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Chicago dancer discusses battle with COVID-19
by Matt Simonette
2020-04-15

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When Joseph Hutto—a Chicago dancer who performs locally under the stage name Ben D. Mann—got sick in late March, he assumed that he had somehow contracted food poisoning.

"I couldn't figure out what this was, because I really hadn't eaten anything out of the ordinary," recalled Hutto, who, among his other dance work, directs, produces and headlines the Boylesque dance troupe that performs biweekly at Charlie's.

Hutto was ill with a multitude of digestive-tract issues at first, but one day he began experiencing chest pains and breathing problems as well—symptoms that were uncharacteristic for him but are hallmark symptoms of COVID-19. Conversations with his physician and other health professionals led them all to conclude that Hutto was indeed showing symptoms of coronavirus; his digestive issues were showing up in a small but significant number of COVID-19 patients.

"What was tricky with me was that I didn't present the way most people do," Hutto said. "It took me a while to figure out what this was. I had digestive problems, intestinal issues and stomach cramping."

Hutto's diagnosis of coronavirus was an unofficial one. Since he was ill already, both he and his providers did not want for him to leave his home to get tested or to seek additional medical attention at a time when community medical resources were being stretched thin; they determined that his best chances were with simply getting bed rest. He was physically on his own for the recovery, but was in touch by phone with providers while friends dropped off food and supplies.

The illness was especially harsh for about a week. For days, Hutto wanted to do little but sleep, and could barely keep food down. He described the recovery as "super-gradual."

After about a week, he phoned a nurse practitioner for a followup telehealth visit. "I was starting to feel slightly better, but not by much," he recalled.

But that nurse practitioner warned him that his malaise was likely not over.

Hutto explained: "She said, 'Right at the time you feel like you're going to get better, you're going to have a day or two where you're going to get worse. It's going to feel like you're sicker than you should be, and it's going to be kind of scary, but rest assured it's happened to everyone and they're getting through it just fine.'"

Indeed, Hutto went into a severe relapse for the next few days. "I had about five days where I was sick as a dog, a couple of days where I felt a little bit better but not much, then a couple of days where I was sick as a dog again, and thought, 'Holy crap, is this never going to end?' Then, once I got over that hump, I recovered very quickly. Within a couple days, I was 100-percent back to normal."

Hutto is living with HIV, and credited his ongoing efforts at staying undetectable with helping him to face the challenges of COVID-19. He had coincidentally just had his T-cell counts run before getting sick and had a clear idea in his mind when he was feeling off and when he wasn't.

"I have a really strong immune system and my numbers are always really high, and I keep track of them," he said. "I'm well aware of how that works, way more than the average person. I really stay on top of it. I wasn't extra-paranoid or scared. I knew that my immune system is strong and I knew that I can fight this off."

As his symptoms have subsided, Hutto is trying to reclaim whatever normality he can under self-isolation. Money is now a struggle since there will be no dance gigs in the immediate future, and the dog-walking service for whom he works during the day closed for the duration of the state's shelter-in-place order.

"Being confined for so long is hard mentally, especially if you're a social person and you're used to working Chicago nightlife, and have shows every two weeks," he said. "But I'm getting there. I'm adjusting."


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