Becky Helgeson said she felt like a leper when an emergency room nurse on April 1 turned her away for worsening COVID-19 symptoms despite her doctor saying she needed to be seen.
The Franklin County woman was two-plus weeks into the illness when her cough worsened, making it difficult to breathe. She said her primary care doctor wanted a chest X-ray and possibly IV antibiotics and had called ahead to Carilion Franklin Memorial Hospital.
But when Helgeson arrived and called to tell them she was there, she waited in the parking lot for 90 minutes before a nurse came out, took her vitals and said she should go home and take a previously prescribed antibiotic.
Another two weeks would pass before Helgeson’s friend, alarmed by her continued distress, called her pulmonologist on a weekend, who got her in right away at Sovah Health in Danville.
Within days, Helgeson was feeling well enough that she wanted to tell her story to get out the message: Advocate for yourself.
“I think the talking points at the time were if you’re not dying, don’t come to the hospitals, and if you have a mild case, stay home. We don’t know anything, and there is nothing we can do,” she said. “That was the attitude, and that was nationwide, not just Rocky Mount or Carilion.”
Her concern is that people end up with pneumonia or bronchitis weeks into the illness and they can’t go to the doctor’s office, and they can’t be seen in an emergency room.
“There’s a middle ground where there are no resources. That’s one of the biggest issues about this whole thing,” she said.
Carilion Clinic did not provide interviews from the hospital or primary care practice.
Instead, Carl Cline, Franklin Memorial’s vice president, provided a statement that said he was disappointed to read about Helgeson’s care.
“I can’t imagine how frustrating it must have been for her. Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has been our top priority for the past two months,” he said. “Like our peers, we’ve been moving at an accelerated pace to ensure the safety of our patients, staff and visitors. In the midst of that, there was clearly a failing; the care that we provided to Mrs. Helgeson should have been better coordinated. We can and will do better. We’re thankful that she’s recovering, and we apologize for any inconvenience she experienced.”
He said they are still reviewing what happened.
“It seems there were lapses in communication brought on by rapid changes in the way providers approach care for patients with COVID-19. We constantly work to improve our communications and coordination with our patients. Since Mrs. Helgeson’s initial visit in the early days of our response, we have also created a nurse care coordinator role dedicated to proactively connecting with patients with COVID-19 to monitor their condition and needs,” he said.
Helgeson, who is a Ms., not Mrs., said she’s glad someone is finally apologizing but she has unanswered questions, including were they just too afraid to care for her? She understands she was Franklin County’s first COVID-19 patient, but two weeks into her disease, other cases had arisen.
Illness started March 15
Helgeson is fairly certain she became infected March 9 while flying home from her nephew’s wedding held the day before in New Orleans.
On March 15, she began to feel ill with a dry cough, aches, chills, sweats and painful skin. The following day she called her primary care physician, Dr. Kylie Morris at Carilion Family Medicine in Rocky Mount. Morris sent her to Velocity Care at Westlake to be tested.
On March 20, the West Piedmont Health District told her the result was positive for COVID-19, and then traced her contacts. Helgeson said she had been around 13 people after returning from her trip and before becoming ill. They were quarantined, and none became ill.
As the days and weeks passed, her symptoms — horrible headaches, chills, sweats, loss of taste and smell, body aches, horrible coughing fits, tight banded feeling chest, burning chest, diarrhea, horrible cramps — came and went.
On March 26, she said, Morris prescribed a ZPak. She seemed to improve, but then on April 1 she woke to a racking, gagging cough and burning chest.
She left a message for Morris, but when she didn’t hear back in a couple of hours, she called Carilion’s COVID-19 hotline. The nurse advised her to go to the emergency room. Helgeson said she called Franklin Memorial to say she was on her way, and they transferred her to an ER doctor who told her not to come in. She said he told her since 14 days had elapsed, she no longer had COVID-19 and that he’d order an antibiotic for a secondary infection.
She relayed that information to Morris’ nurse, who called in the afternoon. Morris then called about 5 p.m. to say she had spoken with a Carilion infectious diseases doctor who said Helgeson could still have COVID-19. Morris wanted her to go to the ER for a chest X-ray, and if she did have pneumonia, to get IV antibiotics.
Morris said she would call to let them know Helgeson was coming.
She arrived about 6 p.m.
“I called from the parking lot and said ‘I’m here,’ and they said someone would be right out. I waited an hour and 10 minutes and I called again and said, ‘Have you all forgotten me?’ They said, ‘No, somebody would be out.’ I waited until I was sitting there for 90 minutes and I called again. And I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but Dr. Morris sent me here,’ ” she said.
“About 10 minutes later, a nurse came out with a vitals machine and took my pulse, my blood pressure and my temperature, and said ‘I don’t think we are going to see you, but I’ll come back and let you know.’ I said, ‘Dr. Morris wanted me to get a chest X-ray and blood work. This is her order, not me coming for emergency care.’ ”
Helgeson said the nurse then told her, “You are not coming in.” She told her to go home and take the prescription that was ordered earlier.
Helgeson left an electronic message for Morris.
“I’m really humiliated. I’m in tears. I don’t know what to do,” she said.
The following day, Helgeson called a hospital administrator to report her treatment. Both the administrator and Morris were told Helgeson was a no-show at the ER.
Helgeson said she was told the hospital would investigate to find out what happened, and then she didn’t hear from them again.
Also on April 2, a Carilion infectious disease doctor called. She said he told her that her breath sounds were good and that she might have a cough for weeks.
On April 15, still not feeling any better, she had a video visit with Morris, and said she was told she would be seen on June 10 when the office reopened.
Two days later, Helgeson sent Morris another message to say the phlegm was getting thicker and darker and to request an X-ray sooner than June.
That same day, a Friday, she was supposed to Zoom with some girlfriends, but she sent a group text to say she wasn’t feeling well enough.
One of her friends was so concerned that she called her pulmonologist that evening, who then arranged for Helgeson to be seen in a Danville hospital the next day.
“I was taken straight in and greeted with compassion and concern. Within an hour, I had received a nebulizer treatment, a steroid shot, an EKG, a chest X-ray and blood was drawn. My oxygen saturation level was initially low (mid 80s) and was better by the end of the visit,” she said.
She said she was diagnosed with acute bronchitis, continuing COVID-19 symptoms, possible allergies and shortness of breath, and given four prescriptions that have helped tremendously.
“I still have some healing to do but am on the right treatment regimen now,” she said.
Helgeson works as an advocate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, but said she has not been a good advocate for herself, though she’s learning.