What it's like to have COVID-19: Saint Johner breaks silence on illness

Kym Murphy was careful. She washed her hands. She practised physical distancing.

But the usually healthy, vibrant 54-year-old still contracted COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. 

"I was so careful with handwashing," said Murphy, a motorcycle enthusiast and mother of one who typically works as a school bus driver in Greater Saint John. "I didn't go out. I went on walks with my dog. That's it. I didn't have any contact with anybody.

"I joked at the beginning that self-isolation wouldn't affect me because I stay home a lot anyhow."

Submitted by Kym Murphy

Nevertheless, Murphy started experiencing what she calls "odd" symptoms on March 19, roughly one week after her last day of work on March 13. "It started with a congested headache," she said.

Throbbing pain radiated from the back of her head up to her temples. Her mouth, throat and eyes were bone-dry. "I started to get extremely tired and achy with sweats and chills," she said. 

During a "surreal" week, from March 21 to 29, Murphy said she struggled to get out of bed.

Strange symptom

Murphy knew she was sick. But she had none of the symptoms that warrant testing for COVID-19, according to New Brunswick's official diagnostic criteria.

"I didn't have the fever, I didn't have shortness of breath, I didn't have the coughing," she said. "But I just felt that there was something not right."

Government of New Brunswick

What finally prompted her to call 811 was a symptom that didn't appear anywhere in the government of New Brunswick information.

"I could taste and smell nothing," she said. 

Murphy placed a few drops of tea tree oil on her hand; her nose barely registered the pungent aroma. That loss of sensation could be a symptom of COVID-19, a friend had warned.

"When that happened to me, I called 811," she said. 

'I'm going to die by myself'

Murphy got an appointment the next day, on March 26, at a testing centre on Loch Lomond Road in Saint John's east end. The centre was like "a tented drive-thru," she said, staffed by security guards and nurses in hazmat suits.

Horizon Health Network

Afterward, she went home, firmly believing she would test negative.  

"I thought, 'I can't wait to get this negative news and get on with my life, knowing that I just had a bad flu,'" she said. 

The following day, the phone rang — it was Saint John Public Health. 

"Once she said, 'This is public health calling; I've got you on speakerphone and I'm sitting here with a doctor,' that's when I knew," Murphy said.

"The psychological aspect of it was pretty freaky. There were times when I thought, 'Oh my god. When is it going to hit my lungs? I'm going to die by myself. What's going to happen to my son?' … That whole gamut."

Submitted by Kym Murphy

1st community transmission case

Murphy spent "two to three hours" on the phone with public health that evening, retracing her every step over the past several weeks. 

Did she contract the virus on one of her walks with her dog, Lili Marlene? From touching a door handle? A stray cough from someone on the street? 

Murphy will likely never know. Officials told her she was New Brunswick's "first case of community transmission," she said.

Ed Hunter/CBC

"They called me the province's puzzle," she said. "They can't figure out where I contacted it from."

Murphy said she didn't receive any prescriptions. No puffers. No pills to take. Just a daily phone check-in with a public health nurse, and teas and herbal supplements she took on her own. 

"They told me to get lots of rest and drink lots of liquids. That was the only advice that I got," she said.

She spent the following weeks in quarantine, not leaving the house for any reason. 

Retesting concerns

Murphy wants people to know that the symptoms of COVID-19 aren't as clear cut as many people believe.

"I'm quite shocked that even now, when you go on the website and you do the self-assessment, that [more] symptoms aren't there," she said.

She said she is also concerned about a lack of retesting for those who have tested positive for COVID-19 after their period of self-isolation ends. 

Austin Grabish/CBC

Saint John Public Health advised her that her isolation would end on April 4, Murphy said. When she asked when she would be retested, she said the nurse informed her public health was "not doing that anymore."

"I'm not happy about that," Murphy said. "I don't want to go back out into the world without the certainty that I have tested negative."

A request for comment to New Brunswick's Department of Public Health was not immediately returned. 

'People are terrified'

The experience also opened her eyes to the stigma associated with COVID-19, Murphy said.

Sick in her bed at home, she scrolled through Facebook comments that suggested people who get the virus are "careless, or stupid, or travelled, or didn't practise the necessary precautions."

"That is not the case," she said. "I was very careful."

When New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell announced in late March that community transmission had been confirmed in the province, Murphy said she was also disturbed to see people "demanding to know where patients lived, demanding to know how people could be so careless."

Submitted by Kym Murphy

"There's ignorance, there's lack of understanding — people are terrified," she said. 

Despite her ordeal, Murphy considers herself lucky on two fronts.

Before she called 811, the province had just announced that they were starting to do wider testing, she said. "And so I think I was just one of the lucky ones to slip in under that format."

Second, she said, the experience has given her a "new sense of positivity" about life. "Maybe I'll get more done, who knows."

Murphy wanted to go public with details of her case, she said, to encourage compassion toward those who are sick with COVID-19. 

"More than any other time that I've ever seen in my life, it's so important that we have compassion for one another," she said. "There's a minority of people out there who aren't taking it seriously and they create this negative idea that careless people are transmitting this crazy disease. 

"That's not the case — I really want people to understand that."