By PJ Morales
What began as a scratchy throat and nagging cough turned out to be something far worse.
It was official: Peter Paulsen had COVID-19.
Off Peter went to the oak-walled basement of his Great Falls, Virginia home, where he wouldn’t have a chance of infecting the rest of his high-risk family members. But it was too late — the basement wouldn’t be a lonely place for long.
A few days later came his youngest daughter, Maddie, and his eldest, Amelia, who both have asthma and thought the coughs were just normal parts of their condition. But after a pair of positive tests, to the basement they went.
Their mother and Peter’s wife, Margaret, came a few days later with the same symptoms. It was getting cramped down there, but they didn’t want to risk the only healthy person left: their teenage son, Spencer.
How to be a happy camper
Down in the bowels of their house, surrounded by wooden walls, the Paulsens formed their own small community. They ate every meal together, marathoned movies on the couch that was just big enough to fit the four of them and constantly kept tabs on each other’s health. It was like a summer camp and emergency ward, all rolled into one.
“Camp Covid,” Amelia called it.
Of course, this camp had no counselors, jamborees, lakes to swim in or weekend camping trips. Instead, this two-week-ish, all-inclusive experience would be confined to a 1,500 square-foot room where the most exercise a camper could get was their morning stretches, or maybe a brisk 10-step walk, if they weren’t short of breath.
The cramped conditions did come with some upsides. For two weeks straight, the Paulsens didn’t cook a single meal. Friends, friends-of-friends, family and neighbors all volunteered to cook meals for the isolated family.
One night, Amelia’s childhood best friend Timothy made the whole family enchiladas, with each person’s meal packaged separately according to their food preferences and a little note accompanying each box. It warmed her heart, even if it didn’t warm her palate.
“Ironically, couldn’t taste a thing,” she said.
Is there a doctor in the house?
For everything it didn’t have, though, Camp Covid did have one thing that any summer camp needs: a dedicated nurse. Specifically, the Paulsens had Campbell Virdin, Peter’s niece and a nurse at the emergency ward of Inova Hospital in nearby Alexandria.
Thankfully, for the first week or so, the campers didn’t have to pay a visit to the nurse’s office — or rather, the nurse didn’t have to pay a visit to the camp.
Because of the Paulsens’ penchants for pre-existing conditions, the family was already well-stocked on pulse oximeters that allowed them to check up on their bodies’ oxygen levels. Sure, the symptoms could change from day-to-day, but Campbell knew that as long as the numbers on the pulse ox were in a healthy range, everything would be fine.
However, Campbell also knew that her uncle suffered from high blood pressure, which might make his bout with the disease particularly nasty.
“I figured my uncle wasn’t going to have the best run of it,” Campbell said. “I thought he would be okay, like I didn’t think it was going to kill him.”
But eight days into Camp Covid, Peter’s symptoms were only getting worse, particularly in his chest. Campbell, knowing this might be the start of a more severe pneumonia, paid a visit to the ailing camper.
She knew it wouldn’t be possible to get him into the hospital yet — his symptoms just weren’t bad enough to warrant taking up a bed. A trip to an urgent care center the next day yielded the expected answer: “come back if you feel worse.”
By then, Peter’s pulse ox numbers had begun to trend downwards. One hour, the machine might say 95 — healthy — before falling to 90 a few hours later — not so healthy. When the numbers started dipping into the 80s, Campbell knew there was a problem.
Even over FaceTime, she noticed it. Peter couldn’t even finish a sentence.
Campbell has been working in the emergency ward since the pandemic began. She’s seen death every day she can remember, helped remove freshly-deceased bodies from beds before putting new patients in them an hour later. In a way, she was numb to it all.
Whether that numbness was for better or worse, it taught her one thing: the worse you get, the less likely you are to recover. And so Campbell sprang into action.
“Campbell probably saved my dad’s life,” Amelia said.
First, she sent a young doctor from her hospital, Dr. Morales, to Camp Covid to make sure her instincts were correct. When he saw Peter’s condition, he not only agreed with her, but was able to secure for him something most people would have to wait weeks for:
A hospital bed.
“Why don’t we just give him everything we can,” Campbell remembers saying.
Over the next five days, Peter was put on a full course of treatments, including three liters of oxygen, specific vitamins and foods and periodic doses of the antiviral medication Remdesivir.
Finally, with proper treatment, his lungs began to improve. His symptoms were subsiding.
And on the fifth day, Peter was cleared to return home.
A new normal
At that point, Camp Covid was winding down. Amelia had recovered and gone off to college, not wanting to risk either her or her father’s health by seeing him before she left.
Maddie and Margaret were also at the end of their infectious periods, and their son Spencer, who didn’t have the pleasure of a prolonged basement stay, would later test positive for COVID-19 antibodies in his blood.
Then, slowly but surely, things started to return to normal. Granted, it’s a new kind of normal.
Amelia isn’t cleared to exercise yet because of her decreased lung capacity, and Peter still can’t finish a full work day, hitting a wall of exhaustion around 5:30 p.m.
By and large, though, they’re just grateful to have made it through.
“I couldn’t move more than five steps ,” Peter said. “And if you get into that situation and there’s nobody to help you the way they helped me, it could easily get too bad and you get really sick, and there might be serious consequences to that.”
Before he went to the hospital, Amelia noticed something different about her dad. Looking back on it, maybe the reason he’s so grateful now is that, just for a second, he didn’t think he’d make it.
Camp Covid came to an end, and boy, was Peter glad to see it.
“He would all of a sudden start talking about how appreciative he was of us, and how much he loved us,” Amelia said. “It didn’t go over my head what that meant.”
Edited by: Robert Curtis