Gasping for Air, Delusional and All Alone: One Survivor’s Story
I wasn’t scared. Until I started gasping for breath.
I took deep gulps, trying desperately to get some air. When that made it feel like I was breathing fire, I knew the pathogen had gone for my asthma-weakened lungs.
The coronavirus came after me with a vengeance. And I beat it. Now I’m fully recovered, after going through hell and learning about the infuriating gaps in the health-care system, and about the ability of the human body to fight back.
It was early in the second week of March when it struck. I woke with sinus congestion and muscle aches I’d never felt before. I tried to ignore the signs. I was busy, a Bloomberg News editor on deadline on a story about the U.S. response to the outbreak, including the coronavirus testing-kit fiasco and other blunders in the pandemic’s early stages. I was about to experience them.
Over the next few days, I felt nauseous. I had a dry cough. I could no longer avoid the obvious when my fever hit 102.5, and then a little later, 104. I had a sore throat, chills and more aches.
That’s when my Covid-19 odyssey began. New York at this point had fewer than 150 confirmed cases (it is now at more than 120,000) but it took hours to get a call back from the already overwhelmed nurse practitioner at my doctor’s office.
No Test Kits
She suggested I had the flu. I suppressed a laugh, and asked for a coronavirus test. She said her office had no kits; I’d have to go to an emergency room. Even then, I probably wouldn’t meet the criteria because I hadn’t traveled to China and hadn’t come in contact with an infected person.
I was upset, but not surprised. The article I’d just finished had public-health experts pointing out the folly of this protocol, set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Then she said there had been no community spread in New York City, so I should just hunker down. I adamantly disagreed, having read of such mini-outbreaks in the city. Still, I was directed to an urgent-care clinic about 12 blocks away for a flu test.
I luckily had ordered masks and dragged myself to the clinic wearing one. A nurse swabbed my nose and a physician — without a stitch of protective gear — went over my vital signs, listened to my lungs and asked a few questions. The nurse returned to say my flu test was negative. The doctor prescribed Tamiflu anyway.
I had long-distance company in my misery. My college roommate, Nancy, had come from Boston for a visit the weekend before I fell ill. We had dinner at Grand Central Station. We roamed around crowded flea markets in Williamsburg. Her daughter and a friend had joined us for dinner at my apartment.
Four days later, Nancy and I had the same symptoms. We texted constantly, helping each other stay positive. We don’t know if we were both exposed during our shopping foray, if I gave it to her or if she gave it to me, but we both knew we had it.
Ball of Sweat
Just after the flu test, my fever fluctuated between 100 and 103. I couldn’t keep food or liquids down. I was vomiting up over-the-counter medicines. I alternated between Tylenol as a fever-reducer and Advil as an anti-inflammatory, but I don’t think they stayed in my stomach long enough to work.
One thing this coronavirus does is jolt your immune system into overdrive. Muscles and joints become inflamed, and, oh boy, does that hurt. I could barely move my neck. I could barely roll over in bed. I could barely walk from the kitchen to the living room.
At night, I would wake up in a ball of sweat. Then came the chills. I shivered uncontrollably under two blankets wearing socks, flannel pajamas and a ski cap.
One night my delusional brain conflated grade school with college. I dreamed I had a final exam but missed the bus to St. Mary’s Elementary School. I jumped out of bed and started to get dressed. I saw it was 2:30 a.m. and realized I was having a fever-induced nightmare.
Finally, a Test
This coronavirus is devious; it seems to know who is the most vulnerable to attack. I had severe childhood asthma and though I outgrew it in my teens, my lungs have never been fully operable. I use an inhaler in the winter when cold air makes me wheeze.
Having read how quickly Covid patients can go downhill once they get pneumonia, I started to panic when my breathing trouble worsened. I messaged my doctor. A nurse suggested I contact a particular hospital that was offering tests. I did, and was told that wasn’t true. The nurse then said I should call the New York Department of Health hotline.
After waiting in a queue for about an hour, a man came on to take my details and said someone would call me back.
No one did.
That weekend was an endless fog of chills, aches and fever.
On Monday, a breakthrough: My doctor’s office messaged that I could get tested if I went to a site in Manhattan. There, a nurse put a very long stick with a swab up my nostril until it felt like it had reached my brain. I almost passed out from the pain and dizziness.
Two days later, I got the word that I was positive. I was almost relieved; at least I had official confirmation. While my vomiting, fever, aches and chills had begun to subside, my biggest fear was my hacking cough and difficulty breathing. The doctor sent me to a hospital for a chest X-ray.
Turning the Corner
The ER was packed with a cacophony of coughers. Since I was Covid-positive, they put me in a room by myself. And there I waited for more than six hours until a mobile X-ray machine was wheeled in. An hour later, a physician’s assistant came to say I had pneumonia and should consider being admitted.
Absolutely not, I said. I wanted to be back in my apartment to continue fighting the virus, which I felt I was already beating. She agreed to let me go home armed with a prescription for a powerful antibiotic. “Let’s hope your pneumonia is bacterial and not viral,” she said. “And if it’s viral?” I asked, knowing the answer. “The antibiotic won’t work.”
It worked. After a five-day course, I could breathe more easily. My temperature dropped. I was able to eat, though food still tasted like drek. I went back to work, from home, of course. It would be another two weeks before I could last a full day.
I’ve gotten a lot of sympathy about having to go through the trauma on my own, but I’m grateful that I live alone. At least I could move about my apartment, and no one could see me in my bedraggled state.
Nancy, who also tested positive, has had to isolate herself in one room, though that didn’t prevent her husband from catching it; he is now suffering terribly with high fevers and vomiting. Thankfully, we didn’t infect Nancy’s daughter or her friend, or if we did they were asymptomatic. To be safe, they quarantined for two weeks.
In the end, I’m grateful, for living through it. And for my son and other family members and friends and colleagues who kept me going by mailing, texting, calling, Zooming and FaceTimeing. I was alone physically, not psychically. And that made all the difference.
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