My Monthslong Journey with COVID-19
An ongoing account of my coronavirus experience in the earlier days of the Covid-19 pandemic.
(COVID-19 collection kits for testing in the MGH Microbiology Lab are seen at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston on March 18, 2020. Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.)
I’m pretty sure I have the novel coronavirus. I had symptoms for days that could have been just withdrawl symptoms from coming off of a steroid inhaler for asthma, so I just took my temperature and kept it moving. But for the last few days, the symptoms have increased and become undeniable: dry and painful cough, extreme fatigue, achey all over and a feeling that my lower ribs are being squeezed in. That was the tip off for me — my mild to moderate asthma symptoms always present as difficulty breathing and restriction much higher up in the lungs. This kind of breathing is different.
I decided to post my symptoms on Twitter so that people would understand if my work production started to slow down and also so that they might feel less alone or confused if they are having these symptoms. Full disclosure: I get hellaciously cranky when I am sick. So you can see where we are headed…
Instantly people began to give me instructions, as if I haven’t been researching and reporting on COVID-19 for at least a month now and they looked like this:
“You have to call someone.”
“Yeah, you definitively should get tested.”
“Don’t take NSAIDs and ibuprofen.”
“You have to report it.”
You would think that the only thing worse than being completely isolated and across the country from all of your family during a pandemic is getting the actual virus and it is. But what makes it even worse is people telling you how to you MUST get a test that is not available and report it to government agencies that are so overwhelmed they couldn’t take the data even if they wanted to. Here is my cranky irritability from being sick in full display:
You should try calling your doctor right now…just for fun. See how long it takes you to get a human person on the phone who can assist you with more than telling you if you get really sick, you need to go to the hospital. So the hospital becomes your only option — the place where they are also short on supplies, but not short on people with confirmed cases of COVID-19.
I have decided to put all of the personal information I have on my experience in this post so that everyone will know how difficult it is to get basic medical support right now and if they are having symptoms like me and are alone like me and can’t get tested like me, they won’t feel so alone. I will update this with any critical info as it happens and with any news or ideas I have for you in how to seek treatment. I am also looking into getting one of those private testing kits to let you all know how it works and to see if it is a gimmick or if it might help people.
I will leave this post open for everyone publicly and I will leave the comments open as well. Please only share information that is verifiable and if you are not a doctor refrain from medical advice. I am not a medical doctor and nothing on my Twitter or this SHERO newsletter is intended to be medical advice. If you have questions you should always contact your doctor first. Good luck with that.
DAY 1-ish: Admitting there’s a problem
I really should have started this post yesterday, maybe the day before. I knew my symptoms had shifted but I didn’t want to believe it. I have had a dry cough for weeks now, a side effect of the steroid inhaler, Flovent, that I was prescribed to take for a lingering cold. I had come to realize that I was actually having many bad side effects from that inhaler and decided to go off of it just before all of the corona-nonsense.
So I felt flu-like, had that same cough and was prepared for rebound breathing difficulties after slowly taking myself off of the medication. I used my temperature as a barometer and self-isolated as much as possible. But yesterday was different. I felt like I was hit by a bus and very tired. I felt like I was getting a head cold. My breathing started becoming constricted around my lower ribs, not high up in my throat and lungs like with an asthma attack. For some reason this kind of restricted breathing that may be attributable to the coronavirus is less scary to me so far.
I have always had a low temperature. My normal temp. is actually 96.8 and always has been. I have had doctors try to tell me it is indicative of another health condition, and maybe it is, but there are new studies saying that low temperatures are pretty common. So when I have a 98.8 or higher temperature, it’s still hard for me to admit that it is a mild fever. Probably because I have always had to convince medical professionals that it is for me.
I have slept most of the day. I tried to call my doctor’s office just to give myself a laugh and I got the same recording that tells you to call 9-11 in an emergency and then to call back. They don’t even give you the option of leaving a message anymore.
I looked up if it was safe to take NSAIDs and ibuprofen and it turns out the Tylenol only thing has pretty much been debunked. I am not a medical doctor, so if you feel comfortable just sticking with Tylenol, go for it — the CDC is just not backing up any data with regard to ibuprofen and NSAIDs further exacerbating COVID-19.
I made my corona-worst-case-scenario plan. Since I have decreased lung capacity from a surgery last year (oh, I’m bringing it with the details guys, you’re welcome) and I have always had mild to moderate asthma, I have a real lung phobia. If you have ever been in a situation where you could not breathe for an extended period of time you will understand what I am saying here. This COVID-19 is scaring the hell out of people with respiratory issues.
So far my lungs are totally clear, which is pretty much keeping me calm. If that changes and I am not able to breathe, I will immediately go to the hospital. Until then, I will self-quarantine and take extra good care of myself. This means drinking a lot of water. When I say a lot, I mean a glass every hour and then one or two more for good measure. Extreme dehydration seems to be a major component here and I am hoping that staying hydrated is most of the battle. Full disclosure: my good friend Liz Malone, who checks in on my symptoms several times a day, thinks I am solidly in Day 5 of this, but I would guess day 2 or 3 at the most. I have no way to really know.
I started researching at home COVID-19 test kits and one site said it was “already at it’s limit for the day” and to check back on Monday morning. When the private companies are at their supply limit and can’t sell you something, we are in real trouble. Stay tuned as I will document everything that happens with these kits and whether I decide to see what they do and whether they turn out to be worth it.
I am also going to look into this drive-thru testing option in Alexandria, VA. You have to have a doctor’s note, which is proving to be very complicated but I will pursue that way as well to get you guys some good info on what that testing procedure looks like. I also have a lead on a few drive-thru testing locations in Maryland, but again, the difficulty seems to be getting though to your doctor for a testing prescription. There are also rumors that more tests are being released on Monday, so I will be looking into that as well.
I will keep posting on what is happening daily so check back in tomorrow. Until then, I am fine and I will be fine. Take care of yourselves and hang in there.
DAY 3: I’ve already messed this up
I’m pretty sure I’ve had this thing for five days now, possibly 7 but it’s really too hard to tell. I have read reports that now digestive issues are a component of COVID-19 and that has been true for me today. I’ve had a couple of restless nights partly because I am not taking any sedating medication due to my compromised breathing and partly because I have awakened frequently at the slightest difficultly in breathing from being so freaked out.
I can’t stress enough that my fever has always remained fairly low and never higher than 2 degrees or so, so not everyone is getting that high fever that the CDC keeps referencing. The cough seems to be waning and right now I am dealing with more flu-like symptoms and body pain. But, my breathing seems much better and that squeezing around my lower rib cage has eased off significantly. I drink a lot of water daily and am really hydrated, but my lips are still chapped and my skin is really dry.
I typically take very high doses of Vitamin C to help with adrenal support and I feel like it has helped me a lot with this virus. I also take OMEGA-3 fish oils for my asthma and I have added zinc at night. I had several crying episodes yesterday and I have a feeling it was indicative of my body shifting gears to combat the virus because this morning I felt stronger.
I was going to try and completely rest and stay off of social media altogether but I am so angry at the state of things, it was an impossibility. I just sit here, or more aptly put I just lie here, in total disbelief that this is the state of things in the United States of America. Now we are all too sick to be as angry as we truly should be and even the Surgeon General confirmed today that this is all just getting started and this week will be bad.
I think I’ve given up on getting tested for the time being. I am already in self-quarantine and I don’t feel well enough to run around trying to find a drive-up testing center. It is also still impossible to get my doctor on the phone. I did look into private tests but most of the companies have either suspended testing per FDA guidelines or they will be prioritizing testing for health care workers, which is how it should be. Pence mentioned something about tests becoming available for everyone with symptoms in some kind of at home scenario this week, but I will believe that when I see it.
I feel physically miserable, but I also feel very relieved and hopeful that the worst may have passed. What is on my mind most now is staying hydrated, eating healthy food when possible (I have no appetite) and making sure my lungs stay clear from any secondary infection. I woke up last night and realized that I had fallen asleep with my inhaler next to me on the pillow and I was suddenly so sad for the collective us — all of us who are scared and sick and isolating. I’m sad for all of the people who might need ventilators, those of us who are scared we could get to that point only to find there is no equipment to help us. Hang in there — if you are having symptoms like me, I know it feels like it, but you are not alone.
DAY 6: Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
The last few days have been difficult. I felt like I was turning a corner on this virus on Day 3 slightly and then by Day 4 I was knocked flat. Keep in mind that I am using these day counts to give you some kind of reference to what I am talking about, but it is very likely that Day 4 could really be Day 7 or 11 for all I know. I have still not been tested. I have not had the physical strength to go to a drive thru location and at this point, I feel like they will have the test for the antibodies ready as soon as the actual test for the virus, so why risk anyone else.
This phase feels like more of a body flu — it started as a head cold with some aches and pains, but now I have fatigue at an extreme level. Even though my appetite has wained, I have been making sure to eat healthy foods, even though I am not eating a lot, and to drink a lot of water. I make myself toddle out to my couch every morning because I can’t stand being in bed anymore. My couch has turned into a little nest.
I don’t feel any difference between taking Tylenol and ibuprofen, but there are still some saying that ibuprofen and NSAIDs could be detrimental, so I am staying away from everything but Tylenol just in case. I am also having the first real issues with a fuzzy-headed version of thinking where my brain is not moving as quickly and it is really hard to write or communicate like I normally do. The advice Dr. Sanjay Gupta gave about knowing when to seek hospital attention is very helpful to me now — he says measure your symptoms as if you are having them a year ago, pre-corona scare, and ask yourself if you would go to the hospital for them.
My sense of smell and taste has diminished like it would with any cold, but I have not lost those senses completely. I have been taking Mucinex DM maximum strength out of precaution for my lungs for the last five days. I dug some up out of my medicine closet after hearing a lot of rumors that it helped people with breathing issues to alleviate more life threatening situations. Today is my last dose because I have run out of it and there is none left to get delivered in the United States of America and the type I use is on backorder everywhere.
We need to talk for a minute about this cough. At first it was irritating, but I had been having a coughing side effect from that inhaler I told you about for months, so it did not phase me much when this newer, more extreme symptom came into my life about a week ago. Then the cough pretty much faded away for a few days — but now it’s back. I’m kind of focused in on the cough because in some way it feels like a barometer for where this virus is heading and how much danger my lungs might be in. I still only have a mild temperature that fluctuates by a degree or two.
I have a pulse oximeter arriving in a few days and I read a post from a doctor who said the real instrument asthmatics should be using to measure their condition is a peak flow meter, so I have ordered one of those as well. I can’t even imagine how much money Jeff Bezos will be pulling in from this pandemic.
I have heard from a lot of people who seem to be scared about this virus as if getting it were a death sentence. I can only assume this is the result of coming of age during the HIV-crisis, because it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. Most people will contract this virus and as scary and as unknown as the illness is, most people will also resolve their symptoms and be perfectly fine. Now seems like a good time to consider a reckoning: contracting COVID-19 is not a matter of if, but when. Be smart and act as if you have it protect yourselves and others. Only go out for food if you have to and just take care of yourself. Order your supplies, if you can find, them and harden your resolve not to needlessly worry or be afraid. It is not easy — I’m working on taking my own advice, too.
(Integrative map of cases of COVID-10 in the United States via Johns Hopkins.)
DAY 8: I love a good head rush but this is scary.
My symptoms have shifted again but a constant underlying component is the extreme fatigue. My concern is always making sure my lungs are clear or at the very least, not getting worse. The goal is staying away from that scary pneumonia that we keep hearing critical patients are dying from, or at the very least, is causing people to have to go to the hospital and stay for days in order to get it under control. I have been out of Mucinex for nearly two days and I am hopeful that some will arrive today in the mail because now that I have stopped taking it, I can definitely see how much it was helping me to keep my lungs clear. Without the expectorant medication I am still coughing, but the cough is not so dry any more.
I have a weird shaking in my legs. It’s like an underlying current of energy and contractions, or more precisely anxiety and it makes me jittery. I also have this odd tendency to gasp and take in a deep breath all of a sudden and it is a little unnerving. This could be a side effect from having to use my albuterol rescue inhaler more, or it could be indicative of my adrenal system under intense stress. I have bouts of this when my body is under extreme physical stress, but I am resolved to take it in stride and not get worried any more than I already am. On my first day of law school we had an assembly of sorts where they explained to us what the next three years would look like. A dean explained that it would be a marathon and not a sprint and so I tend to use that mantra in my life when I am reminding myself to be paced and not to borrow trouble, and I have found it helpful.
As bad as things have been, I am continually overwhelmed by the kindness of people who are reading these posts or who follow me on Twitter and how quick they are to offer support or kindness. After my last post I received at least 20 messages of people offering to mail me Mucinex after I had said I would run out. Someone in the Washington, D.C. area contacted me and was willing to split her package of medication with me. We have created an expectorant underground, and if this weren’t so frightening, it would be hysterical. Maybe it will be really funny in a year, hopefully sooner.
The odd squeezing below my ribs has shifted to a feeling of someone pushing down on my chest, like something heavy is sitting on me while I lie down even when I am sitting up. I am trying not to be panicked by the feeling because many others have described this symptom and they have also talked about it easing after a few days, so I am watching that carefully. This morning I had a serious head rush and I normally love those, but this one was a little too intense and just felt scary. (Before all of you mothers contact me, yes — I had recently eaten something.) My ears are now in play and when I speak and I listen to my own voice, it sounds like I am in a tunnel. If this virus has chosen to go after my ears before my lungs, I’ll take it but I’m afraid it’s hitting both.
I’m just focused on hydrating, eating clean food when I have an appetite and trying to practice extreme rest. My mental clarity got fuzzy a few days ago, but eased up yesterday. Today the fog is back and it is likely connected to my ear symptoms. My temperature is up a little but still no more than 98.6, which is actually a two degree elevation for me. I also got my pulse oximeter and my oxygen levels are really good and typically 96-98, so that is very reassuring. From the accounts of other people, best case scenario on this is being sick for 10-14 days, so I am using that as a goal. If I didn’t know anything about this coronavirus pandemic and had these symptoms I would just tell someone that I had one of the worst flu colds I have had in ten years or so but that I would see a doctor if I got a secondary infection. No need for another inhaler, antibiotics, steroids or emergency room yet.
I think this is a perfect moment for our country to rise to the occasion and show the world the kinds of values we really possess; the kind that have not been represented by the behaviors and actions of the political party currently attempting to lead us. People are inherently good and generous and we have much more in common than we realize. Considering how isolated we all are, there is a sense of community that I have never experienced before and I can’t even tell you how grateful I am for that.
Slow and steady wins the race.
(This image is a stock photo and not me, but it pretty much depicts what I would look like taking my temperature 10 times a day if my hair did not look so crazy.)
Day 13: It’s all about fever management now.
I’ve spent the last five days completely resting for the most part. I have done some light writing and worked a little, but on day 10, I woke up feeling much better and started to do some light housework and it literally knocked me down for the next five days. The key to this phase is to stay in your beds or on your couches, even after you feel much better because the kick-back in week two is brutal.
My lungs are mostly clear. There is an occasional rattle, but it seems to be resolving itself fairly quickly. My head cold symptoms have also flared up again and I have had continued swollen glands and an occasional runny nose. It’s so interesting to me how quickly the symptoms can come and go. The dry cough is still here, but is really rare and only a few times a day and I am using the cough as an overall barometer for contagiousness. Once I am 72 hours completely free from this cough, I will consider possibly leaving my apartment for groceries.
We need to talk about this fever. My natural temperature runs low and is typically 96.8 (instead of 98.6). My temperature has been ranging from the low 99 range to the 98 range, which is a fever for me. I have bright red cheeks and break into a sweat several times a day. I often find that I will be in my bed and trying to rest and I will just roll back and forth and moan from sheer irritability. I take two maximum strength Tylenol several times a day and it seems to help a little bit. If my lungs were not clear while I feel this bad, I would have gone to the hospital.
The key for me in the first week, as an asthmatic, was making sure that I had constant access to my rescue albuterol inhaler (I used it several times a day) and making sure I was resting completely. I also took high doses of vitamin C, Omega-3 fish oils, and Mucinex DM during the daytime. I have switched to taking only Tylenol due to reports that other pain relievers may exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms. I have also continued to use my Flonase spray that I use daily and my regular dose of Claritin. In the first week I drank a lot of hot tea with honey for my cough and that would keep the painful symptoms at bay for a few hours. I also ate a lot of hot soup in that first week after reports that hot liquids were essential to break up the mucus on the lungs and keep your breathing clear.
Now it feels like a waiting game while I seem to re-live the same day over and over. It’s key to keep your spirits up considering that most of us are completely isolated, so make sure to have as much contact with others through phone calls or Face Time or Zoom-it really does help to make sure your sense of well-being stays strong. I have said this before, but I’m going to re-emphasize it: there is no room here for extra worry or panic. People with asthma are already triggered by these things and they do nothing to help us now. Stay pragmatic and focused and just know that getting this virus is not a death sentence for people like us. There were several times this week where I started to cry and I stopped myself knowing that creating more mucus was only going to hurt me in the long run. Stay focused and use your head, we can all fix our hair later.
You got this.
Day 17: I definitely have a secondary infection.
The last several days have brought increasing difficulties for me on the breathing front. Since my surgery last year, I don’t have full lung capacity in my right lung so if I can’t breathe easily while sleeping on my left side it’s cause for alarm. I have also had to start using the albuterol rescue inhaler again. Full disclosure: I have been doing more physically and I probably should not have been as active with cleaning and it has felt like someone is pressing down on my chest. These are familiar asthma symptoms for me.
I had a tele-appointment with my doctor back home in Arizona-her husband follows me on Twitter and has been keeping up with my situation and she was kind enough to talk with me on a Sunday from home. She explained that the protocol for treating coronavirus symptoms right now is a round of antibiotics and the anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine. I declined to take the last medicine because my system is sensitive and I’m not sure I really need it. I also don’t want to take the medication away from folks who are suffering with diseases who need it to treat their condition.
I am now taking antibiotics and steroids and she has prescribed a new inhaler that is a bronchial dilator instead of a steroid. The steroids make me feel like I could punch out a rhinoceros, so I got that going for me. The only problem is that my insurance has decided to take several days during a pandemic to authorize filling this new inhaler prescription. I am so sick of our broken healthcare system, but that is another series of posts.
I’m actually afraid to admit that I might have pneumonia, even though I likely do. People are dying from this and it scares me to even say it out loud but I want to make sure you have all of the information. I probably should have talked to my doctor a day or so sooner, but my post-symptoms really developed quickly and it seemed everything was going to clear up. My point in this is to remind you to be vigilant and be in contact with your primary care physician or pulmonologist early if you can. I you don’t have access to your doctor, be sure to develop a back-up plan and how you will seek treatment if you get sicker after the first two weeks.
I get winded at just the slightest activity and I understand this is a common thing with this virus. I can see how this would be so frightening to people who have never had serious breathing issues because the first time you struggle for air like this you think you are going to die. Thanks to my asthma and some pretty gnarly panic attacks, I am very experienced when these happen. I focus on staying calm and I make myself breathe in through my nose and then purse my lips to breathe out and regulate my breathing overall. So far it has worked really well, but it is very scary while it is happening. If this has never happened to you before, seek medical attention immediately.
I am hoping this will be my last post in this series and that the new medicine will clear up what I am sure is a sinus infection and what is likely pneumonia. I have still not been tested for COVID-19 as there is no real accessible system in place for testing in the Washington, D.C. area and I don’t want to venture out if it’s not critical in the event that I could infect someone else. I know I have had this novel coronavirus, even without the test to confirm it. There are also people who are still having false negative tests at this point, which is hard to understand. I will just wait and have it confirmed that I have the anti-bodies for the virus. I keep reminding myself that once I get through this I will be a superwoman of sorts and might even be able to go to London in September, as I had planned.
My best friend and I are also fairly sure that he had this virus several months ago. He works in hospitality and is exposed to everything and he had all of these symptoms and a lingering cough that lasted for months. We call it his kennel cough and it was all very funny until recently. He has one of the strongest immune systems I have ever seen and rarely gets sick and this took him down for weeks. He has not been sick recently, but I have no doubt that this virus has been in play for months longer than any government is confirming. I have no actual proof of it, I just know it to be true from everything I have experienced and observed.
I wake up every morning so grateful for my life — my job, my family, my friends and everything I am lucky to have. As I heal slowly but surely, I await the impending onslaught of deaths that the people of New York will have to suffer through and that is always on my mind. I think about all of the healthcare workers who are healthy now, but are risking their lives to take care of people who are all alone as a condition of their circumstances, and I am grateful for these brave medical professionals. The stories of loss tick in, one more heartbreaking than the next.
I’m also grateful for the first time in my life that I am an only child because it seems that I have been unintentionally prepping for a serious round of isolation like this from birth. I was a latch key kid and my childhood was a milder version of “I Am Legend,” so I am perfectly fine to isolate for another month or two. You give me a bucket of legos, enough costumes and my Disney storybooks on vinyl and I will never leave my apartment again, even now.
Thank you to all of you who have reached out to me with concern or well-wishes or even unsolicited medical advice. I feel loved and cared for and that’s all anyone can really ask for. Take care and stay safe-I will resume my regular publishing schedule this week because the show must go on and too many people need to be held accountable. When I’m completely recovered from this, I’m going to be so pissed.
To read my follow up post, two months out from my initial coronavirus infection, click here.
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Amee Vanderpool writes the “Shero” Newsletter and is an attorney, contributor to magazines and newspapers and an analyst for BBC radio. She can be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.