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Stories and information in our region on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local Social Worker Talks Self-Isolation And What It's Like To Be Sick With COVID-19

Courtesy of Rita Wagener

The United States now has more than 800,000 cases of the coronavirus. Over 20,000 of those cases are in Connecticut. Rita Wagener is one of those cases. She’s from Uganda originally and has been a social worker at a nursing home in Connecticut for 16 years. 

Because of the nature of her work she anticipated she might test positive for the virus. So she prepared for that possibility. And then indeed on April 4th, she began to feel sick. 

WSHU’s Tom Kuser spoke with Ms. Wagener by phone from her home where she is self-isolating. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

First of all how are you feeling?

I’ve been feeling OK until today when my energy level went back to zero. I had been improving a little bit, but now today I feel like I’m going back to square one.  

So early April you began to feel ill. What were your symptoms like then? Where you low on energy?

No, it didn’t start with low energy. It started with a cough. What had happened, I went for a walk, when I came back home around 6:00 I started having this annoying, tickling in my throat, which I didn’t really pay much attention to. I thought maybe it was the pollen because I have seasonal allergies. Then about 10:00 my throat felt like it was on fire. Around this time I told my husband, “I’m moving into the isolation room.”

And since I work in a nursing home, I prepared this room just in case. And I spoke with my husband and youngest daughter, who is home, I told them whoever gets this illness to move to the back room, not knowing that I would be the first one.

Around this time I started going back to my roots of African brewing. I asked my husband to start helping me make this brew, which is skin from the fresh pineapple and ginger and turmeric and lemon. But since he’s American he didn’t know what I was talking about. I had to text him what I want him to boil. And he brought it by the door because that’s how they were getting me things I need from downstairs. So by the time I called my doctor I had started steaming the stuff in the hot pot.   

Did you get tested at some point?

I did. Monday the 6th, I called the office. They gave me a number for COVID-19 testing center. I called and they set up the appointment to be tested on the 7th. And I was just praying that I get enough strength to get to Danbury Hospital for testing because I didn’t want to put my husband or my daughter in danger for them driving me to the hospital.  

Somehow I managed to get to Danbury Hospital with my blinkers on and going really, really slow. Just driving to the hospital wiped me out. Everything was still just unbearable. The pain of the whole body was just achy, achy, more than any aches I ever felt in my life. 

Then Wednesday, this is the 8th, I saw my doctor’s name on my cell phone and I just knew it. They’re telling me that it’s COVID. And I already knew it. My gut feeling were telling me I have this virus.

So you’ve been isolated from your husband and daughter for just about 10 days now.

Oh more than that, because today is day 14 cause I went into the isolation room on the 4th.  

What’s that like? Being in the same house but having to stay away from your family?

It’s really tough but I thank heaven for the technology of today. Because I’ve been texting them with downstairs and also FaceTiming, Also, I’ve been checking in every morning to make sure I tell them I’m alive up here. Because the room I’m in is way in the back. So that has been the routine. I check in with my husband and my daughter and also my siblings. And also I decided to share my experience on Facebook. I’ve been getting up and just writing about my experience and how I feel each and every day.

How have you been passing the time while you’ve been while you’ve been isolated in that room in the back of the house?

I’ve been reading, books and magazines, crossword puzzles. I also found some soothing ways listening to African music and watching African dancing videos because I’m an African. And I felt I got therapy out of that. I also happen to be a grandma and my grandson has been FaceTiming me everyday and has been reading me stories.

What do you miss most of the outside world having been in isolation for 14 days?

Talking to people. Because I’m a people person. And again I’ve been talking on the phone and video chat. That really helps.  

And how do you exchange food and plates, and dishes, so neither of you are exposed to one another?

From the back room where I am there is another middle room, which is my sewing room and a door. So we made up a table right by that door. That’s where they’ve been dropping off what I need. After I text them or FaceTime them they drop it off. And when any kind of exchange when it goes downstairs, they have to pour boiling water on anything that comes from up here.  

This sounds like a very carefully arranged preparation.

Yes because I’m a social worker in a nursing home, and we started getting cases and I just knew, something told me it was just a matter of time.

Ms. Wagener, what would you like people to know about your experience with COVID-19?

One thing to be aware of is to prepare yourself. Because you never know when or who is going to get it. No one is immune to this. It might be very helpful for people to come up with a plan cause once it hits you it’s like a tsunami. You’re not going to get any energy to prepare at that time.  

Well that sounds like very good advice. Ms. Wagener, thank you for your time and we really send our best to you and your family, and we hope you feel better soon. 

Thank you. I hope I feel better too because this is no joke.  

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Tom has been with WSHU since 1987, after spending 15 years at college and commercial radio and television stations. He became Program Director in 1999, and has been local host of NPR’s Morning Edition since 2000.
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