“It was like the worst pneumonia that I’ve ever had – and I’ve had pneumonia a couple of times.”

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NICEVILLE — Carol Boykin hasn’t left her Niceville home in two months.

She couldn’t. She didn’t want to infect anyone with COVID-19.

Carol, 61, was one of the first identified cases in Okaloosa County, diagnosed the first week of March – shortly after she and her husband, Steve, returned from a 10-day cruise in Mexico. Carol compares the severity of her symptoms to a roller coaster – from bad to worse to OK to good to really bad all over again.

“It was like the worst pneumonia that I’ve ever had – and I’ve had pneumonia a couple of times,” Carol said. “This was worse than that. I could not get breath. Moving from my chair five feet away to my kitchen sink wore me out.”

Last Wednesday was when Carol finally strung enough good days together to call herself recovered. She and Steve will continue to quarantine for 14 days in case he has unknowingly contracted the coronavirus.

The beginning of ‘something more’

The symptoms started four days after the couple landed in San Francisco, California, from their cruise. Carol started breathing treatments on a piece of medical equipment called a nebulizer, treating herself for what she thought was an asthma attack.

People with moderate to severe asthma may be at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19, according to the CDC’s website.

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A week after being home, she received an email from their cruise line saying those aboard had been exposed to the coronavirus and should consult their doctor if they showed symptoms, such as coughing, fever or aches.

Carol was coughing and wheezing. Steve had a fever.

“The day we got that email, I started thinking that the wheezing had to be more than what I thought it was – only because I was exhausted,” Carol said. “Normally when I did a breathing treatment, I had lots of energy. But I had none. When the email came, I’d already started thinking, ‘I need to call the doctor. This is something more.’ ”

Carol called Steve and told him to come home from work so he wouldn’t potentially expose more people. After calling her doctor, the health department was notified and they were referred to a specialist.

“They met us out in the parking lot with masks and gloves and escorted us through a storage room into an exam room,” Carol said. “When we were in the exam room, we heard them talking about how they were going to have to completely disinfect that room from top to bottom when we left.”

That day, both were given a nasal swab and throat swab to test for the coronavirus, but had to come back for a retest the following day after being told the CDC wasn’t satisfied with the results.

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“This time, the doctor came out to the car all in his garb, his mask and gloves, and tested us in our car,” Carol said. “Then it was the next day he called us and told us I was positive … Even when we went down for the first test I thought, ‘This is a waste of time because we don’t have it.’ To get that call was pretty shocking.”

Steve tested positive for the Influenza A virus, but has tested negative for the coronavirus three times. In the meantime, he hasn’t done anything to prevent it, he said.

“My doctor thinks I might’ve had it early on,” Steve said. “The first weekend we got back, I was ache-y and had a temperature. I thought it was just the flu leftover from the cruise, but I haven’t done anything to keep myself from getting it. We haven’t cornered ourselves off in the house or anything like that. I would’ve expected I would’ve gotten it if I didn’t have some kind of antibodies going on. We’ve been in close contact for months.”

Carol hasn’t stepped foot through the front door since her diagnosis.

“It’s nine weeks that we’ve dealt with this,” Carol said. “There were some really some very scary moments where I was fighting for every breath.”

Her symptoms

For weeks, Carol couldn’t catch her breath.

It wasn’t a feeling she was used to. Carol takes spin classes five days and works out with a trainer three times weekly – and has for years. But, in her 30 years of having asthma, she has never used her nebulizer so much – at most, one week a year when her asthma flairs up because of a high pollen count.

She once tried to cut back, only to realize things could indeed get worse.

“I’ve never had eight weeks of doing breathing treatments on a daily basis in order to make it,” Carol said. “I feel like if it had just been my asthma and I was not fit, I think I would’ve ended up in the hospital. I don’t think I feared I would die. I just was afraid I’d have to go to the hospital.”

Steve had similar concerns.

“There was nothing I could do about it,” Steve said. “I was watching her. We had heard nationwide about people going into ICUs and putting them on a ventilator. I was thinking we might end up down that path. There was enough concern from people and our nurse that was calling us daily. We were monitoring things closely enough that we weren’t going to let it get out of hand.”

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While in quarantine, Carol stumbled upon other symptoms, such as loss of smell.

“I didn’t realize that until I was doing one of the oil diffusers and my husband came in and asked what the smell was and I couldn’t smell it,” Carol said. “I also couldn’t taste – not much. I could taste salt and I could taste sweet, but I couldn’t taste the difference between chicken and beef. It was a really weird thing.”

Another symptom was sweats.

“I would all of a sudden break out in a sweat that was horrendous,” Carol said. “I never ran a fever. I did have and still have a little bit of pain in my right side.”

Midway through her experience, Carol had a CT scan done at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center. It showed her lungs were inflamed.

Their service amid the pandemic impressed Steve.

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“They met us at the entrance so we didn’t go in,” Steve said. “They took us to a side door and got us right in there. They had the paperwork ready. We were out in 15 minutes. I thought they were really awesome, the way they handled it.”

Being one of the first cases in the area, Carol wasn’t sure the healthcare community was well-versed in how to handle her situation.

“We were a little bit frustrated,” Carol said. “My doctor couldn’t tell me a lot because I’d been turned over to the (specialist). (My doctor) would tell me, ‘You really need to tell the other doctor what’s going on.’ Then we would call and not hear back. At one point, (the specialist) didn’t want to talk to me until he knew he was going to get paid. So he wanted to get us some paperwork to fill out so insurance would pay for a consult.

It was frustrating that I couldn’t just talk to him about what was going on.”

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Where Carol sometimes felt neglected, Rocky Bayou Baptist Church was there. Members brought food or groceries and picked up their prescriptions.

Carol attended a church service and meeting before she knew she was infected. Those in close contact were asked to quarantine for 14 days after she found out. The Church also canceled its services and other ministries in the following weeks.

“Our children moved away, so they weren’t here when this happened and we were alone,” Carol said. “If we hadn’t had our church, I don’t know what we would’ve done. Our elders came and prayed at our door for us. Spiritually, we had lots and lots of encouragement and felt good about that. It was just the medical side, we sometimes felt like we were alone.”

Carol’s Recovery

After nine weeks and 10 tests, Carol has recovered from the coronavirus.

She can breathe again.

“It’s a huge relief,” Carol said. “I’m still a little bit concerned people are going to shy away from me. People now know it was me. I kept it pretty quiet – only my church and a few close friends knew.”

Carol only shares her experience now in hopes it will help someone else.

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“As this went on, I kept wondering, ‘Is this normal? Is this what other people are feeling?’” Carol said. “I would have a day where I felt good, and then have five days where I thought, ‘I’m not getting out of bed again,’ and then have a good day again. I wondered was that the roller coaster ride others were on. I couldn’t find anything about that. I’m well. The Lord has really carried us through this.”

Carol believes it was people’s prayers that helped her beat the virus. She received many from orphans she works with through Niceville nonprofit Heart of the Bride Ministries.

“There was a day when the orphanage in Kenya called me on Facetime because the kids wanted to pray for me,” Carol said. “They were afraid I would die. It was important to the kids I be on that video. It was the sweetest thing to see them pray out to God for my health. And then to be able to call them this week and tell them I’ve been released and that I’m well has got to help their faith grow.”

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