I was hospitalized for COVID-19 while in isolation housing
Here is what the AU community should know
Editor's note: This piece takes on a different form of journalism than Eagle readers may be typically familiar with. Read this letter from the editor to learn more.
For two years, I was absolutely terrified of catching COVID-19.
I somehow managed to make it until Feb. 24, 2022. But then, I woke up with a slight scratch in my throat, a monstrous headache and the most intense fatigue I had ever experienced.
It couldn’t be the coronavirus, I thought. I had been so careful. I got a PCR test on campus out of caution and decided to try and sleep it off.
When I woke up the next day, I saw that I had a notification from Safer Community, the app that delivers results from PCR tests conducted at American University’s testing center. My stomach dropped when I opened my phone and saw the positive result.
My first reaction was sheer panic, as I am epileptic, and many symptoms and effects of COVID-19 — like fever or heat, exhaustion and general stress — are known seizure triggers for me.
I’m not usually an emotional person, but I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. I frantically called my parents and my neurologist as I grew more and more distressed going over all the worst-case scenarios in my head. It felt like the little control I already had over my health was rapidly slipping through my fingers.
Though I was scared, I would have never predicted that exactly a week later, I would be waking up from a mostly sleepless night at George Washington University Hospital with an IV jabbed in my arm and wires stuck to my chest.
Medical emergencies and hospitalizations can be traumatic. As a human, I would love nothing more than to put this experience in the past and never look back; as a journalist, the whole ordeal has left me with nagging questions. I can’t help but examine AU’s protocols for when a student needs to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and the accuracy of the COVID-19 data that AU has been reporting.
Upon receiving my positive result, there was an email in my AU inbox from the COVID-19 student support team detailing the next steps and isolation protocols. I then received a call from a COVID-19 student support associate with further instructions before being transported to the hotel where AU quarantined students who have tested positive for the coronavirus who reside on campus.
Upon arrival, I was greeted by the same student support associate who I spoke to on the phone. They explained protocols for isolation, introduced me to my roommate and gave me a thermometer and pulse oximeter so I could monitor my temperature and vitals.
I was to isolate for 10 days, but if I remained fever-free by day five and tested negative on a rapid antigen test, then I could return back to campus and attend classes in person.
I was never asked if I had any preexisting conditions that would put me at risk for complications or if I was on any medications. In the stress of the moment, I had not thought to bring it up myself.
“The Student Support Team is charged with ensuring that a student has the necessary information and tools related to the housing protocols and procedures, as well as ensure that any needs for medications, food, etc. are met,” said University Spokesperson Elizabeth Deal in a statement to The Eagle. “If a student has a concern about a pre-existing condition related to their exposure to COVID, the medical team at the Student Health Center asks a series of questions pertaining to the student’s health history and can provide guidance on potential next steps. If the Student Support Team identifies a student who states that they have underlying conditions, they then inform the SHC staff who sends the student a questionnaire to complete. They also encourage any student with concerns to make a telehealth appointment with the SHC.”
Despite this, I was not asked any questions about pre-existing conditions, and therefore the SHC was unaware of my epilepsy.
My roommate and I got acquainted and started to bond over figuring out how the protocols in the hotel were supposed to operate and talking about our lives outside of quarantine, all while diligently working to pry our window open for some fresh air.
The student support associate knocked on our door each morning of our quarantine for an update on our symptoms and to ask if we needed anything.
On day five, I tested positive on a rapid antigen test, as did my roommate, which meant that we had to continue isolating in the hotel until day 10. But I was starting to feel better. I still had brain fog, fatigue and a cough, but my sore throat and fever had subsided. My fears about complications slowly started to dissipate. My roommate and I figured the worst was over and that all there was left to do was kill time.
The Downward Spiral
Then came day seven, which was March 3.
I remember hearing a knock on the door, putting on my mask, going to open the door and greeting the student support associate for the daily symptom check. The next few minutes I have no recollection of and was described to me by my roommate, who witnessed it.
As soon as I closed the door, I crumbled to the floor.
“Jordan?” she called out from the other side of the room. When I asked her about it later, she said that about 10 seconds went by without a response, since I was unconscious, and she called out my name again.
“I fell,” she told me I said.
“Yeah, you did. Are you okay?” she said asked. She said I repeated that I fell until I regained a sense of my surroundings. I put the pieces together and realized I had passed out.
I stood up slowly, as I was still extremely dizzy and didn’t want to come crashing down again. It was more than just the kind of sensation where it’s like the room is spinning and you feel a bit unsteady — I had persistent tunnel vision and it felt as if at any given moment, I was only seconds away from going unconscious again.
I found my phone and called the student support associate to tell them what happened, and they told me to drink lots of water, order food, get some rest and to update them if I didn’t feel better.
In hindsight, I should have checked my pulse and oxygen level right at that moment, but I was so freaked out that the thought completely escaped my mind. It didn’t occur to me at the time that maybe the reason I had fainted was because the COVID-19 infection was putting extra strain on my lungs, and my brain was being deprived of oxygen. So instead, I did what I was told and drank as much water as I physically could, ate some breakfast, put off schoolwork and went to sleep.
“The AU COVID-19 Student Support team is responsible for ensuring that a student in isolation has necessities, including food and medication,” said Paul Calhoun, the director of COVID-19 Student Support Services at AU in an email to The Eagle. “We are not medical personnel (nor do we claim to be). We do not operate an inpatient facility (nor do we claim to do so).”
Something in my gut told me that it was a bad idea to go to sleep, and I should have listened to it.
I woke up that evening with even worse dizziness and tunnel vision. I knew it was time to call the student support associate again, and I figured they would probably ask me what my temperature, pulse and oxygen levels were.
I wanted to have the numbers prepared, so I took my temperature: normal. I slipped the pulse oximeter onto my right index finger and waited for it to calibrate. My pulse was in the nineties, which was fine, but when I saw my oxygen, I did a double take: it was at 74 percent. The normal range for oxygen levels is 95 percent or above, so 74 percent was far too low and is considered extremely dangerous. Then it dropped to 72 percent.
This had to be a mistake, I thought. Just the day before, my roommate and I were talking about how much better we were feeling, and now my oxygen was tanking. In the heat of denial, I tried the pulse oximeter on almost every finger, but there was no change. I then tried my roommate’s pulse oximeter, hoping mine was just faulty. Still the same.
I tried to call the student support associate using the number that was listed in the initial email we had received for if we had a medical emergency, but I was sent to voicemail. I tried a few more times and hit voicemail each time. My roommate tried to call a few times while I focused on monitoring my vitals. She was also sent to voicemail.
“The AU COVID-19 Student Support team’s telephone number does not lead to a 24/7 emergency line,” said Calhoun in a comment to The Eagle over email. “Rather, it is a resource for AU residential students within the AU isolation housing facility who may need necessities or support.”
However, in the email sent to students entering isolation, it is stated, “If you are experiencing worsening symptoms and need emergency medical assistance, please call [phone number] to request an ambulance be dispatched to your isolation space.”
This was the same phone number that students were to use to be connected to a member of the COVID-19 Student Support Team.
After repeated attempts to contact him via email by The Eagle, Calhoun did not respond to a request to comment on whether the information about the phone numbers in the email was incorrect or the information in his statement to The Eagle.
My oxygen bounced around the seventies for about thirty minutes and then went up to the low nineties. Better, but still concerning.
Eventually, the student support associate called my roommate back and we told them what was going on. They asked me about my current vitals and symptoms. They then asked me if I was on any medications. I informed them that I took multiple medications for seizures and migraine. This was the first time in isolation that I was ever asked about my medical history.
The student support associate had me make a telehealth appointment with the SHC for their earliest availability that evening and told me to keep them updated.
I met with a SHC physician’s assistant later that evening via telehealth. Due to my own personal medical history of epilepsy, the medications I take and risk factors posed by genetic heart diseases that run in my family, it was recommended by the physcian’s assistant I saw that I go to an emergency room to be evaluated to figure out what exactly was causing my low oxygen levels and fainting.
I conveyed all this information to the student support associate, and they called an ambulance per AU’s protocol. I was evaluated by the paramedics and taken to the GWU Hospital Emergency Room.
We arrived around 9 p.m. I was triaged, given IV fluids, had initial lab work done and another COVID test to confirm my positive status. I was seen by two emergency room physicians who asked me about my personal and family medical history. After discussing my epilepsy, the symptoms I was experiencing and conducting a standard neurological exam, they were able to determine that the fainting was not seizure related.
I was also given an electrocardiogram — a test that records the heart’s electrical activity, more labs to detect any abnormalities that could indicate if my heart was under stress and a chest X-ray.
Hours later, my phone was close to dead and I was still in the ER, all alone. Occasionally someone would come into my isolation room doused in personal protective equipment to check my vitals or give me some long, confusing form to sign. I watched the time tick away on the clock and started to stress about how much all of these tests and treatments would cost, how I was supposed to get back to isolation housing once I was discharged and all of the other logistical nightmares that hadn’t occurred to me before. I had not heard a word from the University since I had been driven away in the ambulance.
Calhoun did not provide comment on the lack of contact from AU COVID-19 Student Support Services while I was being treated in the ER.
At around 4 a.m., I was told that I was not well enough to be discharged. They said the symptoms I was exhibiting combined with my personal and family medical history and COVID-19 diagnosis was concerning enough to warrant overnight testing and observation and that I would need to be admitted.
I wanted so badly to sleep, but I couldn’t stop fear from taking over my mind and keeping me awake. I was miles away from home, almost completely isolated from my support systems and having my worst fears realized. I knew going into the pandemic that I was of higher risk, but at the end of the day, you still never expect that it will be you lying in the hospital bed.
I heard from the student support associate the next morning. My roommate back at the hotel texted me that the student support associate had called her first thinking she was me. At this point, I had already spoken to a cardiologist, who confirmed that the cause of the low oxygen levels and fainting was purely the COVID-19 infection and that I should follow up with my own medical team to assess any long-term damage.
I was given the diagnosis of vasovagal syncope as a complication of COVID-19, a type of fainting that occurs when blood flow becomes restricted and cannot reach the brain.
I told the student support associate that I would be discharged later that day after receiving more treatment and asked them how I was supposed to get back to the hotel without infecting other people, as I was still contagious. They didn’t know and said they would get back to me.
I figured it would be the same kind of vehicle I was transported from AU to the hotel in; there was a lot of space for airflow, and a six foot distance could be easily maintained. They called me back and told me to let them know what time I was being discharged and that they would send me the information for a car.
Once I found it, I realized that it was not a University-owned like the one I was first transported in, but an Uber. I do not know if AU alerted the driver ahead of time that he was picking up a COVID-19 positive passenger. Luckily I was wearing a KN95 mask, but I still had him roll down all of the windows and stuck my face out of the window nearest to me.
“Upon being discharged from the hospital, as in any other health situation, the student is responsible for their own transportation,” Deal said. “If they are unable to do so, or if they need assistance arranging transportation, they may contact the COVID-19 Student Support team.”
Deal added that this protocol also applies to students who are still contagious and have the potential to spread COVID-19 to others they might come into contact with while getting themselves home.
Once I returned to my room in the hotel I was given a warm welcome by my roommate. I was just so glad to be out of the hospital, with no more needles or wires or overwhelming paperwork. Maybe now I could finally just coast through the last days of isolation smoothly.
Looking for Answers
I was in my hotel room on March 5 when I decided to look at the AU COVID-19 dashboard, which tracked positive test results and hospitalizations for COVID-19 among the AU community during the spring semester. The AU community, as defined by the dashboard, includes students, faculty, staff and contractors of the University in the Washington, D.C. area who might have been present on campus within the last 30 days. Since spring break had officially started that day, my roommate had left earlier that morning to finish her quarantine period at home, so I had the room to myself.
I had looked at the dashboard before while working on stories for The Eagle, so I knew that COVID-19-related hospitalizations had to be self-reported, even though AU officials had called the ambulance for me. This fact was also directly stated on the dashboard itself. However, after a thorough examination of the dashboard and related web pages, I could find no instructions on how to self-report a hospitalization.
“AU’s Self-Report report form is intended to capture testing information,” said Deal in a statement to The Eagle. “Because there are numerous reasons for hospitalization, including symptoms unrelated to COVID, having individuals self-report hospitalization may result in us including hospitalizations that are unrelated to COVID.”
I called the student support associate to ask if they knew the self-report procedure, to which they responded that they were not sure if it was necessary for the hospitalization to be reported, but that they would ask their supervisor and get back to me.
In the meantime, I combed through AU web pages for information and asked friends if they knew of how to report. Nobody knew. I also asked the physician’s assistant I saw through telehealth, but she did not know either.
After hearing no word back from student support associate or their supervisor, I texted the student support associate at 3:57 p.m.:
“Hi [name redacted] this is Jordan from [room] 303 [and I] was just wondering if there was any updates on how I can self report my hospitalization to the AU Covid dashboard,” I said. “I know you said before that it might not be necessary, but I really would like them to have accurate data.”
I called them around dinner time. They said that their supervisor told them it was not necessary for me to report my hospitalization to the dashboard. In this conversation, I repeatedly told them that I wanted to report, but I kept being told that it was not necessary.
This was when all of the alarm bells in my head started going off.
At one point in the conversation I was told that if my hospitalization was related to my epilepsy, it should not be reported to the dashboard. I clarified that my low oxygen and fainting had nothing to do with my epilepsy, as the medical team at GWU determined that the cause was solely the COVID-19 infection.
After continuing to insist it was not necessary for me to report, I eventually argued that if I was not given instructions on how to report, then AU’s COVID-19 data would be inaccurate. It was only then that they finally told me I should email firstname.lastname@example.org in order to have my hospitalization included in the data.
“Our report of the situation is that it was explained that AU isolation housing protocol does not include student self-reporting,” Deal said in a statement to The Eagle. “The appropriate individuals were informed of the hospital transport in real time and was subsequently reported to the dashboard.”
This statement, however, contradicts the information on the AU COVID-19 dashboard, which specifies that hospitalizations must be self-reported.
AU officials could also not have reported my hospitalization on my behalf, as one of the reasons hospitalization was recommended by the SHC was to rule out other underlying factors from my personal and family medical histories. It was not confirmed to me that the medical emergency that sent me to the hospital was only COVID-19-related, and it was not confirmed to the COVID-19 Student Support Team until I asked them how to self-report.
The University does not have access to my medical records due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, a federal law that protects a patient’s medical information from being disclosed without their knowledge or consent.
Therefore, they could not have known that my hospitalization was purely a COVID-19 hospitalization — which is required criteria for it to be included on the dashboard — and reported it themselves until I myself reported it to them.
“The COVID care representative misspoke and provided you with incorrect and incomplete information,” Deal said in a statement to The Eagle once the inaccuracies in the previous statement had been pointed out. “We appreciate you bring[ing] this to our attention and have taken note of this miscommunication.”
Calhoun, who supervises the student support associates and allegedly told the associate I spoke with to tell me it was not necessary to report my hospitalization, declined to be interviewed for this article outside of the comments he provided over email.
I emailed email@example.com, and my hospitalization is now reflected in the University’s COVID-19 data.
“The dashboard is intended to provide a snapshot of the community’s infection rate, including hospitalizations,” Deal said in a statement to The Eagle. “This academic year, we are aware of two cases in our community requiring hospitalization around COVID. The spring case we were made aware of from a variety of sources, including yourself.”
Deal would not disclose who these sources were or what information, such as medical notes or personal identifiers, were included in their reports to the University.
The Eagle attempted to interview Dr. David Reitman, the medical director for the student health center, but was denied access by American University Communications.
The University would not elaborate further on how the events detailed in this article reflect on the accuracy of the data presented by AU’s COVID-19 dashboard.
If you have had an experience in AU isolation housing that you would like to share with us or have struggled to self-report a COVID-19-related hospitalization to the COVID-19 dashboard, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.