Lives Changed by COVID-19

For those infected by the virus, COVID-19 became the defining experience of 2020, or the last one.

THE NEW NORMAL: Plywood, decorated with Black Lives Matter murals, covers boarded-up shops in downtown Portland, as passersby wear masks to guard against the virus. (Alex Wittwer)

Two months into the year, a plague descended. For many Portlanders, the primary task of the next 10 months was not catching the coronavirus. But that wasn't so easy for many of us: people working frontline jobs, living in crowded housing, or just a little unlucky. For those infected by the virus, COVID-19 became the defining experience of 2020, or the last one. For some, it isn't over.

Amy Watson

Watson, 47, a preschool teacher who lives in Southeast Portland, says she's had a fever for more than 280 consecutive days.

"I got COVID-19 in early April," says Watson, who thinks she contracted the disease from one of her students. "I never got better."

Before COVID, Watson used to run half-marathons. Now she struggles to walk around the block. "If I walk up a flight of stairs," Watson says, "it feels like I climbed a mountain."

She's found common ground with about 12,000 "long-haulers" around the world who, like her, have found that COVID-19 can stick around for a long time.  She's the administrator of a Facebook group where people share their symptoms, tips and hopes for the future. Her group has gotten useful information from a group at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York that focuses on long-haulers.

Many of them, including her, Watson says, suffer from dysautonomia, a condition in which the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary processes such as digestion and heartbeat, doesn't work properly. "Imagine if you eat and the food just sits in your stomach and never moves," Watson says.

A native Oregonian who loves to hike, camp and take advantage of all the state has to offer, Watson says her illness has forced her to ponder difficult questions.

"Beyond whether you live or die, what is the quality of life?" she asks. "I can't work, can't go snowshoeing—I can't do anything. What is a life anyway?" NIGEL JAQUISS.

Scott McClellan

Scott McClellan used to play in an adult ice hockey league in Vancouver, Wash. The Southeast Portland board and video game designer, 49, thinks the tight confines of the locker room at the rink is where he picked up the coronavirus back in March.

McClellan couldn't get a test, but he kept getting sicker—headaches, sinus issues and shortness of breath. Then, toward the end of March, his heart started racing uncontrollably.

"It was the most alien feeling I've ever had," he recalls. "It was almost a dreamlike state where I was out of my body—kind of like third-person mode in video games."

Thinking he was having a heart attack, he rushed to the emergency room. Doctors gave him an EKG and tested his blood for the proteins that signal heart damage but found nothing.

"But when I got home and lay down flat, I had another attack," he says. "I ended up staying up three nights in a row, and for the next several weeks, I slept sitting up. If I moved into to a prone position, it came back."

From his own research and talking to doctors, McClellan determined he had a another symptom of dysautonomia.

Today, 40 pounds lighter than when he last played hockey, he's on the mend. He went for a 6-mile walk on Mount Tabor recently, although afterward, he says, his symptoms flared up again. He's slowly returning to some website work.

As somebody who spends a lot of time online, he finds COVID skeptics maddening—particularly those who badmouth vaccines.

"It's incredibly frustrating to see people say it's nothing," McClellan says. "COVID's a big shit sandwich: The question is, do you want to eat the whole thing or tiny piece of it? A tiny piece could be the vaccine." NIGEL JAQUISS.

Cassandra Avalos

When Cassandra Avalos couldn't taste "that normal morning yucky taste" one morning in early October, she worried. She knew one of the telltale signs of COVID-19 is the loss of the senses of smell and taste.

"Then my friend texted me and told me she'd tested positive for COVID," Avalos recalls.

She scheduled a drive-thru test at Rite Aid pharmacy on Northeast 181st Avenue.

As a single mother of two, Avalos, 26, who works for the Latino Network in a preschool-to-third-grade program at César Chávez K-8 School, could not afford to be sick. But the test was positive.

Her experience exemplifies what happened to hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who contacted the virus. They didn't die. They eventually recovered. But the disease strained their resources to the breaking point—and left them wondering if they were on their own.

Avalos says the virus was tolerable. "I didn't feel terrible," she recalls. "It felt just like having the flu: I was groggy and did not have a lot of energy."

She pulled her children, ages 4 and 7, out of day care, and the three of them hunkered down.

"I was afraid for my 7-year-old because he has asthma," Avalos says. She thinks both of her children became infected, because they got coughs and runny noses, but she didn't get them tested.

She and the children found quarantining tough. "We nearly went crazy," she says.

The lifesaver came when a contact tracer called from Multnomah County. That person gave Avalos' name to a church organization—she's not sure which one—that texted her to see what groceries she needed. The groceries were then delivered, free of charge, which allowed Avalos to stay home.

Today, she feels fully recovered—and fortunate.

"I can see that somebody with no support would find it very hard to stay quarantined because you have to feed your family," she says. "I was very lucky." NIGEL JAQUISS.

Carola Montero

As of press deadline, 1,347 Oregonians had died of COVID-19 during the pandemic. One of them was Catalina Castillo's mom.

"It was two days before her 47th birthday," Castillo says. "We were all just heartbroken."

Carola Montero spent 20 years as a full-time homemaker. Last year, she decided to rejoin the workforce, as a housekeeper at Providence Portland Medical Center. Cleaning hospital rooms placed Montero, like many unsung frontline workers, in the direct path of the coronavirus.

Her family still doesn't know how she got sick. But on Nov. 20, Montero was the first person in her family to contract the virus; soon, the whole family had symptoms. They recovered. She worsened. Perhaps it was because of her diabetes—such underlying conditions can intensify the virus's damage. When the family took her to the emergency room, "I had to carry her to my car," Castillo recalls.

Doctors found blood clots in Montero's small intestine. The lack of blood flow to her organs was fatal. She died in her sleep Dec. 6.

She left four children, a husband, and a family that has lost half its income. Castillo, 21, started a crowdfunding account to help her dad pay the bills. "Nothing can really fix it," she says. "But we're trying to make sue my dad's OK afterwards."

Across Oregon, hundreds of families are preparing to spend their first Christmas without a loved one. For Montero's family, that means remembering their mom finding a twig while searching for a fresh Christmas tree on Mount Hood, and carrying it through the forest like she was Charlie Brown.

"When I tell people that she was the best mom, I mean it," Castillo says. "I never met anyone so kind, so caring, so selfless. There's just not enough words to describe her. She was just everything that was good in this world." AARON MESH.

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