In far too many articles, you will read that COVID-19 preys mostly on the elderly and those with pre-existing medical vulnerabilities. This is both true and misleading. Almost every illness, and certainly every infectious disease, is worse for those who already have other medical conditions, including the condition of being of advanced age. But COVID-19, like basically all other medical conditions, can strike anyone, no matter how young and no matter how healthy. I know because it came for me, and it didn’t care at all that I was in the best shape of my life.
I’m 41 years old. I eat well, lift weights three times a week, and carry about 175 pounds on my 6’1″ frame. I go on a walk every morning, I always “close all my rings,” I have been a runner for 15 years, and I completed a half marathon last fall. None of that protected me from contracting the novel coronavirus (although it may have helped me survive it).
I have no idea where I picked it up. Because I live in Queens and a COVID+ case was reported at my job very early in this outbreak, I had been sheltering-in-place and practicing social distancing for a week before I got sick. My doctor suspects I got it from my kids, but the truth is that we’ll never know.
I was sick for 20 days. My symptoms varied a little bit through that time period and closely, but not perfectly, matched the typical COVID-19 profile. The one symptom that was there every day was a fever. It had an oddly circadian pattern in which my temp was normal or nearly so through the morning and then began rising in the afternoon, peaking overnight. The nights were definitely the worst. Acetaminophen alone didn’t touch it. Eventually, when the World Health Organization backed off its concerns about Ibuprofen, I was able to use both medicines to successfully manage the fever.
The other symptoms I experienced were headaches, body aches, sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes. I was short of breath, an unnerving symptom for someone unaccustomed to it. A couple hours before my symptoms began, I had run 8 miles in under 65 minutes (socially distanced in a cemetery near my house). Five days later, a walk to the bathroom left me winded and a flight of stairs required rest and recovery in order to catch my breath. I had a weak and dry cough and the large inhales that I frequently required were always uncomfortable and sometimes painful. My chest felt small and tight.
By far the most annoying symptom was the night sweats. My gawd, the night sweats. They went on for about two weeks and involved my waking up in literal puddles of sweats. They began around 1:00 a.m. and continued as late as 5:30 a.m., waking me up every half hour. Besides the laundry load, the sleep disruption also made everything harder because it left me in a very foul mood. I’m normally pretty positive, downright cheerful, but the constant fevers and poor sleep took all the wind out of my sails. I had a mild case, but I was still miserable.
Only two days was I so sick that I had to stay in bed the whole day. Although I had been in constant contact with my physician, I did eventually end up in urgent care when my doctor and I suspected that a mild case of pneumonia was beginning to set in (walking pneumonia I guess you’d call it, even though I was doing very little walking). Urgent care confirmed it and this is when I finally began taking specific medications and was able to get tested for COVID-19. Not at urgent care, though. My blood oxygen was too high to be tested (!) because we are still rationing access to COVID testing. My own physician managed to get permission to test all 10 of his presumptive COVID patients. All of us tested positive. He said the same was true for the other doctors’ patients in his practice. This bug is everywhere.
The urgent care experience was frightening. Everyone in the waiting room—everyone—was presumptive COVID+. About half were elderly, but the other half were all ages, including a woman that looked no older than 25. At least two of the patients I saw in the waiting room left in ambulances. Here in Queens, the streets are desolate and the sidewalks are empty. Yet the screaming ambulance sirens are constant, racing the seriously ill to our overloaded hospitals. Many of them will never leave.
I went on azithromycin first and began feeling better the very next morning. I then added hydroxychloroquine when I was able to find a pharmacy that had some. Because of short supply and because it is urgently needed for patients with some chronic conditions (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis), the hydroxychloroquine required extra paperwork and a confirmed COVID diagnosis. Leery of the side effects, I didn’t want to go on the HC, but my physician insisted, as a condition of getting tested.
It’s hard to say if the medicines are what initiated my improvement or if I was about to turn the corner anyway. All I know is that I began improving around day 15, but the slow taper off of symptoms took a full five days. In truth, I still get the occasional mild fever for an hour in the afternoon. (99oF is a fever for me. I normally run around 97.5.)
I am now seven days recovered. Neither my husband nor our kids have shown any symptoms (amazingly), so I think we are all now in the clear. A huge relief, to say the least. It’s also somewhat easier psychologically to know that the worst of this quarantine era is behind us. While most people are showing the depressive effects of the ongoing isolation, we are celebrating the fact that things are now a lot easier and less stressful for us. We’ve settled into a homeschool routine and finding ways to enjoy all of this forced togetherness.
My husband and I made the decision to keep my illness from all of our friends and family until I recovered. Our mothers are both worriers, and we saw no value in adding to their already excessive worry about us when there was absolutely nothing they (or anyone) could do to help us. My mom will be angry with me for some time, but I still think I made the right decision, especially since she’s been checking on me constantly even though I’m now recovered.
I’m sharing my story now because it seems there are those that still think this virus is no big deal or that it preys only on the already ill. It would still be worth fighting aggressively even if that were true, but it’s definitely not. I am proof that this beast can stalk even the most healthy among us. (This woman from Brooklyn sounds even healthier than I am and yet suffered far worse.) COVID-19 is capricious and arbitrary and it is very, very dangerous.
COVID-19 is a “novel” coronavirus, meaning it’s not just a new strain of something we’ve seen before, but a wholly new virus, recently jumped from a different animal host. Our bodies have a rich arsenal of antibodies, but none of them recognizes this bug, so it rages completely unfettered while our bodies scramble to raise new antibodies to fight it. During the 6-10 days that it takes to do that, the virus has already ravaged our respiratory epithelium (the lining of our airways), leaving us with painful breathing, poor oxygen absorption, and leaving us wide open to pneumonia, both bacterial and viral. It’s serious, it’s dangerous, it’s not a hoax, and it will KILL A LOT OF PEOPLE if we don’t take the lockdown seriously.
Think of it this way. The more seriously we all take the lockdown, the quicker it will work to stop the spread, and the quicker we can return to normal life. If the “urgings” of the CDC were followed early on, they wouldn’t have turned into mandates from governors. People will die needlessly because of the reckless behavior we see in Michigan and Ohio today, those foolishly protesting the public health measures that are urgently needed to save lives and stop the spread.
Those who are eschewing the rules of social distancing are not only putting themselves and their loved ones at risk, they are prolonging the economic and social pain for all of us. You cannot rely on youth or good health to protect you. My case proves that. You may or may not get sick, but COVID-19 will harm us all. How much harm it does is directly related to how seriously we fight its spread. We must all do our part and, if we do, as Queen Elizabeth has said, we can all take pride in the efforts we took to save lives and protect communities. We all have to share in this sacrifice, because we all share in the risk and the pain.
Please do the right thing.
PS—I will be discussing the science of COVID-19 with three other scientists in a free webinar tonight (9p EDT)c , if you are interested in hearing more about what the research community is doing to fight this terrible disease. Details below.