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'I've never experienced any illness like this': Alberta woman describes COVID-19 ordeal

When Cochrane, Alta., resident Erin Calver, 38, began developing a sore throat and experiencing chest pain on March 18, she dismissed it as the early onset of a cold.

Erin Calver's symptoms escalated so rapidly she lost ability to speak in full sentences

B.C. resident Erin Leigh, 38, is recovering from the novel coronavirus in hospital. She told CBC News she had never experienced an illness like COVID-19. 7:00

When Cochrane, Alta., resident Erin Calver began developing a sore throat and experiencing chest pain on March 18, she dismissed it as the early onset of a cold.

After all, Calver, who splits her time between Alberta and B.C., hadn't travelled. The 38-year-old didn't have any of the more common symptoms of COVID-19, and she attributed the chest pain to several underlying cardiac issues.

But the following Saturday, she started coughing. Her breathing became short and laboured.

She called 811, and was swabbed the next day for COVID-19 — though blood work and a chest X-ray suggested that a positive diagnosis was unlikely.

  • WATCH | Erin speaks about her experience with COVID-19 in the video above:

However, on March 24, the results came in: Calver, who also goes by Erin Leigh, was infected with the virus. And within the span of an hour, the slow-and-steady progression of her symptoms escalated so rapidly that she lost the ability — and the breath — to speak in full sentences.

"I've never experienced any illness like this before in my life," Calver told CBC News Network on Saturday. "The amount of pressure in my chest. The burning."

'That was the first time I got scared'

Calver was advised to call an ambulance. The exertion of carrying herself from the couch to meet it caused her oxygen to drop.

When the paramedics told her they would be travelling to Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary — which is located about 18 kilometres east of Cochrane — quickly, and with sirens on, Calver realized the severity of her condition.

"I knew [then] that it had to be serious," she said. "That was the first time that I got scared."

At Foothills, she was met by about a dozen medical staff who were all wearing personal protective equipment. It was like something out of a movie, she said. And when her condition became more stable, a doctor came to her bedside.

"[She] looked me straight in the eyes and said, 'I think you're going to be OK, but I need you to know that if your oxygen drops anymore, I will have to intubate you — in which case, you will wake up in the [intensive care unit],'" Calver said.

"And I could just nod. That's all I could do. I know tears were streaming down my face. But nodding was the only form of communication I had."

Calver said that it was the scariest moment of her life.

"I remember thinking, 'My poor parents.'"

'We were just devastated'

A province away in B.C., Marie and Neil Calver were notified that their daughter was being hospitalized.

They were already terrified to have learned earlier that day that their daughter had COVID-19, and her quick decline brought a fresh wave of alarm.

"That was one of my greatest fears, because [Erin] does have an immunodeficiency with her heart," Marie Calver said. 

"So, we were just devastated. She already told us she was having breathing difficulties, so when that paramedic called, we kind of weren't surprised … but we were very frightened."

Marie Calver, left, with her daughter Erin, right. Erin is in hospital with COVID-19. (Supplied by Erin Calver)

Because of medical issues with their daughter's heart, when complications arose, Marie and Neil Calver would usually be in a position to comfort and take care of her.

But COVID-19 is highly contagious, so they have been forced to keep their distance.

"We're used to being near to her when things happen … going into the hospital, getting her anything she wants, holding her hand," Marie Calver said.

"[So] you feel totally inept. You know, you want to be there, and you can't. It's very heartbreaking. I wouldn't say that we're doing well with this; it's been very difficult."

The emotional and physical challenges

It's been just under a week since Calver was admitted. She remains at Foothills hospital, and is still receiving oxygen.

She is waiting to find out if an infection of the heart that she had previously dealt with has come back — but otherwise Calver said that her condition has improved, gradually and steadily, every day.

Those treating her don't yet know if there will be lasting damage to her body from the virus. But the medical team — nurses and doctors alike, she said — has been honest, courageous and attentive.

"Physically, the most challenging [thing] has been shortness of breath; we all just take that for granted. It's an automatic bodily function, and it's obviously debilitating when you're not getting enough," Calver said.

"Emotionally, it's tough and lonely, just being here by myself. And unfortunately, my window looks into the hospital physiotherapy gym, so I don't have any outside light that I can see … and that part's a little bit depressing."

'Not let her go for a long time'

Erin Calver with her father, Neil, right. (Supplied by Erin Calver)

The isolation has been one of the most difficult aspects of the whole ordeal, she said.

But her family has used FaceTime to talk to her every day; her father, Neil Calver, said modern technology has kept them connected.

For Marie Calver, it's been important and reassuring to be able to see her daughter's face.

They say their daughter, a teacher who deals with students with higher needs, is organized, mentally strong and matter-of-fact. She is also a person who typically soldiers through pain.

"She doesn't show it, and someone might think she's fine when she's not. And I guess we've become rather adept at being able to notice that," Marie Calver said.

When Erin Calver is eventually released, it is likely that she will be quarantined again — this time at home in Cochrane — for another two weeks.

When they finally can see each other, Marie Calver described what she and her husband will do: "Oh, hug her and kiss her. And kiss her, and kiss her," she said.

"And not let her go for a long time."

With files from CBC News Network

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