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COVID-19's impact

Harrington endures brunt of coronavirus: 'Moving 10 steps felt like I ran two miles'

Thirty-four-year-old with Midcoast ties deals with close-up view of pandemic
By Ken Waltz | Jun 22, 2020
Courtesy of: Brittany Harrington Brittany Harrington.

Sidney — Brittany Harrington will never forget the "elephant-on-the-chest feeling." Her ability to breath so comprised that for days she lie in bed exhausted, scared and overwhelmed by her state of being.

"Moving 10 steps felt like I ran two miles," she said.

Welcome to an up-close look at the unrelenting, unforgiving, non-discriminating world of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

Relatively healthy and 34 years old, Harrington was, at points, so weak she wondered if she would make it to the other side of an insidious virus that has infected 2.32 million Americans (9 million worldwide) and killed more than 122,000 United States citizens (441,000 worldwide).

The highly-contagious virus has shown an ability to infect and affect people of all ages and health situations, obviously giving some mild symptoms and others more serious, and in some cases, life-threatening problems.

By most measures, Harrington's symptoms, in retrospect, would be considered moderate or typical for a large percentage of those who have been unlucky enough to have been afflicted with the infection.

But the ordeal was no less scary for the young woman with strong Midcoast family ties.

In Harrington's case, how could someone so young and healthy be fine one day and so sick the next?

Perhaps like most who have been infected, she was simply in the wrong place at the right time. The virus was around and Harrington seemed the next perfect host for its unwelcome, uninvited, body-ravaging party.

Virus does not discriminate

Harrington's health ordeal is an example of the official front line of the coronovirus pandemic, from an infectee's perspective. A story about how those who contract the illness — and feel the full brunt of its impact — do not always have to be older adults with underlying health issues.

They can be millennials, those ages 26 to 40, in the primes of their lives. Those seemingly young enough and in good overall health. Those doing the right things to stay safe and healthy.

Then it strikes and shows no mercy. Making life miserable — or worse — to the unlucky host of this terrible, uninvited virus.

Harrington dealt with such an ordeal thanks to the indiscriminate nature of the virus. And, perhaps, for the young woman, even worse than the helpless, frightening ordeal with the virus was the lack of medical assistance she got in the early stages of the pandemic.

Harrington, whose parents, Teresa and Bruce Harrington, of Fayette are Rockland District High School graduates and former standout Tiger student-athletes (her mother's Flanagan family roots also run deep in the area), falls into several categories in the most recent statistics from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, including one of more than 325 "probable" cases, because during her difficult health ordeal she went to the emergency room and was told by medical personnel it was highly likely she was infected with coronavirus, but it was not able to be confirmed due to limited test kits.

As of June 23, in Maine, there had been 2,994 total cases of those infected with coronavirus, with 2,655 confirmed cases, 339 probable, 339 hospitalized and 2,443 recovered, with 102 deaths.

In the country, Harrington, statistically, is one of more than 655,000 people who have lived to tell about their ordeal with the illness.

"I hadn't felt anything like it before," she said. "My lungs were very heavy — elephant-on-the-chest feeling — and it was very hard to get air and oxygen into my lungs. I was beyond exhausted. At the worst I couldn't get out of bed for around two days. Moving 10 steps felt like I ran two miles. I couldn't go up and down the stairs from my bedroom when I was at the height of it."

Harrington essentially had a double-whammy of the virus as her husband, James Palmer, also is believed to have suffered through a bout with the illness.

"He describes it as the 'flu' in his lungs. Shortness of breath, severe fatigue, chills/cold sweats and ongoing fever," she said.

Where did it come from?

It was possible Palmer contracted the virus during one of his work trips out of state. This was early when not much was known about the virus in this country and the pandemic was simply revving its engines before putting the pedal to the metal looking for hosts to thrive inside and decimate from a health standpoint.

"My husband had recovered by then and brought me water and protein shakes because I couldn't eat," she said. "It was a scary experience that I think was heightened by lack of access to doctors and the fear of all the media reports on the virus. I have had the [more common seasonal] flu before, twice, as an adult and this felt very different. The unknown of the virus increased anxiety about what it would do and how long it would [take to] end."

Harrington said she got sick the middle of March. It started with a low-grade fever, lethargy and her inability to catch her breath after walking up the stairs. It progressed to not getting enough oxygen and that is when her husband brought her to the emergency room.

"There I was given a piece of paper [with a number] to call and register, then we drove to the COVID tent," she said. "I wasn't allowed out of the vehicle and they did my vitals through the truck window. They said due to my symptoms, vitals, and oxygen that they believed I had the virus.

"I wasn't, however, considered to be high risk because of my age, lack of history of lung problems, etc. They did not have enough tests and would not test me. I called my doctor the next day who prescribed an albuterol inhaler to try and help and had me download an app on my phone that gives a good estimate for heart rate and oxygen levels. She gave the same answer, that if I came in I would not be tested because of the lack of testing kits and criteria they currently had.

"About the fourth day into it I was unable to get out of bed because I couldn't catch my breath even walking across my bedroom. My husband again called the emergency room and my friend, who is a nurse, and got the same answers. Stay home, quarantine, rest."

Harrington did that, but she was fearful, for the unknown of what the virus could do and being unable to find the medical help she was used to receiving for other health issues in her young life.

"I was scared because this was the first time I have gotten sick and been unable to get any help," she said. "It was new to me to be unable to access health resources. It put into perspective how many people who don't have insurance or access must struggle daily."

Tough times

Harrington said she felt "horrible" for about two weeks and for another two or three weeks when she experienced low lung capacity. "I would run out of breath very easily and my lungs still felt heavy," she said.

Harrington, an account manager for Gosline Retirement Planning, said she suspects she was exposed to the virus through her husband, who travels out of state for work.

"My husband travels all over the U.S. for work and I got sick shortly after he came home from a trip down south," she said.

Harrington said her "husband was amazing and took care of everything for me. I was upstairs in our bedroom while he was downstairs making sure everything got done and I had everything I needed."

But, she admits, her day-to-day struggles, mentally and physically, were difficult to deal with.

"Lots of frustration — not being able to work, not having answers and really no direction except rest to get through it," she said. "It was the start to a long stay-at-home order and shifting to working from home. The lack of ability to connect with people was hard, especially with family."

Harrington said she tried to do all the right things to avoid the virus, but it was not enough.

"I got sick fairly early on into the process so no one was social distancing and the stay-at-home order hadn't been given yet," she said. "I did follow the washing hands, don't shake people's hands, etc."

As tough as the ordeal was, Harrington said being young and relatively health made a world of difference.

"If I was older or had any substantial health issues I think it would be much worse," she said.

Now on the other side of the virus, Harrington understands what so many have dealt with.

"I think people weren't prepared for the inability to access healthcare services during this time unless you fit a very specific criteria," she said. "The lack of testing supplies made a big difference who got tested and the reports of positive numbers. I'm sure there were a lot of people like me who just didn't fit the bill for testing even though we were very sick."

Dealing with uncertainty

Harrington said while she has recovered, due to the pandemic, she, like everyone, still faces the fact the world, and how it operates, has changed.

"I feel back to normal now," she said. "I still have to do a 14-day quarantine every time my husband gets home from being on the road so I switch to working from home during those weeks."

And how has she and her family dealt with the pandemic?

"Lots of phone calls for the first two months because I didn't want to be around anyone in case I was still a carrier," she said. "The lack of information about whether you can catch it again is still vague and they aren't doing antibody tests locally yet. My husband was home with me for about six weeks so that was one upside because he travels so much."

Getting extra time with her husband of five years — and someone she has known for more than a decade — was nice, along with spending time with her dogs, one-year-old Remi, a female pitbull/Boston terrier mix rescue from Georgia, and 10-year-old Lily, a female black Labrador retriever.

"It helped with training Remi as well because she had never lived in a house before we got her in the middle of December," Harrington said. "She needed a lot of work and that gave us extra time we wouldn't normally have."

Harrington, who graduated from Maranacook of Readfield in 2003, University of Southern Maine (bachelor's degree in criminology) in 2007 and USM (masters in mental health counseling) in 2016, was a standout track-and-field athlete in high school for the Winthrop Ramblers, then Maranacook Black Bears and in college for the USM Huskies.

At 5 feet 10 inches, she was a standout jumper, along with random events such as the 4x400-meter relay. In fact, Harrington holds Maranacook's indoor and outdoor track-and-field high jump (5 feet) and triple jump (31-10) school records.

She went on to compete in track and field at USM for two years before she pulled a quad muscle and decided not to return to the program. In those two years, she received the William Wise Scholar-Athlete Award for maintaining a high grade-point average while competing. The Huskies won the Eastern College Athletic Conference championships the years she competed.

Harrington stays physically active with yard work and walks with her dogs. She had hip surgery in 2014, which has limited her weight training and heavy-impact activities.

Also a voracious reader ("I read constantly and tend to not be able to start a book without finishing it on the same day."), she enjoys spending time at camp, hunting and in the company of friends and family.

"I like spending time in the woods, taking pictures, and swimming whenever I can," she said.

A scary bout with coronavirus behind her, Harrington can focus on a more healthy and somewhat "normal" life as the pandemic she met up-close and personal continues to wreak its daily havoc.

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