To COVID and Back
by Tracy E. Hill, Ph.D.
Not in a million years would I have thought that I would get “the Vid,” as Kevin Hart calls it in his latest comedy skit. Yet, I did.
On a Wednesday mid-November, I had dinner reservations to celebrate my Mom’s 84th birthday. I called her after work before heading over to see if she was ready for me to come pick her up. “I just don’t feel comfortable eating out at a restaurant,” she told me.” Do you mind if we eat in?” Filled with relief, I quickly suggested that I pick up something and we simply have dinner at her house. The weather had been getting colder on the East Coast, and I also had no interest in dining out. Cases of COVID-19 were getting worse by the day.
I picked up some authentic Chinese food, arrived at Mom’s, promptly washed my hands, and set up her birthday dinner. We ate with vigor and enjoyed each morsel. I had plenty to take home as leftovers, which she insisted I should. As I have done since March, I washed my hands again before leaving (with mask on) and drove home with my delicious leftover Chinese sitting next to me.
The next day I spent at work seeing some patients in person, others through telehealth visits on-line. I sanitized between patients, washed my hands regularly, took each patient’s temperature as well as my own, wore my mask, and adhered to the new-normal office protocols. That evening I had an important Zoom meeting with an organization in the Lehigh Valley to which I was pitching a product to help people who are being fed intravenously to taste and smell their food. I worked late and came home more tired and drained than I usually felt.
Friday morning, I was not feeling great. My body ached, I felt wicked tired, and I had a headache. My Fridays are typically light and are mostly relegated to billing, paperwork, and a few telehealth clients. I was feeling much worse by mid-morning and decided to forgo billing for the day, thinking I had caught a nasty cold. “I’ll just work from home today” was my secondary thought.
It never entered my brain cells that I could possibly have COVID. I had kept to the same routine since the pandemic hit in March: work, eat, sleep, work out, see Mom and manage her medications, and repeat—not necessarily in that order. I did not grocery shop or visit friends or other relatives, and I had not gone shopping for clothes or anything else since March. Amazon and other online retailers had become my new best friends.
By Saturday I could not get out of bed. I had slept twelve hours. Twelve hours! I was stunned. Yet I literally could not get out of bed. My body felt as if somebody were laying on top of me preventing me from getting up. Not on my chest, on my entire body. And I had another wicked headache, but I am prone to getting migraines regularly. Yet this felt like the mother-of-all migraines. What the heck was wrong with me? I spent Saturday and Sunday alternating between the couch and my bed with Queen’s Gambit as my only source of company other than my dog, S. Freud, who never left my side. I ventured out once to have a dress fitting for my son’s upcoming wedding. Again, I wore my mask, washed my hands upon entering, and sanitized in my car as soon as I left. I was there for less than fifteen minutes but was completely wiped out afterward.
In Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) is a child with a mentally troubled and addicted mother, Alice (Chloe Pirrie). I wanted to scream at Alice, “Go get help! Please! You will feel better. There is hope! I promise.” The television character did not respond back. After being orphaned, Beth becomes a chess prodigy but also inherits her mother’s addiction, so I continued to yell at the screen, “Stop! Get help!” But Beth ignored my pleas, too.
In my zoned-out state, I became addicted—to Queen’s Gambit. They were only streaming the premier season, but by Sunday I only had one episode left, so I held off viewing it in order to savor it for another day.
It still had not occurred to me that I might have “the Vid.” I had been so incredibly careful and had limited my interactions with people to my partner, my mother, and my clients. I did not go anywhere other than Mom’s or work. I also had associated COVID with near-death, gasping for air, and burning lungs—all the signs of infection I had read about in the papers or seen on the news. I did not have those symptoms, so it simply never occurred to me to think I had the debilitating virus.
I felt horrible, though. I had little appetite and could not imagine dragging my sorry ass downstairs to my home gym, complete with weights, elliptical, treadmill, bicycle, and television. Although I am obsessed with working out daily, I was literally so exhausted that it did not even occur to me to exercise. My partner joked, “Maybe you have the Vid?” I quickly searched the CDC for the differences between COVID and a cold or the flu and was not surprised by the underwhelming lack of a clear line of separation (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm and https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/coldflu.htm). It appeared that the only qualifying distinction was loss of taste and smell people experienced with COVID. Well, I could still enjoy my worsening appetite. It was obvious I had just succumbed to a fall flu or bad cold.
By Sunday night, my exhaustion was no worse but still quite prevalent. Yet, my throat felt worse. “Definitely a weird cold” was my only thought. I gave myself a favorite and savored treat that night: chocolate-chocolate-chip ice cream. Although it felt better on my throat, I realized it just did not taste the same. “Odd,” I thought. Every time I treat myself to the delicate, rich, and distinct flavors of this triple ice cream I savor the taste so much that I moan with delight when I finish the bowl.
After sleeping another twelve hours and still feeling like I could not get out of bed, I forced myself up and snuggled with my dog to wake him up in the morning. I could not smell him. “That’s just so weird” I thought. And weirder still, I could not smell the coffee brewing, which I knew should have been ready by then. I e-mailed all my clients for the day, switching any that were in person to a telehealth session. I showered and ate something. I drove to the office with my only thought being “You have clients to help, you sack of shit. You can’t stay in bed all day.” And, with a small inkling now that perhaps I might indeed have “the Vid,” I stayed locked in my office providing only virtual sessions.
After a tiring morning of helping others online, I called my doctor in the early afternoon, explaining that I just could not shake this sense of exhaustion and had recently lost my sense of taste and smell. He immediately ordered me to the local hospital for a COVID test. I protested. “I doubt that’s it. Could it be something else? I literally don’t go anywhere,” I told him.
His response was quite clear: “The loss of taste and smell is the hallmark of this disease. You need to go today.” I explained that for the past few days I had been incessantly taking my temperature thinking I was getting the flu. Although I had gotten a flu shot in early October, I know that they are not one-hundred-percent effective. My temperature was a steady 97.6 degrees.
A few minutes after we hung up, the clinic at the hospital called me and told me to “e-check-in” when I got there and to wait in my car for someone to call me. Like a good soldier, I did as I was told. I had the app and performed the e-check-in for my visit. I waited. And waited. After twenty minutes and watching more than a dozen other people walk into the clinic, I decided to go in myself and find out what was going on. I had to go through two doors, yet there was no automated system to let me in. I was incredulous. This was a COVID testing clinic, and my doctor thought I might have COVID, yet I had to touch all these doors with my bare hands. Unbelievable! I had no gloves and no scarf, as I had left straight from work. So, I tried to wrangle my jacket to cover my hand as best I could. I felt guilty as sin.
On the front of the inner door was a sign: “Please e-check-in and wait in your car to be called in if you are testing for COVID.” I opened the inner door with my bare hand yet again and stood in line. When I got to the front of the line and it was my turn, the healthcare worker was completely blocked from me by a glass sliding door. She had on a face mask and hospital gown. I inquired as to my situation, and she replied, “Oh we’re too busy to call people. You have to check-in inside here.” Again, unbelievable. She slid open the glass doors and took my insurance card from my bare hand to hers. She took down the information and gave it back. Then she asked me to sign the electronic waiver device. “How?” I asked looking at the pen and fearful of touching anything. “With the pen,” she answered, as if I was an idiot. “But I think I have COVID,” I explained. She shrugged her shoulders and told me to sign. I signed with the pen, again with my bare hand. More guilt. I sanitized my hands afterwards and waited for her to sanitize the pen. She did not.
I waited on the COVID side as the only patient waiting to be called. There were a dozen people on the other side waiting for other appointments. I stood as I was afraid to touch anything with my body or hands. I watched three more people approach the counter and sign with the pen. “Oh, my God. What if I’ve infected them?” was all I could think. After the last of the three finished, the healthcare person came from around the side door and sanitized the pen, the doorknobs, and the seat arm rest on a couple of chairs. She did not sanitize the interior door’s exterior handle or any of the exterior door’s handles. More guilt. “Let’s just hope I have a terrible cold” was my thinking.
My turn was called, and another healthcare worker led me to a room. She swabbed each nostril for the required fifteen seconds and sent me on my way with the advice, “Assume you have COVID and self-isolate for ten days after the day you first got symptoms. If you have COVID, we will call you. If you don’t, you can see your results online.” I returned to my car the same way I came, this time opening yet another door because no one opened it for me. Three doors to my car. How many people could I have infected? What a terrible system!
All I could do was pray I was negative, so I wouldn’t have infected anyone. I thought about the drive-through testing in many states and how that could save hundreds if not thousands of lives. No doors to open. Nothing to touch. You stay in your own vehicle, and the healthcare worker swabs you through the window. Simple, efficient, and safe! Because I am in the healthcare profession, I was told I would have my results in less than three days rather than the usual week to ten days. “Is that fair? Can’t they do that for everyone?” I asked. I was told that, in Pennsylvania, you cannot even get the rapid test, since there are too many people needing it. They are doing the best they can, and people must wait. The system is overloaded. I felt guilty but thankful I would get my results soon. How do people wait an entire week? I can imagine the hundreds of thousands who assume they do not have it and simply return to work because they feel obligated to themselves, their family, or their employers.
My thoughts went to feeling simultaneously blessed and dread. Blessed that I can easily switch my work from in-person to virtual. Dread for the workers and employees who cannot switch from live to virtual and need to make the moral and ethical choice decision of doing the right thing even if that means loss of wages. No wonder this is a pandemic of epic proportions. I was consumed with guilt. When did I get this? How? Who could I have given it to? Is my Mom okay? My partner? S. Freud? The instructions from the hospital stated to even avoid your pets until you are until COVID free. Jesus.
I was expected to pick up Mom on Thursday morning and take her to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving. Our larger family had decided to keep Thanksgiving small this year. COVID had wreaked havoc on this year’s holiday plans worldwide. I called my sister and then Mom to let them both know I had to cancel. “I’m so sorry. I’ve been sick and thought it was a bad cold, but I recently lost my sense of taste and smell. I may have COVID.” With great disappointment, everyone agreed to cancel our already dismally small Thanksgiving. For the first time in all my life, I would not be celebrating with any of my family.
On Wednesday morning, a full week after I had dinner with Mom, I felt good! So good in fact, that I hit the treadmill, weights, and stretching mats for a full hour to make up for lost time. It felt amazing to be working out again. I simply felt too good to have COVID, even without my taste or smell.
By Thursday, I was back to absolute exhaustion, and my brain was in a complete fog. It felt like air. My life the past week felt like air. I could not taste or smell anything, my brain felt dense and uncooperative, and I could not move. I just wanted to stay prone under the covers or a blanket. I developed a random chest cough. I was getting scared. Was this the “you start to feel better and take a turn for the worse” part of COVID? The part everyone talked about where you gasped for air and had burning lungs? I tried to ease my terror by reading studies and research on COVID from Penn, Columbia, Duke, and other prestigious universities. It did not help.
I cancelled my appointments for Friday after checking my online chart, only to discover that morning that my COVID test was “Positive/Abnormal.” Jesus! I cancelled the virtual appointments as well and stayed home. Over the past few days, I had sniffed deep and long into my dog’s fur. Nothing. The coffee can. Nothing. While my partner had soldiered on with Thanksgiving turkey and fixings for two, I had opened the oven door and taken a deep inhale. Air. He went out and bought me a pulse oxygen meter and Vitamin D, based on a study from Columbia University I read that correlated a Vitamin D deficiency (which I have) with risk of COVID and further suggested that taking supplements can help before you get to the critical SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) point of no return, which means going to the hospital. My doctor or anyone from the hospital had yet to call. No surprise there. I did my own contact tracing and e-mailed anyone I had been in contact with, however remotely, since the Monday before I started to feel dog tired.
Saturday morning, I woke with another excruciating headache, which had crippled me throughout the night. After another twelve hours in and out of sleep, I was determined to get out of bed. More guilt. I had so much work to do: people to help, articles to write, products under development. I could not afford more wasted time spent just existing.
I ventured downstairs with my head both pounding in pain and simultaneously in a dense fog. Coffee. “Wait,” I asked myself, “can I smell that? Breathe deeper. No. Dang. What about the basil plant? I’ll try that. Another deep inhale and maybe something faint. Yes! I think there is the faintest of basil scent. Progress. Perhaps the Vitamin D is working?” I ran upstairs and swallowed another capsule.
I realized it had been a while since I saw my Mom. I manage all her medications. In my brain fog and this feeling of transparent air, I could not remember the last time I filled her fourteen-day supply. She would die without her heart medications. Neither my brother or sister would want to make the hour to hour-and-a-half drive each way, and they were nervous that I might have infected Mom as well. Neither wanted to get “the Vid.” I contacted the Saturday morning aide and asked her if she would check Mom’s medications. She said, “Mom has two days left, but I am not allowed to touch them.” Are you kidding me? I considered which was worse, to have Mom do it with the aide coaching or to drive over and do it myself and possibly infect Mom if she was not already infected? I was certain I was out of the infectious period, but to be safe I wanted to wait the entire fourteen days. I took the risk that Mom could do this (dementia notwithstanding) as long as her aide was carefully watching and coaching.
My partner and I meanwhile realized that it was not without irony that I had developed a product to help people increase their quality of life by providing taste and smell to their eating experience. How crazy! I suddenly sympathized with those patients not just empathized.
Here I was, ten days in, and I still had COVID, or did I? My sister had checked in twice daily and a few days earlier had cried on Facetime, as she feared I would die. My retired MD sister-in-law told me I needed two negative tests to return to normal life. The hospital information sheet said nothing of the sort, nor did the hospital or my doctor. The literature I did receive said, “Stay home for at least 10 days after your symptoms developed AND at least one day with no fever (without using a fever-reducing medication) and improvement of your respiratory symptoms before you can return to your normal activities.” I never had a fever. And although I had a sort of every-once-in-a-while congestive cough, I would not describe it as “respiratory symptoms.” This was all crazy land. I decided to wait until the weekend was over and see how I felt. If I slept my normal six or so hours, felt refreshed when I awoke, and got my taste and smell back by Sunday night, I would return to the office on Monday virtually. And then I would wait another few days, just to be sure. I was fortunate that I could.
If you were now to ask me, “Where’d you get it?” I would tell you I have no idea. None of my patients had cancelled appointments due to illness, and otherwise I only had contact with my Mom and my partner. Perhaps I touched something at the orthopedic office back a week before I felt ill? Or maybe the mailbox? Who knows? This pandemic is a shit show with the way it has been handled. My experience has taught me that it is clear the pandemic will get worse before it gets better unless we have very precise and controlled measures on how people go about testing and convalescing, how we handle employee pay, and so much more. And if you ask me “Was your case severe or mild?” I will tell you that it was somewhere in between. I was definitely not asymptomatic, but I was not hospitalized either. I felt more exhausted than I ever have in my life, had complete brain fog, and was unable to do anything other than sleep or rest. I still have no taste or smell.
Regardless of how careful you are, “the Vid” is a quiet, odorless, invisible demon, so no matter how careful you are, you still may fall victim to its power. I am a fighter. I have a reservoir of resilience and a ton of tenacity. I will slay this beast!
Photo credit by Engin Akyurt (Turkey) @enginakyurt