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Brother’s awareness saves Maui woman’s life

Heidi Jenkins urges COVID patients to watch for less known symptoms of disease

Heidi Jenkins

When she stepped into Maui Memorial Medical Center’s Emergency Room on Nov. 13, Heidi Jenkins was short of breath and her heart was racing.

The 45-year-old Haiku resident couldn’t even walk 10 feet without trying to catch her breath. She had chest pain and tightness, was sweaty and fatigued and was fighting a periodic cough. She said no one at the ER could tell her why her heart was beating so quickly.

“I didn’t feel right,” recalled Jenkins, who had tested positive for COVID-19 more than two weeks ago but had been on the mend for several days.

The hospital released her and gave her a steroid to help with the breathing, the same treatment she’d received to help with lung issues a little over a week prior. Jenkins isn’t a confrontational person and didn’t want to demand more tests. But after several anxious hours, a return trip to the ER and tests she requested at the urging of her physician brother and firefighter husband, Jenkins found out that she had a pulmonary embolism, or blockage of the arteries, in each lung.

“I think the only reason why I had the strength and courage to advocate for myself, where I think maybe a lot of patients would just listen to a doctor and not advocate for other tests to be run, was because my brother and Greg (her husband) were like in the hospital texting me before and after this, (saying) ‘Do not leave there until you get this test done,’ “ Jenkins said.

Greg and Heidi Jenkins of Haiku (from left) are pictured with their daughter Moriah Fountain, son-in-law Kris Fountain and daughters Sarah Jenkins and Lily Jenkins. Greg and Heidi are urging people to monitor their post-COVID symptoms and seek proper treatment after Heidi’s own close call. — JENKINS FAMILY photo

She and her husband said they are sharing their story in hopes of helping to save and empower other patients to keep an eye out for post-COVID symptoms or complications, and to seek proper treatment.

“We would not want this to happen to anyone else,” Greg Jenkins said.

“If there is someone in our county going through this, to avoid dying, it’s all worth it,” he added.

Battling the virus

Greg and Heidi Jenkins said they were careful but still caught COVID-19.

Greg, a Maui Fire Department Hazmat captain, and Heidi, a resource teacher for the state Department of Education, traveled to San Diego in October to help take care of their 10-month old granddaughter, Casey. They stayed for about a week and a half.

While preparing to return home, the couple took a COVID-19 test from a trusted partner so they wouldn’t have to quarantine upon returning to Maui. They both tested negative and arrived home on Oct. 24.

Greg went back to work the next day as planned and had no symptoms, though he “felt somewhat different” in the afternoon. He experienced a very slight body ache, like a cold was coming on, a slight scratch in his throat and fatigue. After reporting his symptoms, he and his supervisor took immediate steps to isolate himself, contain the situation and enact plans MFD already had in place, Greg said.

He left work, took a test the next day and found out he was positive.

Maui Fire Department said in a statement that it followed all COVID-19 protocols, which included “strict guidance” from the state Department of Health and Maui County on quarantine and testing procedures for close contacts. All equipment and quarters were thoroughly cleaned using a professional sanitation contractor.

“Thankfully, all follow-up testing for contacts were negative and all affected personnel returned to work once quarantine protocols were completed,” MFD said.

The department said that prior to the incident, some crews were being housed at a condominium in Kihei in an effort to reduce exposure should a firefighter test positive.

“In this instance, the decision to do so greatly minimized the number of potential contacts,” MFD said.

Heidi got tested the same day as Greg and was again negative. Fortunately her job as a science, technology, engineering and math resource teacher allowed her to work remotely. Two days later, however, she tested positive.

The couple quarantined together with the state Department of Health calling them every day.

“If you missed a call, they would call back,” Heidi said. “They followed up and were very nice and very understanding.”

Their symptoms ranged from a change in taste and smell to chest pain and body aches. Heidi had more symptoms, including a 101-degree average fever, periodic dry cough, dehydration, weakness, low blood oxygen and nausea.

Looking back, she said their “may be one weak point” while in San Diego was not wearing masks while in the home with their family, though she wasn’t sure who got the virus first.

The Jenkins’ daughter Moriah and her husband, Kris Fountain, tested positive and recovered well. Young Casey was not tested but quarantined for 14 days after symptoms of a runny nose started. She’s now doing fine, her grandmother said.

Greg and Heidi’s middle daughter Sarah Jenkins, who had been living with the Fountains and taking classes online during the pandemic, tested negative and quarantined away from the home for 14 days. Youngest daughter Lily Jenkins is in college in North Carolina.

At home on Maui, Greg started feeling better around day six or seven; Heidi had a worse ordeal. She also began to experience chest tightness, difficulty breathing and shortness of breath as the days went on. She went to the ER on Nov. 4 and was given a steroid to clear her lungs. An X-ray of her lungs showed what doctors called “COVID lung” — inflammation of the organ.

By then Heidi had started to recover. Most symptoms went away or were minimal, and from Nov. 5 on she felt better each day. But Nov. 12, she felt more fatigued and short of breath. On the morning of Nov. 13, she went back to the ER.

‘You really think, I might not make it’

Just like the week before, Heidi was given a steroid and sent home.

But as she waited in the car while Greg went to pick up her medication, she was feeling so poorly that she decided to text him her version of what had happened that day, just in case he needed it.

“It’s like a horrible place to be, in this place where you feel like, can I not make it? . . . Something’s really wrong here, I don’t feel like I’m not going to make it,” she recalled, holding back tears.

“That’s the first time I thought of my personal mortality,” she added.

“You really think like, like I might not make it.”

Her heart was racing even faster, 130 to 140 beats per minute while resting, far above the typical rate of 70 beats that she usually counted even while dealing with COVID-19. A normal resting heart rate for adults ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Heidi went back to the emergency room later that same day and struggled to get a doctor to order tests for blood clots, which can cause mild to life-threatening conditions and have been documented in many COVID-19 patients. Her brother, Scott Crabtree, an infectious disease specialist affiliated with UC Davis Health in California, had recommended the tests, hoping to rule out blood clots that might have been causing her heart to race.

A doctor felt the tests weren’t needed, pointing out that a CT scan had been done on Nov. 4 when she last came to the ER. Heidi tried to explain but said she kept getting interrupted.

“I never had a doctor who made me cry,” she said. “I felt she was so dismissive of what I was trying to say.”

After much back and forth, the doctor agreed.

“I am grateful she ordered them,” Heidi said. “At the end of this process I was in tears.”

The preliminary results showed that she had two pulmonary embolisms. A nurse later came to Heidi and told her that her brother had saved her life.

“You better hug your brother when you get a chance,” the nurse said.

Staying alert

Neither Heidi nor Greg want to place blame on anyone but said they hope Maui Memorial is keeping up to speed on the latest COVID-19 trends and treatments, including how to help patients who may still be affected after the initial impacts of the virus, as Heidi was.

“I’m not trying to hurt the hospital,” said Greg, though he added that he was worried about the quality of care at the facility and was concerned about what would happen if a kupuna, young child or anyone else felt they could not stand up for themselves.

They said they were fortunate to have family members with medical knowledge who pushed for doctors to do more.

Maui Health, which oversees Maui Memorial, said the emergency team “was trying to do what was best for Mrs. Jenkins and we are sorry to hear of her experience and are grateful for her recovery.”

“We are doing all we can to ensure our patients receive the most appropriate, safest care and with compassion,” Maui Health said in an emailed statement. “And while we have learned a great deal on how to recognize and treat COVID symptoms, the long-term effects of COVID are still being uncovered and the treatment recommendations continue to evolve.”

Maui Health added that its medical providers “are committed to staying up-to-date on the latest treatments and perspectives from multiple outlets across the country,” which includes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.

Maui Health also receives educational resources and monthly meetings on the latest in COVID clinical response, and regularly attends virtual continuing medical education seminars conducted by medical experts to ensure that staff’s knowledge around the long-term effects and treatment of COVID is timely, appropriate and evidence based, the statement said.

Because of what happened to him and his wife, Greg said that he supports efforts to require post-arrival testing.

“Both our tests were accurate 24 hours after symptoms onset. It may take time to build up enough of the virus in your system to register on the test,” he said. “Negative tests are not a free pass to go do whatever.”

“I am a prime example that without proper post-travel testing, pre-travel testing alone is a highly unreliable public policy.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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