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‘A Whole Other Reality’: Inside The First Confirmed Case Of COVID-19 In Kentucky

Ryan Van Velzer

Julia Donohue chalked it up to stress. She had a lot of special order cakes to bake from home, in addition to her job in the bakery at Walmart. 

She doesn’t get sick that often, but she called out for three days.

Things still felt weird when she returned. Is it normal to be out of breath after you’ve had the flu? 

That was the first time she went to the doctor — urgent care at Harrison Memorial Hospital. 

The results of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Kentucky came back on March 6.

Gov. Andy Beshear stood at a podium emblazoned with the state seal “United We Stand, Divided We Fall.” Flanked by state health officials wearing grave expressions, the governor declared a state of emergency. 

“There is no need to panic, I get that it’s scary. I’m a dad of two great young children, but we will face this and we will face this together,” he said.

Up to that point the state had performed only 10 tests for COVID-19.

Supplies were extremely limited, and those made by the CDC turned out to have faulty components, which states had to modify.

The first nine tests came back negative. The 10th test came back positive. It was Julia Donohue’s. 

Donohue lives in Cynthiana. At the time, she sang alto in her church choir. She hadn’t traveled out of the country. She hadn’t even traveled out of state. It hadn’t crossed her mind that she might contract a novel virus that, up until a few months before, only existed half a world away, she said.  

“The last thing I knew about it was that it was in China, I never thought I’d get it,” Donohue said.

Navigating The Unknown

Harrison Memorial Hospital CEO Sheila Currans had planned for the moment, “never dreaming” that the small rural community she helped care for would be the first in the state to have confirmed spread.  

The first call she got was from the county judge executive notifying her of the positive result. 

The second came from Public Health Commissioner Dr. Steven Stack.

“For about two minutes I kind of had a meltdown, really, right after I talked to Dr. Stack,” Currans said. “I couldn’t even put it all together for just about two minutes. Then it’s like everything else you’ve got to figure it out and you’ve got to get going because you see a lot of people have been impacted. So you move on from there and you don’t look back.”

When Donohue arrived at Harrison Memorial Hospital, doctors prescribed her some drugs and an inhaler. None of it worked, so she went back to the hospital the next day.

The doctors told her she had pneumonia, and decided to keep her overnight. They told her that if she couldn’t keep breathing on her own, they’d have to hook her up to a ventilator. 

“I just really wanted to rest, I just really wanted it to be over,” Donohue said. “I never thought in my mind that it was some new virus.”

Donohue’s primary care doctor, who is also the chief of staff for the hospital, told Currans that his patient was pretty sick and should get the COVID-19 test.

Currans agreed, and they called the state to make the request. Within an hour, they received an answer: no.

“And they gave us the reason and I understood the reason. There was absolutely no travel connection at this point,” Currans said.  

The next day Donohue’s blood oxygen levels dropped precipitously. She was exceedingly sick, and doctors decided to intubate her.

X-rays of Donohue’s lungs appeared similar to descriptions in the early research around COVID-19.

“It’s subjective but it has a very broken glass type of appearance that is unlike any other kind of pneumonia you see,” Currans said.   

Doctors airlifted Donohue to the University of Kentucky Hospital in Lexington.  

Inside Isolation

Donohue doesn’t remember the flight. She slept for three days after she was intubated, and when she did wake up, she thought she was still at Harrison Memorial Hospital.

Her vision was blurred, and the drugs were making her mind hazy. Hospital staff had handcuffed her to the bed, worried that she would rip out the tubes when she woke up.

Donohue’s husband, Matthew, sat beside her. He wasn’t allowed to leave the room. While intubated, Donohue scribbled notes when she wanted something, but her handwriting was nearly illegible, she said. Matthew was the only one who seemed to understand her.

“Somehow my husband knew exactly what I was trying to say. It’s a good thing he was there. It was like a game of charades,” she said. 

Inside the isolation room, Doctors and nurses dressed head to toe in blue suits with “helmets,” looking like astronauts ready for a space walk. 

Every day they asked her the same questions: what day is it? What’s your name? Where are you?

She always knew her name. The rest came in time.  When her vision came back, Donohue could see a white board that had the date and the name of the hospital. 

When she got answers right, the doctor came in. He confirmed she had tested positive for COVID-19.

“I guess I felt nervous, scared. I did want to know if I was going to get better or not, and how long I was going to be in there,” Donohue said. “I wondered what my family was thinking, what was happening outside of the hospital. It felt like I was in a whole other reality.”  

Spread In Cynthiana

Back at Harrison Memorial Hospital, Currans was already performing damage control. At that point, there had been no advice from the federal government that hospital staff should be wearing protective gear.

Currans and hospital staff reviewed Donohue’s record to find every single employee that had come into contact with Donohue. In total, Currans sent home 54 employees to quarantine for two weeks. The hospital had to shut down elective procedures before the rest of the state because they didn’t have the staffing, she said.

Then the calls from the community started to pore in. Three different doctors called in saying they were treating patients who they thought needed COVID-19 tests.

Not long after, Currans and hospital staff sat down with the local health department and drafted a grid of all the known confirmed cases in the county — less than 20 at that time, she said.

What they learned was that there was a connection that possibly explained how Donohue came to contract the virus, Currans said. A member of Donohue’s church choir had traveled, but only to California.

“The linkages we found helped support respiratory [transmission],” Currans said. “Singing and gathering. And it’s true that church events and choirs, and choir practices and potlucks, probably were causative events for a lot of the community spread.”

Surviving COVID-19

The initial outbreak did not result in a surge. Less than 10 people fell seriously ill with even fewer deaths, Currans said. Amazingly, not a single health care worker got sick after treating Donohue.

“We’re just very lucky,” she said. “Because none of those 54 had been in gloves, booties, masks or gowns and not one of them ended up sick.”

After a total of about two weeks in and out of two hospitals, Donohue left out the back door to avoid news cameras set up out front. 

“I honestly thought when I got home people would be angry at me, say it’s my fault or do something crazy,” she said. 

But she arrived home to flowers and cards filled with prayers and well wishes from family and friends, none of which she’d known about because nothing had been allowed in or out of the isolation room at the hospital.

A year later, Donohue says she’s inspired by how the community has come together, by the kindness they’ve shown and by the support they’ve offered not just her, but each other.

After her experience with COVID-19, she says she feels whole, but she’ll never again take her health for granted.

“I know how fragile life can be, and it’s scary to think but I’m only 28 and I feel like it’s not my time to go yet,” Donohue said.  

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