At first, Paul Quarrell is remarkably matter-of-fact as he recounts how he nearly lost his wife, Brianne Quarrell, to COVID-19 this spring.
He describes dropping her off at the General campus of The Ottawa Hospital, where she would end up spending nearly a month, including time in a coma and on a ventilator. At times, she didn’t know where she was.
He’s suddenly overcome with emotion, though, when he begins talking about how he stopped calling the hospital for updates.
“I was scared to call. If I call, I’ll find out something bad,” he said, giving in to tears.
He couldn’t imagine what he would tell the couple’s two young daughters, he said.
Sitting beside him, Brianne Quarrell starts to cry, too. Until this admission, she had no idea her husband had stopped checking in with her medical team during the two weeks she was intubated.
“It breaks my heart to see him feel that way,” she said. “I only processed after I got home, I think, the severity of how bad it was.”
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Brianne Quarrell, 40, is what doctors call a COVID-19 “long-hauler.” She first tested positive on March 30 when her husband dropped her off at the ER after she became short of breath. She didn’t test negative until 79 days later, on June 17.
Quarrell still feels the effects of the disease, even now. Her senses of taste and smell haven’t returned, her hair is falling out and she’s constantly short of breath.
“Things are still lingering. I mean, you can hear it in my voice. I’m still very hoarse. I’m still quite puffy. I’m losing my hair like you wouldn’t believe, in fistfuls.”
Don’t think it’s over. That’s my biggest thing, is that people are just getting super complacent.– Brianne Quarrell
Those are the physical effects. There are others.
“It’s just ‘blah.’ There’s no joy…. I don’t want to go outside because I don’t like how I feel or look. It’s been pretty lonely. There’s also that stigma. Once you have COVID, people are a little less eager to see you,” she said.
“I’m also very clumsy. I’ll fall. I have very limited depth perception, and brain fog. You know, it’s hard for me to come up with words.”
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The Barrhaven couple has a simple message for other families, especially as Ottawa and other regions experience a resurgence of COVID-19: don’t become complacent.
“Don’t think it’s over. That’s my biggest thing, is that people are just getting super complacent,” Brianne Quarrell said.
“Being in the ICU, having that tube shoved down your throat, don’t think that’s a really pleasant feeling. It’s not a pleasant place to be by yourself. It’s horrible.”
And yet, it’s a message she fears isn’t getting through to people.
“I’ve gone to stores, people are wearing their masks under their nose. What’s that going to do?” she said. “Stay vigilant. It’s not gone. There’s no vaccine. There’s no sign it’s slowing down.”
Family’s symptoms differed
The family suspects Paul Quarrell, 46, a rehabilitation assistant at CHEO, was the first to contract COVID-19 at the end of March. His symptoms were mild, just a slight cough and chills.
The couple has two young daughters together and a teenage daughter from Paul’s previous relationship. While the girls were never tested and never showed symptoms, the Quarrells believe they likely contracted the illness because they were all together in the same house.
In 2018, Brianne Quarrell was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour. She had it successfully removed, but her doctor believes it triggered two autoimmune conditions that wreaked havoc on her hormones, lungs and kidneys. She said her doctor also suspects that’s why she became so sick with COVID-19.
To deal with the autoimmune conditions, she took various medications including high doses of steroids. The steroids caused weight gain, particularly around Brianne’s face. But there may have been a silver lining, since studies have recently shown treating COVID-19 patients with steroids can reduce their risk of death.
“They’re saying that the steroids actually probably helped me get through the intubation, and actually made me survive. [That] pretty much is what their research is showing now. At the time, nobody knew that,” she said.
Brianne Quarrell said there hasn’t been much follow-up from her medical team about her ongoing symptoms, or any effort to document them, a lapse she described as “frustrating.”
She now belongs to a Facebook group of COVID-19 long-haulers, and said it’s comforting to know she’s not the only one experiencing ongoing symptoms.
The Quarrells get frustrated when they hear chatter suggesting COVID-19 isn’t that serious, that only people who are immuno-compromised get sick.
“I see online people will be saying, ‘Whatever, I’m young, I’m healthy, it won’t affect me. It’s just people that have these extenuating illnesses that really get sick from it,'” Paul Quarrell said.
“I get angry because, why is it OK? My wife has these issues, why is it OK for you to say, ‘Sacrifice her?'” he asked. “I almost lost my wife because of this disease. Why is that OK with you?”
WATCH | Paul Quarrell describes life at home while wife was in the hospital with COVID-19:
Brianne Quarrell said she knows life under lockdown has been painful and anxiety-inducing for many people. She said she also feels isolated and misses her old life. She’s worried, though, that her ongoing symptoms could mean it will be a long time before she ever truly has that old life back.
“Don’t think it can’t happen to you,” she warned. “Do yourself the favour, do your family the favour … don’t go through what we went through. I don’t want that for anyone.”