Brian Chilson
Dr. Ashley Courtney, who has recovered from COVID-19.

On April 11, 17 days after Dr. Ashleah Courtney was sent home from Arkansas Children’s Hospital because she’d been exposed to a person with COVID-19, she and her husband, Paul Dickson, got the OK to leave isolation.

“We went and picked up wine and beer,  and got cookie dough from Loblolly, and went to Slim Chickens … . We’re the worst,” she said, laughing. “And we got Lost Forty’s Flake Baby strawberry brunch rolls. … Oh, and we got one of the cocktail kits from Local Lime. I’ve never been so happy to be in the car.”

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Courtney is a third-year pediatric resident who was working in the ER at Children’s (masked, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines) when she was told she needed to quarantine. It was March 26. “I had a bit of a sore throat and a headache” that day, she said, but she attributed it to pollen and the fact that when she’s in the ER she forgets to eat and stay hydrated. “So it was not out of the ordinary,” she said.

But at around 3 a.m. on the following morning, “I was having trouble sleeping and was checking my temperature every hour, and eventually it got to 100.4.” She called the COVID-19 screening hotline at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

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“At that point, we were still pretty limited [on tests]. I’m a healthy 30-year-old and I didn’t want to take a test from someone who needs it,” but because she is a health care provider — a priority group for testing — she was advised to come through the testing drive-through, which UAMS created out of a converted parking garage to handle the thousands of Arkansans who wanted to know if they’d been infected.

When she got to the drive-through, “my temp was normal, which was weird,” she said. But as a resident physician, she needed to be tested. The “swabber,” as UAMS calls the nurses wielding the test swabs in the drive-through line, explained to Courtney that she would be inserting the swab up her nose and into the back of her nasal passages. “And I said, ‘Oh, I do this to small children all the time,’ ” to which the swabber replied, “ ‘Then this is your payback.’ ”  

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“I was told it would be 14 days of quarantine regardless of whether I showed symptoms. It took two days to get the results.” When she found out she had COVID-19, she posted about her diagnosis on Facebook. An excerpt:  

“I was being cautious around all of my patients at work. And I was especially excited about the prospect of volunteering/shadowing one of my infectious disease mentors at the health department next month to help with contact tracing for the virus. I thought we were doing things right. Then, I was officially sent home and placed under quarantine (and Paul by association, of course). …

“The medical and public health side of me knows that statistically we will probably be okay. But the human in me is totally not okay. The human side of me has emotions running in about 100 different directions. I’m anxious about what our illness will look like over the next week. I feel guilty about exposing my husband, even though it wasn’t a surprise and was something we knew would happen eventually. I feel angry that I was exposed so soon. I feel isolated and stigmatized. I don’t want people to look at the positive numbers and make the blanket assumption that we haven’t done everything we could to avoid this.

“I was going to say the biggest thing I ask of you all is encouragement. But that’s not entirely true. The biggest thing I’m going to ask of you is to listen to the experts. Please if you take nothing else from what I’ve said, realize how incredibly important social distancing and self isolation is in our fight to prevent the further spread of this virus.”

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Courtney and Dickson, a civil engineer, had talked about what they believed was the inevitability of getting the new coronavirus. Courtney is headed to New Orleans — a hot spot for the disease — in June to do a fellowship in pediatric infectious disease, and the couple were thinking infection was preordained, that it would “happen regardless. … I was just surprised it happened so soon.”

“The first 12 hours were probably the worst, with fever and muscle aches and chills. The cough came later,” she said. Though her husband was not tested, like Courtney he suffered cough, fatigue and body aches. “It was just shocking how dramatic the loss of taste was. For a week. … It’s just very odd to eat when you can’t taste anything.” She lost six pounds.

The most difficult thing about her illness, she said, was anxiety. In early April, three resident physicians in the U.S. had died of the virus. “I was worried when one of us would start showing [severe symptoms],” which usually occur around five to 10 days after infection. For her mental health, she decided to limit how much she read about the illness, and was relieved when she and her husband passed the halfway mark with no greater sickness.

Some people have turned to hobbies, like knitting or gardening, to pass their isolated hours. Courtney’s  hobbies? “Going out to eat,” she said, sighing. “That was one of my hobbies.” 

Like the rest of the world, Courtney and Dickson turned to Netflix to endure their lockdown, finding distraction in “Tiger King” and “Ozark.” 

Though she knew she needed to quarantine, and in her Facebook post urged people to take COVID-19 seriously, Courtney said she felt a “little guilty” not working. “I think health care providers feel a sense of duty.” 

Though she feels well, has been symptom-free for some time and her third COVID-19 test was inconclusive, a fourth test in mid-April showed some virus still remained. She was not surprised. In the case of rhinoviruses, “if you reach back into the depths of someone’s nose two and a half inches,” which is the length of the swab, she said, you’ll find evidence of virus for a long time. COVID-19 tests, which analyze RNA, are particularly sensitive. 

Still, she’ll have to test negative before she can return to work, and before she can donate plasma, which she wants to do. It’s hoped that plasma with COVID-19 antibodies can help people with the disease recover, and if that is the case, her plasma would be invaluable in coming months: She moves to Louisiana in June, which as of April 20 had nearly 25,000 cases of the disease.

UPDATE: Courtney has tested negative and is planning to donate convalescent plasma in the hope it might help others with the disease.

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