Valentine’s Day fell on a Sunday this past February. In the week that followed, I developed a bad cough.
By Wednesday afternoon, it had gotten severe and constant enough that I left work early. The Wife was also feeling ill, so on Thursday we went to an Urgent Care near our house and both got tested for COVID. It came as no surprise at all when, Saturday morning, we were told that both tests were positive.
The Wife shook it off after a few days of relatively mild flu-like symptoms. I did not. Throughout the week that followed, I was sleeping 20 to 22 hours a day, though it was a shallow, dream-troubled, unsatisfying sleep. For a couple of hours a day, I would drag myself to the couch to watch reruns of The Andy Griffith Show or whatever, but sitting up gave me a headache that felt like somebody splitting my head open with a hatchet and then ladling purple lava—in my imagination, the lava was always purple for some reason—into the crack.
I never lost my senses of taste or smell, as so many people report, but I did lose my appetite. Looking at food made me feel ill. I was getting down maybe a piece of toast or a slice of cheese a day. I would think about getting up to do some work or answer some emails, but after dragging myself out of bed to go to the bathroom or get a drink from the fridge, all I could do was collapse into bed again.
A kind friend sent me a little fingertip pulse-oximeter, and I was told that if my blood’s oxygen saturation level fell below 88, I should go to the emergency room. By Thursday of the second week, my readings were in the 84 and 85 range. By Friday they were in the high 70s. The Wife called 9-1-1, and I was loaded into an ambulance and driven to the hospital.
I anticipated a nightmarish ordeal waiting to be seen to at the ER; it wasn’t the case. I was placed in a comfortable private waiting room with a TV, an oxygen mask was put on my face, and I lay there for hours watching Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall in the original Coming to America while sweet young nurses came in periodically to check on me. A nice chatty technician came in and took an x-ray of my chest. A while after that, a harried-looking young ER doctor came in and said “Yeah, we’re going to admit you; your lungs look like crap in that x-ray.”
Bluntly put, no doubt, but I appreciated the candor.
I hadn’t stayed in a hospital as a patient since I was six years old and got my tonsils out. But I spent the next eight days alone in a room, hooked up to IVs and wires, with oxygen tubes up my nose, watching Turner Classic Movies.
I was able to stumble to the bathroom once or twice a day, the wires trailing behind me, but could manage little activity beyond that. My big excursion out came when they took me to get a CT Scan; it was startling to see the scary stern warnings about the dangers of entering my isolated realm that were posted on the outside door of my room.
I can’t say that I felt sure I was going to die, but I did feel like it was possible. For the first few days I wasn’t sure if I’d get out of the hospital; early on I wasn’t even sure how much I cared. In retrospect I can see that I had an uncommonly fortunate bout of this illness; I was never placed on a ventilator, for instance, which often indicates a plummeting chance of survival.
The care I got was excellent, skilled and kind. I was given daily treatments of the antiviral Remdesivir, as well as steroids, and gradually began to feel stronger. My appetite returned, almost as soon as I was admitted; maybe it was the increased oxygen, but in any case, the skimpy “cardiac control” meals they gave me became the highlights of my day (this may also have been due to boredom and absence of reading material), and I developed an unaccountable craving for Fig Newtons, a cookie I had never much cared for previously. Encouraging nurses took me for walks up and down around the hallways, and though I found them embarrassingly arduous, I showed enough improvement that I was sent home
About two weeks after I was released, I got my first vaccination at State Farm Stadium. By the end of March, I felt well enough to return to work. This past Friday I got my second shot. I still get winded and fatigued easily, but the pulmonologist tells me that this will likely continue for at least a couple more months.
My big takeaways from the experience? One is gratitude for the first-rate treatment I received, both from the health care professionals and from The Wife and The Kid and my family and friends, who showed me so much support and encouragement through daily phone calls and texts.
Another was a new respect for the health care profession. At some level I probably always understood, but now have seen first-hand, that the nurses, doctors and aides do more for humanity on any given day they work than I’ve done in my whole life.
My other big takeaway is a concrete, non-theoretical respect for this virus that I didn’t have before. So that’s my advice: wear a mask, stay socially distanced, and get your shots. As somebody who didn’t get anywhere near the worst that this disease can give, I promise you that you don’t want even the second-worst.