“Thank you for your sincere human kindness, concern and care while treating me during my time in isolation.”
These are the words that Becka Schumacher — a Lodi wife, mother, businesswoman and world traveler — has for her care team at Adventist Health Lodi Memorial, who helped her when nose and throat swabs confirmed that coronavirus had taken root in her body.
In early March, San Joaquin Public Health announced that the infectious disease that has crippled China and Italy had made its way to Stockton and Lodi. Unfortunately for Becka Schumacher, it had made its way into her life.
Not only had COVID-19 made Schumacher ill with cold and flu symptoms, but the disease had erupted into pneumonia, forcing her to be isolated and hospitalized for a week.
As the highly infectious disease spread around the world, Schumacher’s husband, Dennis, waited in isolation at home for his own test results. He would learn days later that he, too, was positive for the disease.
This is not the homecoming the Schumachers had expected when they returned from their long-planned “bucket list” trip to Egypt in February.
They had just spent seven days on a Nile River cruise with about 150 other vacationers.
It was on the way back to Lodi that Dennis Schumacher noticed something wasn’t right. On the flight home, he had chills. Then he was unusually fidgety and couldn’t sit still. It donned on him he had a fever. During the layover, he craved nothing more than a ham or turkey sandwich — or so he thought.
“I had tea and could barely eat a quarter of sandwich,” he said with a laugh.
As frequent travelers, the Schumachers are accustomed to experiencing some illnesses. Dennis wasn’t sure if this was normal, though.
“At that point, my wife was in better shape than I was,” he said.
Early on, the Lodi couple knew of coronavirus the way everyone in California knew about it. It was in other places, but not in their backyard — it hadn’t yet made its way into the region. Surely, they thought, it couldn’t be possible.
The couple self-quarantined in their home for several days just to be cautious and to protect their loved ones. They told their children of their suspicions, but waited to tell others until they knew more.
While Dennis Schumacher’s symptoms seemed to subside, Becka Schumacher felt like her own symptoms were more than a common head cold.
“I had symptoms where I wasn’t getting better,” she said. “At that point, I wasn’t running a regular fever, but I just knew something was wrong.”
With symptoms worsening and uncertainty heightened, the Schumachers sought care close to home, at Adventist Health Lodi Memorial.
Becka was admitted for pneumonia — and her case was a clear indicator of COVID-19.
“Shadows on the chest X-ray, a spike in fever and nonproductive cough are the telltale sign of coronavirus,” said Nicole Bettencourt, quality and accreditation director at the Lodi hospital, who has been helping lead COVID-19 prevention and treatment efforts at Lodi Memorial since January.
A team of designated nurses cared for Becka Schumacher, donning and doffing personal protective equipment — aka PPE — each time they entered. Isolation can be a lonely experience, as only a few people are able to enter the room.
In their separate, isolated worlds, the couple communicated through technology, the way hospitals worldwide are now encouraging patients and loved ones to connect to reduce the spread of COVID-19. For the Schumachers, it was mostly texts and phone calls when Becka Schumacher felt she had enough energy to respond.
“I was just feeling so awful that sometimes I wouldn’t call Dennis but once a day, because my pneumonia was so pronounced and I couldn’t stop coughing,” she said.
It took a lot of energy to even watch TV or walk around her room.
“Even with texting, I couldn’t focus or think,” she said.
At home and now over his flu-like symptoms, Dennis Schumacher waited anxiously — for his phone to ring with his wife on the other line. For her to return home.
“The hard part was I felt like I was sitting on my hands,” Dennis Schumacher said.
He had been isolated at home with less severe symptoms, and worried about his wife. There was only so much organizing and backyard-cleanup he could handle. Their collection of board games was useless as he spent time alone.
Comfort came in the form of hospital leaders who shared their cellphone numbers and communicated transparently with him about what was happening inside the walls of his wife’s isolation room.
“I was very impressed with the way the hospital stayed in communication with me,” he said. “Mary Brown, the hospital supervisor, was great. She was in contact from day one. She put me in contact with Dr. Iris, who would ask if she could help me with anything. She would call or text, so I would know immediately everything is OK.”
Dr. Patricia Iris, Adventist Health Lodi Memorial’s medical officer, communicated with Dennis most days that Becka was hospitalized, updating him with information about his wife during her 6-day stay and offering updates on his pending results, as well as ways for him to handle the uncertainty of his own condition.
“I feel so much compassion for every patient and their families in this time of uncertainty, and to be available to answer a few phone calls when possible is an easy way to offer some assurance and peace of mind to patients who feel vulnerable and lost,” Iris said.
On March 13, Becka and Dennis Schumacher were reunited when her hospital stay came to an end. Though they were advised to continue home isolation until follow-up tests could confirm negative results, Dennis Schumacher was ecstatic to have his partner back at home.
“Having my soulmate with me is so much nicer. Just that is so helpful,” he said.
Becka Schumacher was grateful to have her own shower, bed and home, but symptoms continued the first few days at home, including sharp headaches, “like shooting pain through your head,” she said.
The couple continued to quarantine at home while they awaited their test results from San Joaquin Public Health. Every day they waited. And every day, no results.
But on the afternoon of March 20, on Dennis Schumacher’s 21st day of home isolation, his phone rang again, with Iris on the other end. The hospital had also performed a second test on each of the Schumachers and sent them to an out-of-state lab. The results were in: negative.
The Schumachers cheered, and Iris congratulated them for being over a huge hump in their coronavirus story.
“The Schumachers’ isolation was critical, and I appreciated their commitment to self-quarantine,” Iris said. “I’m so thankful for their public service and staying indoors while they were still contagious.”
According to Iris, Dennis Schumaker’s situation is unique because he was one of the first few to be tested in San Joaquin County. Though only weeks ago, the situation has already shifted. For earlier suspected cases, there were enough nasopharyngeal swabs to test someone like Dennis, who had mild symptoms, but was still concerned he had the disease.
“Currently, because of the low supply of swabs — in Lodi and across the country — there are many who won’t be able to receive the test who suspect they have COVID-19,” Iris said. “Now these people are being sent home. That’s why self-isolation for the community is so critical at this stage.”
Dennis feels fortunate to have been tested, and urges his loved ones to heed the state and county requirements to shelter in place. With reports of three deaths related to COVID-19 in San Joaquin County, they know their experience could have ended differently.
“I can tell you this: I’ve had worse flush myself, but after watching my wife, I’m not going to downplay it. She got pneumonia out of it. I think she even scared the doctor,” Dennis Schumacher said. “It all depends on who the patient is. This should be taken seriously.”