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For Kristin Kay, contracting COVID-19 turned into more than 100 days in the hospital where numerous machines and employees kept her alive while her body battled the virus and its severe symptoms and complications.
The 32-year-old nurse practitioner, wife and mother fell ill in December, quickly progressing from a cough to gasping for air to being heavily sedated for most of January and February.
She set a hospital record for the longest time on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO machine, spending 69 days on the technology normally used for a week. She got a pacemaker. She gained 50 pounds from bloating while lying down for weeks on end and was too heavy for a lung transplant she was considered for.
Kay had tubes everywhere. Some gave her water, medications, oxygen and electrolytes, while others drained excrement, carried fluid out of her chest and filtered toxins for her body when her kidneys could not.
She posted photos Saturday on Facebook of her harrowing reality inside North Florida Regional Medical Center at the peak of her illness.
In just days, her post has been shared almost 2,500 times, and some commenters have said her story inspired them to finally get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Kay said she and her husband, Steven Kay, first thought they might save the pictures for a one-year anniversary post. But they decided to share the images to show how serious the virus is and urge people to protect themselves and others as Florida undergoes its third and worst wave of COVID-19 so far.
“We honestly weren’t going to share them … but I said, ‘Steve, I have to do something,'” Kay said. “Pictures speak volumes.”
Around the state, the delta variant has taken over as the most common COVID-19 strain. It is more infectious than previous variants and can be spread by both unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals, experts say.
Florida has broken and set multiple new all-time record highs of COVID-19 cases reported in one day over the past two weeks, and hospitals in Alachua County and the rest of the state have seen record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 patients as a result.
Most are unvaccinated, leaders say. And hospitals are being inundated.
Kristin Kay said she felt she had to act during the surge
Kay said between the surge, misinformation and messages from her working nurse friends who say the situation is far from OK, she knew she needed to do something to help. And being an experienced nurse herself who survived her COVID-19 battle with thorough documentation from her husband, she decided to do so by sharing an inside look at the grim details of her story.
Contracting COVID-19 now could put you in the same boat Kay was in, she said, if not worse between nursing shortages, restricted visitation and demand for limited equipment. And that risk is especially high for the unvaccinated.
The COVID-19 vaccine was not available to most people when Kay got sick. As a nurse practitioner, she was looking forward to getting it soon but fell ill before she could.
Once Kay was home from her hospital stay and rehab, she said, she got the shots even after having recovered from COVID-19, as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It is a tool she hopes more people will use after seeing what she went through, along with following experts’ social distancing and masking recommendations. Helping and educating others almost makes her struggle worth it, she said.
Health care workers are struggling right now, too
Getting vaccinated and staying out of the hospital means more care and supplies will be available for others who need it. It can also help lessen the overwhelming load and burnout many health care workers are facing, she said.
“Everybody in health care that I’m friends with has posted something this week along the lines of, ‘pray for people in health care. They are not OK right now,'” Kay said.
Her mother-in-law is a nurse in St. Petersburg who has been appointed to call the families of people who have died. She cries during every call, Kay said, and previously told family that she couldn’t handle her work emotionally anymore and might have to retire early.
Another friend of Kay’s struggling with the current COVID-19 surge is a respiratory therapist. She told Kay that she cries every single day on her way home from work.
Those are just two examples from the real crisis, she said.
“If you could take a shot and not go what I went through and potentially prevent yourself from getting even close to being sick, why wouldn’t you?” she asked. “This is so black and white to me … I just don’t understand why you would want to put yourself in a position that’s very preventable.”