San Antonio musician Stephanie Key says she considers herself lucky after recovering from COVID-19. Now, she has a plan to help others fight back.
Lovers of classical music have seen Key for the last 18 years playing clarinet with the San Antonio Symphony. She is also a distance runner and mountain climber, so she listens very carefully to her body. Not long ago, it began telling her that something wasn't right.
“I'd been able to say, ‘Oh, it's just this time of the year. Allergies or you know, I just ran too hard today. So, that's why my ankles ache,’" she said.
Finally, in late March, she began feeling something she couldn't ignore.
"About a month ago, I had a fever that just came out of nowhere,” Key said. “When the fever just literally flooded my body, I realized, 'Oh, my God, I've got this.'"
The coronavirus was all over the news, and she worried she had it too. She called her doctor, who recommended she take aspirin and give it one more day.
"Just take the rest of the day very slowly and call me in the morning if you still have the fever and we'll talk about getting a test," he told her.
In the meantime, the San Antonio Symphony had devised a neat little shelter-in-place video project that allowed them to be a symphony again, if only on video.
"I made that video Thursday night, the 26th, when I had the fever," Key remembers.
Each symphony member recorded themselves individually at home, and all their videos would be edited together later. She thought the project was therapeutic.
"I think I needed that kind of focus in this kind of a time of anxiety and panic,” she said.
She was able to pull off her part, but now, when she looks at the video, she can see that she's sick.
"I looked feverish. I don't look pale," she said.
The next day dawned and she was still sick so her doctor sent her to Freeman Coliseum for a COVID-19 test. Feeling bad as she did, she was really dreading the experience. But the testing system worked quickly, and the health care workers showed that they cared.
"They recognized that they were dealing with frightened people driving up in their cars and not knowing what to expect, and sick,” Key said. “From the time I pulled into the Freeman Coliseum parking lot to when I pulled out was 15 minutes."
The COVID test was unexpectedly quick, but now came the wait. They told her she would have the results in three to five days. She went home and back to bed, still fighting a relentless fever.
"You know, throw the covers off and then you get cold. You pull the covers back on. And that was really the toughest part was just being so uncomfortable at night," she said.
But her biggest fear wasn't rooted in the present. COVID-19 often does lung damage. Lungs that are a critical part in playing clarinet. Key wondered if her symphony days were numbered.
"A couple of times I remember waking up in the middle of the night and sitting up and just forcing myself to breathe as deeply as I could. Just to kind of see, what is it? What do I feel? Am I experiencing anything else or is this just anxiety?" she said.
She faced down her fears, and fortunately she didn't have to face them alone. Husband David Mollenauer — a cellist with the San Antonio Symphony — was always nearby.
"He took great care of me. And I know that for people that are alone, that's the horrible part, is there's no one to take care of you, no one to bring you food or to look after you," she said.
Which would cause one to wonder if her husband got sick, too.
"That's the incredible thing, is it seems like he's asymptomatic. He hasn't shown a single symptom or anything," she said.
And the ironic twist: he can't get a test.
“Unless you have symptoms. They will not test you," Key said.
That first weekend after her test was a long one, waiting for those results.
"My fever kind of hovered around the 101 the whole time," she said.
But, then she turned the corner.
"Monday morning, my fever was gone. So, I had a very short experience with this from Thursday afternoon to Monday morning," she said.
Had this been COVID-19? She got her answer the next day.
"On Tuesday morning at 8 a.m., the phone rang and it was a woman telling me that I tested positive," she said.
By the time she found out, the worst had largely passed.
"It was pretty apparent I was one of the lucky ones with a milder case,” she said. “But, the protocol was the same. Don't leave your house for another week."
It's been several weeks since she emerged from the worst of it. She's now back to her regular routine, including running. But she also plans to do more than just recover. She's going to help fight back. Those who survive COVID-19 have antibodies in their plasma that may attack the virus.
"On May 5 I have my appointment. I am going to go in and donate plasma,” Key said. “And the incredible thing is you can give plasma every four days if you want to."
She's grateful that she's survived. But she's troubled by what she still sees all around her.
"I think what bothers me the most now is just seeing people out there absolutely taking no heed of… I mean, people are dying every day because of the same thing that I had! It's very hard to stomach," she said.
She asked her doctor if there was anything else she could do. He told her to keep doing what she's always done to make the world a better place.
"What you can do is keep making beautiful music," she reiterated.
The San Antonio Symphony's next season is slated to begin in September.
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