Fighting COVID-19 through faith, family and fantastic care
A patient highlights the magnificent care received from UF Health Jacksonville staff as she combated the disease
Speaking with Latonya Harris today, you would never guess she was fighting for her life from the world’s most dangerous virus just a few months ago. Her enthusiasm and passion for life shine through with every word she speaks. She is extremely grateful to be alive today, and is thankful to all the UF Health Jacksonville physicians, nurses and staff who cared for and motivated her throughout her path to recovery from COVID-19.
Latonya started feeling unwell July 2. She had a cough, lost her ability to taste and smell, and experienced weakness. She initially thought it was a bad cold, so she did what most people would — rest and take over-the-counter medications. By July 5, her symptoms progressed, and she was so weak she could barely walk from room to room or fully dress herself.
“It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life,” she said.
From that point, her condition was severe enough for her husband, Albert, to rush her to the closest emergency room at UF Health North. By the time they arrived at the hospital, Latonya was too weak to move and a nurse had to bring her inside in a wheelchair. Soon after being tested, she found out she had COVID-19 and needed to be transferred to UF Health Jacksonville’s main downtown campus via ambulance. Little did she know, she wouldn’t return home for the next 20 days.
Communication behind the scenes
The time Latonya spent in the hospital after contracting COVID-19 was a blur. She barely remembers where she was and who was treating her. She doesn’t even remember being that sick.
As COVID-19 patient numbers climbed across the city and state, hospitals were instituting visitation restrictions to keep patients and staff safe. This put a strain on Latonya and her family, as her husband, children and other relatives were constantly worried about her state.
Thankfully, nurses in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit, or SICU, kept the Harris family updated on a consistent basis.
Registered nurse Nate Turbeville was one of those nurses, and Albert was incredibly thankful. Shortly after Latonya was admitted to the hospital, her condition worsened and she developed pneumonia in both lungs. Her physician’s first recommendation was to put her in a medically induced coma. Turbeville swiftly relayed this over the phone to Albert, who was beside himself with worry. After a detailed explanation of how the procedure would keep Latonya alive, Albert agreed to move forward. The coma was the first step in saving her life.
“Nurse Nate was very helpful and told my family everything,” Latonya said. “My husband, my mom, my dad, my sister — he communicated with them every step of the way.”
At one point, Latonya’s condition was so critical that her care providers considered ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. Turbeville rushed to the phone to alert Albert. Another explanation and another agreement to proceed ensued.
It was at that moment Latonya began to breathe on her own, a great sign of improvement. ECMO was no longer needed.
Staying connected safely
Although Latonya couldn’t recall all of the details of her stay, another nurse stuck in her memory. Teri Steele, a SICU nurse who picked up a shift in the COVID-19 unit, was by Latonya’s side for more than a week.
Because Latonya still needed ventilator support and couldn’t speak just yet, Steele communicated with her by using a chart. That way, Latonya could point to words and feelings to express herself.
“I remember waking up and wondering why I was in this position,” Latonya said in reference to being on ventilator support in a hospital bed. “When I wanted to cry or give up, Nurse Teri motivated me to push through the discomfort. She encouraged me to stay strong.”
Steele went one step further and used her laptop to help Latonya connect with her family on Zoom. Latonya was more than thrilled to see familiar faces.
“Her family was so kind and supportive of her,” Steele said. “They were just happy to see each other! It was strong motivation for her to see them every day.”
Before one particular Zoom session, Steele reached out to Latonya’s family and asked if they could show some memorabilia from home during the video session. They showed one of her favorite blankets and a stuffed bear. Latonya’s face lit up. She says the Zoom visits with family kept her strong and determined. Steele made sure Latonya could see as many family members as she requested, including her two sons, granddaughter and most of her extended family.
Latonya could not express enough gratitude for Steele’s small act of kindness to help her connect with family and Turbeville’s dedication to keeping them informed.
“Nurse Teri, Nurse Nate and all other nurses and staff who cared for me are the ones who need to be recognized because they’re putting themselves in danger to save other people’s lives,” said Latonya, as she teared up. “You have to be truly special to do that. Everyone at UF Health was called to do what they do. They are a blessing to me and my family.”
Recovering physically and mentally
COVID-19 affects everyone differently and can unfortunately cause prolonged physical ailments. For Latonya, it adversely affected her kidneys and walking ability. When she was discharged from the hospital in late July, she had severe weakness in her legs. Trying to walk from the curb to the car was almost like “walking all the way to Orlando,” she said.
Her physician recommended physical therapy two days a week to build leg strength, and Latonya was completely on board. The physical therapy sessions, held at her mother’s home where she stayed shortly after being discharged, kept her fighting spirit alive until she built the strength and confidence to walk normally again.
Words from the wise
Latonya encourages anyone who contracts the novel coronavirus and develops COVID-19 to keep fighting through it and to know that it could at times be quite traumatizing, mentally and physically.
She emphasized that having faith, support from family and encouragement from nurses and doctors kept her going. Even just hearing their voices kept her spirits high. She and her family celebrate her recovery and give thanks by praying daily together — in person with immediate family and via Zoom with extended family.
Steele also has some wise words from her eight years as a nurse, including her recent experiences in a COVID-19 unit. “Think about your family,” she said. “Keep your distance from others and wear your mask. It’s all for the greater good.”
Latonya is among more than 600 patients at UF Health Jacksonville who have recovered from COVID-19. Steele and Turbeville were fortunate to see Latonya heal, which gives them hope for future positive outcomes.