Jason Brown, 41, was watching television one evening in late March when he felt a sudden headache, followed by intense fatigue.
“My body just felt like it just wanted to shut down,” Brown said, speaking by phone from his home in Girdwood.
The headache and exhaustion would turn out to be early symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory disease responsible for a global pandemic.
Brown slept for 12 hours that night, waking often between sweats and chills.
“And that was the onset of it for me,” Brown said. “Just boom — just like that.”
The next morning he woke up with a sore throat, a headache and continued chills. At that point, it hit him: He wondered whether he might have COVID-19.
‘What Girdwood is all about’
Days later, Brown tested positive for the new coronavirus. That’s when he decided to post on Facebook about his experience. He wasn’t ashamed of being sick, and he wanted to de-stigmatize the virus. He lives in a small community — Girdwood, south of Anchorage, has fewer than 3,000 year-round residents — so he wanted to tell people he had it.
He also wanted to put a face to COVID-19. Brown said he wanted to make the illness more real to others.
“I just wanted people to realize we need to take this seriously, we need to buckle down. You know, all we’re being asked to do is stay home and watch TV,” Brown said. “I mean, how hard is that?”
Brown did a lot of things to try to get well: He sat with his head over a pot of steaming water, he drank Gatorade and hot tea, ate oranges even though he didn’t have an appetite and took acetaminophen “like candy,” he said.
But of all the things he credits for his recovery, the most important was the community: Girdwood residents rallied behind the helicopter pilot, dropping off groceries and sending him messages of support.
“Daily, I’ve had people I don’t even know dropping off boxes or bags of groceries and supplies for me at my door," Brown said. "I woke up this morning to a knock on my door — my neighbor brought over a fresh plate of cinnamon rolls for me.”
Kellie Casselman, another Girdwood resident, found out about Brown’s illness from his Facebook post. She said she appreciated the way he went about communicating with the community.
“I think the way that Jason handled it was noble and he did a really good job of keeping such a small, tight community in the know,” Casselman said. “It really shows a lot about his character and who he is as a person.”
A brutal headache, test results, then disbelief
The day Brown first realized that he might have COVID-19 — Monday, March 23 — his sore throat went away, but the sweats and chills continued. And so did the headache.
He lost his appetite and his body ached. Brown said he felt feverish. And he had a cough that he tried to suppress, “because every time I would cough, it felt like someone was stabbing me in the head with ice picks.”
The next day, one of his friends dropped off a thermometer. His temperature sat around 100 degrees — he’d heard that was considered mild, or low-grade — but the following Wednesday morning his temperature reached 101.8.
Brown said he felt like garbage then. The headache was brutal. He called the Girdwood Health Clinic and received a referral to get tested for COVID-19. Health care workers tested him in Girdwood for both the flu and the new coronavirus. A friend dropped off some acetaminophen, which helped with the headache.
By Friday, March 27, Brown had his results: positive.
He said he thought he had prepared for that news.
“I was pretty confident that I had it. My doctor was pretty confident that I had it,” Brown said. “But when it hits you and you realize you have it, there's a moment where you just find yourself sort of in disbelief.”
He cried in his kitchen when he found out. He said he sat and stared blankly as reality set in.
“But I also had to tell myself that, OK, this doesn’t have to be bad, I can fight this,” Brown said. That’s also when he decided to post on Facebook about testing positive for the virus.
Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer, said Friday that of more than 150 Alaskans who have tested positive for COVID-19, 16 people are officially considered to be recovered, though tracking limitations mean the true number of recoveries is likely much higher.
A ‘debt of gratitude’
Jackie Collins, 38, wasn’t surprised by how the community responded to Brown’s illness. She’s lived in Girdwood since 2004 and has known Brown for several years. She said that while everyone is worried about the future, many have stepped up within the community.
“We’re all just trying to do the best we can and help each other out,” Collins said. “And that really is what Girdwood is all about.”
Brown had been in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, earlier in March to visit friends and snowboard. While there, he saw a rumor circulating on Facebook about the potential for a nationwide lockdown.
He didn’t want to get stuck in the Lower 48, so he rushed home to Alaska.
Brown said he had no reason to believe he’d been exposed to COVID-19 and wouldn’t have returned to the state if he thought he was sick. He took a redeye flight March 18 and arrived in Girdwood the next morning. He said he thinks he might have picked up the virus during travel. None of the friends he was with in Colorado during his last two days there have tested positive, Brown said.
Brown picked up some provisions at the mercantile, grabbed takeout, and said he’s been on lockdown at home ever since he returned March 19. It wasn’t until a few days after his return that he began to feel sick.
The day he got his test results back, he had started to feel a little healthier, but his symptoms persisted through the weekend. His fever broke the following Tuesday morning — Day 9 of feeling sick — and the headache went away. More recently, on Thursday, he still had a slight cough.
He’s being extra cautious now and said he doesn’t want to get anyone in Girdwood sick, so he hasn’t left home and isn’t planning on it.
“I have no intention of going out anytime soon. I’m not taking this lightly,” Brown said.
He said he owes a “debt of gratitude” to Girdwood, and his experience solidifies why he wants to live in a small town with a sense of community.
“Because when things go bad, everyone rallies together, everyone looks out for their neighbor, everyone just becomes one and just wants to help each other out.”