Larimer County’s first hospitalized COVID-19 patient: ‘I felt like I was going to die’

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Friends teased Priscilla McEneany when she spiked a fever in late February 2020 that maybe she had this new virus everyone was talking about. 

McEneany, a certified nursing assistant for Banner Health in Northern Colorado, was sure she had the flu or a respiratory infection. The symptoms fit: fever, muscle aches, dry cough. 

Sick for five days, ibuprofen wasn’t working, her cough got worse and her breathing was labored. Her doctor sent her home with antibiotics. She felt worse by the day. She lost her sense of taste and smell. “My son was giving me food, but I didn’t eat. I felt hungry” but nothing tasted right. “I thought it was just because I was sick.”

When she could barely walk the 11 steps up and down in her house, she told her son it was time to go to the emergency room.

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Priscilla McEneany, a nurse's assistant at Banner Health North Fort Collins, is believed to be the first patient hospitalized with COVID-19 in March 2020.

On March 6, 2020, she was admitted to Banner Fort Collins, suffering from coronavirus and pneumonia. “I felt like I was going to die,” she said. 

Banner officials believe she was the first patient in Larimer and Weld counties hospitalized with COVID-19. 

A year later, McEneany and doctors look back on their first encounter with the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Jill Hanck was on duty in the emergency room that day. She and her colleagues had just had their first incident command meeting to prepare for COVID-19 and were having “high level” discussions about what samples to get, what kind of personal protective equipment to use and how they were to segregate patients. 

“We were talking about it and planning, but everything was in theory,” Hanck said. “We were prepared knowing it could happen … but we were all surprised that we were actually getting a patient who could actually have a diagnosis that same day.” 

With an “abundance of caution,” doctors considered McEneany a possible COVID-19 patient right from the start, although it took a day or two for the official diagnosis. 

With McEneany’s symptoms, “there were enough circumstances that we thought we could be dealing with the virus,” Hanck said.

An X-ray confirmed she had pneumonia, McEneany said. 

“They kept me the first night, and the next day they were waiting for the test for COVID,” she said. Her blood pressure and oxygen level dropped precipitously, she said. 

The positive COVID-19 test was a shock. “I cried to my nurse, ‘Am I going to die?’ I felt like I was dying,” she said. 

But by March 9, McEneany was discharged to recuperate at home. It took six weeks to recover, during which she lost 15 pounds, couldn’t walk for more than a few minutes at a time, still couldn’t taste anything and began losing her hair. 

“Every time I showered, there would be clumps of hair,” she said. In all, it took six weeks before she could go back to work.

Because she had had COVID-19, and now had antibodies that experts believed protected her from getting the virus again, McEneany was immediately assigned to the COVID-19 floor at North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley. 

In January, as the virus spiked in Arizona, McEneany volunteered to help in Banner’s Phoenix hospital. She worked on the COVID-19 unit, or in the intensive care unit, for two weeks. 

Patients were doubled up in the 70-bed unit because of the need. 

“It was really sad to see these people dying,” five or 10 in a day, she said. 

Looking back to the very beginning of the pandemic, Hanck recounted the learning curve.

Once Larimer County began getting COVID-19 patients, “everything changed so rapidly afterwards,” Hanck said. “We were getting changes two or three times a day.”

Hospital staff were told to wear masks, eye coverings, gloves and gowns and dispose of everything when they left a patient’s room, said Hanck, who wears glasses. 

Cases escalated quickly, particularly at North Colorado Medical Center, which saw “higher volume and higher acuity,” she said.

Only later did the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order goggles to be worn. Glasses, Hanck said, were not enough.

Because she was wearing only her glasses, Hanck ended up in quarantine, unable to work. But she never tested positive for COVID-19. 

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In those first few days, there were no concerns about having enough personal equipment. “This was the first day. We had plenty,” she said. 

Then it became a free-for-all. “Unfortunately, what happened shortly after when people started to learn about it, occasionally someone would run in (to the ER), steal a box from the front desk and run out.”

It’s been an intense year, Hanck said. “On the one hand, realizing something as scary as a pandemic, you do have control over your immediate circle. I’m proud to still be working with the same team of nurses today that were with me on that first day.” 

McEneany, who is fully recovered, said: “I’m so glad I recovered and I’m still alive.”  

Pat Ferrier is a senior reporter covering business, health care and growth issues in Northern Colorado. Contact her at patferrier@coloradoan.com. Please support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a subscription today.