Meet a nice St. Paul family that thinks it's got coronavirus

Sheena and Ben Jimmick have been flattened by a disease that feels a lot like coronavirus... if only they could get tested.

Sheena and Ben Jimmick have been flattened by a disease that feels a lot like coronavirus... if only they could get tested. Ben Jimmick

Ben Jimmick describes himself as a "healthy guy" in his late 30s.

Originally from England, Jimmick manages a bar in Minneapolis and lives in St. Paul with his wife, Sheena, and their 2-year-old son.

One day last week, Jimmick was heading to work when he felt this weird tickle in his throat.

He didn’t think much of it at first. (His whole family had just gotten over a cold.) By the time he locked up for the night, Jimmick knew he was dealing with another animal. By Friday, he felt like he’d come down with full-blown flu, with a dry cough, headache, runny nose, and chills. Weirdly, he didn’t have a fever—his temperature was, if anything, a touch below normal—but he sure felt like he had one.

Saturday brought the weirdest symptom of all.

“I was lying on my bed, and it felt like I had a 10-pound weight on my chest,” he says. By then, Sheena was sick, too. Her throat hurt, her glands were swollen, and this same strange, invisible force on her lungs made her feel like she was back in her theater days, getting cinched into a corset.

“It felt like there was an elastic band around my chest,” she says. Sheena couldn’t draw a full breath, and she had coughing fits so bad she felt ready to faint.

Both of them had a sinking suspicion of what this was, and after waiting on the phone for eight hours, a nurse hotline validated their fears. Their symptoms sounded like coronavirus, aka COVID-19. The only way to know for sure was to get tested. On Saturday, they called emergency room after emergency room, urgent care after urgent care, and were told again and again no tests were available.

“We haven’t been in contact with a confirmed case,” Sheena says. And they weren’t elderly or immunocompromised, either. At this point, the Minnesota Department of Health is recommending people showing symptoms stay home and save the tests for health care workers or people who are already hospitalized. In short, this St. Paul household was low on the state’s list of test subjects.

They could've been tested for other diseases to rule them out one by one—getting chest X-rays, or checking for flu—but they didn’t have the money. Thanks to a paperwork snafu at Ben’s job, the soonest they could get health insurance was April 1. It hadn’t seemed like a problem at the time, Ben says. Nobody was planning on a pandemic.

So Ben and Sheena stayed at home with their son, nursing their respective illnesses. For Ben, the symptoms weren’t as uncomfortable as, say, the nasty bout of norovirus he got a while back. There were even some days he felt close to okay, if exhausted. But Sheena’s case started to get scary. One night, while she was gasping for air, they had her suitcase packed, and they debated the merits of going to the hospital. They had no insurance. Ben was out of work. But Sheena couldn’t breathe.

They asked themselves questions Ben feels nobody should have to ask in a developed country: Would it be better for their son to lose his home? Or his mother?

Luckily, it didn’t come to that. A friend suggested Sheena pop some Tylenol for her breathing—something she never would have thought to try. Weirdly, it worked. She now takes one every four hours and manages to feel okay. Because of this little tip circulating online, it’s pretty hard to find Tylenol at the store right about now, but fortunately, the family’s recent run of illness meant they had a supply on hand.

The two are recovering as best they can. Their son has only showed mild symptoms—as have many children affected by the virus. Their next hurdle is applying for unemployment insurance, and somehow paying the rent. For people in Ben’s industry, which has largely been shut down due to an emergency declaration from Gov. Tim Walz, that’s not going to be easy.

“There’s a lot of my brothers and sisters who are hurting right now,” he says. “And I totally understand [the quarantine]. Overall, I think this state’s wonderful, and we’re lucky to have the mayors and governor we have. But it doesn’t go far enough.”

He says there need to be laws on the books to freeze rent, put a hold on mortgages, and help out-of-work Minnesotans pay bills. There needs to be better and more affordable testing, so we actually know how many undeclared cases—like his and Sheena’s—we have on our hands. Otherwise, there are going to be a lot more people unconsciously spreading disease, and a lot more people on the street.

His advice? If you have symptoms like his, play it safe, assume you’ve got coronavirus. Stay home. Try Tylenol, if you can find any. And brace yourself, because it’s no walk in the park. You might feel young and healthy now. No one does gasping for breath.

For more on Ben and Sheena's illness, you can hear about it in his own words from his Facebook post on the subject: