For Alaska musher Mille Porsild, the thrill of finishing her first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race as Rookie of the Year in mid-March was followed almost immediately by the nightmare of COVID-19.
Now, more than two months on from her Iditarod high, she is finally emerging from her COVID low. As with others who have been lucky enough to be able to recover at home, she describes what can only be called a grueling experience.
Imagine week after week of the flu from hell, and you’ll get the idea.
“I was conked out sleeping some 20-plus hours a day the first three or four weeks,” she messaged Sunday; “then much better but still in bed another couple of weeks.”
Porsild’s nasty bout with the SARS-CoV-2 virus “started out early enough that it…wasn’t ‘a thing’ when I had it, and I was just bewildered,” she added.
As is only natural for anyone who has had the flu, she expected her flu-like symptoms to go away after a few days or a week, and they did. But then they came back.
“It operates in waves,” she said. “You are really no good for a while, then have short periods where you are certain you are on the mend, then it hits you back.
“So from that aspect it’s somewhat hard to deal with. In my case, again, the saying was that it takes about two weeks.”
When two weeks turned into three and then four, Porsild, a fit and healthy woman of 46 before she was struck down, admits she was “unnerved.” Her infection wasn’t trending as she’d been told to expect it would.
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus early in the epidemic suggested a median recovery time of about two weeks with milder cases stretching to three to six weeks for those with more serious infections.
But as Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, the founder and executive director of Public Health Informatics, Computational, Operations Research and a Forbes contributor later noted, “COVID-19 can be a freaking confusing illness. It’s still quite an enigma, wrapped with uncertainty, surrounded by some really bad bacon that’s spoiled. There just haven’t been enough scientific studies to tell for sure how long you specifically may have symptoms and how long you specifically may be contagious when you’ve got a severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS–CoV-2) infection. While some possible ranges have been identified, these durations do seem to vary quite a lot from person to person.”
Porsild appears to have been delivered the long-play version sometime just before, during or just after the Iditarod. The incubation period for COVID-19 is usually two to 14 days although some cases have taken longer to materialize.
Recovery times are equally variable. Porsild said it was psychologically comforting to eventually learn that “30 to 50 days is not at all abnormal…People come to believe it’s over, and it’s just dormant and pops up again within this long time-frame.”
Psychologically, she admitted, the disease might have been more of a struggle than it was physically.
“The first while was not so hard,” she said. “I was getting beat up physically but not mentally. I was so conked that it just was what it was. I was not reading, not communicating, a text message was too much to do – my head was so foggy.
“I knew it could be really serious and I was worried, but really too sick to not simply focus on just fighting it. Coming up to 30 days, it got way harder. I was not totally zoned out anymore, I could read, communicate, hear people worry, get worried and wonder what the hoot.”
One day, she said, she’d think she was well again and then, boom, symptoms would be back. She’d again be laid up again thinking about all the things she needed to get done. Eventually, she’d force herself out of bed only “to have it make me go back to bed not least in fear it could ‘spin out of control,'”she said.
“At that point – the last three weeks for sure – were way, way harder psychologically by far.”
This is no limp-wristed, city boy recounting the COVID-19 experience. The Danish-born Porsild earned her mukluks working in the cold, dark and unforgiving north
In 1992, she joined Minnesota explorer and dog man Will Steger on a 72-day, dog-powered expedition from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. There would be many more such adventures before she finally took off on her own.
In 2009, she organized her own four-month, 1,800-mile expedition from the south end of Baffin Island to Arctic Bay in northern Canada. Eventually, she ended up in Alaska as most serious dog drivers do.
For a time, she teamed and trained with Norwegian musher Joar Leifseth Ulsom and is – behind the scenes – given significant credit for his breakthrough 2018 Iditarod victory. The pair subsequently parted ways, and Porsild decided to take a run at the so-called “Last Great Race” on her own.
She finished 15th in March just behind defending race champ Peter Kaiser from Bethel and only about six hours behind Ulsom, who was sixth in an extremely competitive field. Porsild became the first woman to win the rookie of the year honor since Norwegian Sigrid Ekran in 2007.
But the Iditarod likely did her no favor in terms of COVID-19. The greatest challenge in the 1,000 mile race from Willow to Nome is sleep deprivation.
“Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as a common cold virus,” writes the Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Eric J. Olson. “Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.”
No other Iditarod mushers have been reported to have come down with the disease, but three cases have been reported in Nome where the race finishes. Overall, Alaska has to date largely escaped the pandemic.
Only 408 cases have been reported, according to the Department of Health and Social Services, and only 10 people have died. The rate of infection is about 56 cases per 100,000 people. The infection rate in Massachusetts, where the disease has exploded is about 1,328 per 100,000.
Almost 6,400 people have died in that state, where the death rate is about 9 per 100,000 people. Alaska has a death rate of less than 1.4 per 100,000. More than 97 percent of the Alaskans who have caught the disease have recovered compared to a global recovery rate of 87 percent, according to the COVID-10 counter at Worldometer.
Don’t get it
As someone who was Sunday hoping to have finally joined the recovered, Porsild can assure others they don’t want to catch it.
“I do think I’m rid of it,” she said. “But I am also very humbled by it and recognize I and most others know really nothing or so little about this virus. It sorta seems surreal. (I) just ‘wasted’ almost two months on it.
“…How many people are really in a situation able to do this and not lose their mind in worry and issues with family and livelihood. I am thankful I will hopefully be able to mitigate better than most. I do worry people are not aware of how much it affects those that get i5 – as I hear and see people stating they are not worried, ‘I will not die’….”
Porsild can testify that while you might not die, you are likely to suffer mightily.
There is at this time no treatment for the disease. Prevention remains the only cure. The disease spreads from people who are already sick and shedding viruses. Many of those people might not know they are sick.
Some people who contract SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes the disease we now call COVID-19 – can walk around for days shredding viruses before they began to suffer COVID-19 symptoms. Some people are asymptomatic and contract the disease but never suffer the symptoms.
All are believed to spread the disease orally by means of droplets and aerosols. Some of those droplets may accumulate on objects and form fomites that also spread the disease.
Thus the directions from the Centers for Disease and Control to keep your distance from others, avoid crowds, and wash your hands whenever you have been out in public and touched anything – say a gas pump handle or a door knob – that might have brought you into contact with someone else’s SARS-CoV-2.