In Sickness And … In Sickness

Kurt and Joy Lorch

Courtesy Joy Lorch

Just a few weeks

ago, 51-year-old Joy Lorch was running daily and eating clean, raw foods. When the novel coronavirus became a possible threat, she took precautions: stocking up on what she might need in case of a stay-at-home order, wiping down carts at the grocery, using antibacterial hand wash. The possibility of it affecting her in any significant way wasn’t a real concern.

“I literally thought I was one of the healthiest people I knew,” she says.

Today, she is in self-quarantine in her home in Carmel with her husband, Kurt Lorch, 50. They are both recovering from COVID-19, following her primary-care doctor’s conservative advice to stay home until April 17.

Lorch was sitting in her stylist’s chair getting her hair done on March 18 when she felt a tickle in her chest and had an urge to cough, but held it in. By Thursday night, the coughing increased, and a physical fog set in. She canceled plans she had the next day with her grown daughters.

“That whole Friday, I was pretty much just curled up in a ball. I had body aches. My chest started getting heavier and heavier, and I kept telling my husband, I feel like an elephant is sitting on my chest,” Four days into her illness, she felt like she had about 20 percent of her lung capacity. Inhaling and exhaling was excruciating. Lorch contacted friends she’d seen a week earlier to see if they were sick and let them know about her symptoms, but they all seemed to be doing well.

On March 21, covered in blankets and curled up on a loveseat in her living room, she watched the news about COVID-19 and knew she wasn’t battling the flu or a cold. When a reporter announced loss of taste or smell as a symptom, Lorch knew. “I’m like, That’s me.” She almost went to the emergency room that night.

Kurt Lorch has multiple sclerosis, which means his immune system is compromised. Even before a diagnosis, Joy and Kurt separated themselves from each other in their home. Kurt stuck to the upstairs bedroom, while Joy took over their grown son’s downstairs bedroom and bathroom. They wore masks and gloves to prevent Kurt from getting sick, one of Joy’s biggest fears.

“I had body aches. My chest started getting heavier and heavier, and I kept telling my husband, I feel like an elephant is sitting on my chest.

Lorch wanted to find out if she had COVID-19, but the shortage of tests and priority for medical professionals and other special cases prevented her from getting one. Her doctor and an ER-nurse friend stayed in touch via text and advocated for her over the next few days. Kurt worried that if she didn’t have COVID-19, his wife had a serious lung infection that might kill her if she didn’t get treatment.

On Monday, March 23, her doctor called and said she could get a test, but not immediately. In the meantime, Lorch used a pulse oximeter to monitor the amount of oxygen being pumped through her body. Readings should be between 95 and 100. She dipped into the 70s.

When she got the green light, Lorch drove herself to the drive-through testing site at Ascension Medical Group’s St. Vincent Primary Care clinic in Broad Ripple. A technician greeted her through the car window and led her at a distance into the facility. Someone handed her a mask to wear inside, where she could see only other peoples’ eyes. It was “eerie and sad.”

The COVID-19 diagnosis came back within 24 hours, but what to do next was unclear. The clinic, CDC, and her primary-care doctor each had different marching orders. Lorch listened to her doctor, who prescribed the most conservative approach: to quarantine for 14 days from her last fever or presence of symptoms.

“I was crying hysterically, telling him what a great husband he was, thanking him for everything, that I was blessed to be loved by him.”

The chest pressure and dry cough continued. Body aches and back pain set in, accompanied by a low-grade fever, chills, and night sweats.

“I know that there were a couple of nights where I had the night sweats and I was burning up, but I just didn’t even have energy to take my temperature. I thought, I think I’m burning up right now, but I cannot even get the thermometer,” she says.

Joy thought their precautions were keeping Kurt safe. He would sit masked across the room from her. When they passed in hallways, she held her breath for fear of infecting him. She noticed that he had stopped daily rides on his bike trainer and assumed he just didn’t want to leave her unattended. But just when she felt well enough to go upstairs one day, she saw a thermometer on Kurt’s bedside table. He admitted that he’d had symptoms for a few days but didn’t want her to focus on him when she needed to get better.

Joy and Kurt Lorch

Two different times she thought she was dying, incapable of taking one more breath. On Sunday, March 29, Kurt drove her to the emergency room.

“I had never been so scared in my life,” she says. “I was crying hysterically, telling him what a great husband he was, thanking him for everything, that I was blessed to be loved by him.” She frantically texted her three children, who have three children among them, and another due in July.

“It was literally the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. Physically, I thought, I’m probably not going to make it out of this.” Following an examination, doctors cleared her to return home and continue recovering there.

Kurt’s symptoms worsened into skin sensitivities, prolonged fevers, body aches, horrible headaches, and extreme fatigue. After trying for a week, Kurt got tested as an at-risk patient on April 3.

His diagnosis came as a kind of blessing. It meant they could be together after 16 days without holding hands or hugging, the longest time apart in their 32-year marriage.

“I’ve never been so lonely in my whole life,” says Joy. “I just missed him and wanted to hug him.”

Joy was monitoring his patient portal when Kurt’s positive result came through. She willed her lungs and legs to climb the stairs as fast as she could.

“I just was like, ‘Babe, you’re positive!’ And I just hugged him, hugged him, and did not let go.”

Editor’s Note: Doctors have released Joy and Kurt from quarantine.