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RAYMOND, Maine — Gwyneth McPherson’s coronavirus odyssey all started with her coffee. It was the same brew as the morning before but didn’t taste quite right. Something about it was off.
Before the day was out, McPherson found herself quarantined at home with her 80-year-old, memory-impaired mother, fearing she’d contracted COVID-19. Even now, the best answer doctors can give her is: probably.
“It felt like I was breathing through a pillow and I had a small dog sitting on my chest,” McPherson said.
That was 11 days ago. Since then, McPherson hasn’t seen her 12-year-old daughter or gone to work where the self-employed dressage instructor runs a barn and training facility with 18 horses.
After the “strange” coffee on March 26, McPherson, 48, went to her barn at Forward Thinking Dressage, the business she owns in Gray. There, she ran into one of her clients who’s also an ER doctor. He told her she didn’t look so good.
“He checked my temperature and it was 99.5 degrees,” McPherson said.
That same morning, one of McPherson’s working students called out sick with a fever, incapacitating chills and shortness of breath. It’s someone McPherson works with all day, every day. She used to be an ER nurse, so it wasn’t hard for her to imagine what was going on, given the global coronavirus pandemic.
That was the last time she set foot in the barn.
“I was hoping I’d feel better in maybe three days,” McPherson said. “But that didn’t happen.”
This week, McPherson called her primary care doctor at Intermed in South Portland. He told her to come to their special coronavirus screening facility setup inside a tent in the parking lot.
They had her back her car into a special area with her lights flashing and gave her instructions to call a special phone number when she arrived.
“Then some people came out in full [personal protective equipment] gear and did my blood pressure and my pulse, temperature and oxygen level,” McPherson said. “First thing they did was hand me a mask and then did the rest right through the [car] window.”
Once that was done, she saw a physician inside the tent. He listened to her story and checked her symptoms. McPherson was told she was too young and healthy — and her symptoms were not severe enough — to give her a coronavirus test.
Older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions — especially asthma, diabetes and heart disease — appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.
“He said if I was 60, he’d get me a chest X-ray based on my symptoms,” McPherson said. “He listened to my lungs and said he didn’t hear anything in there.”
Coupled with a global shortage of the units used to diagnose COVID-19 , a proper test couldn’t be justified, although the doctor indicated that did not mean McPherson didn’t have the virus.
“He said, ‘You definitely have it,’” McPherson said.
It was an unsatisfying answer.
The student who fell ill at the same time as McPherson has since tested negative for coronavirus but has contracted bacterial pneumonia. McPherson isn’t so sure she believes the result of that test.
“The not knowing is the hardest part,” she said. “Not knowing if you’re going to be one of the ones that gets better or one of the ones that gets worse.”
Her doctor told her to self quarantine inside her house and come back if the symptoms got worse. With nobody coming in or out of their house, McPherson is now her elderly mother’s sole companion. The direct care help that was coming three days a week to help stopped because of the pandemic.
McPherson’s mother is unable to live on her own. She no longer drives and McPherson takes care of their finances and groceries. With nowhere else to go, they’re forced to wait out the quarantine period together.
McPherson is doing her best to keep them both healthy, disinfecting all common surfaces multiple times a day and trying to keep her distance — but it’s difficult inside their house. They have separate bathrooms but with her mother’s memory issues, she sometimes forgets which one is her’s.
McPherson’s own daughter was supposed to come back from her father’s house in Westbrook the day she fell ill. Since then, they’ve only communicated over the phone and online.
“She has some understanding of what’s going on,” McPherson said, “so she’s worried.”
On top of the confusing diagnoses, distancing from her mother, being separated from her daughter, McPherson said it’s been difficult to stay away from her business. Another full-time working student is taking care of all 18 horses with a little help from two part-timers. McPherson’s income-generating lessons and training have stopped.
Before Gov. Janet Mills issued a statewide lockdown order, McPherson did manage to drive by and watch a foal from her barn, playing in a field.
“That was good for my mental health, at least,” McPherson said.
On Friday McPherson said she was starting to feel a bit better but she’s not out of the woods yet. The Intermed doctor said she had to feel 95 percent better, without medicine, for 72 hours before she could consider herself out of isolation.
She’s not there yet.
“I can talk pretty normally. I’m not coughing a ton but walking across the kitchen is exhausting,” McPherson said.
For now, she can’t do anything but wait. McPherson said they’ve got food and supplies to survive for a while. Like most Mainers, they stocked up as news of the pandemic spread.
“And I have a friend who is mailing me toilet paper,” McPherson said, still able to manage a chuckle.
Watch: 6 ways you can prevent COVID-19