Deja Young thought she had a simple sinus infection.
When her symptoms of a stuffy nose, watery eyes, sinus pressure, low-grade fever and tiredness grew to also include loss of taste, however, she got worried that it might be something worse.
She feared COVID-19.
“(My boyfriend) was like you have to get tested ASAP,” said the two-time Paralympic gold medalist in track and field. “They told me the results would take three days, but I got them back the next day. I tested positive and I cried. I completely cried. I was so scared. You hear so many stories about it and it was one of those things where I thought it wasn’t going to happen to me. I was wearing masks and washing my hands and I hadn’t really been going anywhere and I ended up getting it.”
Young, 24, is now on the mend and back to training after being diagnosed a month and a half ago. Her case was mild, she said, for which she’s grateful. Now she’s sharing her experience with the illness in the hopes that others who may get sick won’t feel quite so alone in the journey.
When the pandemic first reached the U.S. back in the winter, Young said, it took a moment for her to realize how serious it really was. Then when lockdown started, she drove from the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California, back to Mesquite, Texas, where she grew up, to be near family. She also grew more fearful of the virus now infecting people all over the United States.
Young still doesn’t know how she got COVID-19. No one she knew was sick, she said, and her boyfriend, who had to quarantine along with her for two weeks, did not test positive.
“When I got sick I got so scared,” said Young, who was born with brachial plexus that caused nerve damage and limited mobility to her right shoulder. “I didn’t know what to expect because you don’t hear many good things. I didn’t know anyone who’s had this to talk to about it and find out what they did.”
Although Young’s symptoms never progressed to the point where she needed to be hospitalized, she had some rough days. The sprinter, who in November 2019 won her fourth track world title, suddenly didn’t have the energy to walk to the next room at the height of her illness.
“My boyfriend had to wake me up to get me to eat and then I’d go right back to sleep,” she said. “I was so exhausted. I couldn’t believe it was happening. I didn’t know who to talk to who had it, to ask for advice about what medications to take, how did you stay hydrated, what did you do. … I felt so alone.”
It took about two and a half or three weeks for her symptoms to really subside, Young said. By the end of her quarantine period, she was able to get out and start going for walks. Even in the brutal heat of Texas in August she felt OK, but getting back to actual training wasn’t so easy.
The first week, she said, she had no energy at all and needed to be reminded that for almost two weeks she’d done nothing but sleep. The second week was a little easier, and the third was a little easier still. She’s hoping by the time that she returns to the Chula Vista training center at the end of September that her body will be ready to get into her fall training program and she can go at 100 percent.
“Now I can finish a workout and not be so exhausted that I have to go to bed right away afterward,” she said. “It’s been a breath of fresh air being able to get back into the swing of things. The good thing is that I have a whole year to get to where I need to be. The Paralympics aren’t next month or in two months, they’re a whole year away and that’s what comforts me most.”
Now that she’s through the worst of it, Young said, she does worry about the possible lingering side effects. She can’t help it. There’s still so much that’s unknown about the virus and its possible long-term damage, and she’s concerned about something creeping up down the road as she prepares for Tokyo.
“That hit me like a train and I cried again,” she said.
Still, she knows that she’s lucky. Many others have faced much harder battles with COVID-19 than she did. Some have lost and others are still fighting. Having had her own experience with it, Young said, she appreciates that she’s able to get back to training and working hard to return to the Paralympics next summer.
“I’m excited about my journey now,” she said. “I was taking some things for granted before and wasn’t as grateful as I am now. I could still be in bed, or in the hospital. This was a wakeup call. At first I was hesitant to share what happened because it felt so personal at first, but now it’s like no, when I was at home I wished I had someone I knew personally who had it to talk to. I know a lot of athletes are out there, other Team USA athletes or fans or just people who know me, and I don’t mind being that person that says there is hope.
“(COVID-19) does seem never-ending but at the end of the day there is hope. Continue to wear masks, wash your hands, follow CDC guidelines and we’ll get through this together. We really are in this together.”