A New York writer shares her tale to demystify the virus, to show people that someone they knew had it and survived, and to offer hope.
April 7, 2020
I entered March with reluctance and resolve. I had already decided to travel for the annual writers conference (AWP) in San Antonio, Texas this year despite the recent fear of contamination from someone who’d tested positive for the coronavirus and been allowed to leave her quarantine space in the outskirts of San Antonio.
The conference committee members were determined to hold the conference. In a matter of days before my flight to Texas, I learned or got messages on social media that this writer and that poet and more and more people would not be attending AWP; literary events and readings were being cancelled left and right. Many scrambled to get airline ticket refunds and pull out of hotel bookings. I completely understood. People wanted to stay away from possible infection. It was out there.
It would be a disappointment not to be able to see and talk to as many people, but I’d already talked myself into going. With a plan to be as cautious as possible (hand sanitizer and wipes in bag), I would attend panels, check out the beloved (though slimmed down) book fair, and enjoy San Antonio.
I knew that if/when the virus reached NYC (How could it not?) it would be worse. I pictured everyone staying indoors more than normal, not to the degree of the harrowing images on the news of people in China and Italy, but until it actually started happening in NYC, it remained an imagined phenomenon.
I returned to teaching my classes on Monday of the following week. While I was away, I’d asked students to check for my announcements and their assignments on Blackboard. Fortunately, this would give me a head start on what was to come. There had already been talk in my circle of college instructor friends about if/when the colleges in NYC would close because of the virus. What would CUNY do? What would NYC public schools do? I guessed that we would have to start teaching online at some point.
Little did we know how quickly that would begin. The city was already in the midst of transformation and by the start of the weekend, I began showing symptoms of the coronavirus.
As the world was learning from China, Italy, and other countries, the virus was highly contagious. It was also silent, settling into people’s bodies, but not manifesting into alarming symptoms right away, if at all. I hadn’t shown any symptoms that week.
On Wednesday, during a monthly department meeting, my colleagues and I learned that all CUNY/SUNY classes would be suspended, starting the following day. The decision was swift and sudden, taking everyone by surprise. Preparation for the pandemic had finally reached my workplace, but it was being planned out like other places and on a larger scale, top-down, without coordination, or sideways, addressing more urgent local needs, accelerating before everyone could strap in their seatbelts.
At the same time as this meeting, college administrators were holding a college-wide meeting re: distance learning in anticipation of a college closure. Administrators were learning about the class suspensions at the same time as everyone else at the college. The disorienting feeling of an upturned semester hit as the magnitude of the problem settled in.
A few people would not let go of old habits, which now appeared foolish and downright reckless, such as one colleague complaining of faculty not being consulted in the planning (the ego is a thing to behold for some). The lack of foresight and delayed response to this virus were to be expected for a country that had not yet experienced such a catastrophic event. People would compare the ensuing losses and emergency calls to 9/11, but the difference was that the enemy was invisible.
I had met with one class before the department meeting and another class afterwards. In both, I was able to reiterate the plan in case the college closed. (Go to Blackboard, I told them.) In my class after the meeting, I was able to say a proper good bye to my students, reassure them that classes would continue online, and that I would see them still but via their computers or phones.
They were surprised and confused. They wondered about their essay assignments and the midterm exam. I told them that we would work it out and that I would be in touch. I told them that, in fact, this was a weird and historic time, that we would look back later and be able to say: we got through this and survived. They would have stories to tell. I would not see them again in person for the rest of the semester. I took a photo of my empty classroom.
It seemed at first like I had allergies—runny nose, sneezing. I was feeling feverish at times, but I assumed that they were hot flashes (the joys of being a middle-aged woman). I took allergy medication. By Monday, my hot flashes seemed to last longer, felt more continuous. I started feeling chills between the fevers. I suspected something was wrong then, that it wasn’t just hot flashes.
Did I have a fever? I scrambled to find the one thermometer I’d owned for the past 20 years—the old glass and mercury model. I searched everywhere for it—inside kitchen drawers, bathroom cabinet, boxes underneath my bed—to no avail. I felt suddenly helpless and frustrated. Why hadn’t I prepared better for this? I knew to buy Tylenol, more food and toilet paper (like everyone else), but I didn’t have a thermometer. How ridiculous of me!
For the next two days, I felt fever and chills, fatigue, headaches, and body aches. Out of desperation to consult with a medical professional right away without having to make an appointment like I figured I would with my doctor, I tried to contact a Telehealth doctor. A friend had just texted me this information. The opportunity offered immediacy. This is what I needed. However, the online connection was bad and the assigned doctor ultimately hung up after a 40-minute wait on my end. Defeated, I took more Tylenol and rested.
I believed I had the coronavirus, but I couldn’t get tested. Where could I get tested?
I watched the news and only certain hospitals had testing centers. I would have to make an appointment, show symptoms and fit the criteria (be 60 years of age or older). I did not fit the criteria and my symptoms were not serious enough for a trip to the hospital. I was fortunate yet frustrated. Testing in NYC was not easily accessible or convenient, unless one had a car and could drive to one of two (at the time) drive-thru testing centers and I didn’t have a car.
Testing did seem available to celebrities. At this point Tom Hanks, his wife Rita Wilson, and Idris Elba made it public that they had coronavirus. It was heartening to see that they seemed healthy and that they were recovering in self-isolation. However, it seemed getting tested was a privilege, one that most showing symptoms if not already in the hospital would not have. Most would have to self-isolate at home like the news kept advising. Stay at home if you show symptoms. Go to the hospital if you feel worse. I could breathe. I didn’t have a high-grade fever. I stayed home.
I texted friends and talked to family. I messaged friends I was in close contact within the past two weeks to give them a heads-up that I might have the coronavirus, but I hadn’t tested for it. Friends urged me to get tested as I told them what I suspected. But getting tested isn’t easy or accessible, I told them. I felt guilty. I hoped they would all stay healthy.
In the afternoon, I watched a television show on the coral reefs of Vamizi Island off the coast of Mozambique. I felt sharp, but brief stomach pains, which I noted in my journal and then promptly forgot about because the fevers and fatigue had what was left of my attention. I watched a Canadian diver swim to the ocean depths without an oxygen tank while his voice-over explained how humans have a diving capacity like fish—heart rates slow down, blood stops flowing to outer limbs. He said he could stay under water for eight whole minutes.
Stretched out on the dry land of my sofa, I marveled at the idea. To live without breath. Then, waves of fever and chills, fatigue and dark thoughts burrowed in. Later, I watched the news of a world in constant panic and mourning.
By Wednesday, help came. I was able to reach my doctor. On the same day, a friend, fellow writer, neighbor and mother of two boys, Catherine Kapphahn, rollerbladed to my apartment to drop off an extra digital thermometer. We chatted from a distance on the stoop of my apartment building. I was grateful for the thermometer. I was thankful for my friend, for her gusto and support. I would finally be able to take my temperature. (That evening, my temperature was 100.8. A confirmation of sorts that something was up.)
However, my doctor did not share my diagnosis. He believed that I had sinusitis and told me to treat the symptoms (gargle, Zyrtec, Flonase, and Tylenol for the fever) and to monitor them for the next 72 hours. I did as he advised and rested in between the self-care.
On Thursday, I held an online class, the first day that BMCC/CUNY professors could re-connect with their classes. It had been over a week since our last in-person class.
I was tired and feverish, but not incapacitated. Out of a sense of duty to provide some kind of normalcy and routine after a dramatic disruption, I wanted to hold a class, see my students again, and find out how they were doing. Would anyone show up?
At the designated time I’d announced via Blackboard, I clicked on my own Zoom invitation link and pulled up the screen to find my face staring back at me. Then, one by one in a matter of minutes, students showed up in small frames in a row on my screen. Looking surprised, a bit shy at first, familiar faces in foreign territory, there we were: online together, but in our individual homes in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.
A few students used their cameras so I could see their faces, some opted for only the audio. I wanted them to feel comfortable so I didn’t require that they use their cameras though I encouraged it. How are you? How is your health? Are you still working? Have you connected with your other classes yet?
They seemed in general good spirits, asked questions about the assignment that I’d posted on Blackboard, and told me about their lives post-class suspension. I’m doing alright. I’m caring for sick parents. I’m out of work now. I’m still working. (I was in awe and reminded of their realities.)
Out of 18 active students, a total of 10 students showed up online. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Class via our computer and phone screens might actually work. It had to. I would see more and then fewer students the following week. Each class would be different, but I got the sense that those who checked in on that first day, would continue to do the work and follow my online announcements. I could only hope.
By the end of the hour (of a class that would normally meet for an hour and forty minutes), I was out of energy. For a moment, I’d been distracted from my fever, but now I was tired from talking, aware of my depleted energy, and needed to rest. The rest of the day continued in what had become a routine: take and record my temperature every few hours, take two tablets of extra-strength Tylenol every six hours, eat lunch, then dinner, stay hydrated and rest.
That evening, I couldn’t taste my dinner. What was happening? When I sipped my lentil soup, I could tell it was salty and when I bit into a chocolate bar, I detected the sweetness, but the flavors of the soup and chocolate were…not there. Because of this, I realized I couldn’t really smell anything. I inhaled as I held items to my nose: an orange, my bath soap, a floral facial lotion. The fragrance, the odors were barely or not at all detectable.
As if to answer my question and in sync with my transpiring symptoms, my sister texted me a link to a recent New York Times article about something called anosmia, the loss of the sense of smell and taste. It had been identified as a possible symptom of the coronavirus.
“This is what I have!” I yelled at my sister through text. This confirmed what I already knew: I had the virus.
On Friday, I called my doctor to tell him that my symptoms were unchanged, that I still had a fever and fatigue. Surprisingly, he told me to come to his office. He said that he could test me for the virus there. When? I could come as soon as possible. Relief.
He instructed me to wear a mask and gloves. Elated, I grabbed an unworn hospital mask, which I’d happened to have from a hospital visit to see a sick relative and kept as a souvenir. I scheduled a Lyft ride and put on my mask and a pair of knit gloves before heading out the door.
The doctor entered the room in full head-to -toe protective gear. “Don’t be scared,” he told me. I laughed. I was sick, but happy. My doctor was here; I was going to be tested. Finally. As he held the first of two long cotton swabs, he said, “Tip back your head. It’s going to be uncomfortable.”
He stuck the swab up my nose. I felt the prodding pressure in the back of my nostril. Then, again. I welcomed the discomfort. It meant I was getting closer to an answer. The doctor dipped the swabs into a small vial with copper-colored liquid, then sealed and stuck the vial into a Ziploc bag. He told me that rapid testing was not yet available and that it would take four to five days to get the results. I summoned my patience again. At least, I’d been seen and tested.
The doctor listened to my breathing with a stethoscope on my chest and then back, and then asked me to cough. I wondered later how he would disinfect the room: Fumigation spray? Clorox wipes? I forgot to tell the doctor about my anosmia.
Afterwards, in mask and gloves, I took a trip to my local drugstore to pick up my prescription for antibiotics in case I had a sinus infection. There, I witnessed two customers in line at the pharmacy section arguing over who knows what. The tension was high. People’s fears turning to anger. Luckily, the spat lasted for a few exchanges and didn’t turn physical.
In front of the register, lines of masking tape had been stuck on the ground about three free apart, marking where people were to stand. Not everyone stood on the tape. Some stood closer to the next person ahead of them. Why weren’t these tape lines spaced further apart? Why can’t people just stay at a distance?
I recorded everything in a memo on my phone: date, time and temperature (which ranged from 99.6 to 101.6), medications and Tylenol taken. I labeled this record: “Coronavirus Temperature”. I prepared an announcement to remind my students about Zoom classes on Monday. I tired easily. I worried about having a fever for more than a week. Would it ever end? Is this dangerous?
I did online searches for “fever” and read about low-grade and high-grade fevers and what fevers actually do. I also read a barrage of articles on the coronavirus, and studies and early findings of coronavirus patients in China. I told myself to remain calm. At least I could breathe. I didn’t have any breathing problems, but I started having a dry cough of late, which I would call “itchy cough” because it only happened when I took a deep breath and felt an intense itch at the top of my lungs. It made me cough.
I was reminded of being sick with malaria in Cameroon where I’d served as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I had equally sharp headaches when I was ill, but the fever was not as prolonged. Yet, I knew I was fortunate. I could breathe. I could breathe and I had a stable job. Unlike so many who were on ventilators in hospitals, struggling to stay alive. Unlike so many who were losing or had lost their jobs, living in anxiety and uncertainty about paying rent or the mortgage.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo appeared more regularly on television now. He sat at a table or stood at a podium in suit and tie, sometimes with his team of medical and logistical experts at a distance from each other and facing reporters also sitting at a distance from each other, and provided the grim statistics—the rising confirmed cases of coronavirus and the increasing deaths in the city and state.
He informed viewers of the vital efforts to address the spread of the virus. This leader who I’d hated for his anti-teacher stances in life before coronavirus had now become a reassuring and sympathetic presence. He offered the latest information with a confidence and compassion that was sorely lacking from the White House (except for fellow straight-talking New Yorker, Dr. Anthony Fauci).
It seemed the whole nation needed someone like him. He appeared at the Jacob Javits Center as it was being converted into a colossal hospital. He spoke of other places to be converted to makeshift hospitals: hotels, college dormitories, and sporting arenas. He spoke of the dire need of ventilators and more ventilators. Machines that could keep people alive. He talked about the graph that represented the projected losses if we didn’t continue to mediate the outbreak.
New York City was now the epicenter in the US. The city had become versed with the terms “flattening the curve” and “social distancing” and everyone was urged to do their part. Stay at home.
I couldn’t leave my home. My doctor said that until I got the results, I would need to remain in self-isolation. As day turned into night turned into day and then night again, my symptoms and routine remained the same. Unable to punctuate my days or life with the distraction of others or the outdoors, I was a hamster on a wheel: resting, hydrating, eating, washing my hands, wiping down my phone and computer, kitchen and bathroom faucets, door knobs and light switches.
I tried to keep myself distracted despite my low energy and especially from my increasing darker thoughts about people and their stupidities. I had a lot of time to think. I found myself easily angered because my mind was in dwelling mode and this exhausted me as much as the fevers. I saw scenes in the news of people running outside in the park.
Outside: silence then sirens.
On Tuesday, I woke up in a panic to a jarring buzz-ringing. Someone was at the front door of my building pushing, pushing, pushing the call button. The incessant buzz-ring was urgent. Someone was trying to get in.
It couldn’t be the postal worker. Too early. Fire! Was there a fire in the building? My alarm clock: noon. (Not a surprise as I had stayed up late watching Season 2 of “Lost in Space” on Netflix the night before.) I looked out my window to my fire escape. This was my quick route out at the first sign of smoke or fire.
Heart pounding, I ran to my intercom to buzz in the person at the front door. They kept ringing. What’s going on? Hello, hello, I yelled into the intercom. I heard static on the other side. I checked my phone to find two voicemails and numerous texts and WhatsApp messages. How are you? We haven’t heard from you! Are you alright? We’re worried. Please let us know. We’ve sent MK to buzz at your door.
Ah, the incessant buzz-ringer was an envoy from my neighborhood. I texted and messaged back: I’m here. I’m fine. I’m just waking up. I’m okay. I’m okay. Thank you. Initially startled and then annoyed at the buzzing noise, I understood my friends’ alarm. I appreciated their care and attention. I am very fortunate to have many caring people in my life.
I thanked the neighbor sent to my apartment and all of my friends. We’d already been texting more frequently than usual, on a daily and even hourly basis. I was feeling overwhelmed more and more by the busy communication and online life. It had become yet another thing to manage on top of my health and my classes. It was becoming a chore, energy depleting, exhausting. I reminded myself to stay grateful. After the rush of panic and anxious concern, we all laughed. We were alive.
My doctor called that afternoon. He’d gotten back the test results, sooner than I’d expected: “You tested positive for the coronavirus.”
Solemnity. Lightness. I knew I had it; yet I was still surprised to hear the news. Surprised and relieved.
“You have a mild case,” he said. Thank God. This made sense.
“You could still be infectious so you need to remain in self-quarantine,” he instructed. I was to remain in self-isolation and not leave my apartment for 14 days from the time I got tested. I stared at my wall calendar: 10 more days.
More relief arrived that day: my temperature had returned to normal. A welcome sign. In total, the fever had lasted ten days.
During my recovery, doing gentle yoga, drinking more herbal teas than usual, I continued to watch the news in the city and around the world. We’d all become neighbors looking out our windows or across our yards to see how the other was coping. China, specifically Wuhan, in slow and cautious recovery. Cities in Spain and Italy still in lockdown. Paris, France, was fast becoming the new epicenter in Europe. Cities and states across the US in various stages of lockdown.
I knew that people would be learning mostly about the worst cases and the rising death tolls. News of people, mainly famous, who’d gotten the virus and were in recovery were slowly coming out, so I shared my experience with the illness on social media. I wanted to demystify the virus, show someone they knew had it and survived, and offer hope. In response, friends and family were as relieved as I was and grateful for the information.
Like the rest of the world, I am in awe and admiration and worry for the doctors and nurses and other essential workers putting themselves on the line. I read about the many deaths, of the elderly and those with underlying symptoms and of many who don’t fit in any of these descriptions. They are sobering and humbling.
I learned about the loss of a colleague’s neighbor, a retired worker who liked to give her sweets. Then there was the friend’s boyfriend who was close to my age and in good health, a celebrated musician and songwriter, who died of complications from the virus. I read about the 6-month old baby in Connecticut who was the first infant known to have died from coronavirus. Heartbreak everywhere. Constant heartbreak.
My daily gentle yoga reminds me to inhale and exhale. I do. Deeply.
There are have been reports of increasing hate crimes against Chinese and people of Asian descent in the U.S. They have become easy targets, a reason to blame, for the virus. Please, no. I recently started reading Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning; her words urging me to keep thinking about it all, especially in our upside-down world, of the complicated race matters in America, of how we see and think about ourselves and each other, the other. In this time of self-quarantine and lockdown, can we re-assemble the puzzle? Recover the missing pieces? Create a world with more insight, compassion, and truth?
I feel my energy returning every day. I remain stable, no fevers. I can taste and smell my food again (about 80 to 90 percent of the flavor, that is, and here’s hoping my taste buds recover completely). Sometimes, I have a small “itchy” cough, but I consider it an allergy symptom from the lovely blooming trees. It is spring after all.
On my first day out of self-isolation on the third of April, I did laundry, went food-shopping, and relished being outdoors and walking in my neighborhood again. It felt good. I wore a DIY mask (later that day, the first of several masks I ordered from Etsy came in the mail) and gloves. I noticed many people wearing masks and gloves, keeping a distance from each other. Then, I returned to my apartment, my world and mandated life indoors.
We are all in a deep dive now; one where we can still connect with each other despite the murkiness, through a prolonged sorrow. Until we reach the surface, to rejoin our friends and families, to see our beloved communities in person again, trust that we will arrive, shaken but relieved, cautious though joyous, and grateful to be alive.