Mason students hospitalized after becoming critically ill from COVID

Ann Vettikkal | News Editor

On Monday, December 14, junior Gianna Gonzalez went to school, worked a shift at Carraba’s Italian Grill, and came home completely normal. More than a month later, she struggles to breathe, is still recovering from pneumonia, and can only taste foods with extreme flavor. 

Gonzalez is part of a small but present group of healthy young people that, for reasons still being studied and analyzed, experience COVID in a particularly miserable, at times life-threatening manner.

“My doctors thought I wasn’t gonna make it for a hot minute,” Gonzalez said. 

The most intense segment of the ordeal lasted three weeks, starting the day after that uneventful Monday. She recalled waking up the next morning with a dry cough. Worried about both having the virus and “getting made fun of” by her COVID-wary classmates, Gonzalez decided to stay home and get tested. The positive test result came back Wednesday morning and immediately after as if on cue, Gonzalez was hit with “every single symptom.”

“I felt really nauseous and [had] body aches so severe that I could barely move without feeling pain,” Gonzalez said, moving through the extensive list. “I lost my taste and I lost my smell right away. I felt fatigued. I had a double middle ear infection, which turned into ruptured eardrums in both ears, which means that my eardrums basically exploded. Every time I moved, it felt like I had sunburn all over my body and my skin was peeling off. I broke out and [had] these like little, red blots [on] my body. I had a fever, obviously. And I had a lot of phlegm buildup in my lungs to the point where I had to sit up at all times of the day so I didn’t choke on my own phlegm.”

After two weeks of immobilizing pain and fatigue, Gonzalez realized neither time nor rest nor medicine was alleviating her symptoms and decided to get a chest X-ray. Doctors found fluid buildup in her lungs; she had come down with pneumonia. 

“[Pneumonia] is awful — I still have it,” said Gonzalez. “You can probably hear from my voice – it’s kind of failing.” While she spoke, her tone trembled. 

Soon after the X-ray, she was admitted to the ER for five hours to receive antibiotics for the infection. Gonzalez described the scene as frightening, despite the kindness and preparedness of the medical staff. 

“They seemed a little stressed out just being around me,” Gonzalez said, explaining doctors and nurses took “every precaution plus more” and were “all gowned up.” “It felt like I was a bomb or something because people would avoid me so much. It was scary.”

Another student at Mason was also admitted for COVID-19. But her stay at the hospital lasted for more than a week — and landed her in the Intensive Care Unit at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Sixth-grader Keerthana Pulapaka was an energetic, healthy kid who had just gotten her black belt in martial arts. But starting November 21, she began to experience the virus in tiers: on day one she had a fever and fatigue, day four a stomach ache and low appetite, and on day seven a dry cough and high fever that still had not subsided after over-the-counter medication. 

Her mother Gayatri Pulapaka walked through the entire timeline and explained the steps she took next after concerns of Keerthana’s relentless 103-degree fever. 

“I called the pediatricians office again and I said, ‘Hey, I’m worried her fevers are spiking.’” Gayatri said. “The medicine barely could keep her comfortable. That’s when the pediatrician said she needs to be checked.”

It was at Cincinnati Children’s that they discovered she was developing pneumonia. That along with low oxygen levels kept Keerthana for observation and treatment in the hospital for more than a week. 

“I couldn’t really breathe,” Keerthana said. “I was breathing but not really [getting] a big deep breath.”

Two days after she was admitted to the general hospital, doctors realized Keerthana was getting worse, not better. 

“In spite of her being on oxygen and getting the steroid and antibiotics, things were not looking very bright,” Gayatri said. “Her oxygen requirements kept increasing. She was doing okay on two liters, but then the oxygen levels dropped again. They had to increase it to 10. That’s when the EMT group came in, looked at her, and said she needs to be moved to the ICU.”

In those three days at the ICU, doctors considered an antiviral remedy approved only for kids 12 and above. The doctors assessed the severity of her condition and, though just 11 years old, Keerthana received the medicine for emergency use. 

What they didn’t know at the time is that just days after receiving the emergency medicine — day 9 and 10 with the virus — Keerthana’s fever would break, her appetite would return, and she would begin the path toward recovery. 

But it was precisely this inability to know that scared Gayatri the most during her daughter’s struggle with COVID. The novelty of the virus means that there is little research on how kids Keerthana’s age fare. In fact, because of these gaps in experts’ knowledge, Keerthana participated in research at Children’s to help doctors figure out why “some kids got as sick as she got,” according to Gayatri. 

She lived day-to-day, hoping that Keerthana’s health would improve, but not having definite answers or a way to know for sure if she would get better. 

“It was pretty scary going through it because of the unknown factors,” Gayatri said. “If you had an established treatment plan or enough data to say, ‘On this day, it will peak but then she will get better after this,’ you would feel comfortable. But they don’t have it yet.”

Gonzalez, who spent all but five hours of her COVID experience at home, worried most about infecting her immunosuppressed family members — a dad who had double kidney failure and a mom who had given a kidney to save him. 

“For [my dad], the simplest thing like getting a cold could send him to the ER and possibly the ICU — it’s happened before,” Gonzalez said, citing this as one cause as to why she isolated herself in her bedroom the entire time (the other cause was a result of being bedridden — “it was painful to walk,” she said.)

There are several parallels between Keerthana’s and Gonzalez’s COVID journey: both followed medical advice on how to mitigate the risk of infection, both expected a relatively painless and quick case of COVID like most their age go through (“I was under the impression that she’s young — how bad can it get?” Gayatri said), and both emphasized the importance of doing your part to keep others safe as the nation continues to shatter its ceiling of record deaths and infections. 

Seeing people around her fail to follow COVID guidelines is difficult for Gonzalez — she knows the damage such behavior can cause. 

“[At Carraba’s Italian Grill], I bring [food] out to people’s cars,” Gonzalez said. “And a lot of the time those people don’t wear masks. And even if you’re wearing a mask, it doesn’t work if everyone around you isn’t wearing a mask.”

She brought up a number of after-effects she still deals with on a day-to-day basis such as nausea and dizziness.

“At random parts of the day I just sit down and take a break, like after going up the stairs,” Gonzalez said. “Breathing is really hard and it takes a lot of my energy which is frustrating because before I had COVID, I was completely healthy. But now I have all these problems and I’m still taking all these medications. And those medications are giving me other symptoms as well.”

As a result of their sobering COVID experiences, both girls hope that others grasp the gravity of the virus’ toll on the human body. Keerthana recited a concise, pointed mantra on how she wants others to behave so long as the pandemic is around. 

“Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds,” Keerthana said. “Stay socially distant. Wear your mask.” 

Gonzalez echoed a similar message focused toward mask-wearing etiquette in light of her inability to enjoy foods or scents properly. 

“Wear your mask the right way — put it over your nose because the virus lives up [there],” Gonzalez said. “That’s why you lose your taste and your smell. So if you don’t wear your mask over your nose, it doesn’t work, and you’re still gonna [give] it to other people who may have family members that are sick or could die easily [from catching the virus.]”

She also urged teenagers to reevaluate their priorities and unrestrained behavior. But her advice is not just for the sake of the elderly and immunocompromised. Backed by her own formidable evidence, she sends a fair warning that staying safe could help to keep fellow classmates healthy — and alive. 

“Don’t go out and hang out with your friends without taking precautions,” Gonzalez said. “Don’t go partying. It’s not worth it. It’s been five weeks. And I still [feel] dead.”