Andrew Smith was as isolated as one can be during a pandemic.
Not even the nurses and doctors who took care of him at Ascension Via Christi Hospital, during their sparse trips into his room, could stay in his intensive care unit room for long, as they came in to check on him covered in biohazard gear. It was for their own protection, so they wouldn’t catch the coronavirus that has shut down entire countries over the past few weeks, even while they kept watch on him from outside the room.
But the K-State journalism professor never felt alone.
Smith, who on Friday was announced as the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the area, had checked into the emergency room after his symptoms got worse.
“I thought, ‘Was I too late? Did I wait too long?’” Smith said. He was having trouble breathing and concentrating at the time, and the hospital staff raced to stabilize him, even as he got worse his first two days.
In the hospital, the virus began to attack his liver, Smith said.
“It’s not a smart virus, it keeps trying to kill its host,” Smith joked.
A usually positive person, even Smith said he began to worry during his stay in the hospital. But after Riley County health officials announced they had identified him (anonymously) as the first case of the virus in the area, he saw how friends of his began to worry — scared about their own families. Smith had contracted the virus while on a trip to London with his family, leaving for the United Kingdom — then identified as a low-risk country — before the situation had escalated in severity.
When he returned, he and his family took steps to avoid infecting anyone in the community, and Smith knew he had to speak up and assure others that the risk locally remained low.
“I thought, ‘I can’t be the one that makes them scared,’” he said. “I can’t be that person, so (my wife) Jen and I decided we needed to let people know about this.”
On Saturday, Smith recorded a video, sharing his experience with the virus from the hospital, and Jen shared the video online.
In his video, Smith said he wanted to make two points: outlining the steps he and his family took to keep local community members safe, and to assure others that it’s okay to feel scared, but to come together as a community to face that commonly held fear.
The video quickly spread across the community and the couple’s extensive networks of friends, and they received an “outpouring of support” from people across the country.
“It was like a huge hand just scooping me up and lifting up my spirits so I could really focus on, alright, we’re going to move forward, and I’m going to beat this,” Smith said. “We’re all in this together, and we’re going to move ahead. That was such an uplift as I was in isolation.”
Now, Smith said he’s concerned with continuing the healing process. He checked out of the hospital Wednesday night, as doctors determined he didn’t need a medical professional on standby anymore, although he uses oxygen when he sleeps at night.
He said he felt relief to be out of the hospital, but also a bit of anxiety in leaving the medical professionals who took care of him. A former sports anchor, Smith borrowed a phrase and said he was “out of the shadows of his own goalpost,” but he still has a long journey to recovery. The bilateral pneumonia in his lungs isn’t gone yet, and doctors told him to think of pneumonia recovery in weeks and months, saying it might be mid-summer before he stops noticing any lingering effects on his lungs.
As far as the virus itself, much is still unknown about the virus’ long-term effects, Smith said, and he’s being careful to take care of himself. His doctors gave him one piece of advice: don’t get comfortable.
Back at home, Smith is still in quarantine for an additional two weeks with his wife and two daughters in Pottawatomie County. The rest of the family is presumed to have the virus as well, showing mild symptoms of COVID-19 but none significant enough to use some of the state’s limited testing supplies. Luckily, none of them have the respiratory symptoms that Smith does, he said. Those are the ones that turn a mild case into a critical one that might require hospitalization.
Still, Smith isn’t sure what caused him to have a more severe case of the sickness, at least when compared to his family. Smith said he’s never smoked or drank a day in his life. Every morning, Smith exercises for about an hour with his wife, describing himself in “excellent health” for a 51-year-old.
And he’s already back at work, preparing coursework for the four K-State classes he teaches, since he didn’t have the past week to adjust the classes for an online focus.
Smith said that as a journalist, he hopes his story helps put a face to the complicated story of the virus.
“That helps people understand, because people like stories about people,” he said. By sharing his experience, he hopes others can begin to understand catchphrases like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing” as actual steps people can take to protect those around them.
“This isolation is hard, because we’re communal animals — we’re tribal animals,” he said. “People need to be with people, but luckily, electronically we can do that. Moving forward, I think that’s going to be greatest thing to come out of this — people connecting with people.”