On March 18, Nancy Hernandez, her husband, and their 26-year-old son flew back to Texas from a family vacation in Europe. Their trip included stops in Germany, Spain, France, and the United Kingdom.

Only a few days after their return, the symptoms started, Nancy Hernandez said.

Hernandez and her husband Raymond had contracted the coronavirus, with Raymond developing a case serious enough to put him in an intensive care unit for five days. They believe their son, Anthony, also contracted it, though only Nancy and Raymond were tested for the virus.

A little less than two weeks after Raymond entered intensive care at Methodist Hospital, the whole family is feeling much better, Nancy told the Rivard Report in phone interviews this week. She shared their story in the hope that people take the virus seriously.

“I think it didn’t hit me until I was sick that this is real,” she said. “Unfortunately, we learn the hard way, and that was definitely the hard way.”

Both 52-year-old Nancy and 50-year-old Raymond are nurses; he works in home health care and she works for an insurance company. They had saved up and planned for their 16-day Europe trip for a year, and even as news about the global pandemic was growing more serious, they decided to proceed with their travel plans.

“We said, ‘You know, we’re young, we’re healthy, nothing’s going to happen to us, it’s just like the flu, we’re going to be fine,’” she said.

Only on the final days of their journey did the government-imposed shutdowns start to take effect. On March 17, they were in Paris when that city instituted a lockdown. But when they traveled to London the next day to fly home, everything seemed normal, she said.

“There were no shutdowns. Everything was open,” she said.

On the flight back, they were given a questionnaire about possible coronavirus symptoms. All three felt healthy, though maybe a little tired and jet-lagged, she said.

Nancy started to feel more run-down a few days after she got back. On March 20, she started running a fever that eventually spiked to over 102 degrees, she said. She’s normally healthy and said she’s never had influenza before, but rejected any comparisons to that more common virus.

“It’s totally different,” she said. “Speaking as a healthy person, [COVID-19] really wears you out.”

There were also the headaches. “It’s like someone has both their hands and they’re crushing your head,” she said.

The day her fever started, she called her physician, who said he would contact the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District about having her tested.

By that weekend, March 21 and 22, Nancy felt like she was “literally dying.” Her son was having many of the same symptoms, though less severe.

“I had the body aches, I had the chills, I couldn’t even get off the couch,” she said. “My poor husband was actually the one taking care of me at the time because he was symptom-free.”

All three of them at various points experienced the loss of taste and smell that health experts say has been a telltale sign of the virus.

On March 21, Nancy got a call from Metro Health staff. They scheduled an appointment for her the next day to get tested at Freeman Coliseum, the mass testing site overseen by the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council. Raymond drove her there.

By March 23, Anthony was recovering quickly. Nancy started to feel better and continued to recover over the next few days.

Two days later, just as she was getting back on her feet, Metro Health called to report that her test was positive, she said. They told her to self-quarantine and focus on recovery, steps she was already taking on her doctor’s advice.

“They do go over some questions [ with] you, to make sure you’re not going to work,” she said.

But just as Nancy and her son were recovering, Raymond was becoming severely ill. Raymond called his doctor and was told to “stay home, get rest, hydrate, self-quarantine,” she said. His doctor also prescribed an antibiotic and a steroid, but neither were effective.

“I don’t blame anybody because that’s probably what they thought was best,” Nancy said. “In my husband’s case, it wasn’t the case.”

On March 27, Nancy drove Raymond, who has diabetes and hypertension, to the emergency room at Methodist Hospital Ambulatory Surgery on Huebner Road. He had been feeling short of breath and dizzy, with a fever of 101 degrees.

That day, he spent about four hours at the hospital, where they hydrated him intravenously, later discharging him with directions to come back if his fever or shortness of breath worsened.

Over the next two days, they did. By March 29, “he was just getting worse on me, and by that time he was really short of breath and dizzy and almost fell,” she said. They returned to Methodist Hospital Ambulatory Surgery, then Raymond was transferred to the main Methodist Hospital in the South Texas Medical Center. There, they put him in intensive care and tested him for coronavirus, she said.

At first, his condition was dire, she said. They put him on oxygen and said if he got worse, he might have to be put on a ventilator. Hospital staff even offered to have a pastor come visit him, she said.

“And obviously, I couldn’t be there,” she said. “Everything was by phone.”

Raymond’s coronavirus test came back positive, she said. Doctors put him on intravenous antibiotics and hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug that President Donald Trump has frequently touted in news briefings.

“If they had not given him that, I mean, he really, really felt like he was going to die,” Nancy said.

She credits those medications for keeping Raymond off a ventilator. She also praises the work of the Methodist doctors and nurses who treated him.

“They took really good care of him,” she said. “I thank them for him being here with me now.”

Still, Raymond continued to spend the next few days in intensive care, she said. But on the evening of April 3, as his recovery continued after being taken off oxygen support, she was able to take him home.

As of this week, Raymond is feeling progressively better. Nancy said it’s been difficult to get reliable information about when to stop self-quarantining. She gets different answers depending on whether she talks to her doctor or public health officials. She also wants to know if she can be confident that she’s now immune from getting it again.

That’s because she’s eager to volunteer at a hospital, putting her nursing experience to use. She and Raymond also plan to return when possible to donate plasma with antibodies that could help someone else recover from coronavirus.

Over the phone, she reflected on how it all could have taken a different turn.

“I can’t even imagine people that pass away in a hospital right now with this condition without loved ones there,” she said. “It has to be the most heartbreaking for anybody. I think my family’s story is one of those of success and hope.”

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the San Antonio Report's environment and energy reporter.