Wednesday was Kyona Yeager’s first day of high school and her first day as a manager for the Fairfield football team. And the freshman couldn’t have been happier.
“It actually wasn't as hard as I thought it would be,” Kyona said. “I’m still very happy. I'm not tired. And it's just fun.”
If you spotted her on the sideline at football practice, it would be easy to mistake her for just another healthy teenager. You’d never guess she was fighting for her life just days earlier.
And that’s a small miracle.
“I’m getting better every day. All the bruises have been healing, all the wounds as well,” Kyona said. “And I’m just getting back on my feet and trying to return to normal.”
Less than two weeks ago, Kyona was in the ICU at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. She was battling Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, a rare complication from a COVID-19 infection, and the such first confirmed case of the syndrome in Montana.
She believes she may have been exposed to the coronavirus out of state while showing livestock at a competition over the summer. At first symptoms were mild.
“On Aug. 12, I wasn't feeling good. My stomach just hurt. It felt like I had pulled the muscles across my ribs because we had been floating the day before with the family,” Kyona recalled. “And then the next day we went on a 16-mile bike ride and then I was sick again that night.”
Fearing it was possibly COVID-19, the Yeager family isolated themselves.
“And then Sunday my mom looked at me and said, ‘Kyona, you’re yellow,’” she said. “And then I laid down on the couch and my dad tried to sit me up and I started crying from the pain.”
Her parents brought her to the hospital in Great Falls, where initially they thought her troubles stemmed from an inflammation of the gallbladder. When other organs started showing signs of inflammation, Kyona was flown to Salt Lake for further treatment and was immediately admitted in the ICU.
It was there that she learned she had tested positive for COVID-19. Kyona was a healthy 14-year-old with no pre-existing conditions, so her rapidly deteriorating condition was concerning.
Her liver, spleen and gallbladder were enlarged. Her blood pressure was low, her kidneys were shutting down, her lungs were filled with fluid. Her heart was swollen and required epinephrine to function properly. Her veins were dilated, she gained 17 pounds of water weight, and her body was jaundiced.
“Why me? What did that for me? Why did my organs want to go into overdrive?” Kyona remembered thinking.
Eventually they received the diagnosis of MIS-C. The cause is unknown, and the CDC is still studying the outcomes and risk factors of the disease.
“While the majority of children appear to have mild or asymptomatic infection, it is important to remember that some children can develop serious complications like these,” Melissa Moyer, director of the Teton County Health Department, said in a statement Saturday.
While MIS-C is rare, and Yeager’s case was the first in the state, Dr. Greg Holzman of the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services said in a statement that “we would expect to see more cases of this serious disease in our communities.”
For four days, Kyona fought for her life. When one organ stabilized, another seemed to suffer a setback.
“The hardest part with this was my parents didn't know if I'd come home,” Kyona said. “I didn't know if I'd see anybody. And that's what broke me. That's what scared me.”
While Kyona was fighting, her community was organizing.
Family friends started an online food drive which drew donations from all over the world. Food insecurity was a cause near and dear to Kyona’s heart after organizing a community drive in the early stages of the pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout.
“At one point our family was using resources from the food pantry,” Kyona said. “And I wanted to help everybody else that was using the resources.”
Along with the drive came countless prayers and well wishes. And Kyona felt them.
“One of the first videos I watched was a pastor from Fairhope, Alabama,” Kyona said. “And he has no clue who I am, but he talked about me as if I was somebody who he knew his entire life. And he wanted to make sure I was OK. And there was so many people that wanted me to come back from this and I do believe their prayers are a part of why I am back.”
Days after struggling for life, Kyona’s condition stabilized. She was moved out of the ICU on Aug. 21 and eventually discharged from the hospital on Aug. 25, considered recovered and no longer infectious.
“I was really happy. And then I got so happy, I got overwhelmed and I was tired,” Kyona laughed. “But it was just in that moment I felt that I was going to be OK.”
When Kyona returned home, she knew she wanted to get back to school and knew she wanted to get back to managing the football team. Her doctors cautioned her against overdoing it.
“They don't want me doing crazy amounts of work or crazy amounts of things that get my heart rate going. I think they want me to make sure that I'm not doing too much with school,” Kyona said. “Nothing’s really healed yet, the swelling is going down.”
But it’s already established that Kyona is a determined fighter and a competitor.
“I told my mom I want to do it. She goes, ‘I'm going to let you try,’” Kyona said. “And that's just the biggest thing on this first day, is to try and see what I can handle. It's going good so far.”
That means Kyona is back on the sidelines at Fairfield football practice, where the Eagles welcomed her with open arms.
“It’s awesome, she was actually one of the first people I met in Fairfield,” said first-year head coach Greg Misner. “She’s an exceptional young lady. She’s been a very, very important part of our football program and we’re so glad to have her back.”
Her journey back to health is far from over. There’s still a lot of healing ahead, and Kyona has had to temporarily give up showing cattle along with other work and chores at the Yeager household.
It’ll take time to get back to 100 percent, but Kyona has the right attitude and mindset to conquer recovery like she conquered a deadly illness.
“Now I'm realizing I'm not totally better. But I'm getting there,” Kyona said. “And that’s OK.”