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‘Changed For Life’

Dunkirk Woman With 1st Confirmed Case Of Virus Recovering

Ronni Thompson, the first person confirmed to have the coronavirus in Chautauqua County, said she is feeling much better following about a month of quarantine.

Ronni Thompson first noticed something was amiss in early March when she couldn’t clear her throat. She was painting her living room inside her Dunkirk home, so she figured the dust was causing some irritation.

Three days later, her world went hazy.

“I was just withering in pain,” said the 33-year-old Thompson, who became the first Chautauqua County resident confirmed to have the coronavirus, now a worldwide pandemic that has stricken hundreds of thousands and left hospitals struggling to keep up.

“I had body aches and I couldn’t sit up,” she said of the worst pain she’s ever experienced in her life. “I had this awful cough. It just feels like someone punched you in the diaphragm, it was super, super painful.”

Just days earlier, Thompson had attended a concert in Buffalo. At first, health officials believed she may have come into contact with COVID-19 while at the concert, located in a county that has since seen a spike in the number of confirmed cases.

However, doctors now believe Thompson may have received the virus even before that, while getting her eye lashes done; she recalled getting a blister on her eye and figured she had gotten pink eye, now considered a potential early sign of the virus.

After about a week of painful symptoms, Thompson was finally able to be seen March 18 at Brooks Memorial Hospital, where she was taken to a special triage area and eventually underwent a series of tests. She had a hard time standing up without fainting, and a check of her blood pressure found it dropped every time she got up.

Thompson doesn’t smoke or drink and has been “fairly healthy most of my life.” The sudden onset of symptoms included the loss of taste.

Dr. Donald Yealy, chairman of the UPMC Department of Emergency Medicine, said doctors are coming to find that people’s sense of smell or taste can be altered due to the virus.

“Taste is often related to smell and often it’s hard to separate them out,” Yealy said during a press conference Thursday. “We’ve sent out reminders to our clinicians to look for that finding. It’s not specific, but it’s certainly something that should help raise your awareness about this potential, and we’ve seen people not only have those symptoms, but after recovery report improvement. I do think it is part of the clinical picture just like the respiratory symptoms, just like fever, that talented physicians, talented nurses, talented practitioners, should be aware of and ask about.”

All of her ailments made the Dunkirk resident convinced she had the virus. “I’ve never had the symptoms of what I experienced,” she said. “I’m still recovering. They say if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds that’s a good sign. I still can’t hold it for five seconds. I’m hopeful to be out of quarantine next week, though I don’t plan on going anywhere. … I’m not going anywhere.”

Thompson received a phone call March 23 from the Chautauqua County Department of Health asking for the names of people she had been around since February. She then received word from her doctor that she indeed had the virus.

“The doctor called and said it to me: ‘You’re the first one,’ and I just started crying,” she said, noting her two children and not wanting to spread the virus to them. “When I first started getting sick, just that tickle in my throat, I isolated myself.”

County Executive PJ Wendel formally announced the county’s first two confirmed cases the same day, March 23. In addition to Thompson, a Silver Creek resident in his 30s also tested positive.

Not sure how to track down everyone she had been in contact with — she’s a licensed esthetician and has direct contact with clients — Thompson turned to social media. In a post on Facebook, just hours before Wendel held his press conference, she wrote: “Well I tested positive for the virus so anybody that I was in contact with since February please get ahold of me so I can have the Health Department contact you.”

Within minutes, the post went viral. As of present, the message has been shared about 2,800 times with more than 900 comments, most offering words of encouragement. Thompson said she did receive some messages from people who claimed she was faking her diagnosis, or worse, “They think I’m a paid actress.” She has also received several messages from local business owners asking if she had visited, and if so, what she had touched.

To the best of her knowledge, no one she had come into recent contact with, including her two children and significant other, have shown any symptoms of COVID-19. “I have a super clean home with three people here,” she said. “Not one have shown signs of this.”

Efforts to battle the virus, including staying in quarantine at home for the last month, have proven successful. She said the last five days have “been pretty amazing,” though she finds she still can’t exert herself too much without having to rest.

“I still get pretty tired and have to take naps,” Thompson said. “I never used to have to take a nap. I used to be able to go 14 hours without a problem, but now after five or six hours I have to take a nap and wake up with a coughing fit. … I just have some of the weirdest symptoms. My joints hurt and I wake up feeling like I’m bruised, like I’ve been working out the day before.”

Knowing she will soon be over the virus has helped in the recovery effort.

“Knowing that I survived is pretty huge for me,” Thompson said. “At one point when I was really sick I just wanted to sleep and just not wake up just so it would be over. I know that sounds so morbid, but I couldn’t eat and couldn’t sleep, and I was hallucinating due to the dehydration and fever. The whole experience was just awful, but now I’m pretty excited about life.”

Thompson plans to return to Jamestown Community College and complete her nursing degree she started before giving birth. She had previously been a patient care aid at a local hospital, and has always enjoyed one-on-one care with people in need.

Dealing with the virus has only amplified her mission to become a nurse. She recently sent platters of food to the staff at the hospital as a thank you.

“They are the ones exposing themselves to this,” she said. “They deserve so much more than what they’re getting because they’re the ones who have to go home and can’t see their families or hold them. They need to be thanked 100%. When I’m allowed out, I’m going to try to give back as much as I can.”

Asked of words of advice for those out there concerned or have questions regarding the virus, Thompson said to listen to the health care professionals and heed advice of staying home to limit the spread. She said those worried they may have the virus should contact their doctors as she did, and of course to wash their hands regularly.

“One hundred percent I am going to be changed for life,” Thompson said. “I’m going to think about my kids when we’re at the store and I’m going to have to think ahead from now on.”

In the meantime, being able to stay home as others have been directed has had its benefits. “We’re never going to have this much time again to spend with our kids, so we might as well enjoy it,” she said.

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