Toward the end of March, 40-year-old Renee English and her mother, Margaret, took their monthly trip to Cleveland Clinic’s Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis for Renee’s intravenous MS treatment with the drug natalizumab. It was her 116th infusion of the immunosuppressant medication, since switching to it in 2010, and every time, Margaret, was by her side.
However, this visit was different. Renee’s mother stayed in the car during her two-hour treatment session due to procedures implemented as a result of COVID-19.
“I entered the infusion room and it looked different. For the first time, curtain dividers were separating the patients,” Renee, a high school teacher and mother of two sons, recalls.
Renee (right), with her mother, Margaret (left). (Courtesy: Renee English)
The following day, on Saturday, Renee awakened in the middle of the night with a splitting headache, fever, severe sore throat and an intense earache. She also experienced a recurrence of some MS symptoms, including some numbness and tingling in her hands and face. “It was like strep throat ‘on steroids.’ It was the worst sore throat and most piercing ear pain I’d ever experienced. Nothing would relieve it.”
Following a virtual visit with a doctor using Cleveland Clinic Express Care® Online, Renee received an order to be tested for COVID-19. “I do not like having medical tests done and I was scared about what the results might be,” recalls Renee. “As if having multiple sclerosis isn’t enough, now I may have to deal with the coronavirus, too?”
Fighting back tears, and gripping the steering wheel hard after the 90-minute drive from her home in Boardman, Ohio, to Cleveland Clinic’s main campus, Renee English pulled into the drive-through COVID-19 testing site.
Renee receiving infusion, to help treat her MS, at Cleveland Clinic's Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis. (Courtesy: Renee English)
She joined a line of cars that Sunday morning, snaking by tents and dozens of Cleveland Clinic caregivers who were covered head to toe in personal protective equipment.
When it was her turn, Renee guided her car alongside a female nurse, “with the kindest eyes” peering at her above a protective face mask. Renee rolled down the window, laid her head back and the nurse gently inserted a swab into her nasal cavity.
“(The test) is uncomfortable, but the nurse was very calming, and for that I am forever grateful,” Renee states.
The next day on Monday, March 23, Renee got a call from Shauna Gales, physician assistant specialist who works alongside Renee’s neurologist, Marisa McGinley, DO, at the Mellen Center.
Shauna delivered the test results to Renee, indicating she tested positive for COVID-19. Renee was shocked by the diagnosis. Similar to the nurse who administered the swab test, Shauna, too, provided Renee with the emotional support she so desperately needed. “I immediately broke into tears, because I was fearing the worst. How will I tell my children? Am I going to die?” Renee recalls.
Renee overcame COVID-19, at home, using no other medication except acetaminophen. (Courtesy: Renee English)
When Renee regained her composure, Shauna’s inspiring words sustained her. “She said, ‘You are young, and you are healthy. You are a fighter, and we are here for you.”
For their safety, Renee’s sons, Preston and Gavin, stayed with other family members while their mom battled the disease from home, alone. Using no other medicine except acetaminophen to control her fever, Renee stayed isolated – and exhausted – for about 10 days.
“I’ve never been more tired in my life. I was constantly taking naps,” says Renee, who lost eight pounds in the first week. “Luckily, my fever never spiked higher than 101.4. Then, it stayed at 99.8 for another week. It was a long time before I felt better.”
Her spirits were bolstered, however, by daily visits from her sons and other family members, who would speak to her through a closed window or via online video. Shauna called her daily, checking-in to see how she was doing.
Despite her medical woes, the hardest part, Renee says, was the loneliness. “The solitude was deafening. The noises of silence were loud. The longing for human interaction and the longing to embrace my family was very real.”
Renee with her sons, Preston (back), and Gavin (front), one of the first times they were able to see her after quarantine. (Courtesy: Renee English)
Fortunately, as Shauna had predicted a few weeks earlier, Renee’s spirit and fortitude paid off. Renee is almost fully recovered from COVID-19, although her sense of smell and taste have not yet returned. She is eager to share that despite the disease’s challenging toll on so many people, victims of COVID-19 – even MS patients with compromised immune systems – can overcome it.
“I have MS, and I was terrified. My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be on a ventilator. I’m not going to survive this,’” says Renee. “And I think those of us who survive need to do everyone a service by saying you know, you can survive.”
According to Shauna, Renee’s longstanding attention to her physical and mental well being –factors aiding her MS treatment –undoubtedly played a role in her COVID-19 recovery. “I’m sure that the fact she went into this at a healthy weight and maintaining a healthy lifestyle had a positive impact in her outcome with the virus,” notes Shauna. “MS has made her a stronger person, too.”