Iowa COVID-19 researcher had unpleasant view from the other side

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University of Iowa Health Care photo

Jesse Espinoza, a University of Iowa research assistant striken in September 2020 with the virus he is studying: COVID-19. He got the virus from his family, not work.

Jesse Espinoza has seen COVID-19 up close in more than one way. For one, he is a research assistant at the University of Iowa’s Institute for Clinical and Translational Science’s Clinical Research Unit.

He is doing COVID-19 research.

He also had to care for his 82-year-old mother when she got hit hard with COVID-19 in 2020. He thinks his mother became infected when his 16-year-old niece became contracted the coronavirus.

In the middle of all of this, he also wasn’t feeling well. So, on the first of September, he took a COVID-19 test and showed up as positive. His mother and his neice were tested the next day with the same positive result.

His neice wasn’t suffering severe symptoms but he was. So was his mother. He had a choice to make – go to the hospital, or care for his mother as she recovered at home in Coralville. He decided to help her get through the infection.

* * *

IowaWatch: Did you have to get hospitalized?

Espinoza: I should have. My mom and I started out very asymptomatic. And then, on the weekend my mom took a downturn. And so, I hospitalized her and brought her to the hospital, and I definitely didn’t feel feeling okay when I hospitalized her. While she was hospitalized I started feeling really bad. And then I was notified that they were going to release her three days later, and that’s when I really felt really bad.

My mom’s 82 years old and I care for my mom. So, I made the choice to not get hospitalized and that was right. …. In hindsight, I should have been hospitalized. … When she first started getting the sniffles she couldn’t sleep, she was really scared. She thought she was gonna’ die. So, when she came home, even though we knew she was better, based on her condition and her mental condition, I knew that I couldn’t leave her home alone. So, I just toughed it out and stayed on the couch.

IowaWatch: And, this was because you wanted to take care of your mother?

Espinoza: Yes, because I didn’t want to leave her by herself. My mother doesn’t speak English and my neice doesn’t speak English.

IowaWatch: How long were you ill?

Espinoza: Severely, for, like, 20 days or more.

IowaWatch: That’s a remarkable approach to take. Were there ever times in the middle of it that you wished you would have gone to the hospital?

Espinoza: Yes, of course. My mom also has, she has a heart condition and high blood pressure. She used to have a heart condition that’s kind of subsided the years, and now she has a more calm life. She stopped drinking coffee. I make sure she also gets the regular exercise. But just based on the amount of fear that she had when she first got sick, we know how much fear she had. I was afraid to leave her by herself.

IowaWatch: So you recovered. Do you still have any long lasting effects and kind of lingering effects from the illness?

Espinoza: I did. They lasted months. They actually had me on cough medication for quite a while. And, they had me on an albuterol inhaler. And, sometime in October, they switched me to a powder steroid inhaler. I went to the post-COVID Clinic (at the University of Iowa). And also, I had lung problems. I had a pocket in my lungs that would collapse when I would exhale. I felt just enormous amount of fatigue. I was just exhausted all the time.

IowaWatch: So coughing and fatigue were those the main things. Did you have headaches as well, confusion and then kind of those things?

Espinoza: The coughing and the fatigue where the after-symptoms. But during the actual illness, I had all the senses that everybody complains about: the no taste, the extreme fatigue, body aches, fever. The headaches were the worst. I felt like I was taking acetaminophen like they were Tic-Tacs. The headaches were ridiculous. They were horrible.

IowaWatch: And how long did this last?

Espinoza: The real severe pain, for like 20 days.

You’re in a unique position. Do you feel like it’s an oddity that you’re actually doing research on COVID while you also have had the personal experience?

University of Iowa research assistant Jesse Espinoza in his laboratory during a Feb. 12, 2021, Zoom interview. (Lyle Muller/IowaWatch)

Espinoza: I feel very privileged. I came here (to the university) in January (2020). I feel like I landed in the perfect place, the way the hospital system manages here the management here, all of the moves that they took to protect us as employees. And then also being a person that got sick, I’m able to see both sides and I’m able to see the real work that’s going into fighting this pandemic, to collect the data that we need so that we can keep fighting this pandemic. And, we’re still collecting data on this work. So it’s great to see, as a patient, for someone like, I have my mom at home, to be able to see that there’s hope and there’s light at the end of the tunnel because my mom is still afraid. I’m still afraid for my mom. She’s 82 years old. So, yes, I am in a very unique, privileged position.

IowaWatch: Has your mother have long term effects as well?

Espinoza: No. She recovered very soon after she got back from the hospital. And, she got her case back. She got her hunger back, like, within three or four days after she got back from the hospital. She wanted to eat everything.

IowaWatch: Did your niece ever get sick?

Espinoza: No. She got the sniffles. She got lightheaded one day and she got over it.

* * *

Espinoza says that even after a year of dealing with the virus, he doesn’t think the general public has a full grasp on what it can do to people. But, for those who do, he has hopes that go beyond the virus, itself.

He says he hopes attention paid to the science involved will get more young people interested in science as a career.

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IowaWatch: Do you get angry people when you see them without a mask or not social distancing?

Espinoza: Yes. Yes.

IowaWatch: Do they ever talk with you about it or do you talk with them about it?

Espinoza: I do not. I feel that people who have absorbed enough misinformation and are angry enough to be out in public with a mask, I feel like they’re doing it as a statement, like their statement as their right to do what they want because they have all this misinformation. And, I feel they’re angry, you know. You’re not going to convince them. I’m not going to convince them. I’m not going to go around picking fights with people that I feel are misinformed because I feel like some of these people are very intelligent. They’ve absorbed the wrong source of information and they ran with it.

IowaWatch: You feel this way, even that you’re not going to be able to convince them even with what you went through and what your family has gone through?

Espinoza: I feel like they won’t care. It’s one of those things that, you really don’t care until it happens to you. You hear the stories about stuff happening to other people, and as long as it stays on the other side of the city you’re okay because it’s not happening to your friends and neighbors. But you don’t care. It’s only when it hits home that people start caring. Especially some of these people, when reality actually hits their doorstep, that’s when they realize that it’s real.

So yeah, I’m not going to convince them. I feel like I cannot, not from my position, especially like not approaching a total stranger. I feel like that position was left up to our political leaders in our country. That’s the position that they actually took from the very beginning

* * *

IowaWatch: Even though you’ve gone through COVID do you feel you’re at risk, still?

Espinoza: There are new strains coming out. Viruses evolve, and they evolve very quickly. How quickly a virus can evolve, to essentially become a new organism that can bypass some of the current defenses that I have, I think that’s quite possible and a scientific fact because that is the truth. We, we know this already in science, this is not a myth, this is established hard science. For a lot of years we’ve known how fast these viruses morph and mutate into something else. So yeah, we’re in danger.

IowaWatch: Jesse, do you see a light at the end of the tunnel with the COVID era that we’re in?

Espinoza: Yes, because I feel like we’re going to get an injection of scientists who are communicating to our communities. I feel like a lot of our young people are going to get inspired to shop, or just the inspiration to get curious about truth and real scientifical methods, the science. And, I feel like we’re going to get just a lot of new scientists our of this pandemic. It’s going to be a smarter world.

MORE IN THIS SERIES

THE PATIENT: STILL STRUGGLING A YEAR LATER
THE FRONT-LINE NURSE: BEING WITH PATIENTS AND THEIR LAST BREATH
THE DOCTOR: LONG-TERM AFFECTS AND BEING A BRIDGE BETWEEN PATIENTS AND FAMILIES
THE NURSE/FAMILY MOM: WORRYING ABOUT BRINGING THE VIRUS HOME