DEER ISLE — A young woman with local roots got licensed as a registered nurse in February, started working at a long-term care facility in Beverly, Mass., and tested positive for COVID-19 on April 25.
Abby Knowlton, a Deer Isle-Stonington Class of 2014 graduate, was quarantined in her bedroom in her Beverly apartment for two weeks so as not to sicken her roommates.
Her family, including parents Matt and Rebekah Knowlton of Deer Isle, sent care packages and Facetimed with their daughter every night. They played a lot of Catan.
“It was really scary, I think that was the worst part,” knowing the complications that can arise, said Knowlton, who has recovered. “I was just sitting in my room for two weeks terrified it was going to get worse. I was really congested before I got tested. I had a cough for a couple days, but I wasn’t really worried because I have allergies — seasonal stuff. I didn’t think it was anything other than allergies until I had the sore throat.”
The nurse became worn down with muscle aches, similar to the symptoms of influenza.
“I would say I had symptoms for 11-ish days,” said Knowlton. “My symptoms were comparable to some of my patients, but many patients have more severe symptoms, greater difficulty breathing.”
Knowlton is a nurse at a long-term care/rehabilitation facility for patients who have been hospitalized and need help gaining their strength back until they’re able to go home.
“When the virus started, we did not get hit for quite a while,” said Knowlton. “Before I left, one of my patients had gotten worse and had to be hospitalized, so they thought he was probably positive.”
The week before Knowlton became sick, a patient on another floor at the facility got sick. That immediately turned into four patients sick with COVID-19, she said.
Knowlton focused on her recovery and tried not to think about what might be happening at the rehab facility. “My hope was that they had isolated the four cases and it hadn’t gotten any worse.”
“When I got back, we had 60 confirmed cases and 12 deaths,” she said.
And now, there are many more at the facility who are sick.
“The floor I’m on, I think I have 30 patients and they’re all positive for the virus,” she said.
As for the patients’ spirits, they are doing the best they can.
“Everyone is really tired of this,” said Knowlton. “They haven’t seen family now for at least two months. Some of them are trapped in their rooms, so that’s taking its toll.”
“No one panics about getting any sicker,” she said. “They do like to know what their vital signs are.”
“Everyone in the building is required to wear a lab coat and a mask,” Knowlton said. “If you care for a patient, you have to have eye gear as well. We wear a hospital gown over the lab coat. We also have to put on gloves any time we go into a patient’s room.”
Knowlton wears a mask for the entirety of her eight-hour shift. She’s gotten used to it.
“In the beginning it was awful,” she said. “The KN95, they’re pretty tight, and we’re also wearing either cloth or the one-time use masks over that.”
The patients are also wearing masks when nurses and other staff are in their rooms; otherwise their doors are closed and they can take their masks off.
The million-dollar question is can Knowlton get sick with the virus again now that she’s had it?
“I don’t think anyone has the real answer,” she said. “My understanding is there are multiple strains but because I have antibodies to one strain, my body should be able to fight other strains.”
Knowlton wants people to know how dangerous COVID-19 is to people who are susceptible to its complications.
“I know it’s uncomfortable to be socially distanced and wearing a mask, but the more we follow these guidelines and we listen to the CDC, the fewer people who will get it and the fewer people who will die from it,” said Knowlton.
The pandemic or fear of catching another virus from a patient is not going to chase Knowlton away from her chosen profession.
“This virus is scary and it spreads very easily, but there were risks before this virus,” she said. “I don’t think I could find the joy and fulfillment I have found in this career anywhere else.”
“I do want to continue nursing,” said Knowlton. “I had an understanding that patients’ illnesses are transmissible. That is why we wear PPE [personal protective equipment] normally. Someone has to provide care for these patients, and I want to.”
Knowlton became a nurse because she wanted to improve other people’s lives.
“I felt like as a nurse I would get the most patient contact and be able to do the most good,” she said. And now, having experienced the virus so many of her patients have has made Knowlton even stronger in her field.
“I think having had COVID makes me more empathetic,” she said. “I have experienced a little bit of the fear and symptoms they are dealing with and I hope I am able to relieve some of the stress they are dealing with.”
“In nursing school one of the main focuses was infection control and the use of PPE,” Knowlton said. “I would like to think I was pretty vigilant before this virus, but I am definitely more aware of contact with a patient and the germs I may be dragging with me to another room. Because this virus is so contagious it requires a greater level of infection control and therefore PPE has become so much a bigger part of my day.”
“Camaraderie has increased with this pandemic,” Knowlton said. “Our jobs have become more difficult and we rely on each other for many different things. One of the greatest surprises of the nursing field for me is how much nurses work together. It is much less an individual job than I originally thought.”