The Gadget That Saved My Mother’s Life
If you read no further than the end of this paragraph, that’s perfectly okay. My objective is to save lives, so I’ll put the absolutely most crucial words right up front. Here they are: BUY A PULSE OXIMETER. Today.
How did a pulse oximeter save my mother’s life when COVID-19 hit our household last month? Here’s our story.
Silent hypoxia (also called “silent hypoxemia”) is a frighteningly real possibility* with COVID-19. Silent hypoxia is the condition wherein your oxygen saturation drops dangerously low without you even realizing you’re in the throes of a life-threatening emergency. (*Link also summarizes health risks at various oxygen saturation levels.)
I had read earlier this year that COVID-19 was causing silent hypoxia in some people, but frankly, when my family got sick, it never even occurred to us to ask if we could borrow a pulse oximeter from anyone, much less purchase one ourselves. These were devices we’d seen in doctors’ offices and hospitals; we didn’t realize that just anybody could buy them, and very affordably at that.
In other words, I didn’t know that silent hypoxia was something you could detect outside of a medical setting — but it is.
On October 19, my parents and I were tested for COVID-19. On October 21, the results came back positive for all three of us. On October 23 — just 2 days after diagnosis — my mother needed to be admitted to the hospital. For silent hypoxia.
October 23 happened to be a day when my brother swung by to leave some groceries on our porch. As a healthcare worker who’s spent months screening patients for covid testing, he had a fingertip pulse oximeter and offered to lend it to us for the weekend. If he hadn’t done this, our mother might not have survived the night.
Testing her oxygen levels that evening while she was awake, we saw that they were already somewhere in the 80s — low enough to cause organ damage. Cause for alarm in itself. However, we also knew that anyone’s (yes, even healthy people’s) oxygen levels drop a bit during sleep. We realized she couldn’t spend the night at home. (According to The Minnesota Department of Health: “Normal oxygen levels are at least 95%,” anything under which should prompt you to consult a healthcare provider.)
My mother’s hypoxia was very insidious. As an active, 60-year-old non-drinker who never smoked, she knew she was ill but didn’t imagine that she was in grave danger. Even though she was already on Day 5 of a very high fever (often over 102ºF; sometimes over 104ºF), her cough was still dry. Her lungs didn’t feel congested. She insisted she was breathing perfectly fine.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 is still so novel that some healthcare providers are unaware of the silent hypoxia risk. When we called a family doctor to tell him that my mother’s oxygen levels were in the 80s, he said that she should remain at home unless and until she began to feel like she could no longer breathe. That advice was terrible and could have been fatal. Fortunately, there are healthcare professionals in our family who were able to offer life-saving second opinions and convince her to go immediately to the ER on account of the pulse oximetry reading. In fact, multiple doctors who attended to her in the coming days further assured her that such an oxygen level already constituted an emergency, even if she felt no breathing distress.
As soon as my mother arrived at the hospital that night, healthcare workers established that her blood was beginning to clot and even discussed the possibility of putting her on a ventilator. In the end, my mother did not need a ventilator, but she did need to stay in the hospital for almost a week — on oxygen, a blood thinner, vitamin and mineral supplements, a steroid, and an antiviral — before she stabilized enough to go home. In fact, several days after being discharged, she had to return to the ER to address some covid-related tachycardia.
Obviously, my mother was not a “recover at home” patient.
Obviously, not a person who needed to wait a moment longer for emergency treatment.
Obviously, a person who might have died of COVID-19 if our household didn’t have access to a pulse oximeter. My brother, in this sense, saved her life.
How can you choose a fingertip pulse oximeter? I’m not here to advertise any particular brand, nor am I qualified to review specific medical instruments. That said, my healthcare-worker brother assured me that there are models with thousands of solid reviews under $50. He bought his from a sports medicine catalogue, but many online merchants sell them. Some pharmacies also sell them. For what it’s worth, I bought one online, and sure enough, this random oximeter from a brand I’d never heard of gave me a reading very similar to my brother’s professional device. That was reassuring.
I should also note that there are different conditions (and even short-term circumstances, such as holding your breath) that can cause lower-than-normal oxygen levels, and not all of these situations are dangerous. With COVID-19, however, it’s not wise to play “wait and see” when your pulse oximeter already reads lower than advisable. By all means, if you feel breathing distress, go to a hospital immediately. But if your oximeter shows cause for alarm — no matter how “fine” you feel — treat that as an emergency. Waiting until you literally cannot breathe is unnecessary… and might be too late.
Having a pulse oximeter is also useful for the “pulse” part of the equation. Cardiac involvement is sometimes seen with COVID-19, and myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) is seen with many types of infections (covid being just one of them). Ever since my mother’s return from the hospital, she’s needed to keep monitoring both her oxygen and her pulse. Having a pulse oximeter helped her know when she needed to call a cardiologist (and eventually return to the ER for cardiological tests) and when the spikes in her pulse were severe enough to indicate the need for prescription heart medicine.
I haven’t given a full account here of my family’s symptoms because your symptoms might be entirely different… or invisible… or absent. So please don’t assume that you need to wait until your symptoms look like my mother’s (e.g., coughing, 5 days of astonishingly high fever) or anyone else’s before you seek life-saving treatment. Some people who become hypoxic with COVID-19, in fact, claim to feel “generally… comfortable” — but this doesn’t mean that they’re not in imminent danger.
On top of this, COVID-19 seems capable of causing other types of emergencies apart from (or in addition to) respiratory distress: strokes, seizures, heart problems, blood clots, and glucose spikes, for some examples.
So the best way to know if you have COVID-19 is to be tested.
The best way to know if your oxygen levels are in a healthy range is to test those too.
And the best way to know if you need emergency intervention for any reason is to be evaluated by a medical professional… but the pulse oximeter can help you realize you’re in danger even before a doctor does.
My family feels extremely blessed to have had access to such a simple, affordable, but easily-overlooked technology. My heart breaks for anyone whose loved one was not as fortunate. This is why I’m sharing our story.
COVID-19 is currently exploding in many parts of the world, and (in some places) in far higher numbers than it was earlier this year. It’s wise to have a supply of things like masks, thermometers, fever-reducing medicine, healthy foods, hydrating drinks (or hydrating drink mixes), maybe a glucometer and a blood pressure cuff, and whatever else helps you monitor your vitals and support your health.
But please, for the love of everyone who’s dear to you, buy a pulse oximeter. And some backup batteries. Today. Because with COVID-19, it’s entirely possible to be in the middle of a life-threatening respiratory emergency without even noticing it.