On a recent afternoon, Edmonds resident Leah Bernstein drove down to a Seattle parking garage, where health care workers donned in personal protective gear drew her blood from a tented station.
Bernstein, 50, and her husband Darryl, 53, have both recovered from COVID-19, and are now participating in a Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center study. Hutch scientists are looking at the blood of COVID-19 survivors to identify antibodies that could be used in the hopes of preventing or treating the disease, according to the center.
Darryl is also in the process of donating his plasma, the part of blood that contains antibodies, in the hopes it could be used to help others fight the disease.
“We’re so lucky to have had it and the outcome wasn’t tragic,” said Leah Bernstein. “We’re trying to be part of solving the problem.”
“Is this it?”
The outcome wasn’t tragic, but the couple’s experience with COVID-19 was frightening and painful.
The first signs of the illness came in mid-March when Darryl Bernstein, “a big, tough guy who rarely gets sick,” came down with a fever, his wife said.
He also learned that he had recently encountered someone who tested positive for the virus through his work as a photographer. In the days before everything shut down, he had done a small photo shoot, something that seemed low risk at the time.
With antiseptic wipes everywhere, the couple tried to keep the house virus free and Darryl isolated, especially to protect their 12-year-old daughter Lili. But the house was in the midst of a remodel which meant there was just one working bathroom for three people. Despite their best efforts, Leah got sick the day Darryl’s fever broke.
“I thought: Well, he was only sick for five days, I can handle that,” she said. “But it just went on and on for me.”
She was so delirious that the days blurred together. A low-grade fever wouldn’t abate and there was no relief from a brutal headache that felt “like someone was pushing needles into my ear canal.”
With shortness of breath, she struggled to make it up and down the stairs. She was too dizzy to stand up and her head felt too heavy for her neck to support.
“I would try to watch a movie and it was too much,” she said.
Twelve days passed in a fog of sleep and strange dreams. When she did wake, fear gripped her: “Am I going to die? Is this it?”
Her older daughter Lena, a college student, does not live with them and stayed away. Lili, 12, did get a fever, but quickly recovered. She was old enough to be self-sufficient while her parents recovered, enjoying a break from mom’s hovering and some television binge watching, Leah Bernstein said, with a laugh.
“I think about this all the time: I’m so glad she is 12,” she said. “I can’t imagine if you had little kids. I wouldn’t have been able to even make a sandwich.”
Even though the couple lost their appetite and sense of smell – Leah didn’t even have a desire to drink coffee—they kept eating to stay strong.
Friends dropped off Costco ready-to-go meals at their doorstep, and North Edmonds neighbors left food on the porch. Darryl is self-employed and Leah’s boss at the nonprofit Girls on the Run was “super understanding” of her time off work.
Helping in a meaningful way
After their recovery, they learned about the Fred Hutch study and wanted to reach out and help humanity in a meaningful way.
It’s also been interesting to learn about the study and the research, she said. Already, they’ve learned that they do have the antibodies for the virus.
But, even that knowledge doesn’t offer complete peace of mind. While research has shownnearly everyone who recovers from COVID-19 makes antibodies, it’s still unclear whether those antibodies confer immunity, and if so, how long it lasts.
Despite experiencing a full recovery, they still haven’t seen anyone without social distancing, and wear masks when they go out.
“The information keeps changing and I don’t want to be out there acting brazenly like I’m superwoman,” she said. “It’s terrible. It’s an awful sickness. We all need to be careful because we don’t know the end of it.”
— By Kellie Schmitt
This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the impact of coronavirus on the life, work and health of Edmonds residents. If you or someone you know has a story to tell, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For other stories in this series, click here.