What became a precarious and terrifying journey began on March 15 with an off and on fever, along with some minor gastrointestinal discomfort. An occupational health appointment took place a few days later followed by an Eskenazi Health telemedicine visit with a primary care physician who directed the patient to stay home and remain hydrated. Natalie Fitzgerald had no idea then that she would soon be in grave danger and that an incredibly intense two-week fight for her life versus the dreaded coronavirus was on the horizon.

The Clinical Educator for the Richard M. Fairbanks Burn Center at Eskenazi Health who oversees nursing onboarding and continuing education for the entire department, Fitzgerald began developing a bit of a low grade fever but wasn’t “feeling too bad” until about 10 p.m. on Sunday, March 22.

“I started feeling short of breath and wasn’t really sure what was going on, but I thought I was OK and that I’d stay at home thinking it wasn’t too bad, but then early in the morning on the 23rd around 3:30 a.m., I believed I was in worse shape and decided I needed to go to the hospital. That’s when I called for an ambulance to take me to Eskenazi Health.” 

Upon arrival, Fitzgerald was rushed into one of Eskenazi Health’s “shock rooms”, which is where acutely ill patients are brought to be stabilized prior to transfer to an intensive care unit or other department. 

“The ICU doctor, Dr. Joe Smith, came down and talked to me saying that they thought I probably had COVID and that their plan, because of the oxygen requirements that I had and what they had seen in other patients, was to probably intubate me when I got upstairs to the ICU. They also wanted to give me a little time to see if I could be stable on the oxygen they had me on,” Fitzgerald said. “I actually knew about that when I came into the emergency room because I had done a little work from home the week prior and we had a critical care meeting where they had talked about how that was their plan to put in the breathing tube and put the patients on a ventilator quickly when they presented so they wouldn’t get into an issue where they were getting contaminated when they were intubating patients. Not long after I got upstairs, Dr. Smith came back to my room and I watched him stalking in the hall looking at my numbers and he came in saying they were going to intubate me, and then they came in and put the breathing tube in, and he held my hand as they gave me medicine. I don’t remember anything after that.”

The mother of two sons and a daughter, Fitzgerald, who started at Eskenazi Health in 1996 and is attending classes towards earning a master’s degree in nursing education, was placed on a ventilator and was heavily sedated for nearly two weeks.

“They had to paralyze me that first week so I would tolerate the ventilator better,” she said. “After my lungs started to cooperate a little bit better with what they were doing with the ventilator at the start of the second week, they were able to take me off the medicine that paralyzed me and then they had me on medications to keep me sleepy so I wouldn’t pull out the breathing tube.”

On April 6, the breathing tube was finally removed from Fitzgerald, though she has virtually no recollection of that or anything else that happened the following day. 

“I have some really foggy memories of the first two days when I came out (of being deeply sedated). I remember I had a physical therapist who came to the room and it was all kind of weird,” she said. “Then on April 8, I was pretty awake and was able to work with physical therapy and a speech therapist for the first time. They could give me some sips of water and they got me to sit on the edge of the bed and do some movement. On the 8th, I believe, was the first time I was able to talk with people. The physical therapist helped me find my phone so I could make calls and I called my mom and dad, and then I spoke with my youngest son and my daughter. On April 9, I had a nice Zoom call with my kids and my sisters, and my mom and dad.”

A graduate of Purdue University, Fitzgerald remained at Eskenazi Health using a walker and undergoing occupational and speech therapy every day until departing on April 14. She arrived at home without using a walking apparatus to assist her.
 
“I was so excited when they told me I could go home! I was a little nervous because I knew I was weak, but it was great. My family and friends had a party for me and they were standing in the street leading up to my house, and so it was really a great experience to come home and be with my kids. I got to have some snuggles and hugs from everybody, and I was super glad to be home with them.”

Fitzgerald has continued the physical therapy program she was utilizing at the hospital. She enjoys taking walks with her son MJ, who encourages her to be steadfast with her therapy. 

Looking back at this long and harrowing ordeal, Fitzgerald, who has been working remotely of late, said she was very sick and came frighteningly close to not surviving. She considers her recovery from COVID-19 miraculous and is eternally grateful for the quality care she received at Eskenazi Health. 

“The ICU team and the physicians are phenomenal. In the past, I had seen Dr. (Graham) Carlos and Dr. Smith in action and heard them talk and I knew how good they were and what great teachers they are, and I know they are among the very best. And the nurses, physical therapists and occupational therapists are doing such good work, and I know that people are stepping out of their normal roles and stretching themselves so patients get what they need and that’s always what Eskenazi Health does. I would tell people that Eskenazi Health is always the best place to go all the time, and not just for COVID-19.”

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