Thirteen days of quarantine, lung pain and a health data breach has Sulphur Springs' Triston Pullen taking on an advocacy role
“I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me,” read Sulphur Springs native Triston Pullen as he performed at an online Walt Whitman poetry reading in late May. But as he felt a hot flash and tightness in his chest, the veteran actor/director knew it wasn’t a case of stage fright-- Pullen knew something was wrong. This was the beginning of Pullen’s journey with COVID-19, which he called “the loneliest time in my life.” After weeks of exhaustion, struggling to breathe and extreme isolation, Pullen thought recovery from the virus meant a return to normalcy-- but he was wrong.
A negative viral test was not the end, as Pullen had his HIPPA rights violated when a citizen posed as a member of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to obtain his status and announce the results to his mother’s employment. Pullen now finds himself thrust into an education and advocacy role. Pullen is ready to share the story of his diagnosis, illness and data breach, he says “so people can know what it’s really like.”
Pullen was very careful, but still caught the virus.
“I was one of the people that took every precaution,” Pullen said. “I had to take care of my 87-year-old grandmother, so I came pretty much a scholar on all things COVID to ensure the safety and health of my grandmother and myself.” Pullen says he wore a face mask, washed his hands frequently, wore gloves at gas stations, stayed home from church, shopped minimally and “carried germX with me everywhere I went.”
Still, that didn’t stop the young resident, home from college on shut-down, from developing the illness. Pullen initially self-quarantined in his room naturally, believing he was infectious with “the worst sinus infection of my life.”
The difference between a sinus infection or the flu, Pullen said, was the respiratory pain.
“It hurts. It actually hurts,” he said. “It felt like there were two hands squeezing on the bottom of my lungs, and I could never get a full breath. If I ever started coughing, it was ten times worse.”
But respiratory symptoms weren’t the only symptoms, Pullen said. He had splitting migraines, four days of fevers, muscle and joint pain, extreme fatigue, a full-body rash, and he lost his sense of smell and taste. Because of all the other symptoms, he also lost 15 pounds, he said.
Although Pullen is now virus-free, he still feels the symptoms, like weak lungs, and will undergo physical therapy to regain his strength.
“There is no treatment,” Pullen said. “People genuinely think this is safe or it’s not that big of a deal.”
Pullen is high-risk for COVID-19 complications, due to a heart condition the family discovered in high school as well as an autoimmune disorder diagnosed in adulthood. Pullen, 24, said the public narrative that young people can’t die from COVID-19 frustrates him.
“No one was in my bedroom at 3 a.m. when I was crying, debating if I should go to the hospital because I couldn’t breathe,” Pullen said. “There were two nights I thought I was going to die… I was looking for techniques to lie down to breathe easier and how to expand the lungs. I was debating: do I call the ambulance and expose them? Do I try to get in the car and drive?”
Although emergency management has said that those in Hopkins County receive regular check-ins from health personnel throughout their quarantine, Pullen says this is “just false.”
“I was alone,” Pullen said. “No one came to check on me.”
After 11 days battling COVID-19, Pullen’s fever finally broke, and his strength began to return. However, Pullen faced a battle of another kind when his HIPPA rights were violated and his viral status was disclosed.
On June 10, an unnamed female caller posed as a member of the CDC and informed Pullen’s mother’s workplace of Pullen’s previous COVID-19 diagnosis. Susan Miner, Pullen’s mother, had not shared the information with her employer, as she is not required by law to do so. Miner herself never had a positive COVID-19 diagnosis and was never ill, according to the family.
According to the Local Health Authority, members of the CDC will never call a family member’s place of employment to disclose viral status.
“Since March, I’ve never had the CDC call anyone,” said the Local Health Nurse.
Despite this, Miner received pressure to take voluntary leave of absence from work and cancel appointments. Pullen said he thinks this is unfair, given that he was the one who was sick-- not his mother. Although they were in the same home, Miner and Pullen had no contact with each other for 13 days, even having to hold their conversations over the phone, Pullen said. The only time Miner laid eyes on Pullen during his illness is when she peeked in his door to make sure he was alive, he said.
“I feel like there’s a lack of information that’s causing mass hysteria in Hopkins County,” Pullen said. “People don’t know how recoveries work and people don’t know how quarantine works.”
Pullen is also afraid that those who have been diagnosed and their loved ones may suffer stigma, even after they no longer have traces of the virus.
“I get that people might be scared, but at the same time, they have to make a livelihood,” Pullen said. “If you take my example and take it into the community, there are many examples. Clayton Homes, had to hire a private testing entity for their employees as well as FlowServ had to get testing from Austin.”
And, said Pullen, if family members of those who have had the virus wish to get tested to prove to the community or their employers they are virus-free, they often cannot. The $250 price tag for those without insurance is often cost-prohibitive, and health providers may refuse to test those that present without symptoms.
In fact, said the Local Health Nurse, she prefers that her identity remains anonymous to the public because of the amount of times she’s been asked to breach HIPAA.
“I honestly can’t even believe people think they can ask me personal details,” she told the News-Telegram. “They want every detail, even though it’s against the law for me to release.”
Although Pullen and Miner are moving forward to seek a criminal investigation against the unknown woman who obtained Pullen’s health details, the entire experience has been, in a word, isolating.
“There’s been a big debate about those of us in Hopkins County who have had COVID,” Pullen said. “Is it worth saying you’ve had COVID publicly so people can put a face to the virus to bring awareness, or do you keep it private? The reality is, if you’ve had it, people judge you. Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you have an army of people behind you supporting you, it’s the five people in front of you beating you down that stay with you.”
But, says Pullen, for himself and his mother, he’s decided to go public and continue to speak about education, testing sites, and life after the virus.