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The first victims of coronavirus coped with an unexpected feeling: shame

COVID-19 not only made them sick, it made some of them feel like outcasts

Kelsea Hindley, a 27-year-old high school French teacher from Cohasset, was the second person in Massachusetts to test positive for COVID-19. Hindley had returned from a school trip to Italy to find herself suffering pain deep in her bones and the worst exhaustion of her life.
Kelsea Hindley, a 27-year-old high school French teacher from Cohasset, was the second person in Massachusetts to test positive for COVID-19. Hindley had returned from a school trip to Italy to find herself suffering pain deep in her bones and the worst exhaustion of her life.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Kelsea Hindley felt the walls closing around her. As the first woman and full-time resident of Massachusetts to be diagnosed with COVID-19, the high school French teacher from Cohasset felt feared by her neighbors and stalked by the news media.

Hindley’s predicament was not uncommon among so-called Patients Zero, the first residents of their communities to contract the dangerous virus. Several who were sickened at a Biogen conference in Boston in February reported feeling ostracized, one posting on Facebook that he gained "a whole new appreciation for those who live under the cloud of stigma every single day of their lives.’’

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Even when the 27-year-old Hindley’s symptoms improved, the emotional trauma of feeling like an outcast in her own community “got so bad that I didn’t even want to take the trash out,” she said in her first interview since she fell ill.

Hindley contracted the virus on a February vacation tour of Italy, France, and Spain with students and faculty from her school, St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, R.I. Two others who made the trip tested positive. Both lived in Rhode Island.

When a Massachusetts public health nurse arrived at her door March 1 to test her, Hindley had already endured her worst symptoms — the most debilitating pain, exhaustion, and cognitive disruption of her life.

``I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs,’’ she said. ``I couldn’t stand for more than three minutes. I couldn’t compute what I was reading.’’

Yet, she taught her French students for three days after she developed symptoms, in the mistaken belief that teachers have a duty to soldier through discomfort. She never imagined she had contracted COVID-19.

Then the public health nurse arrived. Hindley received her positive test result around the same time that two others on the Italy trip — a St. Raphael’s faculty member and a student — tested positive in Rhode Island. The academy immediately closed, and the entire school community was quarantined for two weeks. Life as they all knew it ended.

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``I felt an immense sense of guilt,’’ Hindley said. ``I felt like I was holding people back from being with loved ones, seeing friends, going to basketball games, all this stuff. I felt like it was all my fault.’’

While that dread gnawed at her — she later learned that no one at the school became infected from exposure to her — Hindley dealt with fallout closer to home.

On March 2, the state Department of Health, without naming her, described her as the first case of COVID-19 in Massachusetts since the state began testing for the virus Feb. 28 at its public health lab.

``The woman is in her 20s and lives in Norfolk County,’’ DPH announced. ``She recently traveled to Italy with a school group and was symptomatic. She is recovering at home.’’

Hindley’s neighbors and the news media soon deduced she was part of the Rhode Island school trip — and that she was not hospitalized. She was home, living with her mother and sister in a large apartment complex in Cohasset.

Some people in the community panicked. Hindley monitored their reactions on social media. They wanted her to leave town.

``I had so much anxiety because people suddenly were so irrationally scared,’’ she said. ``The general sense seemed to be that I was this selfish person who was walking around shaking hands with strangers and children, spreading my germs.

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``In reality,’’ she said, ``I was sitting on my couch eating banana bread and watching ‘Real Housewives of Atlanta’.’’

Hindley felt her privacy was further compromised when a Boston Fox 25 reporter aired a report while standing in front of the sign at the entrance of her apartment complex, all but advertising where she lived. The segment included a video of a hospitalized patient whose face was blurred, with a medical team hovering over the bed.

Hindley was never hospitalized for the virus.

``That just made people more and more afraid,’’ she said. ``I wanted to go on social media and say everything was fine, but it would have created a circus. I didn’t want to feed into the sensationalism.’’

A similar scenario unfolded in the upscale enclave of Little Silver, N.J. Emil Helt had returned home from Boston in late February after providing logistical support at a Biogen leadership conference. The Biogen meeting, which drew participants from around the world, triggered a COVID-19 outbreak that has been linked to nearly 100 documented cases in Massachusetts and an untold number of others globally.

The 27-year-old Helt was diagnosed March 8 with his borough’s first case of COVID-19. He infected his 17-year-old sister, Liva, a senior at Red Bank Regional High School, which would become the first school in New Jersey to shut down because of the pathogen.

The Helts, too, were suddenly seen as threats. Things got especially ugly for Liva, a gifted soccer player and football field goal kicker who has committed to Columbia University.

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There were rumors: The Helts had held a party at their house after their diagnoses; Liva had hung out with boys after she tested positive; she had attended a swim meet while she was sick.

The rumors were false. In fact, the Helts had self-quarantined when they first felt symptoms.

``That was the worst part, because I never really had bad symptoms,’’ Liva Helt said. ``What hurt the most was people saying I spread it around, when that was really what I was trying not to do.’’

In suburban Nashville, Chris Baumgartner, a Biogen regional manager who had attended the Boston conference, became the first person in Tennessee to test positive for COVID-19. He has declined interview requests, but he reflected on the emotional trauma in a Facebook post.

``Imagine having to confront a virus, so feared, it now has the entire world on the brink of mass hysteria, while at the same time, being forced to deal with irrational panic, people demanding to know if you are the ‘one,’ where you live, and if you might have somehow infected their child or family,’’ he posted March 15. ``It’s given us a whole new appreciation for those who live under the cloud of stigma every single day of their lives.’’

One of Baumgartner’s Biogen colleagues, Karin Hellsvik of Belmont, said in an interview that, as soon as she learned the virus was running through the Biogen workforce, she refrained from any kind of social activity and kept her children home from school, which may have curbed a backlash in her community.

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Hellsvik, a senior director of patient advocacy in Biogen’s Alzheimer’s program, immediately quarantined after she tested positive for COVID-19. She believes her seclusion helped to prevent the virus from spreading to her husband, their two children, and others.

Nearly three months later, Hindley, the Helts, Baumgartner, and Hellsvik have recovered and resumed their lives. They have expressed gratitude for people who stood by them and have committed to helping others, despite the emotional hardships they suffered.

Four of them — Hindley, the Helts, and Hellsvik — have pledged to donate their plasma to the Red Cross so their antibodies can be transfused to critically ill patients in the hope of saving lives.

``People need to know this is not all death and despair,’’ Hindley said. ``It might feel like we’re in a bubble where everything is terrible, but people can get better from this. We are going to get out of this.’’


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.