‘It hurt just to breathe’: COVID-19 survivor shares her story, advocates for face masks

YAKIMA, Wash. — When the pandemic came to a head earlier this year, Heather Panian drove across the country with her dog in tow to be with her family in Washington state.

Panian, 33, was living by herself in Austin, Texas and decided if she were to get sick, she wouldn’t want to be alone. That spurred the spontaneous journey to Yakima near the end of March, driving 17 hours a day for two days to get there.

“I thought if something were to happen or if they were to limit travel at all, I would just be alone here,” Panian said. “I didn’t even tell my mom. I just showed up.”

Later, Panian would wonder about her decision; at that point, she didn’t know she’d test positive for COVID-19 and end up hospitalized with pneumonia.

Panian posted a video on Facebook on Tuesday to talk about her experience with the virus and encourage people to wear masks, regardless of how they feel about them. KAPP-KVEW spoke to her further about her story.

The Opinion of a Covid Survivor: Masks

Posted by Heather Panian on Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Being a young person with no underlying health conditions, Panian wasn’t too worried about the coronavirus. She didn’t go out a lot, but she also didn’t wear a mask or gloves or worry about catching COVID-19 while she was at the grocery store.

“I didn’t take it very seriously at first,” Panian said.

As the virus continued to spread, she began to worry about her family. About a month into her visit, she began showing symptoms, including a low-grade fever and a tightness in her chest, and decided to get tested on a Friday at a drive-thru testing site.

“Over the weekend is when I started losing my sense of taste and smell, so then I was really paranoid,” Panian said.

While waiting for the results, she self-quarantined, trying to keep her distance from her loved ones. Days later, the results came back as negative for the virus.

“Then, I had to run errands, so I went to the bank. I went to the grocery store. I saw my parents,” Panian said. “And then that afternoon, my symptoms skyrocketed.

Panian had a high fever and couldn’t get out of bed. This continued for several days, while she tried to avoid going to the hospital unless it was absolutely necessary.

Eventually, Panian went to a local clinic to get tested for the regular flu virus, which was negative. Based on her symptoms, the doctors asked to test her for COVID-19 a second time.

“They said the results haven’t come back for either yet, but based on how your lungs sound, we recommend you go to the E.R.,” Panian said.

Panian drove herself to a nearby emergency room, where the doctors there told her she had pneumonia and suspected it was a complication of COVID-19. She was given a rapid test for the virus, which came back positive by the end of the night.

“It was really almost enraging because given that I had a negative result at first, I continued to expose my family, thinking that I wasn’t positive,” Panian said.

She was admitted to the hospital and put on oxygen and in an isolated room for four days. Once Panian was able to breathe better, she was released from the hospital but she was still struggling.

“It’s very serious, like when you cannot breathe and you’re trying to clothe yourself or walk to the bathroom and you cough so hard that you pee your pants…As a young adult, that’s really humbling,” Panian said.

She quarantined for two weeks and then got tested again; the results came back negative for the virus. Her family got tested and all came back negative for COVID-19.

“It’s really an anomaly, I mean, we don’t understand this virus and that’s kind of the scary part,” Panian said.

As days passed and she began recovering, Panian still worried about what would come next.

“I just felt really scared about what kind of long-term impacts this will have on me,” Panian said. “For a while there, it hurt to just breathe and as scary as that sounds, I just got tired of breathing because it took so much work.”

Panian returned home to Austin near the end of May; some people have told her that in hindsight, she never should have left.

“I’ll never know if it was a good or a bad decision to go,” Panian said. “I think that if I had got COVID here in Austin, I would have felt horrible and been alone also.”

While she has received a lot of support from friends and family, she also feels ostracized at times.

“There’s some people that I ran into in public where you could see that they were scared of me,” Panian said. “I’m just as scared as everybody else. I’m trying to navigate this.”

Panian said she hopes people will hear her story and realize that it doesn’t matter how young or healthy someone is, that the virus affects people in different and unexpected ways.

Another hope, Panian said, is that people will wear face masks in public, not to protect themselves, but to protect those around them.

“What a horrible feeling to know that you could have potentially caused a long-term health issue or death to somebody because you didn’t want to be inconvenienced for a 15-minute grocery store run, you know?” Panian said.