After accidentally running the lawn mower over a patch of loose dirt, MU student Madeline Ewing spent two weeks coughing so hard her throat bled. She sleeps with her body elevated, and she uses an inhaler at least four times a day. She frequently gets bronchitis, she caught swine flu in 2009 and now, she is recovering from COVID-19.
Ewing is immunocompromised. Her respiratory system is more sensitive to infections. She lives with asthma, damaged bronchial tubes and low lung capacity. Because Ewing is more vulnerable to viruses that attack the respiratory system, she has to pay extra attention to her health.
“(Before COVID-19,) if someone was coughing next to me, I was wary of that and would usually try and put distance between us or even just ask them to move if I could,” she says. “Now, with COVID, where you might not necessarily have symptoms, I don’t even know who to be wary of.”
Despite taking safety precautions, Ewing suffered a headache in July. Then came chills, muscle aches and a mental fog so severe that she was slow to realize her symptoms warranted a COVID-19 test referral.
Within two days of having symptoms, Ewing tested positive for the coronavirus. Luckily, she began recovering in a few weeks. But three months later, she still feels weak and is unsure if she will experience lasting cardiovascular effects.
“Even if you do survive now, what does that mean down the line?” she asks. “That’s what I’m most concerned about, the heart stuff, because I already have crappy lungs.”
Sam Loduca, an MU education student, was already following his own health routine after developing Crohn’s disease in high school. He keeps his hand sanitizer stash well-stocked, limits contact with others and wears a mask during strong flu seasons.
Loduca says he plans to be a high school biology teacher and says he believes everybody should be more science-literate. As someone with a compromised immune system, he feels “a mixture of disappointment and just a little short of being angry” when people refuse to follow health guidelines or wear a mask.
“I’m not sure if it’s a case where you’re willfully ignoring what you’ve seen or you actually don’t know,” he says.
Face coverings have been required in Columbia since July 10. Dr. Scott Henderson, assistant director of medical services at MU Hospital, wrote in an email to Vox that the safest community is one that assumes everybody is positive, focuses on contact tracing and practices strong isolation strategies.
Ewing says it’s a privilege to be carefree during the pandemic, and she takes it personally when people don’t wear masks. “I see so many people hanging out in groups, not wearing masks and acting like nothing’s happening,” she says. “The people who are doing that most likely have the health care access they need to recover well or the immune system to fight it.”
Even though Ewing is immunocompromised, she says she sees her privilege as a white woman. “You have a medical system that is set up to cater to your needs in a way that it doesn’t for any other skin color or ethnicity,” she says. A 2019 study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science affirms this. Specifically, it states Black Americans receive lower quality treatment than white Americans for the same ailments.
Both Ewing and Loduca struggle with their health, regardless of the pandemic’s challenges. When people refuse to take safety precautions, it’s even harder for at-risk individuals to know who to trust. In today’s world, their lives are in everyone’s hands.