Cathy Novak’s phone flashed “VIHA” and she got a sinking feeling. They’d said the previous day, when she took the drive-thru COVID-19 test, that she could call in a few days for the result.
But if it was positive, they’d call her.
It was, so they did, on March 16. The call was the start of an accelerating decline that brought the 60-year-old semi-retired Saanich dental hygienist to the brink of death.
She spent 12 days unconscious on a ventilator and 16 days in Royal Jubilee Hospital’s specially equipped coronavirus intensive care unit. At one point, one of the doctors rated her chances of survival at 50-50. It took a month in hospital before she was well enough to go home.
In interviews and through notes she and her husband, John McAllister, made, the couple recounted the ordeal.
It’s now 10 weeks since she noticed what she thought were mild flu symptoms. She’s recovering, but is still dealing with after-effects. There’s a rash and some tremors in her hands.
There’s also a profound wave of emotions and thoughts about what she went through.
Novak has an enormous sense of gratitude for surviving, and respect for the work medical staff did in extraordinary conditions. And she’s determined to stay positive about the experience.
She also has a message: “Please don’t let your guard down prematurely. COVID-19 is real, and it doesn’t discriminate.
“You may feel indestructible, but it’s not just about you, it’s about all of us. When you take care of yourself, you take care of others.”
She was considered higher risk only by virtue of her age. Her health wasn’t compromised in any other way, yet she still had a severe experience with the pandemic virus. She’s still pondering the “why me?” aspect, but out of curiosity more than self-pity.
She was one of 15,000 attendees at the Pacific Dental Conference March 5-7 in Vancouver, which later became known as an important vector for the virus. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has noted that 87 cases just in B.C. were identified from the conference.
It was in the early days of the pandemic, before it was officially declared as such. Officials said they reviewed all their protocols with health authorities and were not told to cancel the event.
It was a typically busy convention, but Novak can’t trace her illness back to any specific moment.
One incident separate from the conference sticks in her mind.
She was on the SkyTrain after the conference closed on March 7.
“A lady three seats to my left sneezed. She was wearing a mask — wait for it … on her chin, not covering her nose or mouth. And she didn’t cover the sneeze.
“I gave her an eyeball-rolling glare, but she did not look my way.
“I can’t shake that moment in time, which feels significant to me.”
It was after work on Monday at home that Novak had momentary chills and had to clear her throat. She took some Advil. She and her husband started keeping their distance, as with a cold.
The next day, she was off work and shuttled her mother to some appointments. The mild symptoms returned in the evening.
The pandemic was officially declared that week by the WHO and the dental conference started featuring in the news.
She booked off sick from her two-day-a-week job.
“I started feeling uneasy, but I was thinking it could still just be regular flu.”
Island Health opened a testing centre at its Cook Street office and she booked an appointment there for Sunday, March 15.
“I was grateful for all the health-care providers putting themselves at risk on our account. The testers were in full protective equipment. One approached my car with a sign that said: ‘Please roll down your window.’ ”
The nasal swab was taken, “not the most pleasant test.”
The call came at noon the next day. “Oh my God! I have the coronavirus. What now? This COVID got super real for us.”
Novak was one of 30 new cases counted that day. B.C. had 103 cases at that point.
Still optimistic, she relied on the fact people elsewhere had mild cases and recovered easily without needing hospital care.
Island Health told her to keep monitoring her symptoms, and started daily calls to check on her and McAllister.
“John was still asymptomatic. We quarantined and continued to social distance with each other, but with more purpose.”
Novak offered to get the names of patients she’d treated before her symptoms developed, but Island Health was on the case.
They inventoried all her interactions and contacted everyone she’d had contact with.
“I am ever so grateful my 88-year-old mama did not contract it on that morning we spent together in the car at the doctors’ appointments.”
Her symptoms got worse through March 18, McAllister’s birthday. “It was so hard for us not to at the very least hug.”
McAllister said: “I couldn’t go anywhere near her.” He’d check her from the doorway to the bedroom, but it was frustrating to not be able to comfort her.
By Saturday morning, Novak said, “I felt like I was losing this battle despite all my efforts to turn it around.”
She decided to go to the hospital. The couple was instructed to call 911 for an ambulance.
“I struggled to get my yoga pants on, but was able to walk to the ambulance. I’ll admit I was petrified, discouraged and not sure I’d ever be returning home again, or in what condition.
“John and I waved goodbye, after 10 days of no hugging and no contact.”
The ambulance pulled away and that’s the last thing she remembers for weeks.
“I waved to her, and I stepped back in the house and burst into tears,” McAllister said.
What happened in the next two weeks is reconstructed from what McAllister told her later.
She was in an induced coma from March 21 to April 2. McAllister gave daily updates to friends and family: “Chatted with a doctor and he informed me that we got Cathy to the hospital at the right time. Had we waited any longer it would have been very hard to get her on the ventilator … ”
Novak remained stable for several days and the medical team was guardedly optimistic. One doctor warned McAllister, though, that her chances were 50-50. “My heart dropped, but I was glad he was being so honest and it brought me to a realization that Cathy might not be coming home.”
All the while, they were adjusting her oxygen and sedation levels and administering about two dozen medications.
She slowly returned to consciousness in early April. All she remembers is a recurring, disturbing dream of being restrained and needing to escape.
“I even made a mental note to bring scissors next time I’m in hospital to set myself free.”
She spent a few days in a state of confusion, but her mind gradually cleared. She was constantly shocked and frightened at how weak she was. She couldn’t speak for a few days and when her voice returned, she couldn’t pronounce words properly.
Her phone seemed to weigh a tonne. Even her glasses felt heavy.
She thought it was absurd that a nurse and physiotherapist were both at her side the first time she tried to stand with a walker.
“Spotting me? How silly.” She was going to do a dance step to show them. But she could barely stand up.
“I was devastated by how much recovering I had to do.”
She also noticed how complicated the care routines were. Everyone entering her room had to fully suit up in protective gear, then clean everything they touched and discard all the protective gear when they left.
A shortage of personal protective equipment meant care had to be streamlined, so as many routine functions as possible were done at one time. That created difficulties and frustrations.
The isolation was difficult. No hugs, no visitors, just phone calls from McAllister.
Novak said the caregivers tried to make up for that. “They made me feel like a superhero for surviving and beating COVID.”
She walked out of Royal Jubilee Hospital on April 20 — 15 pounds lighter — into McAllister’s arms. They shared “the longest bear hug ever.”
Both broke into quiet tears.
Dr. Omar Ahmad, emergency and critical care department head, said Novak was one of their earliest patients, and staff at that point were still getting used to the cumbersome new protocols.
“It changes how we practise medicine.”
Nurses, in particular, have to plan every step in advance and can’t just routinely call for a hand as before.
“It’s very challenging and exhausting.”
Job one for Novak, after looking out the window at the Tim Hortons sign for days on end, was to get a chocolate dip donut.
She noticed on the drive home that the streets seemed deserted, a sign of how much things had changed.
Their neighbourhood staged a huge homecoming with signs and balloons. There was a big Zoom call with friends and family. But there have been constant reminders of how weak she is and how much more recovery lies ahead.
She said one of the hurdles is that she gets frustrated with how quickly she gets frustrated.
Over the recovery, she learned more about the details of her case. Doctors told her she had a severe case and had been in critical condition. Going to hospital one day later could have been too late.
The number of B.C. cases went from 348 to 1,699 during her month in hospital. Deaths went from eight to 86.
She and her husband of five years had some deep conversations the first few days back, and feel even more connected as a couple.
“COVID-19 has been destructive and traumatic, yet also empowering and uplifting,” she said. “Surviving gifted me the chance to reflect on my life and I got to know myself better and accept myself as is.”