to sit in the driveway so Gentry could see them from the front door — every day until she got home.
“I realized the limitations I had and the support I could actually give,” Jackie said. “You know, it’s strange. Normally you can hold someone’s hand. You can take them to the hospital, and you could give that support.
"But you’re on the phone, talking. Or you’re looking at each other through FaceTime. And you’re just numb. You don’t know what to think or do. You’re helpless.”
Meghan called her boss in the emergency department to let her know she was coming. They were ready when she arrived.
Nurses swarmed her room. They inserted an IV, ordered a chest X-ray and a breathing treatment and put her on oxygen. Meghan’s levels rose.
Gentry called every half hour. The first time, he was elated she could still talk.
But he worried what the X-ray might show.
“We have lived in this city our entire lives,” she told him. "We have lots of people that love us. And everything is going to work out. I promise you.
"You’ve got to believe we are loved, that you’re going to be taken care of and the people here who love me are going to take care of me. We’re going to get through this.”
The X-ray showed pneumonia in a small part of her lung.
“When people come in like this, they stay,” Meghan heard the doctor say. “Things can go bad.”
Meghan got emotional. If she stayed, no one could take care of her son. He was positive for the virus, too. And he was alone.
Meghan stayed in the emergency room for five hours.
The doctor agreed to let her go home but warned her she might be back.
She went home with oxygen, breathing treatments and antibiotics.
Meghan called Gentry from the car to let him know she was on her way home.
When she got in the door, he held her tight.
“She’s very important,” Gentry said. “Everything.”
Meghan set an alarm on her phone. For the first 24 hours she checked her oxygen level every 30 minutes.
“I was too scared not to,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave my son a motherless child.”
She didn’t want him to find her dead.
Meghan has been tested five times for the virus. Four have come back positive.
She’s waiting for the results of the fifth.
She’s lost 16 pounds and has just started to eat again. Gentry’s symptoms have dissipated.
As a nurse for 21 years in emergency rooms in nine states, Meghan never once worried about protecting herself — until the virus.
“I’m actually scared of the long-term effects,” she said. “Am I going to have asthma? Am I going to have problems breathing? Am I going to have a low immune system? No one knows enough about the virus to know the long-term effects of what this has done to me.”
Meghan is eager to get back to nursing. She will when she’s well.
She’s resting now and following her doctor’s orders. This week, she felt well enough to argue with her teenage son about how many days it had been since he took a shower and how long he’d been playing his Xbox.
In fact, Meghan feels better than she has in a month.
But she’s not taking any chances.
Follow Kristina Goetz on Twitter: email@example.com.