AMHERST — McKenzie Kohler began to feel like she was getting sick on a Thursday.
By that Sunday, McKenzie was intubated and placed on a ventilator in the ICU at CHI Health Good Samaritan after being diagnosed with COVID-19.
McKenzie is 34 and has no preexisting health conditions.
McKenzie, a paraprofessional and dance coach at Amherst Public Schools, had traveled to Lincoln with her brother Nov. 5 to watch the Amherst High School volleyball team compete at the state tournament.
“It was a pretty normal day. All of a sudden, after the game on the way home, it hit me like a brick wall,” McKenzie said. “It felt like a burning in my lungs. It just felt like I was getting sick.”
McKenzie of Amherst has had a history of pneumonia, once being hospitalized with it, but she typically goes to the doctor for an antibiotic and does well. Her plan was to go to the doctor Friday morning, Nov. 6, to get tested for COVID-19. She saw a nurse practitioner at Kearney Clinic who tested her for the virus and believed she had bronchitis. McKenzie also underwent blood tests to ensure she didn’t have any blood clots.
“Clotting issues — they are starting to see is a trend with COVID, too,” McKenzie explained.
McKenzie received a call later that day that her D-dimer levels in her blood were elevated, and she was advised to go to the emergency room to do a CT scan of her lungs to check for clots. Her CT scan was clear of any clots and her oxygen levels were good, so she was sent home.
“By Saturday, we were just at home and my husband was watching the Husker game. Saturday, thinking back on it now, I was declining faster than anybody really knew. I don’t have very much recollection of Saturday at all,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie monitored her oxygen levels at home, and she was unable to get her range above 85. At times, it dropped into the 70s.
“Usually below 90, you are in the hospital,” she explained.
Although she admits to dragging her feet a bit, McKenzie and her husband, Terry, decided she needed to get to the hospital. A rapid COVID test was positive, and McKenzie was admitted into the progressive care unit at Good Sam.
“My husband was able to come up and bring me some clothes and things like that. Honestly, I have hardly any recollection. I can remember laying on the bed in the ER. I do not ever remember being transported to my room or in my room,” she said.
Terry returned to visit McKenzie on Sunday, Nov. 8, and that’s when McKenzie said things took a turn for the worst. She had to be taken to the intensive care unit to be intubated.
“I guess it was a pretty big struggle to get me intubated. My lungs were really swollen or full of blood it sounds like,” she said.
She also had an acute injury to her kidney, which was most likely caused from dehydration, but was able to be controlled with medication and fluids.
For the next five days, McKenzie was on a ventilator. The couple’s two children, Kolden, 11, and Suttyn, 8, stayed with McKenzie’s parents in Amherst. Although she doesn’t recall it, McKenzie called her mom on Sunday to tell her not to have Terry visit because of his distaste for being in the hospital.
But Terry didn’t listen.
Each day, he came to the hospital at 8 a.m., donned full personal protective equipment and sat with his wife until 7 p.m.
“I was going to do whatever they told me to do or wear or whatever I needed to do to be in there,” Terry said. “After the first day it became like second nature doing the process, and the process I had to leave and remove each piece and sanitize after each piece was removed.”
Terry would hold McKenzie’s hand, and at times when the sedation would wear off a bit, he would be able to talk to her and she could respond with a shake of a head.
“It was a big weight lifted off that I knew that we weren’t out of the woods, but we were going in the right direction not the wrong direction like Sunday,” Terry said.
Terry credits McKenzie’s mother, Rhonda Pfeiffer, who is a LPN-C, for informing their children about their mom’s health without giving too many details. Her mother’s friends who work at the hospital also stepped in to care for McKenzie at the hospital and were her “guardian angels.”
“The health care workers are the unsung heroes of this whole COVID crap. There were so many people that were checking in on me that maybe weren’t a part of my care that day, but they were following me every step of the way,” she said.
The family’s dogs, Pardi and Paris, provided Terry some comfort on the nights he returned to an empty house.
“Our two dogs were definitely around me the whole time. They aren’t used to being alone. It’s weird because they could tell something was wrong. They usually don’t leave my wife’s side. Those days I would come home, and they were my shadows,” Terry said.
On Thursday, Nov. 12, McKenzie was able to be taken off the ventilator, and the most vivid thing she remembers is being asked if she wanted the breathing tube removed and if so, she would have to try to breathe on her own. She was able to start breathing again on her own once the tube was removed, but she remained on high-flow oxygen for 24-48 hours.
McKenzie was released from the hospital Monday, but she still is on oxygen at home. She hopes to be off the oxygen this weekend or only use it when she is doing activities. Although she is home now, McKenzie continues to experience extreme fatigue and some coughing. She was amazed at how sore her entire body is after being hospitalized.
“My C-sections were a breeze compared to this. I don’t know if I fought that hard when I was coming down or going out. I have zero core strength left. It’s crazy,” she said.
McKenzie will go through physical therapy at home, and she has been advised not to even consider returning to work until after the new year. She hopes to be able to attend a practice or performance for the Amherst dance team, but she plans to just listen to her body and take it easy.
The Kohlers’ kids were able to return home Wednesday, and no one else in the family has caught the virus. Terry works for US Foods and will be quarantining for the next two weeks at home.
Family, friends and the community have rallied around the Kohlers, providing meals, starting a prayer chain and creating a GoFundMe to help the family with expenses. Seeing a young, healthy woman be hit so hard by the virus has also put things into perspective for some people, McKenzie said.
“I’ve heard more people say that my situation has made it more real to them than it ever had before. They know someone who got taken out by it for no reason. It’s not like I’m a 70-year-old smoker, or have underlying health conditions, or had a kidney transplant in the past. I was healthy before that,” she said.
She understands how masks can be a hot-button topic for many people, but she wants people to think about what it would be like if they or a loved one were to get sick from the virus before getting upset about masks.
“That stupid mask in Hy-Vee or Walmart, that is going to hurt a lot less than a breathing tube going down your throat. It doesn’t care who you are, what your health status is, if you have small children at home. There was no reason for me to go down like I did, but it just came after me,” she said.