En español | It's 2 a.m. on a chilly mid-March morning and I am tossing and turning on the sofa in the living room of my small Harlem apartment in New York, hoping I'm not disturbing Greg, my husband, peacefully sleeping in our adjacent bedroom. Unbearable aches accompany my fever, which just jumped from low grade to 102° and persistent chills now violently shake my body. The past three days I've been lethargic and a little achy but I chalked those complaints up to jet lag. I had just returned from a two-week Scandinavia trip for work. Tonight, with the arrival of these new dreadful symptoms, I'm suddenly fearing the worst: thoughts of the coronavirus flood my mind.
As a writer, I travel the globe for a living, logging thousands of miles per year. It may sound glamorous, and it can be, but it's also a lot of trains, planes, automobiles, new people, foreign customs, crowds and interviewing sources close up for stories. It hadn't seemed like a risky business until now — the numbers of dead and dying climbing. It's a sleepless night consumed with worry.
I contact my CityMD, the urgent care facility nearest my apartment, early the next morning. After I explain my symptoms to the receptionist, she urges me to come in immediately. Too sick to take myself, I need Greg to drive the two miles, but he waits outside to avoid contact with other patients. In the examination room, a nurse wearing a hospital-grade mask and latex gloves takes my vitals and quizzes me on my symptoms: aches, chills, a persistent dry cough and headaches — all signs, I know, of COVID-19. Taking my temperature, he notes my 102-degree fever, then inquires about my recent travels.
Joining us in the examination room, the doctor — also wearing a mask and gloves — reviews my chart, checks my eyes and throat, listens to my heart and then my lungs. “Your lungs are clear,” he says. Although I do not realize it at the time, those four words would become the key to managing my increasing anxiety in coming weeks.
A flu test the doctor gives me comes back negative within 10 minutes, prompting him to deliver the heart-stopping news no New Yorker wants to hear during this pandemic: “You have coronavirus symptoms and, due to your recent travels, I recommend testing.” With his compassionate yet matter-of-fact delivery, it's evident he has seen these symptoms before as the COVID cases continue to rise in the city. For the unpleasant test, he sticks a long swab far into my nasal passage then tells me “your results may take five to seven days. In the meantime, please quarantine at home for 14 days. Rest, stay hydrated and treat your symptoms with Tylenol. If you experience shortness of breath, go to the emergency room."
The Power of Support
I told my family in other parts of the country early on as my symptoms appeared, but I waited for a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis before sharing the news with friends. Encircled with an unimaginable outpouring of love and support arriving daily via text messages, e-mails and phone calls, I'm reminded of the healing and hope that come from words of encouragement. Of course, weekly FaceTime calls with my three grandkids in Florida helped immensely, as well.
So did the support of my husband, who was there for me every day encouraging me to remain positive — which helped sanity prevail. Plus, thanks to Greg, exercise and a balanced diet occupy a regular place in our lives, which has improved my fitness level as I age, and may have helped spare me from the worst.
Giving me a new appreciation for the incredible support system in my life, my experience with this deadly virus also reconfirms the importance of not taking anything for granted. I am one of the lucky ones, I am a COVID-19 survivor.
I leave the office in a haze; I'm nervous. I don't understand how the instructions for treating such a deadly virus can be the same as treating a common cold. But with so many unknowns associated with this virus, this is the only advice doctors can give patients with symptoms. There is no medicine, no vaccine, no cure. After I share the jarring news with Greg on the drive home, he assures me I will be fine. Generally an optimist, I appreciate the reassurance but, at 59 years old, I'm not convinced. Although I'm not technically in the high-risk category, I'm close enough for concern.
Back home, Greg jumps into action, setting out Clorox wipes everywhere and making a list of things we need from the store, Tylenol topping the list. Facing two weeks of quarantine in a 750-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath apartment presents an array of challenges. Who takes the bedroom? Will constant disinfecting really keep the kitchen and bathroom germ-free? Is it possible for Greg to avoid infection? He's a motorman for the New York City subways, a job classified as essential. He needs to remain rested and healthy so he can work. Knowing he's only 50 provides me some comfort, especially since he's extremely fit. Choosing to give him the bedroom, I claim the sofa for myself.
Eight days have passed since my doctor's visit and still there are no test results. Subsiding within five days of my doctor visit, the fever, chills and headaches that were the first indicators of the virus no longer plague me, giving me hope that I'm on the right path to healing. But my sleeping 12 or more hours nightly along with frequent napping during the day confirm that extreme fatigue remains, as does the persistent cough. It feels as if I have a lingering flu except that I've now lost my senses of taste and smell — another odd symptom — and that is causing my appetite to vanish. Chicken and vegetable soups become my go-to meals. Still, I think I'm improving and have the worst symptoms behind me — if I even I do have COVID-19. Flashes of fear occasionally permeate my mind and I wonder if the worst is yet to come: Will I develop complications? Will I need hospitalization?
Finally, on the eighth day after testing, the doctor's office confirms what I already knew: “You've tested positive for COVID-19.” The confirmation, however, brings with it no different advice: rest, hydrate, take Tylenol to control your symptoms and go to the emergency room if you develop breathing issues. I share the news with Greg from across the living room as I start to cry. Offering comfort, Greg quotes my doctor, “your lungs are clear.” Yes, my lungs are clear, but will they stay clear?
It's spring now and six weeks have gone by since I walked into CityMD for testing. The last of my symptoms — the cough and fatigue — dissipated gradually over the past two weeks and my energy levels have finally returned along with my appetite.
Always practicing social distancing, I resume walking two to three miles daily for exercise and much-needed sunshine. Greg and I tackle longer walks on the weekends, averaging seven to eight miles along the trails of less-populated parks 30 miles north of the city. The bucolic vistas, fresh air and abundant nature provide welcome relief from the city's ever-present sirens. Sometimes my breathing becomes abnormally labored — especially when I'm walking uphill. When it happens, my anxiety returns. Are my lungs still clear? Is it possible to get this again? Should I be exercising? Resisting the temptation to follow a negative train of thought, I strive to remain focused on my progress.
Information remains elusive about the long-term scars this virus may or may not leave on its victims — both physically and mentally. Perhaps when my city begins to heal and the world returns to normal, my fears will finally fade.
Heading toward summer
As May arrives, my breathing concerns during exercise dissolve. Looking to put this virus behind me, I contact a hematologist to schedule an antibody test. As I had expected and desperately hoped and prayed for, my results show that I've fully recovered, which gives me the peace of mind I craved and may bring some level of immunity.
Living in such small quarters while I attempted to quarantine the first 14 days, Greg and I had wondered how he managed to escape infection, so we asked the hematologist to test him, too. Turns out he did have it, but he managed to escape the miserable symptoms and has fully recovered. For that, we're both thankful. Which one of us got it first will remain a mystery.