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‘It’s still not normal’: After weekslong battle with COVID-19, woman encourages others to get vaccinated

SALISBURY — Fighting for her life in the hospital, Alice Sheelor found inspiration in the thought of her family.

“I have five grands and I wanted to see them grow up,” Sheelor said.

Connected to various tubes and medical instruments, Sheelor was battling COVID-19. Despite masking and social distancing, the 62-year-old contracted the virus and was hospitalized for about two months as doctors and nurses worked to prevent her from becoming one of hundreds of thousands of Americans who have succumbed to the illness.

The harrowing experience caused Sheelor and her family great pain, but now Sheelor is telling her story in hopes of promoting others to get vaccinated and protect themselves from COVID-19.

The sickness overcame Sheelor suddenly one afternoon in late January after she’d finished her shift at Goodwill, where she works part time as an employment specialist.

“When I got home, I started getting sick,” Sheelor said. “I got so cold that nothing would warm me up. My husband fixed me soup, he fixed me coffee, he fixed me tea, anything to warm me up. I knew something was not right.”

Generally averse to visiting the doctor’s office, Sheelor waited two days to see if she would get any better. When she didn’t, Sheelor went and got tested. Her results were delivered by phone the next day — she was COVID positive. Still, Sheelor waited another day before she felt so bad that her husband had to deliver her to Novant Health Rowan Medical Center.

“They immediately took me back and tested me and said I had double pneumonia and COVID,” Sheelor said.

Although Sheelor said she is slightly overweight, she doesn’t have any other major underlying conditions and does not smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol.

Once she was in the hospital Sheelor’s breathing deteriorated and she was moved into the ICU, where she was attached to a ventilator and placed into a medically induced coma. Sheelor developed what’s being called “COVID tongue,” which caused her tongue to swell several times its normal size, further impairing her ability to breathe.

“COVID is no joke,” Sheelor said. 

Anita Heggins, Sheelor’s sister and a former nurse, communicated with doctors and was charged with making life-impacting decision while Sheelor was incapacitated. Although she didn’t want to see a tracheostomy put in her sister’s throat, she had to make the call to have it put in place.

“(My) tongue was blocking airway passage and if they hadn’t trached me, I would’ve died,” Sheelor said.

At one point, Sheelor said she had three separate tubes going down her throat, including a feeding tube, the tracheostomy tube and the ventilator tube.

Eventually Sheelor’s condition started to improve. In early March, she was transported to the Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro, where a respiratory specialist helped wean her off the respirator. Sheelor was finally able to talk again and had her first real bite of food since she’d been hospitalized. It was just applesauce, but it was a monumental moment for her.

“To eat food for the very first time was mind blowing,” Sheelor said.

Sheelor was transported once again to Novant Health Rehabilitation Hospital in Winston-Salem, where she took her first steps since she’d been hospitalized weeks before.

“When they stood me up for the first time, I never thought I’d walk again because my legs were so weak,” Sheelor said. “It was like standing on spaghetti noodles.”

Through a rigorous two-week rehabilitation program, Sheelor eventually regained her footing and was finally discharged on March 29. After more than two months in three separate medical facilities, Sheelor returned home.

“It was something to come home for the very first time,” Sheelor said. “When I arrived, they had the balloons and everything out. People were riding by and blowing horns. I didn’t know so many people loved me.”

As soon as she was able, Sheelor got her first COVID-19 vaccine shot in early June. Two weeks later, she contracted pneumonia once again. Once she was fully recovered, she went and got her second vaccine dose, which she says gave her a much-needed shot of confidence. Now fully vaccinated, Sheelor is using her nightmarish COVID-19 journey to convince others to do the same.

“I had a dear friend who told me she wasn’t going to get vaccinated,” Sheelor said. “When I told her my story, she went and got her very first shot.”

Although Sheelor is vaccinated, she said she still wears her mask and takes other precautions to protect herself. She still hasn’t shaken the horror that COVID-19 brought into her life.

“I’ll take anxiety meds for the rest of my life for the trauma that COVID put my body through,” Sheelor said.

The memories of her life-rattling medical incident have stuck with Sheelor, but so too have some lingering symptoms. Sheelor said her appetite hasn’t fully recovered, there are still some days when she has trouble smelling or tasting and her tongue tingles from time to time.

“It’s still not normal and I don’t know when it will be,” Sheelor said.

Despite those persistent symptoms, Sheelor has a newfound appreciation for life.

“You know how people say a cat has nine lives? Well, I’ve got two because I’m a COVID survivor and I’m really happy about it,” Sheelor said. “Everyday I wake up and I thank God for my life because I could’ve been one of those over 600,000 people that lost their lives.”

More information about the COVID-19 vaccine can be found online at www.rowancountync.gov/1656/Vaccine-Information.

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