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A year later: Tami Slaven reflects on COVID experience at Elkhart General

Tami Slaven was fighting for her life one year ago this week. At 52, Tami had become Elkhart General Hospital’s first COVID-positive ventilated patient. Read her original compelling story. We recently caught up with Tami to talk about the past year, about her experience with COVID and to find out how her life has changed. Here is our interview:

Sue Kempiak and Tami Slaven in 2021.

Q: As you reflect on what your life looked like a year ago, and how scary it must have felt, what stands out the most?

A: The thought of losing my family and friends, and if I survived, how I would want to make the most of the rest of my life. To do all the things you think you want to do and don’t make time for. I was determined to get back to my family because nothing means more than the people I love.

Q: What surprises you most as you think back to last March?

A: The outpouring of love and support across the world, from people I didn’t even know, let alone my family and friends. My entire life I have been a giver, but COVID taught me that when I was at my worst, people gave the strength, love, and support back to me and I had to learn to except that. It completely humbled me and taught me to never take for granted the relationships you have and to keep those you love and care for close to you. Don’t be afraid to let them know you feel the same.

Q: Having been on the brink of death, you had so much to overcome. Describe those challenges.

A: The pain of learning to function again was hard, and it was more mental than physical. It was so frustrating learning to walk again, talk again, breathe normally, or take a shower by myself, etc. That was a hard mental battle to overcome. The fear of dying broke my heart only because I felt I had more to do in my life. At my job working with youth, I felt like my work there was not done. I love impacting the youth in our community and felt I had more to accomplish. For my personal life, Sue and I are blessed with grandchildren, nieces and nephews and I was afraid of missing out on that journey with them. I was so excited when I woke up and beat COVID, not realizing the road ahead for me physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Q: You’re a fighter, that’s for sure. How has COVID changed the course of your life? Where are you today and what lasting effects has the virus had on your body?

A: COVID changed me physically because it has affected my breathing, my muscles, my balance. I now have arthritis pain in my joints, nerve damage, constant muscle cramps, weakness and muscle fatigue. As for lasting side effects, nerve damage, headaches, fatigue, brain fog, trouble pulling thoughts together. I had one pulmonary test done that showed some damage or scar tissue in bottom lower lobe of a lung, and I will have a second test done in April to see if there’s any change or if it is permanent damage.

I just recently found out I have stress-induced ischemia. So when I walk, take the stairs or exercise, it’s hard to breathe because my heart is working harder now. So I’m not supposed to do anything that causes overexertion at this point to be safe, until we know more. I shouldn’t run or do hard workouts. I can do light activity like walk and ride a bike until we see the pulmonologist for my lungs and cardiologist for further testing.

Overall, I am doing well, I just fight through it and I have found medical massage therapy helps.

Q: What are your limitations, if any, in everyday activity?

Click on the photo to watch Tami Slaven interview following her shot.

A: My daily limitations are fatigue, brain fog, and joint pain. Mentally, I have struggled and I went to counseling for several months to help process my frustration of not being back to normal. However, I am super optimistic and happy to be alive and able to do things. I have good days most of the time. Bad days sneak up but at mainly fatigue and muscle pain, so I just work through it or rest when I have to. With limitations I might not be able to physically do all the things I used to for long periods of time.

Q: What message do you have for those people who are reading this and have not had COVID? What do you want them to know?

A: I learned to make the most out of life, even if it throws you a curveball, and to keep those you love close. For those who have not had COVID — be thankful, I would not wish this on anyone. It not only affects the person who had COVID, but your entire family is affected. Like many I dislike wearing a mask as it’s hard to breathe, but if we all do our small part we can prevent others from going through an experience like mine.

*Since our interview, Tami also received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Elkhart General Hospital.

Tami and her mom pose for a photo after Tami received the COVID-19 vaccine.

About Heidi Prescott-Wieneke