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Covid Reflections: Before The World Shut Down Sarah DeOpsomer Got Sick

A year after the pandemic reached the interior West and brought the globe to a standstill, this Bozeman resident survived her own brush with the virus. Now she looks back

A string of washed and air-drying covid masks in southwest Montana are emblems of what the last year has brought—sorrow, fear, stress, anxiety, stir-craziness, fatigue and a way of adaptation that few probably ever thought possible on a mass scale. Photo courtesy Heidi Barrett
A string of washed and air-drying covid masks in southwest Montana are emblems of what the last year has brought—sorrow, fear, stress, anxiety, stir-craziness, fatigue and a way of adaptation that few probably ever thought possible on a mass scale. Photo courtesy Heidi Barrett

EDITOR'S NOTE: A year ago, in early spring 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic was just reaching the hinters of the Rocky Mountain West, Sarah DeOpsomer (who happens to be Mountain Journal's executive assistant) got sick in the first wave of cases spreading across the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. She wrote an ongoing series of dispatches about the double worry of contracting novel coronavirus and Influenza B at the same time. The installments were read widely nationwide. You can read that piece "Coronavirus On The Doorstep: The Pandemic Reaches America’s Isolated Flyover" by clicking here. Below DeOpsomer tries to make some sense of a viral outbreak that has changed millions of lives and brought the world to a standstill. And to think it started with one case halfway around the globe. 

 by Sarah DeOpsomer

Being my usual few minutes late, I resisted the urge to speed as I took a sharp left off College Street onto Technology Boulevard, then left onto Research Drive and a final left at Analysis Drive. I was arriving for my 9:45am blood draw in Bozeman, Montana in March 2021. 

I was not sick with novel coronavirus or one of the many variants now moving through the US population. Instead, I had become a research subject who, along with a group of others, was being monitored to track what lingering presence Covid-19 has in my body. 

Exactly a year ago, I had gained entrance in a club no one wanted membership in—being counted in the first wave of people in my community to be officially diagnosed with a disease that would go onto to claim 548,000 lives in the country and 1,450 in Montana, the latter set among more than 100,000 confirmed cases. In a dozen months, roughly one out of every 10 people who live here permanently, who moved here, have tested positive.

In my debut as a writer for Mountain Journal, where I work as a member of its small shoestring staff, I wrote a series of dispatches of what it was like to not only get sick, but observe the sometimes serious experiences of friends, and to try to make sense of the pandemic—something members of my generation and younger and had never lived through. 

Dr. Jodi Hedges, an assistant research professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Montana State University, had learned of the fact that both my husband and I had tested positive. In my case, I not only had SARS-CoV-2 but I too had contracted Flu-B and coped with the frightening effects. At the time, if you can remember back that far in what has been a year that seems like many to have passed, some people who got ill suffered severe life-threatening symptoms—including people who otherwise were perfectly healthy, and some died after the onset of impacts primarily to their lungs and heart.

The study group overseen by Dr. Hedges and her colleagues has expanded to assess the duration of antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2 and now, more recently following vaccination. She also is measuring the antibodies capacity to neutralize the virus in laboratory culture. 

Close to a year later, it appears I still have antibodies from my initial Covid-19 infection but my husband does not. Several of us in the study do.  What this means, I have no idea. Not enough time has gone by yet for a full understanding of this novel coronavirus by the scientific community.

When asked to write a one-year-later piece, my first inclination was there wasn’t much to tell; life had eventually gone on in a mostly normal way, or so I initially thought. Then the night after the request from Mountain Journal’s editor was made, I was  sleepless. Surprisingly, I found myself tossing and turning thinking of all the things over the year that had happened and undeniably, most were definitely coronavirus influenced. In a way, everything has changed and we talk about “returning to normal,” but will it ever be what it was?

How will this time that has been defined by society’s response to Covid-19 continue to ripple as an impact on millions of young people who have been in school at the time? What about families that were unable to say goodbye to loved ones? How do our communities collectively re-gather after this shock to the system? How do we deal with the divisiveness created over politics and anti-science positions that are not fact based and seem to have set back out ability to deal with the next big pandemic that is all but certain to strike? 
How will this time that has been defined by society’s response to Covid-19 continue to ripple as an impact on millions of young people who have been in school at the time? What about families that were unable to say goodbye to loved ones? How do our communities collectively re-gather after this shock to the system? How do we deal with the divisiveness created over politics and anti-science positions that are not fact based and seem to have set back out ability to deal with the next big pandemic that is all but certain to strike? 
Will we remember the important lessons we’ve learned?

° ° ° °

The definition of denial is “a defense mechanism against situations or circumstances that are painful and overwhelming.” My recent night ended up feeling eerily like one of the restless nights I’d had during infection.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus crisis a global pandemic. When I first wrote about my personal experience with Covid-19 for Mountain Journal  only 31 cases had been reported in Montana, 17,330 in the US and 46,484 globally. A year later, almost 30 million cases of infection have been reported in the U.S., and 124 million globally.  At this writing, deaths from this disease have amounted to well more than half a million. 

In my 2020, I pondered aloud: think of how the loss of a single individual in a network of family and friends ripples. It takes the breath away to consider that when it is multiplied half a million times and doesn’t include people who are alive but still suffer symptoms, and the trauma inflicted upon business people and students. 

Nor, within the context of Mountain Journal and its coverage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and wildlands in the West, factor in the impacts of people who have moved to the region, setting off a seismic impact of real estate purchase and speculation, soaring home prices and huge ecological consequences in the form of growing human footprint and recreation pressure on public lands; all of which are unprecedented in modern times.

° ° ° °

Each morning I still take a quick glance a national newspaper’s counter that reflects the number of deaths in the US and globally and I see it’s monstrous calculations rising.

I received a positive Covid-19 test result on March 26, 2020, as had my husband a day or so earlier. We are most commonly asked how we are doing one year later. I’m happy to report: very well, thank you. However, there have certainly been some symptoms that took much longer to shake than others. For example, I am not convinced my taste is back 100 percent and neither are other Covid-19 survivors I have conversed with. Flavors are muted and I try to restrain from salting any and everything in an attempt to resolve that which is likely unresolvable. 

Mark DeOpsomer, Sarah's husband, and the first in the family to come down with Covid-19
Mark DeOpsomer, Sarah's husband, and the first in the family to come down with Covid-19
My husband, a enthusiastic outdoorsman, swears hiking up certain pitches of trail is that much harder than a year ago. He’s convinced it’s due to having had Covid-19 and not the natural aging process. All tests of lungs and heart function have come back squeaky clean, but he insists “something just doesn’t feel quite right.” I’ve had a similar sensation.  

If you live in the mountains, you have experienced being out of breath due to good old fashioned exertion many times, this is different.  It’s a shallower “high up in your windpipe” fatigue that never quite retreats despite deep diaphragmic inhales of fresh air. Other Comrades-in-Covid tell me they still experience such things as fatigue, sore joints, buzzing in the ears, jaw pain, lung pain and sadly, the loss of taste for beer seems common. 

You can now find many articles written about these aptly named Long Hauler symptoms, and just today I read one about a man in his 40s who frighteningly experienced Covid-19-induced psychosis.

We had planned to travel to two family weddings last summer. They were postponed. Flights were refunded, hotel reservations dropped, car rental cancelled. And now there is the flurry of rescheduling, not knowing if the rearranging will quite work either. Couples are trying to squeeze a last-years-meant-to-be-event into scarcely available venues booked with this year’s wedding commerce. I wonder what it is like for the young couples involved. 

With romantic projection, I think of how they will some day tell their children and grandchildren about their plans to marry and how the plague of 2020—coronavirus, back before much was known about it, unlike today - had thrown a wrench in their plans but they muddled through as love prevails. It reminds me of when my mother-in-law once told me the story of loyally waiting two years to marry my father-in-law while he served in the Korean war.

Another big change my mind initially skipped over was my husband’s voluntary early retirement. In a brief amount of time, one of us was not working any more. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, his company offered early retirement packages. It was now July, and the excitement of having a long road of freedom stretching before him, with nowhere to go, was unexpectedly daunting. A life time of answering to a time clock and now travel, especially by plane, and even more so internationally, had become impossible, scarce or unthinkable. 

As it was summer, friends from our pod of “the Covid-19 affected” graciously hosted a retirement celebration for him—outdoors. It was about 20 people scattered strategically and creatively over a green lawn by the East Gallatin, and all guests masked and safely able to keep six feet apart. Sadly missing were any co-workers, especially the ones he had worked with for more than 25 years. 

Most of them were from out of state and many of those states were at peak infection levels (Illinois, Arizona and California for example.) No one was risking travel. We were still able to feel somewhat jubilant, but all of us clearly acknowledged the many, many individuals for whom losing their job was not a choice and for whom there was no celebration. 
Speaking of work, last spring, when it was time to have our horses shod, our farrier curiously inquired about our experience with the disease, it was still not very prevalent in Montana, and we were the only people he knew who had had it. He didn’t know then that 7 months later he would have his own experience with the scourge.  

As a farrier, Kevin and his equipped truck goes barn, to ranch, to field to shoe horses and he somehow picked up the virus.  When asked, he knew the exact date he had it—November 11— it was that impactful. He had a fever for a full eleven days and he laid low at home waiting for it to pass. Shoeing horses is a physically demanding job and also one that if you’re not working, you are not getting paid. 

Being laid up for two weeks with no sick leave is noticeable. He explained he usually guides hunters for some part of the season too, but skipped the last of it as it was too physically demanding. He also exercised the caution of keeping any chance of contracting Covid-19 away from paying clients. He shod a few horses instead, but claimed he didn’t feel good doing it, that he was operating at about 60 percent and perhaps shouldn’t have gone back to work so soon. His joints hurt especially, first one leg, then the pain switched to the other, he was limping for a while, “It knocked me down a few pegs,” he told me.  

The media is full of heartbreaking stories of those seriously affected by Covid-19 and who had to suffer alone in their final days. The infectiousness of this disease is unrelenting. While camping at Yellow Bay on Flathead Lake, we became acquainted with two young nurses pitching a tent in the site next to us, lucky enough to nab one of the five high-demand sites.  We noticed Wyoming license plates on their Jeep, so we chatted about the beauty of Wyoming in summer.  One of them finally said, “Yeah, I’m a traveling nurse. I just got done with three  months in New York City, helping with the Covid crisis.” 

My husband asked if she had seen any of the refrigerated semi-tractor trailers which housed the deceased in the City.  “Oh yes” she exclaimed, “that’s why I’m here now, needed a break. My next gig is in Idaho in a few days, a little more low key.” The proverb Many a True word is Spoke in Jest comes to mind when my husband and I have a small daily downer, especially regarding the aging process, we tend to quip “Oh well, it’s better than being in a tractor trailer freezer in NYC.” 

 I truly mean no disrespect to those unfortunate individuals who did end up in just that place, but rather it’s some kind of distorted humor as a defense mechanism, a remark to acknowledge the horror at the loss of dignity the virus has left in its wake.

The spectre of death did not stop for anyone this year;  multitudes of families were forced to grieve untraditionally and some are still waiting for a chance to gather and honor the dearly departed with memorials. 

My good friend, next door neighbor and Montana native had received a devastating terminal diagnosis a year earlier. One day in May, I sat with her in the blazing sun on her back porch, noticing her frailness despite how bundled up she was in layers of goose down outerwear, a hat and scarf. I sat 6 feet away and told her I didn’t want to add to her troubles with giving her or her family the virus, we didn’t know enough about my natural immunity at that time. She looked at me and simply said “I have bigger fish to fry. Please, don’t stay away, I want you here.” 

The next few months all of us did the intricate dance of mask wearing, outdoor visiting, and shift-negotiating to keep her company as best we could without infecting her or her caretakers. One day in August, I was blessed to be holding her hand as I felt a knowing coolness radiate upward from her fingertips and take her over. She soon after slipped into the comfort of another world. It felt like a priviledge to be there and I couldn’t help but think of all the hundreds of thousands of family members who had no such access or opportunity with their loved-ones' last breaths.

Stephanie, a pseudonym in my first article - her real name is Mikel, is my friend who spent a night in the ICU as Bozeman Health’s first Covid-19 patient. Nearing recovery, she gave an interview to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle

I visited with Mikel yesterday and she pointed to her new hair growing in, a thick dark thatch of young vibrant growth under thinner strands of longer existing hair. At one point in the year, she had had a CT scan of her lungs and it showed an image frequently described as “ground glass opacity.” This image tends to indicate abnormalities in the lungs, and Mikel had felt a burning sensation in her lungs during the active infection stage. 

Since recovering from the initial onslaught of symptoms, with the help of antibiotics, she has been determined to re-condition her lungs. To do so, she frequently hikes Bozeman’s Drinking Horse trail, an uphill slog, to give them a good work out and appears to be doing well despite a slew of long-haulers symptoms. This fall, when clumps of her hair were falling out, her doctor diagnosed it as telogen effluvium, a result of shock to the body and told her not to worry, it would grow back. Since her single night stay, 422 individuals have been hospitalized in Gallatin County and 56 have sadly died from coronavirus.

My mother, a trained nurse, has been working more hours doing phlebotomy as they have shortage of people to do it. She does not work with Covid-19 patients, but with well people. The thought of my high-risk mother working extra due to the pandemic is almost unfathomable, but I challenge any one of you to try to talk her out of it.  She has that same hardiness, determination and work ethic that you see in the central plains and ranch communities of Montana. She simply states, “It’s like it was in World War II—we do what needs to be done.” 

My mother was a girl at the time of World War II, growing up in the part of England just north of London that experienced German bombs being dropped en route to their bigger city target. In World War II, her father was a “home guard,” a volunteer who defended the British coastline in the event of an invasion by Germany. His job was to do things like make sure the neighbors pulled their curtains shut at night, or turned off their lights altogether so as not to attract the enemy. 

As a child, one of my favorite pastimes was to nudge my grandfather over and over again to tell me the story of how a bomb dropped on the road near their house and what happened next. He would point out to me the still evident split in the road and describe the plane coming over and the sound it made as the bomb dropped.  He showed me the newer house now standing where the original house, a neighbor and friend’s house, had evaporated from the blast.
My mother’s notion of pulling together for the common good, for doing what needs to be done, came fully forward with this pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines about mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing and avoiding crowds are there for a purpose – to protect us against the enemy. Personally, I have been somewhat flummoxed by anti-mask sentiments going around. I simply can’t understand why people would not pull together to do “what needs to be done” to defeat the enemy. I will pull my curtains shut for you, would you please do the same for me.

Recently, when listening to a presentation, sponsored by the Bozeman Public Library, by renowned Bozeman-based science writer David Quammen author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, I took particular note of his description of how this virus has colonized humans with great success, especially its ability to transmit from people who are asymptomatic.  

Quammen goes on to describe the Darwin Imperatives: make as many copies of yourself as you can, proliferate abundantly; expand yourself in geographical space, get everywhere you can, colonize; and extend yourself in time, avoid extinction and persist into the future. Clearly this virus is out to take the whole village, county, country and beyond, a full invasion that requires humankind to work solidly together to stop it in its tracks. His talk is available for listening by clicking here.

There’s more to examine about the past year —schools and colleges trying to function, helping friends who have lost jobs, vaccine development, supporting friends who have contracted the virus, childcare dilemmas, health care issues unrelated to Covid-19, and much, much more.  I imagine you have your own experiences with complex, sad, and hopeful tales from those close to you. I have one final thought to share: Let’s get to the finish line safely.

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Sarah DeOpsomer
About Sarah DeOpsomer

Sarah DeOpsomer is Mountain Journal's development and executive assistant. Having grown up in East Anglia, England—a region which prides itself on beautiful countryside and its famous landscape painters—DeOpsomer has long been interested in national parks, wildlife, conservation and environmental protection. A graduate of Montana State University, she has lived in Bozeman for nearly a quarter century and has worked for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Yellowstone Park Foundation and more recently the Bozeman Public Library Foundation. When not at her desk and being a mom and partner, she is either hiking, riding, kayaking, reading or painting.
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