Florida teen fighting for her life against COVID-19; family begs people to wear masks
Just two weeks ago, 16-year-old Halene O'Connell was a normal, healthy teenage girl, ready to start the summer before her senior year at Milton High School.
But today, she's in a coma and on a ventilator fighting for her life at the Studer Family Children's Hospital at Ascension Sacred Heart in Pensacola, battling a severe case of COVID-19 — and her family is begging the community to wear masks and practice social distancing so they don't end up in a hospital bed too.
“We’re very private people, and this is a lot for us to share,” said Carmen Barlianto, Halene’s aunt, in a phone interview from her home in Washington state. “But I feel like we want everybody to know to wear a mask and social distance, so you don’t end up like poor Halene. It can happen to anyone, especially to people her age. Share her story, educate yourself and don’t say this won’t happen to you.”
A fever and nausea turn into full-blown coronavirus
Halene has always been healthy and has no underlying health conditions, according to Barlianto, who previously lived in Pensacola for eight years before moving to Washington.
Fourteen days ago, Halene woke up with a fever and nausea. Her parents took her to a doctor, but since she didn't have shortness of breath — one of the primary symptoms of coronavirus — she wasn't immediately tested for COVID-19.
But within days, her condition began deteriorating rapidly.
“They thought maybe she just had a bug,” Barlianto said. “By that Friday, she couldn’t breathe walking to the bathroom, so they rushed her to the hospital and did testing for COVID, and that’s when they found out she had it.”
Halene was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit on June 28, put in a medically-induced coma and placed on a ventilator. She's remained there since, and though she's now in stable condition, she's still comatose and requires a ventilator to breathe.
“The thing with this virus is it’s up and down every moment of the day,” Barlianto said, adding that the teen's fever spiked again on Monday, which the family is hoping is a sign her body is still trying to fight off the virus.
Due to having been in a coma for so long, it's unclear what path forward Halene faces if and when she wakes up. At the very least, she'll need to learn how to breathe, eat and walk on her own again, and doctors aren't sure yet what the long-term implications could be of both the coma and the virus.
She could also become diabetic or have blood clots when she recovers, just a few of the side effects of which little is known about the coronavirus.
“She’s been on the ventilator and sedated for so long, we’re not sure how it’s going to affect her brain,” Barlianto said.
'COVID just doesn't care'
It isn't clear yet where or how Halene initially contracted the virus.
Barlianto said her sister and family weren't wearing masks before Halene contracted the disease, though the teen herself wasn't overly social and wasn't going out and doing much before she got sick.
Halene's mother and father, Robert and Carrie O'Connell, and her 18-year-old sister, Hailey O'Connell, have all since tested negative for the coronavirus. But Robert and Hailey have still quarantined themselves in their Milton home since Halene fell ill, and Carrie has been in the hospital room with her daughter since day one, not allowed to leave.
“They’ve allowed my sister to stay in the room with her since the first day, however, my sister cannot leave because the room is negative pressure so that COVID air will not be released,” Barlianto said. “My sister has been there the whole time and has not left. They’re feeding her and giving her coloring books, but she has nobody. We’re grateful she’s allowed to be in the room, but I know it’s a daily, minute-by-minute roller coaster ride of stress.”
Doctors are constantly coming in and out and trying to figure out new ways to treat young Halene. The teenage has received plasma from a coronavirus survivor that they're hopeful will help, and they believe she's at least halfway through her battle at this point and is on an uphill trend to recovery.
Barlianto launched a GoFundMe campaign last week to raise money for her sister's family since they can't work at the moment, and since they have "no idea" what the hospital stay will end up costing.
The family is also asking people to share Halene's story on social media with the hashtag #MaskForYou, and begging people to wear masks when in public and practice social distancing because her story demonstrates that the virus doesn't discriminate and can infect anyone.
Barlianto added that the virus is emotionally taxing on the entire family, as they can't visit Halene and Carrie in the hospital room, they can't send flowers and they can't call her and ask how she's doing.
The coronavirus "is nothing like the flu," Barlianto said, and should be taken more seriously in Florida as it has in Washington state.
"It’s very confusing. COVID just doesn’t care," Barlianto said. "It’s like, everybody line up, I’ll take you, let’s take you. It’s just taking random people. It’s not for the sick anymore, it’s not just for the elderly. It’s just attacking anybody at any time.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.