Niles teacher recovering from COVID-19

NILES — For Bonnie Prenkert, 52, of Niles, getting sick with COVID-19 was the last thing she thought would happen.

As a teacher, a former registered nurse and a grandmother, this week should have been a celebration for her between Teacher Appreciation week, National Nurse’s Day and Mother’s Day. Instead, she is celebrating a different event as of this week: becoming symptom free from COVID-19.

A kindergarten teacher at Eastside Connections, she had been in the virtual classroom teaching her students daily from 9 to 10 a.m. Her daughter has been finishing her nursing education, and Prenkert had also been babysitting her granddaughter, Kailyn. All of that changed at 10:15 p.m. on April 20, when she got a phone call that has changed her life since.

Prenkert had been seeing her doctor about a burning pain in her right lung. He was treating her for pleurisy because she lacked any of the other COVID-19 symptoms. Prenkert had been through rounds of antibiotics and steroids without improvement. She had an X-ray to check for pneumonia, with no alarm being raised. She was exhausted, but she chalked that up to dealing with the pain in her lung. Wearing a mask whenever she was out in public, she felt like she was doing everything right.

“I trust my doctor implicitly. I love my doctor. This definitely surprised us both,” Prenkert said.

He ordered a chest scan to rule out any issues with her heart, and — as a precaution — a COVID-19 test. The test, administered on Friday, April 17, resulted in the late phone call confirming that she had tested positive for the virus.

Sitting next to her husband on a couch in their home, she was shocked.

“I was so scared that I had possibly infected Kailyn,” Prenkert said. Her thoughts immediately went to her daughter’s family and brother-in-law’s family next door.

Her family sprang into action to get her set up for isolation. They decided that she would stay in the couple’s large, spare room, which was equipped with a bathroom.

“Since we know I’m positive, I’ll just go down there and stay,” Prenkert remembered saying.

By the time they went to bed that evening, she was in total isolation in a spare room set up with a recliner, a twin bed, her clothes and everything she would need to teach her kindergarten class online.

Both Prenkert and her husband stayed at home for 14 days, though her husband’s tests came back inconclusive, and he never showed symptoms of the virus.

Prenkert contacted the Niles Community School administration about her test result, and let the parents of her students know.

“For a couple of days, I had gotten really, really sick, and I ended up in the hospital,” she said.

The pain in her lungs was making it difficult for her to breathe, and her doctor ordered another X-ray.

“It was very scary when you first walk in there,” Prenkert said. “You get to the door, and you’re leaving your family, your spouse, whoever brought you there behind. You walk in, and you’re just with the nurse.”

The doctor attending to her, wearing full PPE, saw that Prenkert had begun to cry behind her glasses and her mask.

“She was so compassionate that she went and got a napkin. She came over, and she wiped my eyes,” she said. “It was almost a relief for me. She took away a lot of fear in that moment.”

After her X-ray showed nothing further alarming, she returned home to continue recovering in her isolation room.

Despite being ill, Prenkert has continued to teach her kindergarten students five days a week. She would work to clear her lungs so she could speak to them through Zoom. She also hosts a Wednesday evening Zoom session with the students’ parents to check in with them on lessons.

Two of the themes in lessons from throughout the school year in Prenkert’s classroom have been kindness and giving back to others. Many of her students understand that she has not felt well, and have sent drawings and cards that she displays in her room on the closet doors, she said.

“They have shown me that what I had been teaching throughout the year: kindness,” Prenkert said. “We call it filling buckets. They had been filling my bucket the whole time that I’ve been in isolation.”

With recovery on the horizon, Prenkert wants others to know about her experience with the virus. As an educator, she understands the importance of learning and communicating.

“This is scary,” she said. “If you don’t want to wear a mask for yourself, wear it for other people. There’s no other way that we have that when we sneeze, that there’s not going to be particles in the air.”

She has not been able to trace exactly where she got the virus from, but knows firsthand that the sickness and recovery are not easy.

“It’s not a road that I wish for anybody to travel. It’s not fun. It’s painful. It’s very isolating,” she said.

Many days, she would struggle to find the energy to make her bed after getting up and teaching for an hour.

For now, Prenkert takes the victory day by day of having fewer symptoms. As of Thursday, Prenkert celebrated 48 hours symptom free.

“A couple more of those [days], and I get to get another [COVID-19] test,” she said from inside the suite that she has called home for the past three weeks. “If it’s negative, then I get to come out of this room.”