Roughly one year ago, the first reports were surfacing about the coronavirus — dubbed COVID-19 — reaching the United States. With only a few confirmed cases in Volusia County, some thought the problem would blow over, while others began to hunker down in forts of toilet paper and canned goods.
About that same time, 20-year-old Stetson University student Hannah Churms started feeling sick.
It began with what she figured was just a run-of-the-mill stomach flu. In a month’s time, she was intubated for a serious case of COVID-19 that led to a 17-day stay in the ICU.
A year later, Churms says she is still on the road to recovery.
“It’s day by day, but nothing serious,” she told The Beacon. “I don’t need to worry about dying anytime soon.”
The novel coronavirus has dramatically altered daily life for most people. Now 21, and still on track to graduate from Stetson in May, Churms is living as normal a life as she can.
“It’s harder, because I want to be able to do things that normal 21-year-olds do,” she said. “I played in an intramural flag football game the other day, and I could only be in for four plays before I had to sit out because I was so out of breath. Just being able to get my strength up is something that’s not normal for 21-year-olds.”
Churms now has to worry about taking a host of medications — “I’m still on four pills a day, twice a day,” she said — and a walk to the mailbox can tire her out, but she is hoping someday soon to escape the label of “COVID-19 survivor.”
“It is weird knowing people know me as COVID girl, or whatever, but my way of coping is making jokes, usually,” she said with a laugh. “It’s not that funny to think about, because I almost died, but that, and therapy, are going to be the only ways to deal with what I went through.”
Recovery hasn’t been easy. Such a serious case of COVID-19 has made Churms much more anxious and concerned for her health than she ever was before.
Her mother, Katie Churms, said it’s been difficult to see her daughter struggle, but she and her husband have done their best to support her.
“We take everything she says very seriously,” her mother said. “A lot of people don’t understand anxiety, and they say it’s all in your head. Well, exactly. You can’t control what your head is thinking.”
After all, Katie Churms said, that’s a parent’s job. Sure, she sits in the car outside of the doctor’s office when her daughter goes in for checkups, and she fields health questions over the phone at 3 a.m., but that’s all in a day’s work for these parents.
“I may get a lack of sleep,” Katie Churms said, “but we can all take a nap.”
‘Day by day’
A year later, the pandemic is still a disruption, and life hasn’t completely returned to normal — for the Churms family, or for most others.
While she sees friends and family more, Hannah said, she still hasn’t been to the grocery store more than once in the past year. Plus, she has to deal with her fair share of awkward encounters.
“The other day, I received a comment from someone that said ‘I don’t know you, but I was praying for you while you were in there. I understand where you stand on it because of how it has affected you, but I also know it doesn’t affect 99 percent of people like that,’” Hannah said. “Thanks for your prayers and thoughts, but also not thank you, I guess? It’s kind of a backhanded thing to say.”
Still, the support the Churms family has received from the community has far outweighed any negativity.
“Her pulmonologist and cardiologist have both told her she can call them at any time. Her doctor told her she can come in without an appointment. You don’t get that everywhere,” Katie Churms said. “We are very, very fortunate that the people of this town care a lot about you. They care about both Hannah and myself and her treatment, and they understand her anxiety. We are very blessed to live in this community.”
Aside from a supportive family and community, Hannah Churms said she has found therapy to be a much-needed aid.
“It’s helped me so much,” she said. “At first I was super embarrassed, but I talk to everyone about going now. It’s so helpful.”
Thanks to help and understanding from Stetson University faculty, Hannah Churms is still on track to graduate on time. She currently works for the Stetson baseball team, and hopes to continue on that track.
“I want to move to Tampa and try to get a job with a professional sports team over there,” she said. “Hopefully.”
Hannah had to step back from working, not just because of her condition, but because Stetson’s athletics were shuttered. With baseball season back in full swing, she’s back in the dugout — figuratively speaking.
“She really hasn’t been herself this last year. She’s been fatigued, depressed, short of breath; but when Stetson baseball started again, she was in the press box doing the music for them,” her mother said. “She sent me a video of her dancing to the music she put on in the press box, and I thought, ‘My kid’s back!’”
Katie Churms continued, “Before all this happened, she was a burst of energy. She wanted to experience everything, to try everything. To see her want to work again and get back around other people, it’s amazing to me. It just brings tears to my eyes.”
With so many variables, there’s no telling whether a case of COVID-19 will be mild or severe. After a year of hard-fought recovery, Hannah is optimistic and thankful for her community and support system.
“It’s been a long year,” Hannah said. “I’m just super thankful for my doctors, my family and for the DeLand community that has helped me.”