we can do this.
Last night I was in an ambulance on my way to Swedish Hospital in Seattle because my chest hurt and my breath was increasingly shallow. I was tested for COVID-19.
My daughter grew sick on Tuesday: fierce headache, then sore throat, chest pressure, muscle aches, and bellyache. Poor kid has never had a headache before. It was hard for her to go to sleep. She ran a low fever. I talked with our doctor on the phone, and she suggested that these symptoms fit COVID symptoms that doctors are seeing around here. But, since testing is impossible to obtain right now, we should keep her home and monitor her.
By Wednesday Lucy was starting to feel better, just as I was starting to feel lousy. Let me tell you—and Lucy said the same—this thing comes on FAST. I had a low-level headache all morning and felt tired and lethargic. By 5 pm, the headache was fierce. And within 10 minutes I had absolutely no energy. Then I got weird flashes of muscle aches in individual parts of my body—my knee hurt, then my liver hurt, then my hip joint. Then a low-level fever and exhaustion.
Lucy and I both felt the same thing: this felt DIFFERENT than any other flu. It just felt weird.
Yesterday, I woke up with intense pressure in my chest and a dry cough. It got worse during the day. I have been reading about this thing to be aware for the country but also for myself. Before I was diagnosed with celiac, when I was 37, I had suffered 6 bouts of pneumonia. Growing up, I either had bronchitis or pneumonia every winter. And then I had another bad bout of it 4 years ago. I know my body. For this, I am grateful. I know what my body feels like when it is starting into pneumonia.
However, yesterday was Desmond’s birthday. Poor kid couldn’t have a party or see his friends. I wanted him to have a cheerful day. Danny and I kept checking in, to see if things were getting worse in my chest. At the beginning of the day, when I took a deep breath, I could feel a little tug at the bottom of my lungs. By 5, I could not breathe as deeply. And there was pain.
I stuck around as long as I could. After dinner and a rice krispie ice cream treat with a #6 candle, I calmly told the kids what was happening. Danny drove me to the fire station. (On our rural island, if the clinic is closed, you go to the fire station.)
The EMTS and medics asked me through the window if I had a respiratory illness. When I said yes they took a few moments, then emerged outside in full paper coats and masks. Some of them wore protective plastic face masks. They brought out a chair and asked to me wait until they could move away before I emerged to sit down. They asked me questions. At first they wanted to send me home, since the directive they had been told was to only bring in people with emergency respiratory distress. (When I told a nurse that later, she said, “Oh no! Anyone who feels like they need to be seen should come in.”) But when they measured my oxygen levels and realized they were at 90% and I told them my history of pneumonia, they decided to take me in.
Getting pure oxygen in the ambulance was the first rest I had felt all day.
Swedish hospital is well set up for this. The EMT driving the ambulance called me in as “possible COVID.” (That felt weird.) They wheeled the gurney into a prepared room. Everyone had protective gear including plastic face protectors. I had wonderful care. My ER doctor recognized me. He said his teenage daughter loved taking cooking classes from me last year.
I got a COVID test, which is a long spindly swab high up in the nose. It’s uncomfortable and odd but not painful.
They won’t know results for FIVE DAYS.
I came home on the 1 am ferry. They decided they didn’t want to keep me, since I could catch other germs at the hospital. And they need to save beds.
I’m in bed at home now. I have an inhaler, an oxygen saturation measuring tool, and a thermometer. They also connected me to an impressive text-messaging service for people who have been tested for COVID. Three times a day the service texts me to remind me to take my temperature, measure my oxygen levels and heart rate, and enter it into the database. Measuring my data means they can tell when I might need to come in again. I like data.
I think I will be fine. I erred on the side of caution at the first sign of my lungs feeling involved in this. In the past I might have brushed it off and said, “Oh, I’m sure I’m fine,” then waited until I was much sicker. I’m grateful I know my body so well.
The doctor said pretty clearly that he thinks I have it. Who knows? Maybe it’s just a different, lousy virus. That doesn’t really matter now. I acted on my body’s instincts, based on all the science I have been reading, and I know how to watch out for myself now. I can heal, either way.
I wrote much of this, over many hours of typing, then resting, for my friends on Facebook, partly because I wanted to tell everyone at once instead of answering a bunch of text messages. However, I also wanted people to know about this for themselves and the people they love. One of my friends wrote, “How did this happen to you? This thing is still rare.”
Oh friends, this thing is not rare.
The doctor last night said they aren’t asking anymore if you have traveled to a foreign country or been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed. COVID is endemic now. It lives on surfaces for 1 to 3 days. Everything is happening fast, but one of the nurses told me they are starting to understand that COVID aerosolizes, meaning it can live in the air for a few hours after people have sneezed or coughed without covering their mouths. (When I coughed into my elbow in the ER, one of the nurses thanked me. “You wouldn’t believe how few people cover their mouths in here.”) If it lives in the air for awhile, then it acts like tuberculosis, she told me.
This stuff is everywhere now. Assume other people have it so you can stay away. Assume you have it so you don’t make other people sick.
I read recently that the Harvard School of Public Health suggests that whatever number you see for official diagnoses in your state should be multiplied by 50. So, if Washington state has 1376 diagnosed cases, assume we actually have 68,800 people who have it right now, people who are asymptomatic or having such a mild case they don’t suspect they have it. (And since I wrote that sentence one hour ago, the number of cases in Washington jumped to 1524 official diagnoses, so make the number 76,200 instead.)
I asked the ER doc about this last night and he said that he thought was about right.
Plus, there still have been NO TEST KITS in our town. Think about that. I live in a closed system, an island with 10,000 people and no one here has been tested unless they went to the emergency room, like I did last night.
When testing does finally increase to the point that more and more people can get a test easily, like they have in South Korea, the number of cases are going to EXPLODE. And then people will freak out. But those numbers are happening now.
By the way, we have been self isolating here since my kids left school last Thursday. (Was that 3 years ago?!) We have gone to the beach for walks with friends. We went to the movie theater with 20 people in it, all in separate places. Danny and I each went to the grocery store once since then. My guess is that my daughter caught it from someone undiagnosed at her school. Or maybe my son? Oh, who knows. But here is the thing. We have been doing everything with extraordinary caution to flatten the curve. I may still have it.
So, assume COVID-19 is in your town, your city, your state. It is.
Here is what I want you to know.
I asked the doctors and nurses, after I thanked them for their work, about how they are doing with this. They said they are fine now at Swedish. But they are all resting and taking care of themselves as much as they can because they know that in a few weeks they will be hit by a tsunami. “This is what we do,” they told me. Bless them.
I also want you to hear this.
Yes, it’s hard being in our homes and going without playdates and closing our restaurants and being with our kids 24/7. We have every right to be upset about what is happening to our jobs and lives. Every right. Everything in America is different now.
But the nurses and doctor all told me that they wish everyone would calm down about COVID itself. 80% of people come through it fine. I will be one of them. There is no need to panic. Stop buying toilet paper. STOP BUYING MASKS. The medical folks need masks. They are almost out. Think about that.
Keep calm. Get on the floor and play Legos with the kids. Think of this time as a chance to slow down. But do not panic about the virus. Almost all of us will be fine. And if we take this time to practice compassion on a massive scale by calmly staying home, it’s possible we might have enough beds to help heal those who really will be hurt by this.
Keep calm and let the medical professionals do their jobs. We can do this.
UPDATE ON SATURDAY MORNING:
The nurse at the ER called. I do NOT have COVID-19. Thank god. We just have a lousy flu in our house. (Danny got it yesterday.) Whew!
The nurse also said that I was right to come in, since so many of my symptoms matched COVID-19 and my lungs are susceptible to respiratory disease. If anyone you love is immune compromised or medically fragile or over 65, do not take any chances. Any of these symptoms? Pay attention.
Take this seriously, folks. Watch yourself and the people you love.
STAY HOME, everyone.