‘Don’t be like me:’ UNI student shares lessons from COVID-19 fight

Tyler Hospodarsky knows he’s one of the lucky ones. 

The UNI senior, a sports PR and communication double major, woke up June 24 with a pounding headache that grew worse as the day went on. He soon tested positive for COVID-19, quarantined himself and has made a full recovery after temporarily losing his sense of taste and smell.

But with students starting to return to campus next week, Hospodarsky wanted to share his story in hopes others will take the precautions he didn’t to stay safe. “If there's anything positive that I can take out of this, it's just that I'm hoping to be able to use my experience to help other people see how serious the virus is,” he said. 

Here’s what he’d like the Panther community to know: 

It’s real

Like many other Americans, COVID-19 seemed a distant threat for someone as young and healthy as Hospodarsky. He didn’t know anyone who’d had it. That changed when he attended a friend’s June birthday party inside a crowded Cedar Falls home where no one wore masks. 

Hospodarsky now realizes how risky that small choice was. Multiple people who attended the party were later diagnosed with COVID-19, he said. 

“Don’t wait until you get the virus to start taking it seriously,” he said. “Don't be like me. I waited until I got the virus and then I was like, ‘Oh my god, who did I affect?’ It was terrifying.”

After the party, he’d gone to visit his elderly grandfather, who is asthmatic, with his parents. He’d played slowpitch softball. The fear that he’d unintentionally sickened his friends and most vulnerable loved ones was far worse than any physical distress he felt, Hospodarsky said.

“Mentally, it was harder than anything. What if I gave it to my grandpa and then he dies? What if I give it to someone who gives it to their grandma or even just their parent who has diabetes? That’s where for me, it just wore me down because I was like, ‘Oh my god I just felt so guilty, the guilt of it was horrible.’”

Hospodarsky was relieved when his family and softball team all tested negative. He’d done all the right things when he thought he’d been exposed - staying home from work, insisting on being tested and letting his family and friends know the results. 

Those choices protected many others, said Shelley O’Connell, executive director of UNI’s Student Health and Well-being Services. ”Tyler recognized that his symptoms were possibly COVID-19, and he took the necessary steps to get tested and isolated when he learned his positive results,” she said.  

Don’t be embarrassed

Once someone has been diagnosed, one of the most important things they can do is cooperate with efforts to trace their contacts, public health experts say. This helps prevent further spread of the virus. Hospordarsky said protecting community health should outweigh any potential embarrassment about how someone may have been infected going to a party or out to bars. 

And with millions of Americans already diagnosed with COVID-19, people who contract the virus are hardly unique.

“I understand - people are embarrassed when they get it. I mean, I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed to tell my mom at first, to tell all the people I was around,” he said. “But it’s so important. I know people who have gotten the virus and they’re scared to let people know. But it’s about protecting other people. 

“Students have to understand how one decision to go to the bar, to go to this party can truly affect so many people. Like I said, everyone that I talked to tested negative, thank goodness, but let's say even half or a quarter of them tested positive and what that domino effect could be.”

Think about others and yourself

“People should understand that it's not about me as a 21-year-old person fighting the virus for a few days and recovering,” Hospordarsky said. “It's about who I gave it to right after that. I could have transmitted the virus when I didn't even know I had it. And I felt normal for two days. So that's what's scary.” 

And students should worry about themselves. Hospodarsky said the headaches were intense and losing his sense of taste made eating a chore that he worried could be permanent. Worst of all, the virus is so new he doesn’t know if there will be long-term health consequences from having it. 

“We don't know what the long-term effects of this thing are gonna be. Maybe 50 years down the road, I'm going to have heart problems, or I'm going to have some lung issue,” he said. 

“And, so I just think to assume that you're going to be fine, to assume everything's going to be fine, is the completely wrong way to go about it. And so I just urge students to not make the same mistake that I did, not make the same mistake that all our friends did.”

Do your part

Hospodarsky said it’s crucial that students, faculty and staff are wearing masks and following social distancing guidelines both on and off campus. The virus doesn’t stop at those borders. He’s still struck by how taking a few simple precautions could have greatly reduced his chances of getting sick. 

“What bothers me the most is that I easily could have not gone (to the party), I easily could have stayed home. I could have done my part right.”

He said there are still opportunities for students to socialize, especially outdoors, while taking steps to prevent the virus from spreading. But it takes coordinated, consistent effort on the part of the entire campus community.

“My message is that until we have a vaccination for this or until we figure out a better way to combat this virus, it's not about you as an individual. It's about us as a society. Right? I have friends that are immunocompromised. A couple of my friends (with COVID-19), their grandpa died. And that was what I was worried about. And so I think it's terrifying. In a perfect world, people would understand how serious it is.”