The popular statue of former Governor Tom McCall in Salem’s Riverfront Park (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is published as part of "The Human Toll," a statewide collaboration of news organizations sharing stories about the human impacts of the Covid pandemic. The Enterprise is part of the collaboration. 

WEST LINN - According to the Oregon Health Authority, at least 350 people in West Linn have tested positive for COVID-19. For one of those patients, 52-year-old Joan Gaither, the experience has been painful, terrifying and emotionally draining.

Despite taking every precaution against the virus that she could, Gaither tested positive for COVID-19 Nov. 15. She made the appointment to get tested after waking up in the middle of the night with aches all over her body.

From there, her symptoms worsened. Over the past month, she said she’s dealt with aches, tremors, fever, kidney pain, ear pain, rashes, exhaustion, cognitive difficulties, bronchitis and more.

“I’m now on steroids and an inhaler. I’m not a smoker or a drinker,” Gaither said.

She said she coughs frequently and the pain from the combination of COVID-19 and bronchitis feels as if someone is sitting on her chest.

Though not long ago she was an avid hiker, Gaither said now even a 10-minute walk exhausts her.

Gaither said she has to sit down to catch her breath even after simple tasks like getting dressed and brushing her teeth.

“It’s been pretty scary, and I don’t know when I’m going to get better, or if I’m going to get better,” she said.

Gaither said she’s spoken with a lot of people, from doctors and nurses to bodybuilders, who’ve contracted the virus and battled symptoms for several months.

Part of what makes it so hard for her to guess how long she’ll be sick, Gaither said, is that the virus is still so new with so many unknowns.

Gaither, a home health care provider, said she hasn’t been able to work in over a month. Though doctors say she’s no longer contagious, she said her symptoms, particularly the pain and fatigue, would make work incredibly challenging.

Gaither said the inability to work has added financial concerns to the list of challenges presented by COVID-19.

Yet according to Gaither, the emotional toll of being sick has been her biggest challenge.

She said it’s painful to think about all the things she wishes she could be doing, like hiking and working.

Gaither, who lives with her 17-year-old and 23-year-old children (who didn’t get sick due to their strict quarantine for the first two weeks she was sick), said despite all the challenges, there have been a few bright spots throughout the ordeal.

Gaither posted about her COVID-19 diagnosis on social media and said the outpouring of support she’s received has helped keep her spirits up.

“People, even people I don’t know, have been so kind and checked on me to see how I was doing,” she said. “The amount of people who have cared has been overwhelming.”

Though she received a lot of support, Gaither said she also received some flak for posting about her diagnosis.

“I hope people take away that COVID is serious and it’s not just about them,” she said. “It’s about everybody. It’s about the stranger you see on the street. It’s about your neighbor. It’s about your family.”

She also said the first time she smelled something (a pancake her daughter was making) after getting sick was another bright spot, though her senses of taste and smell still haven’t returned to normal.

Gaither said becoming sick has taught her to appreciate good health. She said she would be so thankful for her health — if she could just get it back.

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