SEQUIM — You wouldn’t call Jeremy Lape a man about town. As the sole caregiver for his elderly mother, Ellen, he doesn’t go out socializing. Last winter, though, he partook in the occasional poker game, while a volunteer hospice worker kept his mom company.
On the first Friday in March, as warnings spread across Washington state about the novel coronavirus, he started coughing. The next night, he awoke in the wee hours, throat ablaze, body shaking.
“My teeth were chattering so hard,” he recalls, “I thought I would chip them.”
Lape recognized these symptoms. Both he and his mother read a lot; Lape had been studying journal articles about the virus. He did not, however, expect the long, strange trip to come.
For much of March, “I felt like I was suffocating,” Lape said, adding that when he sought a deep breath, coughing spasms wracked his abdomen, chest and throat. Repeatedly, his fever gave him shaking chills. Next came profound weakness.
On March 16, Lape got himself to Olympic Medical Center’s Fifth Avenue walk-in clinic for a chest X-ray — but no COVID-19 test.
“They had run out of nasal swabs,” he said.
Lape hadn’t developed pneumonia, but would remain ill for more than six weeks. For the entire period, he continued caring for his mom at home. Friends dropped off groceries; a particularly talented cook delivered an Asian rice soup she calls “Thai penicillin.”
Lape lifts Ellen from her kitchen chair to her recliner during the day; he lifts her to and from the toilet and to and from her bed.
“I was barely able to do it,” he said.
“Picking her up took everything I had.”
Lape took Tylenol to reduce his fever, though if the circumstances were different, he might have foregone that to, hopefully, let the fever burn itself out.
“I had to take care of the two of us,” he said. “There were no other options.”
His mother caught the virus, Lape believes, but she suffered from a fever for only about five days, about one-third as long as he did. Ellen has always been the embodiment of resilience, her son said. She worked for nearly three decades for the Santa Barbara, Calif., city administrator, and never took a sick day.
Lape finally got his COVID-19 test late in the afternoon April 9, a bit over a month after the onset of symptoms. Still feeling exhausted, he returned to the Sequim clinic, which had replenished its testing supplies.
He received his result the next night. A clinic nurse, a woman who happens to be his friend, phoned Lape at 11 p.m. She tearfully told him he’d tested positive.
“Stop. I knew I had this,” Lape remembers saying.
“I am Clallam County’s 12th man,” he quipped: the 12th county resident with an official COVID diagnosis.
Since that day, 129 other people have tested positive in his county, with more than 20 of those yet to recover and one hospitalized. In neighboring Jefferson County, 54 have received positive diagnoses; nine are still quite sick. No deaths have been reported in either county. Updates and information about COVID testing are found at clallam.net/coronavirus and jeffersoncountypublichealth.org.
Lape suspects he caught the coronavirus on the last day of February at a poker tournament not far from his home. He said he has since had lengthy conversations with Clallam County health officer Dr. Allison Unthank regarding contact tracing.
Unthank said that when a patient’s fever is resolved and symptoms are improving — 10 to 28 days after onset — the person is considered recovered. Patients may still have a cough or other milder symptoms, she said, though they are in the recovery category.
“Some people will have really persistent fevers and persistent symptoms for quite some time,” Unthank noted.
Lape is contending with the long, barbed tail of the coronavirus.
He’s researched how the pathogen can affect the brain and heart; how it can leave survivors with damaged organs and prolonged pain. He calls his own recent gastrointestinal symptoms “gut-wrenching,” and has lost 18 pounds.
Also showing on his lab tests: steepening blood pressure, a stubbornly high white blood cell count and blood sugar levels suggesting the onset of diabetes.
Lape is a longtime Facebook user, calling the site both blessing and curse. In the blessing column is the Survivors Corps group. This Facebook site has 89,000 members; each time one posts about persistent symptoms, several hundred comment about their own experiences. Many report the deaths of their parents, spouses and friends.
For Lape, the online community offers the salve of empathy. Hearing other survivors’ stories “eliminated a lot of self-doubt,” he said, adding that during the worst weeks of his illness, he wondered if he was unusually “weak and puny,” as he put it.
The past five months have taught him the virus assaults people across age, ethnicity and health status — and all too often, it continues to grip the body.
Both mom and son marked their birthdays last month: Lape turned 62, his mother 97. Lape has bursts of energy these days, and is getting back to some of his projects: researching his family’s history, especially in Montana, and cataloguing historical photographs. He’s also reading about the coronavirus’ effects on people’s lives around the world. As Lape watches his county, state and country struggle with the pandemic, he has a simple message to express.
The virus is real. It’s not the flu. It’s hell, and “it hijacks your world.”
Lape has learned that many people, while figuring they’re safe with their friends, are infected with COVID-19 by those close to them, at a barbecue, a birthday party or a card game. One can catch the disease from anybody — family member, casual acquaintance — who is carrying the virus but has yet to show symptoms.
It’s with these people “where we let our guard down,” Lape said.
Though he is considered recovered and not infectious, Lape took precautions when meeting with a reporter. He gave the interview outdoors on his deck seated 6 feet away, while his mother stayed inside, reading her book by the glass door.
Throughout the conversation, Lape followed the key protocol to protect himself and his guest. He wore his cloth mask.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.