It took three steps — literally — for me to concede to myself that my cold and allergy symptoms were probably actually COVID-19 symptoms. Two weeks ago, I stepped up onto a rickety wooden lawn chair on the slab of concrete that counts as a backyard in New York City to hang up a t-shirt I’d just washed in my bathtub on a makeshift clothesline I’d constructed from old cable cords the weekend before, stepped back down, stepped up again to hang up another t-shirt, and had to stand still for a minute to catch my breath. I sat down in the chair when I stepped back down, breathing much harder than I should have been for such simple, every day exertion.
When I told my partner, Stacy, I thought I needed to call Mt. Sinai ER for a telemedicine appointment, her face was devastated but not shocked. We’d been listing off symptoms to each other for weeks — dry throats, tight chests, nausea — trying to decide if what we were experiencing was anxiety or the onset of the virus. My symptoms were progressing. We knew it. And so did the ER doctor as soon as I recounted the previous several days to her. Chills followed by a sore throat followed by coughing followed by shortness of breath. There’s no testing in New York City, of course, unless you’re in such critical condition that you’re admitted into one of our overflowing hospitals. All Stacy and I could do was accept what was happening, self-isolate, and wait.
Before my respiratory symptoms started rapidly escalating, which only took a few hours, I sat in bed with my childhood teddy bear clutched to my chest and counted and counted and counted.
25 days since I’d started social distancing; 12 days since Stacy and I had begun our official quarantine; five days since I’d developed that cough (but it wasn’t dry, and that was good, right? I had thought that was good). My symptoms came on seven days after we’d locked ourselves away (the average is 5.5) and it was five days from the start of my symptoms to the onset of shortness of breath (the average is five). Research from the World Health Organization-China Joint Mission on COVID-19 showed that, on average, people with severe cases of COVID-19 usually went to the hospital on day seven, developed Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) on day eight, and were admitted to ICU on day ten.
I didn’t have to look at a calendar to do any of those calculations. I didn’t have to look up any of the research. I’d been doing nothing but lying awake and reading studies and counting — the number of my comorbid conditions that seem to make COVID-19 worse (two and a half), the days of this and that reason for leaving the house (Stacy for work, me for picking up prescriptions for the aforementioned comorbid conditions), how much bread we had left (two fresh loaves, one frozen) — for weeks, as if my brain’s tireless vigilance and ceaseless quest for facts would protect my body from the virus.
It didn’t, but it did reward me with the knowledge that the next several days were going to be hard in ways I couldn’t anticipate, and that I couldn’t do anything to stop what was coming. I could rest. I could take Tylenol and Mucinex and drink hot tea. But every person’s body reacts differently, based on seemingly dozens of interconnecting factors, and I had no idea what mine was going to do.
That night, when the sun went down, my symptoms spiked. Before I went to bed, I sat on the floor in the hallway, leaning against our bedroom door, and Stacy sat ten feet away at the other end of the hallway, leaning against the bathroom door. We weren’t even supposed to be that close. I said, “I’m so scared.” She said, “I’m so scared too.” I said, “I love you so much.” She said, “I love you so much too.” She cried. I didn’t. Crying gives me a migraine. I worried if I started crying I wouldn’t stop.
My friends texted, and my family: You’re a badass. And: You can do anything. And: I’m praying for you. I laid in bed and tried to calm myself down with meditation breathing techniques but I was having a hard time getting a full breath. I clamped my eyes closed to keep the tears inside them. My legs were shivering. I covered them up with my weighted blanket to keep them still. “Come on, body,” I whispered. “You can do this. You’ve done so much these 41 years. God, can you even believe how much you’ve done! These mountain biking scars! The number of times you’ve been hit in the face with a baseball! Remember that spring in Germany when you fell into the Rhine River! We gotta go back there and see those tulips! I love you, body. I’m so grateful for you. You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.”
When I woke up, my chest felt like a rubber band was wrapped around it, and my shortness of breath was so pronounced I could hardly walk to the bathroom. I couldn’t project my voice past the end of the bed.
It got worse.
And then worse.
And then worse.
And then, a few days later, it got better. And better. And oh so very slowly it is getting better.
It’s gone like this: Chills, sore throat, cough. Cough, shortness of breath, chest pain and pressure. A headache unlike anything I’ve ever experienced (which may have been due to the fact that I couldn’t eat; I’ve lost almost ten pounds over the last two weeks). Cough, fatigue that feels like gravity is working doubly hard against me and there’s no bones in my body. Two steps forward, one step back. Lemon-lime Gatorade. Eucalyptus tea with raw honey. Orange gatorade. Lemon tea with raw honey. Texts from people I love. My house is on the street most people take when they’re driving from Manhattan into Queens. It’s never quiet. Now there’s nothing but sirens outside my window. Panic and counting my breaths and Gatorade and texts from people I love. Yesterday, I almost could not get out of bed. Today, I am able to sit up (in bed) and write this essay.
The hardest part, by far, has been not knowing what to expect next. My body has no context for this virus. I was shocked by how fast the respiratory symptoms came on and escalated. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I haven’t known, from hour to hour, what was going to happen next.
Most people who are battling COVID-19 are, like me, doing it at home. Excavating symptom patterns from strangers on Twitter, taking over the counter medicines, sleeping, hoping, praying, sleeping. The telemedicine doctor I spoke with told me not to go to the emergency room unless I couldn’t breathe. If I felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest, or if I couldn’t finish my sentences, the next stop was to call a private walk-in urgent care clinic and try to get a chest x-ray. Not the ER. The doctors and nurses in New York City are stretched to breaking, running out of supplies, and the city hasn’t peaked on cases yet. We cheer for them at 7pm on our stoops and out our windows. Over the internet, we lean on and cheer for each other.
It appears — hopefully! — that I am over the height of my symptoms and out of the respiratory danger zone that seems to happen for the most severe cases. I’m still counting.17 days since the onset of my symptoms, 13 days since my telemedicine call, eight days since my respiratory symptoms started abating. Stacy’s 35th birthday was four days ago. We had a dinner of two courses: mac and cheese, and black-eyed peas. Today I ate my breakfast outside on my back slab of concrete, ten minutes in the sun, as she smiled fondly and cheers-ed me with her coffee mug through the glass door.