GREEN COUNTY — Lorie Zeal’s best guess of where she picked up the new coronavirus is O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
“I walk with a cane. I’m just four months post-op from my hip surgery so I managed to touch everything,” the 63-year-old from Juda said. She also wasn’t vigilant about hand-washing or using sanitizer.
That was March 8. Her test results for COVID-19 came back positive March 27, but by then she’d already been through a medical odyssey that still had her isolated in a room at a Janesville hospital as of April 2.
Her husband Ron, the “pack mule” on their trip, didn’t touch as many surfaces around the airport because he was carrying so much. He hasn’t come down with COVID-19, she said.
Thinking back on it during a phone call from her hospital bed, she blames herself for becoming a victim to the global coronavirus pandemic.
“Basically not taking it seriously, that’s why I think I got it,” she said.
Zeal’s son, Marcus, convinced her to write about her experience for a blog post on his website.
“Now I’m not fond of airing my stupidity publicly,” she wrote, “but maybe one of you will have an ah-ha moment by me doing so.”
Basically not taking it seriously, that’s why I think I got it.Lorie Zeal, Juda
Zeal isn’t the only Green County resident personally affected by COVID-19 to warn others to stay home during this health crisis.
Traci Newcomer, a 41-year-old nurse who lives between Monroe and Browntown, was scheduled to have a lifesaving kidney transplant at a Madison hospital on March 27, but the surgery was postponed indefinitely.
Postponing the surgery until after the COVID-19 crisis protects Newcomer’s personal health, but it is also a matter of public health. A kidney transplant requires a complete suppression of the immune system so the body doesn’t reject the kidney. Newcomer is at increased risk for COVID-19.
In addition, she said, local hospitals “have to be prepared for what Washington and New York are seeing” — a surge of COVID-19 patients that overwhelm the system.
“As a nurse, I understand it. I very much understand it,” she said. But, on a personal level, she said she’s scared for her life. She’s guilty she can’t be working as a nurse right now. And she’s frustrated with people who aren’t taking the coronavirus seriously.
Like Zeal, she felt compelled to warn others about the pandemic. In a public post to her Facebook page on April 1, she wrote, “For anyone out there believing COVID-19 isn’t a big deal, I am begging you to start following the directions of our experts.”
Newcomer’s and Zeal’s stories are a window into the ways the new coronavirus pandemic is having a direct impact on the health and daily lives of local families.
A nurse stuck at home
As an Intensive Care Unit nurse at Monroe Clinic for 18 years, Newcomer has encountered other pandemics.
“I was a nurse when there was the concern about SARS,” she said. “During the H1N1 outbreak, I worked 16-hour days.”
An estimated 61 million Americans got H1N1, “but it was something we had seen before. We knew how to combat that,” Newcomer said. “When I first started hearing about (COVID-19) in January, initially I was concerned because it’s a virus humans have never been exposed to. As it spread and continued to get worse ... honestly I feared that people wouldn’t take it seriously. And that we would see here what China and Italy have experienced. And that’s what you’re seeing right now.”
In December 2018, Newcomer was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that causes kidney failure.
“I was perfectly healthy until that came out nowhere,” she said. Now she undergoes dialysis every night at home. She’s on medications that suppress her immune system and was set up to receive a new kidney through a paired kidney exchange. On April 1, the day she would’ve been released from the hospital if her surgery hadn’t been postponed, she was home instead cleaning her dialysis machine parts.
“Knowing that I could die from something that is not my original illness is frightening,” she said in a phone call that day with the Times, her voice breaking with emotion. “Today is a hard day.”
When I first started hearing about (COVID-19) in January, initially I was concerned because it’s a virus humans have never been exposed to. As it spread and continued to get worse ... honestly I feared that people wouldn’t take it seriously. And that we would see here what China and Italy have experienced. And that’s what you’re seeing right now.Traci Newcomer, rural Monroe
“I also feel guilty because as an ICU nurse, I have the knowledge and the skills to be there, but right now I can’t be. And that really sucks, in all honesty. I’ve never backed down from challenges like this,” she said.
She said she’s also feeling a lot of gratitude for the people who are staying home and for those who still have to work in jobs that put them at risk. Her family and colleagues have been “phenomenal” — “and that makes me teary, too.”
Her husband Larry, a respiratory therapist at Monroe Clinic, throws his clothes in the washer and showers when he gets home from work. Her daughter, 16-year-old Anna, goes grocery shopping for the family. Her son, 13-year-old Trent, cleans and does the dishes and laundry.
Due to her condition, Newcomer hasn’t worked a shift at Monroe Clinic since December. She has been able to continue teaching nursing classes online at Blackhawk Technical College.
She said she feels awful for people who’ve had to cancel vacations due to the coronavirus lockdown. Her daughter’s junior prom and club state swimming meet were canceled. Her son had his sports canceled, too.
“I live that side of it, too, and it sucks,” she said. “I hope people understand the sooner everyone can follow the rules, the quicker we can get back to our normal lives.”
‘Super Mama’ is a fighter
Traci Newcomer and Lorie Zeal don’t know each other but, under different circumstances, Zeal could have been Newcomer’s patient.
Zeal said she believes her ordeal with COVID-19 began with a trip she took with her husband to Virginia in early March to help her son and his family get ready for a move. The trip coincided with “the two weeks when the pandemic was beginning to spread like wildfire.”
After she got back from the trip, her employer told her to stay on a 48-hour quarantine before returning to work. Zeal works part-time for Advantage Solutions passing out food samples at Walmart in Monroe.
But because of coronavirus-related safety measures, her team switched to sanitation duties at the store. Feeling fine after her quarantine, Zeal returned to work. Wearing a mask and gloves, she said, she “wiped down everything, the door knobs, anything that someone would have touched.”
On March 12, she started not feeling well so she stopped working and her supervisor recommended she take two weeks off. Day by day she was feeling sicker.
“I had a dry cough, I had a headache,” she said. But she didn’t have a fever.
By March 20, however, she’d had a fever for days and was starting to experience shortness of breath, exacerbated by a lifelong asthma condition. She was admitted to Mercyhealth Hospital in Janesville and tested for COVID-19.
“They took me right up to the COVID wing,” she said. “It’s a pressurized room where germs stay in the room instead of going out.”
I’m trying not to panic but also definitely panicking.Marcus Zeal, Lorie's son
Her test came back four days later as “inconclusive,” so she took another. Two days after that, she was given a third test to be sure. The results from both tests came back March 27, hours apart. The earlier test showed she had COVID-19. The later test showed she didn’t. Doctors concluded she’d had COVID-19 but was recovering.
“The staff here couldn’t be any better. Nobody treats me like I have the plague,” she said. But “you really are alone. They don’t let you walk in the hall or socialize with any other patients.”
Her son Marcus, who graduated from Juda High School in 2008 and now lives in Ohio, said living far away while his mother has been sick has been hard. “I’m trying not to panic but also definitely panicking,” he said.
Zeal thinks of herself as a “Super Mama,” the name her 3-year-old grandson calls her. She took it on like a “coat of armor.” But it has a new meaning now. She used to feel invincible; now she feels like a fighter.
“This has been a hard fight,” she said. People, especially in in rural areas, “just really need to sit and think, this could be your mother, this could be your little sister, this could be your infant. It could hit anybody.
“Take advantage of the time to spend at home with your family. Dig out those board games, make ice cream. Do those things we used to do in a farm community. Read your Bible and enjoy each other’s company.”