I am a COVID-19 survivor. That sounds more dramatic than it actually was. I have asked myself many times whether I was typical or fortunate, and I’m honestly not sure, likely some combination of both. Several people have asked me over the past few weeks to post about my experience, and I’m happy to oblige.
First reflection: COVID-19 was easier to contract than I thought.
Opening disclaimer: I cannot be 100% sure that the exposure described here caused me to contract COVID-19. It is possible that either my husband Phil or I was exposed somewhere else without knowledge. We had not traveled outside our community. Thus, it is our only known potential exposure and as such, the prevailing theory.
During the afternoon of Tuesday, July 7, I spent about 20 minutes with a visitor to my office. Far fewer than 15 minutes were spent within six feet of that person—maybe five? The afternoon of Friday, July 10, that person notified me that s/he had been exposed over the Fourth of July weekend and had gone to be tested. I immediately informed my supervisor and went home for the remainder of the afternoon (more on that later). Shortly after I arrived at work the morning of Monday, July 13, the visitor called to inform me that s/he had tested positive. Again, I immediately informed my supervisor, and called my personal physician to arrange for a test. I spent the hour of wait time packing up my work computer and other supplies to take home in case of quarantine, then proceeded to a drive-through testing site.
My car was third in line at 9:30 a.m. Soon after there was a long line of cars behind me. My wait time was about 10 minutes, although it seemed longer! The test itself consisted of a long cotton swab inserted in a nostril to what seemed like all the way to the brain. (My testing site used one nostril; others do both. I’m so glad I picked the right location!) It was unpleasant, but not to the point of making me cry. At the testing site I was informed that I would have results within the next 24 hours (although my doctor’s nurse had told me 2-3 days) and instructed to self-isolate until I was contacted with results.
Then I went home and set up my remote office. Phil, who works from home, decided that he would also be tested. He left around noon and texted that there were 15 cars in line ahead of him. He waited for about an hour before his test. As I worked that afternoon, I went through the office visit over and over in my mind and convinced myself that there was no way I could have gotten COVID from him/her. But just in case, I also made a list of everywhere I could remember going and everyone I was in contact with.
Even though Phil was tested later in the day, he got his results earlier, around noon Tuesday. He was positive. At that point I figured I was positive as well. After checking my patient portal periodically, I finally saw the result just after 5:00 p.m.—positive.
A health department contact tracer called about half an hour later, asking a series of questions about COVID-related symptoms and who I had been in contact with beginning 48 hours before the onset of symptoms. If contact was under fifteen minutes at six feet or less, it was not considered an exposure. If I wore a mask to a public place, it was not considered an exposure risk. If both parties were wearing masks (such as my MRI appointment) it was not considered an exposure. My potential exposures were my hairstylist and two coworkers. It’s worth mentioning that I did not receive a contact tracing call from the county from my encounter with the office visitor. I voluntarily requested a test because my elderly mother has multiple risk factors. I also personally called a few individuals who had been in my office for multiple short visits.
We received quarantine orders from the health department via email. Mine would expire by Monday, July 20 and Phil’s by Thursday, July 23 if we were fever-free and our symptoms were improved.
Second reflection: Having COVID-19 was not as bad as I thought.
I have had worse-than-usual allergy symptoms this year, beginning in early spring. Not the runny-nose-and-sneezing kind, rather a sinus-pain-and-throat-drip-with-occasional-productive-coughing sort. This occurred before, during, and after my quarantine.
I had a diagnostic MRI for an unrelated condition the afternoon of Friday, July 10, prior to being notified of potential exposure. During the MRI I got a headache from the noise. When the contrast media IV started, I experienced a metallic taste and became queasy (not to the point of nausea, but close). I got dizzy getting up from the MRI, a fairly common side effect of the magnets on the inner ear, possibly exacerbated by my MVD outcome. I have experienced all of these symptoms with past MRIs. I felt generally unwell, which contributed to my decision to go home following the call from my office visitor. Friday evening I went to bed at 5:00 and slept until 3:00 Saturday afternoon. The headache was gone, but queasiness and malaise, as well as overall joint pain, continued for another 24 hours. By Sunday evening I felt back to normal.
All of these symptoms are also on the COVID-19 list, however, and were used by the county health department to determine my quarantine dates. I never experienced the trademark symptoms of fever, shortness of breath, dry cough, or loss of taste or smell. A couple of days later I experienced moderate difficulty in concentrating and focusing, similar to side effects I experienced while taking Tegretol for hemifacial spasm. This is not something I associate with past MRIs, nor is it something I have ever experienced during past stressful periods.
Phil experienced a dry cough, though not continuous—mostly in the mornings right after waking up and in the evenings. He has had a diminished sense of smell for several years, so that could not be used as a gauge. He fatigued easily and would take an afternoon nap, unusual for him. Like me, he avoided fever and shortness of breath.
COVID did not keep either of us from working. Phil was already working from home. I had developed remote office protocols during Missouri’s initial stay-at-home order that enabled me to work from home full time during my quarantine, although this time is was necessary to involve volunteers to take care of things that could only be done at the office.
If asked to rank the sickest I have felt in my lifetime, my response would be: bronchitis, appendicitis, mononucleosis, 2016 flu, COVID19, food poisoning, normal flu. I don’t remember enough about tonsillitis to place it in the list.
Third reflection: Emotional side effects were the worst part of COVID.
The scariest part about a COVID-19 diagnosis is being told to lock yourself in your home and hope for the best. No medication, no therapy, just instructions to call your doctor if serious symptoms crop up.
Although the actual odds are overwhelmingly favorable for COVID patients, the news and social media bombard us with ominous statistics and worst-case stories. Even the success stories feature time on a ventilator before a miraculous recovery. So once I knew we were positive, the what-ifs started bouncing around in my brain. We were both just months shy of the at-risk age threshold. Phil is overweight, has an autoimmune condition, and had just started taking blood pressure medication. Just a couple of weeks prior to diagnosis I asked my doctor whether exercise-induced asthma put me at greater risk. Answer: yes, but not to the degree of persistent asthma. But there’s always my overall track record of falling on the wrong side of odds lurking in the back of my mind.
I asked my doctor about hydroxychloroquine therapy. I was all for trying it because it seemed to be a proactive option when there was little else we could do. Unfortunately, the FDA had recently withdrawn approval for use even in emergency situations. My doctor did reassure me that by five days after the onset of symptoms, COVID patients face almost no risk of progressing to a cytokine storm (my biggest fear). By that time I had passed the five-day mark and Phil had just a couple of days to go.
We were in isolation for eleven days. My county quarantine expired a couple of days before Phil’s, but my doctor did not release me to return to my workplace until we were both released. We have a well-stocked freezer and pantry and could have done fine on what we had on hand, but a friend was kind enough to deliver some fresh produce.
Phil was frustrated with not being able to walk around our neighborhood park for exercise, and I struggled with what I felt were mixed messages put out by my workplace as well as having to cancel a trip to visit our daughter and granddaughter. During our eleven days of isolation we had only one major disagreement—and fortunately we have a big house with plenty of room to spread out when need be.
I deeply regret causing other people to be quarantined. One of my coworkers missed a trip to see family, another had to stay home during a family funeral. My hairdresser, a small business owner, missed a week of appointments and some family activities.
Fourth reflection: I’ve witnessed an interesting variety of responses.
Prior to our quarantine, we were fostering a kitten for the animal shelter. We were scheduled to have him for three weeks, expiring at the same time as my quarantine. When I called to explain our situation, we were asked to keep Tiberius until they were able to ascertain when it was safe to bring him back into the shelter environment. We were able to keep him for an extra week. He was a darling kitten and we were happy to prolong his visit. (I later found out that Tiberius found his forever family a mere two hours after reaching the adoption floor.)
Some weeks ago Jefferson City was hit by a major hailstorm that damaged the roofs of 70% of buildings in the city, including our home. Phil had been working with a contractor on our house, my mother’s house, and his late mother’s house. Our shingles were on back order, so we ended up last. The contractor declined to work on our house while we were in quarantine, even though they would always be outside and we would always be inside, so we waited another two weeks.
Upon returning to the workplace: some people avoided me entirely. Once I entered a room, masked, and a person moved to a far corner to get as far from me as possible. On the other hand, another person told me that s/he wasn’t afraid of my germs, in fact s/he wanted the kind of COVID that I had. My coworkers and I are much more careful with social distancing as none of us wants to go through another triple quarantine. We hold staff meetings in a room that allows us to sit farther than eight feet apart, and have adopted the habit of using our phones rather than dropping by one another’s offices.
It took me a bit by surprise that a family member said that s/he expected Phil and me to look frail and haggard post-COVID and s/he was happy to see that was not the case. We’re happy too!
Fifth Reflection: I have my own set of interesting responses.
I keep a mask with me at all times. I don’t like wearing it and leave it off when I am by myself, but if anyone outside my immediate family is in the vicinity—it’s on. I understand and respect both sides of the mask issue, but if any erring is to be done on my part, it will be on the side of caution.
Even though I am currently in the “sweet spot” of knowing that I am neither contagious nor at risk, I am uncomfortable dining out and prefer to pick up and eat at home. I still worship online. Due to revised county contact rules, I am vigilant about keeping time spent with others to under 15 minutes whenever possible.
I try not to worry that we may get COVID again and not be so fortunate next time. But I do.
Sixth Reflection: The aftermath of COVID-19 lasted longer than I thought.
Although I worked through COVID and felt fine returning to work after quarantine, I had lingering fatigue on evenings and especially weekends for about a month post-COVID.
Remember that ranking of the sickest I have felt during my life? Here’s how recovery lengths rank: mono, bronchitis, appendicitis, COVID19, 2016 flu, regular flu, food poisoning.
Phil’s after-effects, particularly fatigue, lasted longer than mine did. He learned that about a third of COVID patients’ immune systems continue to fight the virus even after it is gone. This seemed a reasonable explanation for what he was experiencing.
Seventh Reflection: I am thankful and want to pay it forward.
I am immensely grateful that both Phil and I experience a mild case of COVID symptoms. I am relieved that everyone we potentially exposed either tested negative or had no symptoms during their quarantine.
Because of this, I was interested in becoming a convalescent plasma donor once I recovered, to help those who do become seriously ill from COVID. Just when I was wondering how to do this, I saw an opportunity posted by University of Missouri Health. I registered as soon as the two-week recovery period passed, and my first donation is scheduled for next week. I am interested in how many times I will be able to donate, and how long it will take antibodies to leave my system.
Eighth Reflection: I think we are focusing on the wrong things.
I have grave doubts whether there will ever be an effective vaccine for COVID-19. We haven’t been able to do so for the common cold, the flu vaccine is hit or miss, and viruses mutate.
It seems to me that there must be common factors, likely genetic, shared by the people who get dangerously ill from COVID-19. The resources being spent on a vaccine for people who will have a mild illness should be reallocated to identifying those risk factors and devising avoidance and treatment plans for those people.
Closing disclaimer: The experiences and opinions in this post are strictly my own. Those of readers may differ and I’m fine with that. I welcome civil discussion, but comments that are less than respectful will be deleted.