Office of Public Affairs

Karam '21 recounts his bout with COVID-19

This year, anyway, Bhan Karam would argue that T.S. Eliot got it right: April was the cruelest month.

The rising USM senior started dealing with a month-long, debilitating case of COVID-19 on April 2. As a direct-care worker, Karam had been providing residential treatment services for children with autism and intellectual disorders. When one of his clients tested positive for COVID-19, Karam and eight of his colleagues were quarantined.

Two days later, worrisome symptoms emerged.

Now hale, hearty, and no longer contagious, senior information technology major Bhan Karam says he feared for his life when he was coping with COVID-19.  “I was so weak, it felt like someone was holding me down whenever I wanted to get up." (Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs)

Partial paralysis in his left hand and intense chest pain drove Karam to seek care in the E.R. Soon thereafter the disease manifested itself in widely reported symptoms: extreme fatigue, headaches, high fever, coughing, and trouble breathing. He also experienced swelling of his eyes and face.

“I was so weak, it felt like someone was holding me down whenever I wanted to get up,” Karam says.

The dangerously high fever — spiking above 106 degrees — lasted several days, the headaches a week, and the hacking cough another two weeks. In all, Karam says it took 23 days for his breathing to return to normal.

“The high frequency of my heartbeat into my brain was exhausting and caused so much stress. The fever would run throughout my entire body, down to my legs, my back, and abdomen,” he says. “At times, I just had to lay down on the floor. I couldn’t get comfortable sitting up or sleeping in a bed.”

When he did have brief spells of energy, Karam forced himself to jog inside his apartment, fearful that if he didn’t spend some time moving, he would only get worse.

“I needed to do something to break up all the sleeping,” he says. “I actually think the exercise gave me strength and improved my breathing. Running made my chest feel better.”

On April 20, the Maine CDC informed Karam he was no longer contagious, but it would be early May before he was back to the rhythms of normal life and work.

Now hale and hearty, Karam has returned to serving children with special needs. As the behavioral services agency’s staffing has been thinned by some choosing not to put themselves at risk, Karam feels an even stronger sense of responsibility to his clients.

“I could never leave them," he says of the children with special needs. "They need someone to be there for them in order to continue with their daily routine and life."

Karam, who was born in the Republic of South Sudan, left his parents at the age of 10 and fled to neighboring Ethiopia to escape the civil strife between Sudan and South Sudan. In 2013, he was given resettlement by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and nearly a year later arrived in the United States with his younger brother. Now a U.S. citizen, he anticipates pursuing a master’s in physics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., after graduating from USM with a bachelor’s in information technology and a minor in physics.

For now, he hopes others who forgo wearing masks and are reluctant to comply with recommendations for social distancing spare themselves the misery and potentially mortal threat of the disease.

“If there’s a way to avoid getting this, I definitely would,” he says. “This is a really complicated disease. I never felt this sick before. At one point, I really thought I was going to die because of the struggle to breathe."

— By Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs