One year ago, Caron Eaton was so sick she couldn’t walk to her bathroom without losing her breath.
It was a foreign feeling for a 57-year-old woman who raised twin daughters as a single mom, works two jobs and rarely takes a sick day.
COVID-19 was still a foreign concept to most people when Eaton got sick. She thought there was no way she could have contracted the disease that, at the time, was largely associated with foreign travel.
A trip to the doctor confirmed the threat was real, and it was on Rock County’s doorstep. Eaton had the county’s first confirmed case of COVID-19.
Words such as quarantine, isolation, social distancing and contact tracing became part of the nation’s vernacular over the past year, but for Eaton, the words were part of her everyday life sooner than for almost everyone else she knew.
Today, Eaton is eager to get back out into the world, to travel and to spend time with those she loves.
But COVID-19 continues to live with her, and some symptoms refuse to go away.
“I just don’t feel like I did before COVID,” Eaton said.
Since Eaton tested positive, more than 14,500 other Rock County residents have also tested positive—and the number keeps growing.
Of those, 163 have died and many more were hospitalized.
Health officials say Rock County is moving in the right direction, but relaxing safety guidelines too quickly could mean more people will get sick like Eaton did.
A March to remember
On March 8, 2020, Eaton traveled to Elgin, Illinois, to attend a trade show for her second job selling Paparazzi jewelry.
She remembers feeling sick and having a horrible cough two days later. She stayed home from work, something she said she hardly ever does.
Days later, she saw a doctor, who recommended she be tested for COVID-19.
It took days of being sick before Eaton started to consider she might have the disease. She said she felt sick in a way she never had before, and something inside her just felt different.
Tests for influenza and COVID-19 both came back positive, Eaton said.
It wasn’t long before the entire county knew about Eaton—not by name, but by the disease that left her hardly able to care for herself.
The Rock County Public Health Department announced news of the first case March 19, 2020. Mercyhealth confirmed the next day that the case involved an employee.
Eaton has worked at Mercyhealth for 10 years as a financial counselor for cancer patients—a job she said she absolutely loves.
While Eaton contracted the first confirmed local case of COVID-19, it is impossible to know whether she was the first to bring the coronavirus to the county because testing for the virus was limited at the time. For weeks before that, health officials advised the community to act as if the virus was present—because it likely already was.
Eaton now belongs to a group of thousands of people who can relate to her experience. But she felt alone when she was sick and isolating at home with her 19-year-old daughter, Amanda, helping to care for her.
News of the first positive case of COVID-19 started spreading online even before Eaton got off her first phone call with a health department nurse, she said.
Eaton didn’t tell many people about her positive test because it was hard to find anyone who could relate to her. The reaction she saw from strangers online was so negative that she said she stopped using Facebook for about a week.
One man spouted off about how angry he was at Eaton for traveling to Illinois. Eaton recalled another woman writing that she had the right to know Eaton’s home address so the woman could sit outside Eaton’s house to make sure Eaton didn’t leave.
It was surprising to see such negativity from strangers, she said.
March 2020 was a scary time for people, Eaton said, and hardly anyone understood what the country would be up against. She encourages people to be patient with those who have or have had COVID-19 because the disease affects everyone differently. And for some, it sticks around.
Symptoms that stay
Eaton was so sick at times during her isolation that she worried she would need to be hospitalized. She tried as hard as she could to avoid it because the thought if being hooked to a ventilator horrified her.
Of all confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Rock County, 5%—about 728 people—have been hospitalized, according to county health data.
After two weeks, Eaton felt better and experienced what she called a “honeymoon phase.” She felt like she had recovered.
Eventually, COVID-19 symptoms began creeping back. She had difficulty breathing, muscle pain, joint pain and brain fog.
Eaton remembers being so tired that she had to close her office door and nap during her lunch break.
The brain fog caused her to forget things quickly and sometimes feel disconnected from a conversation, she said.
Some of Eaton’s Paparazzi clients reached out to her after virtual events because Eaton would hold up one piece of jewelry while describing a different piece.
Eaton said her symptoms persisted through most of September before finally letting up.
Even after a year, she still feels occasional muscle and joint pain and fatigue.
Eaton said she worries when she reads stories about possible long-term effects for people who have had COVID-19.
Health officials worldwide are still trying to understand what COVID-19 might do to people’s bodies long term, if anything. Eaton doesn’t want her fear or symptoms to keep holding her back.
“As a single mom, I learned over the years ... you just have to keep going no matter what,” Eaton said. “That is where my mentality comes from.”
Eaton said she jumped at the opportunity get vaccinated for COVID-19. She thought it was important because of her health care job and that it would allow her to get back to fully living again.
As of Thursday afternoon, 21.9% of Rock County residents have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to the state health department.
Health officials agree the vaccine is the best way to fight the virus and get life back to normal.
State health officials expect to offer the vaccine to all people older than 16 on May 1.
Eaton has big plans on the horizon. She had planned to visit Amsterdam with a friend in 2020, but that was canceled because of the pandemic. Now she plans to tour five European countries in 2022 and hopes to take trips to visit her daughter Sammi, who will soon be based on Coronado Island off the coast of Southern California with the U.S. Navy.
She said she continues to live with waves of COVID-19 symptoms, but she is learning each day how to cope with them.
“I am tired of staying at home,” she said. “It is time I start living again.”