After the fight of her life, UVic grad at top of class

Chelsea Kutyn graduated at the top of her class in fine arts at the University of Victoria, which is an achievement in itself.

But she did it after spending 29 days in isolation battling a suspected case of COVID-19, at some points too weak to even speak.

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The 27-year-old was in bed for a month with a fever, cough and difficulty breathing that got so severe, she felt as if she was going to pass out.

“It felt like there was constantly a ton of bricks on my chest. There was constant pressure, like one of those blood-pressure bands that you put around your arms when you inflate it, that’s kind of what it felt like around my whole chest cavity,” said Kutyn.

Kutyn was finishing her fourth year as a voice performance major in UVic’s bachelor of music program when she became ill. Although she was living with her parents and two sisters, she spent the month alone in her bedroom to protect her family from the virus. Kutyn’s mother brought meals to her door on trays that were reserved for Kutyn to prevent spreading the virus within the house.

Although the debilitating illness prevented her from performing her final recital, Kutyn graduated with the highest GPA in the Faculty of Fine Arts and was awarded the Victoria Medal.

She should also get an award for good planning. As the virus started to spread outside of China, Kutyn decided to record a backup version of the live recital she planned to perform at the end of her studies, in case things got worse. She never thought she’d actually have to use it, but ended up submitting the recording for her final grade.

“There was no way I could sing at that point,” she said.

It all started with a sore throat around March 13. At the time, the number of identified cases in B.C. was in the double digits, many still acquired through international travel, and public health officials were just starting to spread the message to stay home.

Kutyn doesn’t know how she caught the virus, but as soon as she noticed her sore throat, she quarantined herself at home.

She phoned her family doctor and the COVID-19 hotline after developing more symptoms, like a fever and cough, the next day.

She was told to stay home for 10 days, but couldn’t be tested — at the time, COVID-19 tests were being reserved for health-care workers and those with known exposure to the virus.

After about a week at home, Kutyn started to feel dizzy, as if she was losing consciousness. She called the COVID-19 hotline again for help, but the long wait times were too much.

She contacted a friend who works as a nurse, who urged her to call an ambulance in case her shortness of breath worsened.

Kutyn was taken to hospital and checked out, but she was sent home because she didn’t require a ventilator and doctors said she would get the same treatment at home as in the hospital.

Kutyn’s symptoms continued for another week before she started to feel a little better. That lasted two days before she was hit with another wave.

Her mother mom, Cindy Kutyn, said it was terrifying to watch her daughter become bedridden with COVID-19. “To see her that sick, I was fearful for her life.” She felt helpless knowing her daughter was struggling and feeling short of breath, but she couldn’t go in the room to see her, because she didn’t want to expose the rest of the family to the virus. “That was the hard part, too, was we felt so bad for her that she was really alone in this.”

When her daughter called an ambulance, Cindy Kutyn went into her daughter’s room to make sure she was still breathing

Because she was exposed to the virus, Cindy Kutyn quarantined for two weeks in the room next to her daughter, leaving the rest of the family to care for the two of them. She never developed symptoms.

For Chelsea Kutyn, just getting to the bedroom door to get her food was an ordeal.

“It would be an event for me to get up out of bed and go collect the food and come back,” she said.

Her family would wave to her through the sliding-glass door of her bedroom and her boyfriend would come sit outside and talk to her on the phone.

She didn’t have the energy to carry on a conversation.

“I would just turn on the phone and listen because it was too much effort to reply more than one word.”

It has been more than three months since Kutyn was officially allowed out of quarantine, but she’s still struggling with the effects of COVID-19. Her sense of taste is dulled, and she gets tired quickly.

“I’ve been trying to do walking and things to get back into shape. But I just tire so quickly, like if I have even a double flight of stairs, I have to stop partway through to catch my breath,” she said.

That’s made singing particularly challenging for Kutyn, who plans to start a graduate program in voice performance in Winnipeg this fall. Kutyn used to spend four hours a day singing. Now she’s trying to figure out how to sing at her previous standard within her body’s restrictions.

“My body just won’t let air move in a certain way.”

Kutyn said she understands people are getting tired of restrictions on daily life, but she urged people to continue to take the virus seriously.

“It’s a really nasty bug and it’s easy to see how quickly it can spread,” she said. “I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what I went through.”

While Kutyn never ended up being testing for COVID-19, her doctors believed she had it.

“It just makes me think that the numbers must have been so much higher than what the news was saying, because there’s probably a lot of people that were like me, but they just weren’t allowed to be tested.”

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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