A Year in Review: K-State professor reflects on COVID diagnosis and the road ahead

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As March rolled around this year, Professor Andrew Smith of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications said the anniversary of his COVID-19 diagnosis comes with a lot of baggage but he is grateful to see how the community has came together, and how people responded with wanting to keep their friends and neighbors safe by wearing masks, “because that’s the right thing to do.”

“It doesn’t protect me, it protects you. The other thing was that my family and I lived through this, and so we have not spent another minute in fear for the last year, because we continued to get antibody updates. We’ve continued to get blood tests and that’s one thing that has actually been a good thing is I have not felt that same fear and isolation that everybody else has,” Smith said. “I think, because I’m not afraid to put on a mask and go to the store, I know that I can’t get it and I can’t give it to anybody, and I’m continually getting tested. Just today, I found out a year later, I’m still chock full of antibodies.”

To understand how he got to this point, during March of 2020, along with his family and students from Kansas State, Smith had gone to London on a study abroad trip to explore newsrooms and sights planned prior to the full extent of the virus. As Smith recounted, he had been in contact with the organizers of the trip and had actively been following guidance from the State Department and the CDC and looking at all the warnings.

“At the time, the warnings were only for Italy and for Iran, and Seattle was just starting to realize “maybe there’s a little bit of something there” and New York actually hadn’t happened yet. So there was very little concern,” Smith said. “And in fact, I remember having a discussion with my class saying, “I’m actually more concerned that you’ll step off the curb with a bus going the wrong way and get hit by a bus, then catching the virus”, because the UK had no numbers at the time. So we made a decision it would be okay, we’re safe, and at the time, we remember all they said was wash your hands. So if you wash your hands, you’ll be fine, and we said, we can wash our hands.”

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During their week long stay, events began ramping up in the United States, and due to the time difference, it was difficult keeping track of things as were happening. This joined with the cancellation of tours of several newsrooms, who actually locked down their campuses, and one of his of students about midweek saying they weren’t feeling very well told him how serious things were.

“And they’ve been staying up late, doing things you do on study abroad, and I said, “Let’s see what it is, and actually get you some help”. But again, at the time, the place, we were staying had a total of one known COVID positive test, and testing was sporadic. That next day, they woke up and said they felt fine” Smith said. “We didn’t know, you can have no symptoms and still still pass it along. Then I started feeling a little poorly as we were going, but again, it’s Jet lag, it’s who knows. So we ended up flying back, and just as we were about to fly back that weekend, they decided they were going to suspend all international travel. So we got back on the last day that they were still allowing passport holders to get back to the United States. So we felt very fortunate.”

Desiring to go back to their home base, Smith along with his wife and two children did not feel and opted to quarantine when they returned home because they felt it was the right thing to do.

“Part of what I feel I’m about and my family’s about is that community is really, really important, and that being selfish in a community leads to other ills in the community. So you want to be community minded,” Smith said. “We run a soup kitchen every week, I’m the president of the Common Table, which feeds the homeless every night. We’re involved in a lot of these things, and so our first concern was, well, gosh, if we’re sick, well, that’s one thing, but we want to make sure nobody else get sick either. So we actually contacted a friend and had them bring a car to the curb at the airport, so that we wouldn’t have to even talk to the person at the airport. We literally walked out of the airport into the car, drove the car into the driveway, and didn’t stop again.”

As they came home, Smith says he was taking the luggage out of the back of the car, and began coughing so badly he had to take a knee, initially thinking he had some allergies but said this was something that had never happened to him before.

“So it was very distressing, then I started getting a fever that was 103, 104. So basically all of the kind of the worst things that you’ve read about started to pile on. Symptoms that no one had any idea of were actually part of the virus. My wife lost her taste and smell, I started to have this heightened taste and smell, I started to have the chills,” Smith said. “I called my general practitioner and he said, “We don’t have any cases here yet, but come in, we’re going to get you COVID testing”, at a time when they weren’t COVID testing anybody. We went to Via Christi, and they had a protocol set up for the emergency room.”

Initially it took them a half an hour to get ready for all four members of Smith’s family, and they were isolated  into a singular room, where all four of their tests were administered and then sent off.

“They also gave us tests for everything else. So flu test, and all these other things. So they would only process that if everything else came back negative. Well, it came back negative for all of us, but since I was the only one with active really bad symptoms, mine was the only one they actually processed through the system to actually find out,” Smith said. “It took three to four days to actually get your COVID test back, we act like it’s ancient history, but it’s only a year ago and medically that’s nothing. That gap of time was very dangerous.”

During the period between taking the test and receiving the call that he had contracted the virus, his fever continued to spike and Smith had a tougher time with breathing, having to consciously pull a breath in and exhale.

“The call was from my doctor and he said, “Hey, look, I’ve got bad news for you it’s COVID”, and I asked what do you want to do and he asked me to tell him what the symptoms were as well. “I’ve had a temperature of over 103 for the last three days,” at least I don’t know if I was running a temperature before we came back,” Smith said. “We didn’t have anyway to measure it. As for your breathing, I said that I can’t breathe, I can barely get any air. They said, “Look, we don’t have to hospitalize you, but at this point, I’d rather if something happened, you were in the hospital, not at your house and die in your sleep.” And that’s when I kind of realized just how serious this was.”

Courtesy of @DrewSmithSports

After the phone exchange, his wife drove him back to the emergency room, where crews were waiting with a wheelchair and full PPE hazmat suits. During this moment Smith said his wife told him she didn’t know if she would ever see him alive again, something Smith was not concerned initially about as he had always been very healthy.

“But I was concerned for my immediate self and so I went to the hospital, not knowing at the time that COVID was a death sentence or as a healthy 53 year old that works out a lot, but has not had any major health problems in his whole life, I did not expect it,” Smith said. “We’ve learned that COVID is a real taskmaster when it comes to various things. As I got into the hospital that first night, they had to wake me up in the night to put me on oxygen, and they were probably within what was one more bad oxygen reading event away, which we found out early in the COVID process. My lung stopped working and began filling up faster and probably would have killed me. Luckily, the nurses said, “Well, look you’re fighting it hard. So keep trying to fight it, and so I did”. The next three or four days were just really, really, really miserable.”

After analyzing blood cultures, doctors thought that Smith may have contracted MRSA, and began other treatments. In contact with physicians in New York, where they began seeing cases on the rise, and others displaying similar symptoms and Smith and his doctor discussed treatment with Hydroxychloroquine and cocktails that they could try to use.

“I was starting to get worse and my liver started to fail, the fatigue was immense, I couldn’t concentrate because I was in the hospital five days and didn’t turn on the television. I got through that with messages from friends and being able to be connected to people,” Smith said. “I had one colleague who would call me at midnight saying, “Hey, I’m up. You want to talk?” Then we’d talk for an hour, and I’d listen to Keith Olbermann, he was doing what he called the Thurber Cast, reading short stories from James Thurber. I listened to that in my bed every night. I mean, it was comforting.”

Over the course of the five days, Smith had time to do soul searching in the isolation, as there were no visitors.

“I had a nurse come in to help take blood maybe four times a day, and that was it. Other than that, I was alone. Now luckily, I had a phone so I could tweet, or message,” Smith said. “The day that I went in, while the county announced that I had their first case. My wife and I talked, and we said, we know this is a private thing, we’re just gonna keep it private, I’m not going to talk about it. We just need to deal with this.”

During this time the Riley County Health Department announced their first COVID case in Riley County at Via Christi. Reporting it was a 52 year old male who just came back from a study abroad in London. Smith had not indicated on his Facebook page it was him but became worried as he saw across his feed somebody say, “Oh, no, the virus is here, I am so afraid”.

“That was crushing, I brought this into this community, and we have done every single thing e could think of to try to make sure there was no community spread. To this day, I’m so grateful that there was no one who caught the virus from me or my family. There was no track that leads back to us, and it was weeks before there was another positive in the area,” Smith said. “So that was our goal, to keep everybody safe, but nobody knew that. So my wife actually then identified me on her on social media and said, this is who it is, and it’s my husband. We took every precaution, and everyone in the community, you’re safe, because we’re very community minded.”

Following this moment, Smith realized he had to say something. Struggling with his concentration at this point, and not wanting to write something wrong, he made a video.

“So I made a video and I posted it, basically saying, this is what it feels like number one, and number two, we did everything possible. Please don’t be afraid in the community, you are safe,” Smith said. “I became a little COVIDEO star right away, as within a matter of three or four days I got 50,000 views and was getting contacted by people across the country. I did interviews within five or six different markets from Kansas City, Manhattan, Wichita, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, two different stations in Arizona. So it was suddenly I was the guy that could tell them what it was like being sick.”

During his stay, Smith found that the staff had been a source of salvation, from the nurse who brought him new clothes, towels and soaps, and helped wash him up that night, to the nurses who made their gowns into football jerseys and scrubs into a pirate just to make him smile.

“Health care workers who have been in the middle of this, we throw the word “Hero” around a lot, and Marvel has really you know, degraded what we can call heroes, you know people with supernatural powers. It’s regular people doing hard things, and health care workers have been on the front line of all this,” Smith said. “I am so grateful to everybody that took care of me and took care of me and my family over a year later.  I don’t know, if they like the care, or if the nursing shifts had been different or what that would have made. It made a difference for me, and helped save my life.”

By day four, things started to turn around, with his liver function starting to come back and day five they had prepared to discharge him. No less than two days later, after Smith came back from the hospital, he had a pain in his leg. After contacting his doctor within 30 minutes, they set the same suite up in the emergency room and received a sonogram where a blood clot was found and he was put on blood thinners.

“Again, that saved my life. COVID is a blood disease, and to this day, I’m still on blood thinners. So I left the hospital lucky to be alive and happy to be alive. He was very aggressive in making sure that that got done and really being very understanding of the things that can happen,” Smith said. “That really I think is part of this whole story. Is the care, and that’s what health care workers do, and in the service industries we sometimes take it for granted, but I certainly do not.”

Upon returning to his life at home, the community poured out support and in his neighborhood brought his family dinner, and went shopping for anything they would need.

“My wife at the time was suffering with massive fatigue and still can’t taste and smell a year later. So it’s been lasting. It probably took me two to three months to not have to take about an hour and a half nap in the middle of the day. I’m a guy that usually gets up at 6:30, works out, helps get kids off to school, then goes to school for a full day, and stars in a theater play at night,” Smith says. “I was having trouble even getting out of bed, and that fatigue lasted for quite a while. When we finally were able to get back to some working out, there was a lot of things that lingered.”

Smith recalls one day between tests, suffering fever hallucinations, as he watched the Liam Neeson, Leonardo DiCaprio & Daniel Day Lewis film Gangs of New York.

“I get through about half of it before I kind of pass out and start dreaming that Daniel Day Lewis is Bill the Butcher with a huge cleaver and chasing after me. Those dreams and nightmares lasted for months, and were born out of this virus. This sickness, this illness happened every night for four weeks and then only occasionally,” Smith said. “I feel like I’ve recovered a year later. I feel as strong as I’ve ever been, I lift as much weight now when I workout as I did before, I can go as far along in my cardio workouts as I could before. I think mostly now, the scars that I have are probably emotional, psychological.”

As Smith concluded on what 2020 was as a year for him, he understands that a lot of things may have been canceled, and the virus changed the way he worked professionally, but he still has a job and his wife during that time, completed her dissertation.

“It was hard, because COVID gives you this brain fog, giving you concentration issues. Once we were able to kind of get past that and overcome it, we found that we were able to concentrate pretty well. I don’t know that I again, feel very fortunate, as I think my children have probably suffered the most with the elimination of school and all the things that came with it,” Smith said. “Children are very social, both of mine are teenage girls, and all of that isolation is very detrimental to their mental health. As I look back over the last year, if I were to say what was the worst part for my family, I would say what happened to my kids. They were both affected by the illness in that they both got sick, but were both relatively mild. I think a lot of situations they were then thrust into and had to try to overcome at such an early age, then lead to other issues. I think that a lot of kids really struggle and we’re not out of the woods yet, that’s still something that’s a work in progress.”

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During this period of time since Corona virus first began, Smith felt it provided Higher Education a needed overhaul that was long overdue, to look at curriculum and recognize how to meet the students where they are.

“How do you find out what doesn’t work with distance learning, how do you figure out what benefits there are to have face to face time or one-on-one contact. I think what it’s caused my industry to do is to really look at what’s the services we provide, how can we best provide that service and think outside the box,” Smith said. “And it may be at times that the best way students are going to be served is not sitting in a classroom while the teacher lectures, but actually letting them do things on their own time.”

Concerned that students have the most to lose, Smith says during this era education has lost some of the luster of what it once was.

“I was just actually talking to one of my classes about the one year anniversary and what how did it feel, and one of the comments I got more than once was, “I stopped going to class, hoping to learn something, and I started just trying to finish”, and that’s a big mindset change,” Smith said. “I’ve always kind of been the kind of teacher who says, I want you to learn a bunch of stuff, because your grades will take care of themselves. If you’re dedicated, you’ll do fine. Because I’m really wanting to evaluate what’s your dedication to and what are you going to do with it. So that has always kind of been my mindset.”

“It’s tough because I think there’s a whole generation of backslide and the other studies I’ve read a lot of studies that consider the entire time since COVID as like a massive summer vacation. In that they’re still doing work, but the knowledge isn’t going anywhere,” Smith said. “When we finally are able to wrap it back up, we’re gonna be behind. My daughter, she’s a junior this year. Her 10th grade was interrupted in the middle, her junior year has been totally messed up, so she’s gonna hit her senior year next year, almost like it’s her second year in high school. Emotionally, socially, there’s all these pieces that we learn as we grow that we’re really going to be missing. We’ll see this swath of this generation that grows up having been in this middle of this pandemic, however much longer this continues, that feels those echoes for a while.”

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