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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Award-winning Laura Hillenbrand, author of arguably the greatest book written on the career of a legendary racehorse, Seabiscuit, the horse that helped Americans get through the Great Depression, tested positive for the Coronavirus. Below is her Facebook chronicle of how she dealt with those trials in the hopes of inspiring others similarly afflicted:

“With great concern, I’m reading that a large percentage of our population is unconcerned about COVID-19. People are violating lockdowns to gather with friends, or partying in crowds on spring break and returning home, oblivious to the deadly disease they carry. I read comments that this pandemic is a hoax, that our reaction is overblown hysteria, that it poses no risk to younger, healthy people.

“I’ve been very sick with presumptive COVID-19 for fifteen days. I’m not in a high risk group: I’m not elderly; I don’t have high blood pressure; I don’t have a heart condition, moderate or severe asthma, or compromised immunity; I’m not obese or diabetic; I don’t have liver or kidney disease. I am fit and relatively young. As a writer, I don’t spend my days in a crowded workplace, nor do I travel abroad. And yet I got sick.

“It began with a strange shortness of breath. I couldn’t seem to get a full breath of air, and found myself panting. I had a constant urge to cough. Friends commented on the odd hiss in my breathing, and the brevity of each breath I took. I was winded just having a casual conversation. My throat was raw. I didn’t take my temperature in those first days, but I remember feeling very overheated. My muscles ached and I was perpetually chilled, sometimes shaking. My lymph nodes were swollen and painful. I had no congestion, yet my chest felt as if it were wrapped in duct tape, and I was breathing through gauze. This was nothing like the flu, or anything else I’d ever had.

“I’d been in close contact with someone who worked at a resort teeming with tourists from countries severely affected by COVID-19. This person, not yet realizing he was sick, had coughed near me. I quarantined myself immediately.

“I spoke to a physician, who said it was likely COVID-19. I couldn’t be tested because there were so few tests available in my state, which was reserving them for the critically ill. I didn’t want to add to an overburdened system and use desperately needed resources, so I tried to ride it out at home.

“The first few days were rough, but then my breathing issues began to ease. That was a relief, but I felt increasingly exhausted, and the chills and aching worsened. After a week, in a pattern doctors say they are commonly seeing, the breathing difficulty roared back. On the morning of day seven, a walk to my kitchen left me so winded I had to sit down for ten minutes. The symptoms waxed and waned as they had from the start, but that night, my breathing was scary poor. A friend put me in contact with an ICU doctor, who put me in touch with an ER doctor. Both gave me a presumptive diagnosis of COVID-19. After considering, they decided I didn’t have to be hospitalized at that point, but wanted me to get medical attention in the morning.

“The next morning I was lightheaded just standing up, and had to gasp wheezily to get enough air. I was foggyminded and had difficulty stringing sentences together. A health worker friend rushed over with a pulse oximeter, which measures the oxygen saturation in the blood. Keeping a safe distance, she watched through my window as I held up fingers to communicate the results. One hundred is normal; anything below 95 is worrisome. The reading was low and sinking fast, indicating worsening hypoxia — oxygen starvation. When it hit 89, I texted the ICU doctor. He told me to get to an ER immediately.

“The ER was spooky. They were constructing tents in the parking lot, into which they planned to herd anyone who arrived with a fever. People who arrived without masks were told to stay in their cars until a staffer came. I had a mask and had called the hospital to tell them I was coming, so I was allowed in alone.

“At the front desk, they’d closed the windows to protect the staff, so I had to nearly shout to be heard. Spelling out my name left me so out of breath that my legs buckled and I sank to the floor. When I got back up, they sent me outside and told me to wait by the ambulance door, a separate entrance from the main ER. Unable to stand without passing out, I dropped to my knees. After a few minutes, someone waved to me to come in, and I struggled to my feet. They ushered me quickly into a glass-enclosed, sealed room, reserved for suspected COVID-19 patients. The staff was wearing elaborate protective gear and following extensive rituals to prevent the spread of disease.

“I was shaking violently and breathing like I’d just run a marathon. But in the hours I was there, my breathing steadied. A chest x-ray found no pneumonia. I tested negative for both strains of the flu and for viruses other than COVID that might have caused my symptoms. Prescribing a medication to help my breathing, they let me come home with instructions to keep strict quarantine and return if my breathing worsened again.

“In the week since then, my symptoms have varied unpredictably. One hour my breathing feels close to normal, and another, I’m panting again. My lymph nodes are still swollen and sore, my throat still raw. Chills come and go. I’m bone tired. I’m praying that I won’t nosedive and end up at the hospital again. Seeing the horrifyingly high and exponentially rising COVID-19 death toll, and footage of overwhelmed ERs and ICUs in hard-hit cities, I’m profoundly grateful to be alive.

“Please, please, take this disease very seriously. Epidemiological models predict it could kill 100,000-240,000 people, and infect millions more, in America alone, even with mitigation efforts. Research has shown that it takes an average of five days to incubate before a patient becomes sick, and that patients can spread the disease before they show symptoms. The elderly are most at risk of death, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a potentially extremely serious illness for younger people. According to the CDC, up to one-fifth of infected people ages 20-44 have been so severely ill they’ve had to be hospitalized; 2%-4% ended up fighting for their lives in an ICU.

“Our only weapon is isolation, and it only works if we all do it. The person next to you may seem fine, but could easily be shedding virus. You, too, could feel well, but be infected and infectious. Don’t be falsely reassured at the fact that 80% of infections are classified as “mild”; the definition of “mild” is simply that the patient is not so gravely ill as to have to be hospitalized. And a COVID-19 “negative” test result only means genetic material from the virus was not found on the nasal test swab; it is not proof that a person is uninfected. The rate of false negatives with current testing has been reported to be anywhere from 14% to 50%, so patients with symptoms who receive a “not detected” test result should maintain strict quarantine.

“Regardless of your age, regardless of your state of health, you are at grave risk. Your loved ones are at grave risk. And you are a potential risk to others. If you refuse to self-isolate, you could literally be killing people. You could be killing yourself. Stay at home and follow the CDC instructions on avoiding contagion. Be well.”

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