Two weeks into march 2020, I got sick with the novel coronavirus(COVID-19). I live in Brooklyn and New York City is considered the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.The scene of ambulances and eerily quiet from otherwise bustling streets has been hallowing. Fortunately, I fully recovered and felt that it was my obligation as a young person who was shaken by the experience, especially while navigating the strained New York hospital system during this tragic time, to share my experience.
Life Before COVID-19
In February and the first week of March, life in New York City was still happening as normal. My usual morning train commute was still overcrowded. Bars, restaurants, and other public places were still beaming with young hungry thirst overworked professionals and the occasional winter tourists. We were all following reports of the devastating toll in Italy and Spain with empathy and solidarity, not knowing that it would be our fate a few weeks down the road.
The first Saturday of the month at the Brooklyn Museum is always the place to be, so I was there with my usual crew looking at art, dancing, and generally having a good time. The following Friday , I had dinner and a night out in Harlem with a good friend of mine who was in town visiting. Then, things changed dramatically. My employer decided that the Bay Area/Oakland and Brooklyn offices would be closed and all employees were mandated to work from home. So, I took what I could from my office desk and headed home.
Day 1-4 of Symptoms: Flu-Like Symptoms
That Saturday, I started having minor symptoms which weren’t too concerning. I have a fever of 100.4 and felt tired. My throat was starting to feel sore, but I was still carrying on with my regular life with no issues. I was on a long WhatsApp conversation with my brother and we were both in disbelief on how things just suddenly changed. I called my doctor’s office and they recommended me to self-isolate for 14 days since this sounded like an upper respiratory infection. Another thing I did was documenting everywhere I have been the past week, just in case public health folks needed it for contact tracing.
On Sunday, things started getting just a little bit worse. My fever spiked and my fatigue got worse. I didn’t feel like getting out of bed at all. I went to the grocery store and re-upped on the cold remedies trifecta: ginger, lemon, and tylenol. I told my manager on Monday and we both agreed that I should take the day off just in case this is a flu that I need to sleep off.
By then, I had started developing a dry cough. It was intermittent and annoying, but besides the fatigue I wasn’t feeling any worse than just a normal case of the seasonal flu.
Day 5 of Symptoms: Things Get Worse
On Tuesday around 2am, I woke up in the middle of the night having difficulty breathing. I was coughing constantly and every so often, I would feel like someone was choking me. This didn’t feel like a cold. I called the doctor on call and as I am trying to explain to him my symptoms, I was only able to say at most 3 words at a time. He said: “you need to call 911! right now”
The rush of panic that engulfed my body did not help. I thought to myself “I am only 30 years old!”; I literally just got here. I don’t even have a will because I never thought I would need one this early. Yes, granted I carry a few extra pounds and the “socialite” weekends in February full of cocktails and french fries didn’t help building up my immunity. I am one of the people who didn’t take this illness as seriously as I should have.
I have never called 911; I have never been in an Emergency Room. This was all new to me. After calling 911 and explaining my situation, then came the waiting. In that moment I realized that if my situation was to escalate and I couldn’t have the ability to make another phone call, I did not want that to be to the New York Fire Department. So I called my sisters. I am thankful that I have the majority of my family in North America and that even though they were not here physically with me, it still felt like they were here with me.
The ambulance folks took me to a room in the ER far from everyone else. It looked like a makeshift quarantine. I was told that the hospital was still working on an “isolation ward” for suspected covid-19 cases. At that time the number of cases in New York was still manageable and I could sense some skepticism from the nurse on-call that this was indeed covid-19. She asked me the standard questions at that time: have I traveled to Italy or China recently, did come in close contact with anyone who has traveled there, etc. This wasn’t helpful. Clearly, covid-19 had been in New York City longer than they were assuming(the recent antibody tests conducted on a random sample of the New York population proves just that).
My blood oxygen was low( around 89% - normal range is 95-99%) but besides a slightly elevated heart rate and blood pressure , all my other vitals seemed normal. The doctor said he was ordering a chest x-ray and some labs, but they had to wait on an x-ray machine to become available. That was at 2am. At 7am(yes, 5+ hours later), the x-ray machine showed. In the meantime, I was set up with an oxygen mask and an IV that was pumping ibuprofen and electrolytes into my blood. I was also on FaceTime with my family, trying not to panic or imagine that my situation might get even worse and this would be the last time I see them.
Luckily, my situation improved and I was starting to breath better. They took a few tests to rule out common respiratory illnesses: flu, other coronaviruses, some bacteria, etc. However, the chest x-ray came back and showed that I had pneumonia: a small section of my left lung collapsed because it was filled with fluid, because “the infection” had reached my lungs. I could see that there were a lot of scrambling among the medical staff outside my door. One time I heard 2 people arguing about who should come in my isolation room. The nurse admitted to me that this was a new situation for everyone and they weren’t sure what to do. She tested me for the sars-cov-2 virus and said that since all other tests came back negative, I should assume that I have covid-19.
Around 3pm the next day, I was discharged. The doctor explained to me that they wanted to keep me for observation, but that hospital beds were reserved for “severely ill” patients. She mentioned that given my blood oxygen level was okay and my pneumonia would most likely clear itself, I would be sent home under “CDC Home Quarantine Guidance”. They gave me a laundry list of medication and inhalers, then sent me on my way.
Day 5-11 of Symptoms: Getting Better(or so I thought)
The next 2 weeks at home were mostly sleeping, eating and then sleeping again. Covid-19 causes a level of fatigue that most people wouldn’t fathom. I felt lethargic. I was still having issues with shortness of breath. I couldn’t get out of my bed and walk around my apartment without feeling like that was jogging. One time I decided to go down the stairs to grab a package from Amazon. That was Big mistake. My heart started pounding and I started breathing really fast. It’s scary, it doesn’t make sense and it is not an exaggeration.
The 2 weeks following my ER visit felt like a rollercoaster: I would get better, then worse, then better again, then worse. I had my tylenol and ginger/lemon tea on the bed stand, ready to go though. I was taking day by day, listening to my body, giving it the space it needs and hoping it pulls through.The nights were terrible: a fever spike and heart palpitations, which is a side effect of the corticosteroids my doctor had me on.
Fortunately, my employer was flexible and allowed me to take enough time off to recover without feeling the pressure of going back to work. Friends would bring me groceries to my door or I would order something online. I was confined to my bedroom for a while and it got comfortable, now I am having trouble breaking that habit.
Day 12 of Symptoms: Where are my test results?
It had been more than 8 days since I took my covid-19 test. I called the attending doctor’s cell phone number. She was nice enough to give me her personal cell to her in case I had any questions. She didn’t have the answer about tests. I called the hospital numbers they gave me to call and the lines were all busy. So I went into problem-solving mode.
On my hospital discharge summary, there was a link to an online platform where I would be able to see my test results. I then called the hospital’s IT department. After being transferred at least 5 times, someone was able to help me with an account and there it was, every single interaction I have had with the hospital and every single test they have taken including results. To this moment, I don’t understand why they insist on calling instead of making the patient online portal the default way of learning about results. This is mostly a problem of volume and scale and the internet handles that better than landlines.
If you’re wondering about what the point of my rant was, yes I tested positive for COVID-19.
Day 13 of Symptoms: Going back to the ER
Finally, my energy was back. I wasn’t feeling completely recovered but by Day 13, my shortness of breath had gone away and I could a bunch of chores around the house with no issue. Yet, things change again.That afternoon, I started feeling chest pressure. Like something was sitting on my chest. It started out mild, so I didn’t pay attention to it but it gradually got worse. I was still breathing fine fortunately. I decided to call the doctor on-call ; she asked me about my symptoms and said it was mostly due to me trying to do too much activity at once all of a sudden. I needed to take it easy.
I wasn’t satisfied with that answer since I have heard of folks getting better then suddenly collapsing. I talked to a friend who is also a doctor and he concurred with my concerns. The best course of action would be to go to the ER and get a bunch of tests done to rule out any issues with the heart or lungs. So, I jumped in an Uber and went to the same ER I went to, a few weeks ago. As soon as I entered, I noticed that things have changed dramatically.
There were now beds everywhere in the hallway and people on stretchers who seemed to be coughing incessantly. The beeping would not stop. I saw two ambulance EMTs on oxygen and one of them seemed to be shaking. I saw nurses as patients and not the caregivers. It was a scene out of a war zone and it was traumatizing. The hospital ER intake told me they were at capacity and the wait on ANY doctor was at least 5-6 hours. The only thing he could do was take my vitals, which ended up being normal.
So, I went home took my Tylenol and hope that I was just going to be okay. I couldn’t see my regular doctor either because all medical practices were closed and only taking virtual appointments. But, how do you look at the heart and lungs virtually? we are not there yet. I didn’t really have a choice so I scheduled a series of follow-up doctor calls and continued taking my Tylenol. My chest pressure gradually got better. I guess we will never know what it really was but I am glad that my immunity, once again, came through.
Day 14: Feeling Better, Until The Bills Came in The Mail
Just like clock-walk, on day 14 since my symptoms first showed, I felt great. I was sleeping better and focused at work. However, The hospital bill came and it wasn’t pretty. I now understand how medical bills bankrupt people in America. To add insult to injury, I then got a bill from the NY Fire Department for the 10 min ambulance ride and it turned out to be the most expense Taxi I have ever taken. I am grateful that I have good health insurance and I remain cognizant that this is not the case for the majority of Americans.
A few weeks later, I checked my hospital online portal and saw that my hospital bill(in the 10s of thousands of dollars) magically came down to 0. I am not exactly sure what happened, but my suspicion is that the relief bill passed by congress known as the CARES Act promised to foot the bill of coronavirus patients. Either way, I am thankful because that is one less thing I have to deal with at the moment.
My hope is that if there is any silver lining to all of this, is that we start putting serious and intentional action into changing the socioeconomic system that run our global economy, but especially those that perpetuate health disparities for black and latinx communities in the United States. We need to stop having conversations. We need to act now.
Other than that:
- Your immune system is your medicine : We know that the entire scientific and medical communities are working hard to come up with an effective treatment and vaccine, but in the meantime you will have to to rely on the old school cold and flu remedies: getting plenty of sleep, hydrating constantly, and taking Tylenol to manage fever and body aches as well as lemon/ginger/cayenne pepper as tea to soothe your stressed respiratory organs. Do all you have to do to have your immune system ready to fight, in the unfortunate situation that you end up catching this virus.
- Most people are recovering: I know it is easier said than done , but panicking and stressing won't do you any good. Au contraire, it might stress your already overworked immunity system. There seem to be no end in sight and the number of people dying can be everyday can be shocking, but 8 in 10 are recovering without stepping in a hospital or seeing a doctor and the infection rate seem to be going down considering we all do our part and follow the experts' advice to social distance and wear masks when in public.
- Most importantly of all, stay home and you will save lives without lifting a finger.