L ast week, while lying in a hospital bed, struggling to breathe, I read about myself on the internet.
“Anesthesiologist, Teacher Among New Confirmed Covid-19 Cases in PA,” the headline read. But the true headline is this: I’m one of the lucky ones.
Although I tested positive for COVID-19, developed pneumonia and dangerously high liver enzyme levels, I narrowly escaped being transferred to the ICU to be put on a ventilator. I’m home now, but I wake up each night around 2 a.m., reeling from the ordeal, still battling the emotional scars of the experience.
M y symptoms emerged on Friday, March 13, the day after the high school where I teach English shut down under Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders. My daughter Julia accompanied me on a walk with our puppy. Halfway through, I felt overcome by weakness and complained to Julia that I didn’t know if I could make it back to our Wyncote home. She offered to go ahead and get the car, but, as a former runner, that hurt my pride, so I pushed through and made it home.
That afternoon, the fevers started — with a cough, chills, aches, and pains. A former journalist, I had been following the science of the coronavirus for weeks and was convinced I had it.
On Saturday morning, I called my doctor’s weekend service but was told by the covering doctor that he couldn’t order a test based on my symptoms alone. My fever never exceeded 100. I could breathe OK. I toughed out a weekend of fever, chills, and cough.
I called my doctor on Monday. I was told again I couldn’t get tested based on my symptoms, but I also couldn’t be seen in the office just in case I had coronavirus. My fevers continued through Tuesday. Luckily, my doctor called back later on Tuesday — regulations had changed overnight, he said, and he could now order a test for me because of my age — 52 — and my history of asthma.
O n Wednesday morning, I visited the local drive-through testing site, a dystopian experience where the doctor dressed in full hazmat gear swabbed my nostrils and suggested I start steroids after listening to my lungs. He looked me in the eye and told me not to be afraid. My test results, he said, would take four days to process. Get on the prednisone, he urged.
I did, but by Thursday my breathing became labored and only worsened by the weekend. I developed nausea, lost my taste and smell. That’s the most notable hallmark of my coronavirus story — the symptoms kept morphing.
Meanwhile, as I watched the nightly news, I saw the stories streaming in about more people being hospitalized and dying. I began to fear the worst, while Julia started delicately suggesting that we might need to go to the emergency room. I could see the fear on her face. I was starting to panic, but I fought my family’s pleas. I wanted to avoid the hospital at all costs.
O n Saturday morning, a week into my illness, I called my doctor’s weekend service again. I was barely able to speak and breathe. He insisted I go straight to my local ER.
My husband, Scott, drove me there and kissed me goodbye in the parking lot. He’d never be let in, I insisted, because I surely had given him and both of my daughters the coronavirus (not to mention my colleague and his father, who in the days since my diagnosis has tested positive and has been hospitalized twice with symptoms).
As soon as I was triaged, I was quarantined. That’s when my true ordeal started.
After being isolated in a room on a cot with the door closed, health-care workers started poking and prodding me as they ran various tests. Nurses took my blood pressure and completed blood work. Techs ran an EKG. The respiratory therapist gave me a nebulizer treatment of albuterol for my breathing. A team took an X-ray of my chest. Another COVID test was ordered. An IV line was put in. The ER doc questioned me, and I told him I was scared, that I couldn’t breathe. All the health-care workers who cared for me were diligently trying to administer good care. But it was clear that this virus was uncharted territory.
I waited in that ER room alone on a cot in a scant gown, hooked up to all sorts of wires, for about 10 hours before being moved to an official hospital room. I had no food or water. I had to study the tubes and wires so I could remember how to plug them back in when I went to the bathroom. I asked for a pillow, but there were none. No TV, the door closed at all times, I was left to labor to breathe and wait and worry.
When the ER doc returned with my test results and decided he’d be admitting me, I knew it wasn’t a good sign. I’d resisted the idea of the virus winning its war against my body, but, as I stared at the walls, alone, hour after hour, my new reality set in.
All those years of running, never smoking, a meat-free diet, daily vitamins. I shouldn’t be gasping for breath, I told myself. I thought about my girls and all we’d been through together. I got angry that my body was failing me.
B etween Saturday and Sunday, I was finally transferred to the cardiac unit, where I got more tests. My liver function levels were exponentially high. The X-ray showed pneumonia in my left lung. My COVID test came back positive at 4 a.m.
Because I’m a teacher and have come in contact with many students, I emailed my principal so that families could take precautions.
By Sunday the pulmonologist and infectious-diseases doctors explained that they were watching me closely and thinking about moving me to the ICU, where I might be put on a ventilator.
As someone with asthma, one of my greatest fears is not being able to breathe on my own. I knew the odds of coming off the vent were not good. I’d held my father’s hand and watched him die after days on a ventilator. At that point, I became terrified. I wanted to rip the IV from my arm and flee the hospital.
My family went into overdrive — and this is where I’m luckiest. When talk of the ICU and ventilator started, my sisters desperately tried to transfer me to the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, which has a coronavirus team. However, the two hospitals refused because they said my care plan wouldn’t change with the move. My husband remained calm and FaceTimed me by the hour, calming me when I was the most frightened and in pain. My daughters, brother-in-law, and niece delivered toiletries, food, an iPad, and other necessities to the hospital. My younger daughter, Caitlin, baked my favorite cake.
E ven though I knew all the medical professionals were doing their best in challenging circumstances, I still felt alone in my battle against my body.
It was as if I were existing in a fish bowl: I could see doctors, nurses, and other staff discussing my case outside my window. We communicated by a phone next to my bed. I felt like a caged animal, a pariah, having to talk through a mask to the doctors and nurses who entered my room in protective gear.
It was an apocalyptic experience.
CNN was streaming into my room 24/7 and I watched the death numbers rise every day. Don’t let that be me, I thought to myself.
The most frightening part of the experience was that it felt as if every doctor who saw me contradicted the former, seemingly spitballing on my treatment plan.
I was put on steroids, then taken off steroids and told why the CDC warns against them in cases of the coronavirus.
I was given a nebulizer breathing treatment (which did really help me breathe better the first day), told I could have another, and then refused any others for the remainder of my stay (even when I asked repeatedly for one) — again, I was told, because they’re not recommended in COVID cases.
The first ER doctor said he and the X-ray doctor disagreed about my scan results.
My family debated with the team of doctors about whether to put me on the hydroxychloroquine. Whether it was the hydroxychloroquine or not, one day after being given the drug combination (antibiotics were added), I made some progress and began breathing better.
The liver function tests started trending back down. I narrowly escaped the ventilator.
O n Wednesday night, I was released from the hospital to continue to heal at home. After five days without a shower and my body bruised all over, one of the first things I wanted to do was to take a bath.
I may be able to scrub off the gluelike sticky substance all over my chest from the repeated EKGs I was given, but it will take time for me to recover from this experience as I watch the numbers of coronavirus cases exponentially grow. I worry whether other victims of this insidious disease around the world enjoy the same access to luck, love, support, and medical care that I did.
As I submerged myself in the tub, trying to scrub away thoughts of the experience, the black-and-blues on my hands, arms, and stomach from needles and IVs remain as reminders of how important access to good public health care for all is — and how fragile we all are at this moment in time.