By KAMMONKE OBASE-WOTTA
The Dallas Examiner
When Belyne Bland-Xochihua was diagnosed with COVID-19 in July 2021, a week after celebrating her 56th birthday, she didn’t think much of it initially. Her symptoms were mild when she was diagnosed during an exam, but as the days went by, her symptoms intensified.
Bland-Xochihua is a licensed medical social worker with an emphasis in grief and trauma therapy.
“I was just managing at home and then I started to have difficulty breathing,” she recalled. “I called my nurse practitioner and my nurse friends. They came over with the oximeter and they said, ‘Your oxygen level is doing okay, but if it drops into the 80s and 70s, you need to go to the ER.’ It was kind of hanging around at 89, 90. I didn’t worry about it too much.”
Within two days, her oxygen levels dropped. She began breathing at a 70% level. When she realized the drop, she got into her car and drove 9 miles to Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in Waxahachie, unbeknownst to her spouse who was napping before leaving for work. She thought it would be another routine checkup and that she would be home in a couple of hours, but that was not the case.
Upon arriving at the hospital, her oxygen intake had dropped even further. She lost consciousness as she got out of her vehicle. By the time she awoke, she was in the Intensive Care Unit.
“It just happened very quickly and if I hadn’t gotten to the ER as soon as I did, it probably would have been a very different outcome,” Bland-Xochihua said.
When her mother, Alice Bland, heard the news, she was concerned for her daughter – especially since she had contracted COVID the year before and was still recovering. She had had to be hospitalized for a while, as well.
“When Chris [Bland-Xochihua’s husband] called us and told us what the situation was. I was nervous and crying,” her mother said. “Also, my husband was upset too, but he doesn’t show his emotion like I do mine. So, he had to be strong for me because you know I had been there.
Bland-Xochihua was given antibody therapy and was in and out of consciousness for five days before her oxygen level plummeted.
“Twenty percent of my lungs were working, which is why they had to intubate me. It was just a very scary time.”
Her heart stopped beating for 92 seconds, according to the hospital staff. She asserted that during that time, she met God.
“I remember feeling like I had an out-of-body experience. I do remember seeing like [I was] levitating above my body and seeing myself looking very pitiful. It was very quick, it was just for an instance, and then all of a sudden, I was back in my body and then I took a breath, and I pulled out all of the intubation; everything that I was hooked up to, I started pulling them out.”
She had to be restrained and put in a medically induced coma for her safety.
“The hospital staff fought very, very hard for me because they knew me. I was kind of part of the medical family,” stated Bland-Xochihua, who had contracted with various hospice companies and frequently interacted with many health practitioners throughout the Southern Dallas and Ellis counties. “They really worked hard to make sure that I stayed alive, and I am very grateful to all those doctors and nurses and everyone who were in my corner because I know that God placed me in the right place so that they could keep me alive.”
She spent the next three weeks in a coma and remained in ICU for a month. Her family was updated daily by the hospital, but they were not allowed to visit her due to COVID restrictions.
“The whole time I was in the hospital, it was just really nerve-wracking [for my family]. I missed my anniversary. I missed my daughter’s birthday. I missed my spouse’s birthday. I missed a lot of things,” she reflected.
After she was extubated, Bland-Xochihua said she had a new lease on life – drastically different from the life she knew before COVID-19. However, her recovery was far from over. She had lost 54 pounds and suffered from cognitive deficits like memory loss amongst the flurry of other changes in her body.
But she said her first concern was her family. It had been too long since she last saw them.
“That was what hurt most when I came out of the coma, all I wanted was to see my mother and father’s face, to see my spouse’s face, to see my daughter’s faces. And I couldn’t see anyone’s face,” she said. “When they let me have my phone, I couldn’t remember how to use the phone.
“When I did get to speak with them, I was so excited to hear voices that I was overstimulated. The nurse told me ‘You know, I’m going to have to take your phone away because your blood pressure is going too high. You’ve got to calm down. You’re getting too excited.’”
From the hospital, she was moved to another location to facilitate her rehabilitation process, but her need for family and comfort cut her stint there short. She made a few calls to the health care professionals and friends she knew and within two weeks she was back home to continue her rehabilitation.
After three months of rehab, she was able to walk 200 feet independently. Within seven months she was able to move around without the assistance of an oxygen tank. And now 18 months after her bout with COVID, Bland-Xochihua is feeling stronger. She can now jog half a mile with little discomfort.
“I am almost back to my baseline. I am,” she said. “I’m working part-time and I’m getting around. I’m almost back to normal. I get up and I walk every morning. Before COVID, I was jogging two miles a day and I haven’t been able to get to that point yet, but I’m working on it. My goal is to be able to run a 5K by the summer.”
However, she still has to deal with the symptoms of long COVID – long-term condition that occurs in some people after contracting and recovering from COVID-19.
“I’ve developed asthma since COVID. I’ve developed an autoimmune disease since COVID. I have uncontrolled diabetes. Sometimes I have some skin rashes and different things that I’m told was also brought on by COVID,” Bland-Xochihua said.
“There’s a lot of things that I have to deal with now that have become a regular part of my life since COVID. But I am not sad about it. I’m just grateful that I’m alive, and I’ve been given the opportunity to still be here and to touch people’s lives in a positive way and to be able to share the story of hope because there is hope and miracles still happen. I feel like I’m a living testimony.”