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It started with what felt like a fireworks display in Traci Strobel’s lungs.
About three weeks after being diagnosed with the flu, the 56-year-old Crystal Lake resident found herself in the Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital emergency room, surrounded by doctors who looked as if they had stepped out of a science fiction movie, she said.
“They put on heart monitors, respirators. Everyone dressed in masks and [was] afraid to come close,” Strobel said. “I was asked, if my breathing and heart stopped, if I wanted to be resuscitated. Never been asked that before.”
On Tuesday, Strobel received word she’d tested positive for COVID-19, the respiratory disease that has prompted people worldwide to self-quarantine out of fear of spreading and contracting the illness. As have many, Strobel found herself fighting for a COVID-19 test amid a national shortage.
Strobel was one of two positive COVID-19 cases within the county announced Tuesday evening by the McHenry County Department of Health. The Northwest Herald reached out to the family of the other patient who tested positive, a female in her 40s, but a family member declined comment out of a fear of stigmatization.
The Northwest Herald also spoke with several people who are actively pursuing a test or awaiting results – processes that seem to vary on a case-by-case basis. Several individuals asked to remain anonymous, out of fear of stigmatization and concern that they might have infected others.
“That honestly is my biggest concern,” said a 51-year-old Crystal Lake woman awaiting her COVID-19 test results. “I don’t want to be Typhoid Mary.”
Traci Strobel granted permission for her name to appear in print, stating that she hopes her story will help educate the public and encourage the community to take precautions more seriously.
Breathing complications weren’t anything new to Strobel, who struggled earlier in her life with asthma and serious allergies, she said. But something about the persisting and worsening chest pain she was experiencing March 11 felt different.
“I went to the doctor the next day, and they said they thought it was just still my lungs aggravated from me having Influenza A three weeks prior and put me on steroids,” Strobel said.
As time went on, however, Strobel’s condition worsened, and her at-home breathing treatments hardly seemed to keep her symptoms at bay, she said.
“By Sunday night, I could not breathe,” Strobel said. “I was wheezing so hard that it sounded like I had paper chip bags for lungs. My husband could hear it across the living room.”
Strobel’s husband, Chris Strobel, has spent the past few nights in a camper the couple keeps parked in their front yard. It’s there that he and the family pitbull, Gigi, monitor Traci Strobel from a Nest camera fastened to a wall in the couple’s bedroom.
Chris Strobel hasn’t been tested for COVID-19, but not for a lack of trying. Because he’s not showing symptoms, he’s been asked to quarantine himself at home until March 24 and monitor his condition.
“I’m pretty sure I have it,” Chris Strobel said.
When it comes to symptoms, the Strobels said neither of them have presented one of the most commonly cited indicators of COVID-19 – a fever.
“What I want [people] to understand is that this is serious,” Traci Strobel said. “We don’t know this virus. It is not just the flu until we have had time to totally investigate the nature of it.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath, and could appear two to 14 days after exposure.
Because those symptoms are associated with a number of other conditions, some doctors will preform additional tests to rule out illnesses such as strep throat or the flu before administering a COVID-19 test.
After the 51-year-old Crystal Lake woman’s results came back negative for both strep and the flu, her doctor made a recommendation she wasn’t expecting, she said.
“He kind of almost paused and said ‘Do you want to be tested for COVID?’ and I said, ‘Do you think I should?’ ” the woman said.
Results from the test, which was administered Monday, had not been returned as of Thursday evening.
“I’d like to know one way or another. I’d like to get back to work,” the woman said.
The not knowing is what concerned Traci Strobel as she waited to be tested, knowing in her gut that something was wrong.
“We needed answers. I was declining fast,” Traci Strobel said. “They said that I didn’t have the typical symptoms, and that most likely I wouldn’t qualify for testing, as I had no fever and no direct contact and hadn’t traveled. They said that the CDC are the gatekeepers since there are so few tests and so they cannot make the decision to test me.”
Several days into self-isolation, Traci Strobel’s condition fluctuates throughout the day.
“Today, I am feeling more flu symptoms and taking my breathing treatments a little before the four hours,” she said. “To be honest, I was depressed this morning. I was not feeling well and worried about my husband.”
She also fears for others who are downplaying the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and not heeding public health officials’ pleas to remain at home for the time being.
“I got it without having any idea I was exposed to it,” Traci Strobel said. “I was using social distancing and hand-washing weeks before this craziness started, and I still got it.”
On Thursday, Traci Strobel received an order from the McHenry County Department of Health asking her to voluntarily isolate herself.
“The thing that surprises me is that I could have died the other night,” she said. “We have had no call from doctors today. This leaves such a burden on my husband, who is not a medical professional. We are in isolation to care for ourselves.”
The isolation order means that Chris Strobel is responsible for making all necessary pharmacy and grocery runs. A recent trip to the grocery store left him with mixed feelings of guilt and worry as he navigated the crowded aisles filled with people seemingly taking no safety precautions.
“Have you seen what’s going on lately?” Chris Strobel said. “They wouldn’t close all this stuff down if it was just the flu. They’re ignorant about it. I don’t know what it’s going to take. I really don’t.”
During their period of isolation and quarantine, Chris Strobel has largely been communicating with his wife via text message and email. After nearly 35 years of marriage, being limited in the ways he can help his wife has taken its own toll.
“I’m sitting here on the sidelines on a different field basically going ‘Wow, what am I supposed to do?’ ” Chris Strobel said.
Family and neighbors have provided brief but welcomed moments of distractions. Kind gestures such as a pizza left on the front porch or a “get well soon” video from the Strobels’ grandson kept the couple afloat in the midst of uncertainty.
“I don’t want to be isolated once this is over as we downsized and just moved to this area a couple of years ago,” Traci Strobel said. “We have met some great people. Fear sometimes rules people, and I don’t want to be the ‘face’ of that fear.”