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When COVID Comes Too Close: A Get Us PPE Volunteer’s Story

By December 2, 2020December 3rd, 2020No Comments

It’s important to remember why we need to stay home and mask up. Just weeks before the PPE crisis swept American hospitals, Claudia Kiss faced one of the hard decisions we can all relate to—should I travel and attend that important event—or act with utmost caution? This is Claudia’s COVID survivor story.

COVID: A Crisis “Far, Far Away”

Corona caught me in the first wave.

My husband and I live and work in New York City and like everyone else in the city, we were still going to work and somewhat cautiously taking the subway through the second week of March. At the time, COVID stories were overtaking the news, but somehow it still seemed like a crisis that was far, far away.

On March 12, we were booked on a flight to attend my college roommate’s wedding in San Diego. Hours before takeoff—bags packed and sitting by the door—my gut instinct kicked in and we canceled our trip. Devastated, I felt insanely guilty and torn with indecision. Was I being overly cautious? Looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

COVID Hits Too Close to Home

COVID survivor Claudia at Mt Sinai Hospital

That Saturday, the day of my friend’s wedding, the first signs of the virus that causes COVID appeared. The other symptoms followed. My husband and I had runny noses, slight coughs, chills, and fatigue. For about a week, we were slammed with full-blown COVID.  Now, it frightens me to think my husband and I could have infected the bride, her family, and the entire wedding party. It would have been one of those ‘gifts that kept on giving’—but in the most terrible of ways. (Something certainly not on their registry.)

Like most people at the beginning of the pandemic, we have no idea how we caught the virus. It could have been anywhere in the cauldron of everyday NYC life.

The city didn’t even fully lockdown until after we were sick. Like so many at that time, we were unable to get tested. Not sick enough to be hospitalized, we were told just to stay home and wait to see if the symptoms worsened. There were moments I was really worried.

A couple of times it was hard to catch my breath, but we were lucky to not have any major breathing issues. About a week in, we fully lost our sense of taste and smell. Any doubt that COVID was the culprit vanished.

My friend, Ali and her husband Joe were also sick at the same time. Ali got so sick she was admitted to the ICU and was eventually put on a ventilator. She is just 33. I remember googling “what is a ventilator?”

This was by far the scariest time. And at that time, we still didn’t know much about the virus. Being sick and isolated from everyone and knowing my friend was also sick and clinging on for her life in the ICU just felt so surreal. Sometimes I look back and wonder, “did that really happen?” Ali has since recovered and has been a powerful voice in letting others know how serious COVID can be—especially for younger people. (Watch Ali’s full account of COVID.)

Right around the time I started feeling sick my friend Shikha who is now Get Us PPE’s executive director, recruited me to #MaskUp. It was an early operation she had started with her brother which was acquiring data and donated PPE to supply to hospitals.

Within short weeks we rolled the operation into the brand-new non-profit, Get Us PPE, along with several other grassroots organizations. From creating a few images on the illustration app Canva at first–to co-leading the social media for a nationally recognized non-profit was unreal.

Surviving COVID and Paying it Forward

COVID survivor Claudia featured with other Get Us PPE volunteers

Still recovering, I was running just on adrenaline! Hospitals desperately lacked PPE, and our band of volunteers worked tirelessly around the clock to build the website, collect data, and secure PPE. My days were filled by my regular day job and my nights were consumed with Get Us PPE. During the first few weeks, we met on Zoom nearly every day–8pm, 9pm, 10pm–and into the night. Things were happening so fast. It was a total blur.

By early April, Get Us PPE was fully up and running–making PPE matches throughout the nation as hospitals continued to be overwhelmed. My husband and I were still fatigued but feeling better. That was the one thing that stuck with us for several weeks–the fatigue. It was difficult to walk long distances or even do simple yoga poses. But we kept pushing ourselves to work out and move.

Around this time, friends began to send me stories about recovered COVID patients donating plasma and blood. I signed us up and we were finally called from Mount Sinai to come take an antibody test so we could be approved to donate plasma. We live in Brooklyn so our trip ‘into the city’ to take our antibody test was the first time we had left our neighborhood.

This was mid-April. The city was so quiet. So desolate. I remember going home feeling really depressed. It felt like the city that I love so much had just disappeared overnight. This was the first time during lockdown where I had that moment that we’ve all now experienced. The “when is this going to be over” moment.

When a solid antibody count was confirmed by Mount Sinai, we applied to donate plasma. They called me right away. I first donated on May 6, which was my second trip to Manhattan from my home in Brooklyn.  My plasma donation was already assigned to a critically ill patient battling COVID at Mount Sinai. I teared up that first time donating plasma. Since then, it became a routine, four more times for plasma and once whole blood for research.

While of course, it feels good to help others battling COVID, I’m also fascinated by the rapidly developing science behind treating patients and developing a vaccine, so I am more than happy to be a COVID lab rat. It’s been such a trip.

Stepping away from the role of COVID patient into being an active participant in the fight was–and is–incredibly gratifying. It’s an everyday reminder of how far we come and how far we have to go. This virus is all too real. We have come too far to drop our guard now. Wear masks. Socially distance. It all adds up and little things do make a difference. Better days are ahead.

Looking Back

Eight months: It’s hard for me to even wrap my head around all that has happened in this span of time. Like so many, COVID has played a large role in my life–from being infected to almost losing a best friend, and of course, finding a fulfilling purpose at Get Us PPE.      

As much as this pandemic has affected me personally, I also know it’s impacted others to a much greater degree–frontline workers risking their lives every day, those left unemployed, and families suffering from a loss due to COVID. 2020 has put into question everything I have previously taken for granted. With time, dedication, and forbearance, I know in my heart of hearts, we will come through this time of struggle and pain even stronger than we were when it began. The future can be bright. It’s up to us to pull together.

Claudia Kiss