January 20, 2020 was Martin Luther King Day. My husband had the day off and I didn’t. So he dropped me at work, and then picked up his friend Parry, and they spent MLK day playing cards up in Washington at a card room. For the record, he won money because my husband always wins money when he plays cards. He was back in Portland in time to pick me up outside my office at 4:30 PM.
I got in the car and he looked terrible. Just exhausted. And what followed was some kind of puzzled conversation about how he’d felt fine all day, but as he sat in the car waiting for me, something extreme had absolutely flattened him. I remember asking, “It came on that fast?” It had, and it was severe enough that he wasn’t sure if he’d be going to work the next day. I asked my husband if he wanted me to drive, but he said he’d be okay to drive us home.
We weren’t surprised that he’d caught something. He works with a woman we refer to as “Patient Zero” because she always comes to work when she’s sick. All month, her cough had been echoing around his office. The week before, she left the office on a stretcher because she was coughing so hard that she couldn’t breathe. We thought he’d probably caught this from her.
But my husband didn’t cough that much, only every half hour or so. He didn’t think he had a fever, just that dry cough and extreme fatigue. So, because this is how we do it in America, he went to work on Tuesday. In fact, he worked all week. Some days, he found himself staring at the computer in utter bafflement, but he endured. He didn’t bother me at night with his coughing, probably because he took Nyquil. He ate a lot of chicken noodle soup for dinner.
We both thought he was better that next Saturday when we went out for our usual errands; a tank of gas for our daily shared commute, the bulk of our groceries at one store, the remainder at another, and a mad dash through the Goodwill if we felt like it. I think we did most if not all of these stops, but after each one, I’d ask him, “Are you up for…?” And he would stop, and seriously assess. I mean, he had to think about it. And then he’s say, “I think I can do that.”
This is not like my husband. He’s one of those long, rangy men who never run out of energy. So I knew that he really had to be sick.
I didn’t look forward to getting whatever he had, but I assumed that I would. At the office, I stopped helping myself to snacks in the break room, aware that I might be contagious before I was symptomatic. As a rule at work, I don’t touch elevator buttons with my hand, preferring to use the corner of my shirt. I put my hand in my cardigan pocket and run that along the stairway bannister, I open and close the bathroom door with paper towels, things like that. It looks strange but I don’t really care. Laugh if you want to, but I rarely get colds because of my weird little ways.
Eventually, I started having a strange drippy trickle at the back of my throat. That must be it, I thought. It must be coming. On the way home from work, I’d say, “I bet it’s coming on, I bet I won’t be going to work tomorrow.” But it didn’t.
On Sunday, February 2, 2020, it finally arrived. We had matinee theater tickets, and I had a wet, chesty cough. I thought I was okay, though, because the cough was occasional. I loaded up on unwrapped cough drops, and we went to that afternoon’s play.
I timed my coughing for applause and scene changes. I was worried about hampering other patrons’ theater experience, not their health. It was just a cold, right? And the cough was really not that bad. I covered my mouth, I didn’t touch things, I was considerate. We saw, and enjoyed, the play.
But that evening? I stood up from the couch and had a dizzy spell so bad I nearly fainted. And just like that, the cough became wracking, a full body experience that left me gasping for air. Nothing like my husband’s cough, which was dry. I didn’t have a fever, but I felt completely disoriented.
Around the time my husband got sick, my 2 year-old grandson had three days of high fever, pinkeye, and a mysterious, hive-like rash. He didn’t get any cold symptoms. The doctor had no explanation, just a recommendation of Tylenol and rest.
There’s this: Children and Covid-19
My daughter (his mom) had a physical around the same time, and she had an elevated white count. The doctor was worried about that, and so was she. Then, maybe a week later, right about the time I became symptomatic, she came down with what appeared to be the same thing I had, with a horrible, deep cough. We commiserated about the horror of it on the phone. She recommended a Mucinex day/night twin pack, and my husband went to the store and got one for me. That helped tremendously.
I stayed home from work on Monday and Tuesday. Because this is America, on Wednesday I went in. It was soon clear to me that I had no business being at work. I wouldn’t let anyone come into my office and I didn’t touch anything. I gathered materials to work from home on Thursday and Friday, and I went home. “No one should get this,” I told my manager. She completely agreed. She’s good that way. In a company where you show your commitment by coming to work and thumping a bottle of Dayquil down on your desk and working a full day even though you feel like death, my manager is the rare person in charge who says, “I don’t want whatever you have, so stay home.”
I stayed home.
I didn’t have a fever or a headache, just this awful strangling cough, followed by gasping for air and dizziness. I felt like I’d been drowned and brought back to life, which happened to me when I was very young, but that’s another blog post.
I sat on the couch for most of the week, staring ahead, feeling lost and disoriented. The TV was on, but I hardly noticed. I felt no connection to any person, place, thing, or task. To add insult to injury, I got pinkeye. Oh, pinkeye? My husband had some medicine for it, and it went away without much effort, but really? Pinkeye?
Maybe this had something to do with it: COVID-19 and Pinkeye
Here’s the thing. I couldn’t figure out what it WAS. I’ve had the flu a few times, including the Swine Flu. This was not the flu, but that was all I could imagine it to be. I was especially baffled because I’d had my flu shot the previous fall, and it was supposed to be an effective one. And why were my symptoms so different from my husband’s? We decided I had to have something completely different, because he’d been sick, but not like this. I was a mess.
By Saturday, I was just recovered enough to babysit for my daughter, who felt well enough to have dinner with friends. I still felt terrible, but she was in far better shape than I was, and she really wanted to go, so I held down the fort that evening for two grandkids. This was a monumental effort. I was relieved to go home and continue recovering on Sunday.
Then, because certainly my company couldn’t survive for more than a week without my crackerjack copy writing skills, I went back to work on Monday. I wasn’t in great shape, but I could work, so I worked. I worked with a constantly running nose and the occasional cough. I was definitely short of breath and quick to tire.
The news was all about a dangerous virus out of China. I said to my manager, “Do you think?” She said, It’s not here yet, so…” But she kept her distance.
My nose wouldn’t stop running, which I took to be the source of my lingering cough. I have to be careful what I take to dry myself out, and I’d had enough of what I shouldn’t take in the Mucinex day formula, so I let it run. That week, in addition to working, and babysitting again, I called and cancelled our Valentine’s Day dinner reservations. I remember telling the woman I talked to, “I can’t smell or taste a thing, so we’ll reschedule when I can.” I blamed my runny nose for that.
That next Sunday, my daughter called me at 6 AM in terrible pain. I jumped out of bed and took her to the ER. She had her gall bladder out that next day. But that meant that while I was there with her in the ER, and then in the surgery waiting room, and then back in her hospital room, I was still blowing my nose and coughing. Constantly. And I kept worrying that it was more than a cold, more than a flu. I kept thinking about that awful virus out of China, which now had a name: “the coronavirus.”
I kept wondering—knowing, on some level—that I might have this horrible coronavirus while I was in a hospital around sick and vulnerable people. I coughed into my elbow. I washed my hands. I used my shirt to touch the elevator call buttons. I washed and sanitized my hands over and over. I worried.
This is when I started to become frustrated with my friends. I was becoming terrified that I had it. When I expressed my concerns, “It can’t be the coronavirus, Karen. It’s not here.” Even though it was here. Even after people in nursing homes started to show up with the virus. Even though my former brother-in-law, a healthy man of 62, died in his sleep, stunning my family and devastating my sister and nephew. That was his heart, supposedly. But I asked for details—a week of horrible coughing and shortness of breath—and I had dark suspicions.
I’d try to talk about it, and be told no, nope, never. Not possible. I know it was a terrifying prospect, a deadly virus being present in the general population. No one wanted to even hear about the idea, I’m sure partly because no one wanted to have been exposed, no one wanted to be at risk. And to be fair, some of the people who refused to hear the idea that I’d had it really love me. Maybe they were afraid to admit they might have lost me.
Even after we had a confirmed case in the US, backdated to January 20th, I was told over and over again that I couldn’t have had it. It had somehow gotten here to the US and made just that one person sick, a person who hadn’t been traveling in any of the areas where it was rampant. That’s called community spread, but no one was ready to admit it yet.
After a few days of post-surgery recovery, my daughter was coming home from the hospital. Her boyfriend worked swing shift, so my ex-husband and I figured out a schedule for helping her with the kids until she healed. He would do afternoons, and I would cover evenings. But I’d started coughing again, so I went to Urgent Care on March 12th to make sure I didn’t have bronchitis. It had been over four weeks of being sick at this point, and I couldn’t kick it.
At the Urgent Care, they listened to my symptoms and asked me to wear a surgical mask. This is the first time in my life I’d ever had one on my face, and I didn’t like it. I was told there were no tests available for the new virus, the county had a few but they were reserved for…people who were not me. So they couldn’t help me with that.
I was examined and had a chest X-ray. The radiologist looked at my X-rays and said I had a pattern of lung damage that suggested COPD, and I needed to follow up with a pulmonologist. I think the chances of my having COPD are pretty slim, since I’ve never been a smoker. I know it could happen with secondhand smoke, but I haven’t been around that for over forty years.
You know how you just know? I just knew. I knew what I’d had, even though no one around me would admit it.
I am not a medical alarmist. I’m more the opposite. I expect everything that’s wrong with me to just go away; colds, flus, bone spurs, high blood pressure, a hemorrhaging uterus, heartburn so scorching they thought I had Barrett’s Esophagus–you name it, I ignored it until I absolutely couldn’t.
So, my heart. I guess since mine did, I assumed everyone’s hearts stopped beating now and then. Sure, it’s an alarming feeling to have your heart stop beating, but I was used to it. You know how you’re sitting there and then you can feel your heart stop and you think, wow, come on now, let’s have a beat! Yes? No? Doesn’t your heart do that? Well, mine did, and I ignored it for a long time. Years. Maybe ten, before I did bring it up to the doctor.
She was the perfect doctor for me, because she told me to calm down, nothing was wrong with my heart, and to buck up. She shamed me for imagining something was wrong! “What do you do for a living? That is NOT a high stress job.” (She didn’t know my manager back then. That was a terribly high-stress position due to that manager). But I was more than happy to buy into that and continue ignoring my symptoms. And maybe six months more went by before I almost passed out in the break room at work, so I went back to her, because even I know that passing out in the break room because your heart is out of rhythm is not normal.
To humor me, she ordered a Holter monitor for me. She did it to set my mind at ease and to get me to calm down, I’m sure. So I went to the heart lab and got everything attached, and wore that weird little box on my chest for a few days. I dropped it off on a Monday morning, fully expecting to be shamed for even thinking something was wrong.
My doctor had to call me after the heart lab looked at my results. “Karen, you need to go to the cardiologist at 1 PM today to discuss your Holter monitor results. Please be aware that you might be admitted directly to the hospital after your appointment.” Well, after an echocardiogram, and a stress test, and a lot of sobering instruction, I was allowed to go home. Two times a day, I take a potentially lethal medication for ventricular arrhythmia. My prescription has one side effect—sudden death—but that usually happens during the first week, and I’m obviously still here. My medication works great for me and I’m so glad to be on it.
My point is, I had that heartbeat irregularity for at least ten years before I became concerned enough to take it seriously. Also, if you’re wondering why someone with a serious heart condition didn’t die from having COVID, I take Losartan for my blood pressure. Read this: Losartan and COVID-19
Let’s go back to my timeline. What happened next?
Well, we all figured out this was serious, and here, and it wasn’t going away or evaporating. The world was shutting down. We’d started working from home. I finally stopped coughing, but my nose was still running. And as more information came out about the virus, the huge variance in our symptoms and severity made complete sense to my husband and me.
We knew we’d already had the thing, which now had a name, COVID-19. My husband and I wondered, if we’d had it, were we immune? Did that matter? We masked up, washed our hands, stayed home. But we wondered. Oh my god, did we wonder.
I heard about an antibody test. In the spring of 2020, there was no way to get one, at least not in Oregon. Still, I asked. I asked quite a bit. When Zoom Care started offering the antibody tests, I thought seriously about taking one. My doctors said they were so inaccurate that they were basically useless. So I didn’t take one, and in retrospect, I wish I had.
On April 3rd, I made a pot roast. I make a good pot roast, and I thought this was going to be a good one. The dogs were going nuts at the smell, and I could smell it, too. But the only thing I could taste was the sweetness of the onions. The whole thing tasted sweet. Even the gravy! I wondered if I’d somehow used sugar instead of flour to dredge the roast and thicken the gravy, but nope. I’d used flour. It was inexplicable.
Later that month, I was turning 60 with no party, no trip, no celebration at all. This was not how I’d envisioned turning 60. I was disappointed. On the day itself, my husband brought me one of my favorite comfort-food meals: turkey dinner from Banning’s Restaurant. I’ve eaten this turkey dinner more than a few times in the 36 years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, and it’s always just right. But I started eating, and the food had no flavor. None. I was dismayed and felt betrayed. What had happened to Banning’s? Why did their takeout have no flavor at all?
My husband had a similar experience while eating his beloved meatball sandwich from Subway. He said, “They’ve done something to the sauce. I don’t know what it is, but this is terrible. It’s just wrong.” This was unnerving.
Then, I realized that I couldn’t smell unpleasant smells. Plenty of these were around the dogs, because dogs are basically composed of bad smells. I couldn’t smell their dog food when I fed them. And in the morning when I stepped out with them after breakfast so they could do their business, the odors of their pee and poop usually wafted over the smell of wet grass. No more. My dogs are old, and if one of them used the pee pad during the night, I couldn’t smell the urine.
As far as humans, I couldn’t smell anything bodily, ever, from myself, or my husband. I couldn’t even smell morning breath. Now, none of this seems like something you’d miss, yes? But the ability to perceive unpleasant odors is probably important, even if it’s not pleasurable. An entire range of smell perception was gone.
A June 23rd follow-up visit with a pulmonologist got my “damaged” lungs an all clear. By that time, I’d heard that there was a pattern of lung damage associated with COVID. I don’t know what the radiologist was seeing, but the pulmonologist thought my lungs looked just fine. I accepted the good news of healthy lungs with massive relief and went on with my life.
The summer arrived in Portland. My baby grandson, who was actually a toddler at this point, a walking, talking, toddler, had also arrived in Portland with his moms, who were working remotely to avoid the COVID hotspot that was Brooklyn, NY. His other grandma was going to help with daycare, and she was doing the necessary isolation and quarantining in order to do that safely. Being able to see him mask-free and hands-on would involve a lot of quarantining and isolation from my other grandkids, one of whom is technically a “step,” so she comes and goes from another household with a lot of unknowns as far as infection vectors. But if I had antibodies, this wouldn’t be an issue, right?
In the summer of 2020, in Oregon, there was only one way to get an antibody test, and that was to give blood. So on July 23rd, my husband and I went to donate. I was so hopeful. Yes, it had been six months since he had the virus, and five since I had. But I was sure I’d had it and this would give me proof.
Guess what. Neither of us showed antibodies in our blood, which isn’t surprising because apparently they only show up for three or four months after you’re infected. I was crushed. I wanted proof, not so I could wave it in the face of people who doubted me (okay, that would have been nice), but so I could see all my grandkids, even if they couldn’t see each other.
Well, I had no antibodies, and it was hard not to see my other grandkids, but I did it. I took days off work to help his moms with daycare while they worked from home. It was idyllic—hanging with this little guy who usually lived across the country me, getting to see him and know him, learning all his charming, funny ways. But then, on top of the pandemic, we had wildfires. To escape the smoke, my younger grandson’s family spent time out of town, either at the coast, or at his other grandparents’ in McMinnville.
And then, my youngest daughter and her boyfriend decided to move to Eugene. I wanted some quality time with the other grandkids, and with my daughter before she left, so I broke quarantine. In mid-September, we really broke quarantine to help the kids move to Eugene, including a meal inside a truck stop on moving day. My husband and I were exhausted from the move, the drive, the chokingly thick wildfire smoke. It was just too darn smoky to eat in the car. My gosh, it was strange to sit in a restaurant and eat.
I haven’t been back in the bubble with my younger grandson ever since. But I can have masked porch visits with him until the end of next month, when he returns to New York. He knows me, knows my name, and he likes me. We have some jokes, and we’ve discovered that we share a deep affection for dogs (or “woof-woofs” as he calls them), and Santa Claus (who says “ho-ho-ho!” and has a hat and a beard). We might not have discovered these deep and meaningful commonalities without the pandemic.
We’re lucky, and we know it. Both my husband and I are employed. Our companies are financially stable, so we don’t spend time worrying about that, and we’re able to work from home. We’re especially glad that he can work from home, as my husband works with people who have to travel internationally as part of the business, with plenty of trips to Asia. His office has had several confirmed cases, and one person in another part of the company passed away. I’m relieved that my husband hasn’t had to go in once.
We also have more money. I haven’t analyzed why, but my husband has. He told me last week that he thought we were in better shape financially because we spend so much less on gas, car maintenance, lunches out, entertainment, movies, theater, concerts, dinners with friends, and all the activities that were such an important part of our lives before this pandemic. I’d talk about how hard that is, except we’re all in the same boat, and we all know how narrow life has become.
No matter how sure I am that I’ve had COVID-19, I’ve never had proof of that, or been convinced that it made me immune. I’m smack in the middle of a high-risk group because of my age, weight, high blood pressure, and bad heart. So I’ve socially distanced, washed and sanitized my hands, and worn my mask (cloth, with a kickass filter) from the time it was recommended.
As we get closer to the mythical wonders of vaccination, I’m buckling down on my safety measures. With my risk factors, I’m damn lucky to have survived this once. I don’t want to take a chance on twice.
My nose is still runny. The lymph nodes in my neck are still swollen. I went in for a physical, and my doctor wanted an ultrasound of the lymph nodes, and the verdict was that I have unknown allergies or I’m getting over something. Well, I haven’t had a cold since early 2019, unless what I’ve so painstakingly described here was a common cold. Even so, I was sick in February and March of last year. We’re coming up on a year.
My stamina is shot. I’m not a particularly active person, but I used to be able to walk FOREVER on level ground. That’s just not the case anymore. I’m sure sitting around working from home isn’t helping, but I do have a lingering shortness of breath that I find more embarrassing than debilitating. It could be related to my heart, or to post-COVID. I don’t know what to do about it.
And then, there’s the pain. Occasionally, maybe once a week, I’m overtaken by a burning pain right under my skin that can only be helped by lying down for fifteen minutes. It’s especially terrible through my neck and shoulders. It BURNS. I don’t know what this is, or if it’s related to COVID, but I’m hopeful that it will go away. That’s been steady all year.
But the worst part is the degradation of my taste and smell. I think I only realized how much I’d lost when it started to come back to me. I can taste most flavors again, but not all. I was one of those people to whom cilantro tasted like dirt, but it was so omnipresent in food that I started to like it, and then came to love it. I’m completely back to square one on cilantro; it tastes like dirt. Garlic is back after being completely absent. I’m still waiting on basil. I think it will come, I hope it will since that’s one of my favorite herbs. It’s so refreshingly pungent. Meat odors are iffy. I can sometimes smell red meat as it cooks. I can’t smell salmon.
Maybe this explains it: COVID-19 and the senses
Food is one thing, but people don’t smell right. I can’t find those warm and comforting smells I associate with my kids and grandkids; their hair, mostly, you know how everyone’s hair smells different? And sometimes I smell strange to myself, like I’m in a state of decay. That’s alarming. But like I said, it seems to be getting better day-by-day. I can smell all the dog smells again, which is gross but reassuring.
I’m actually excited when I smell something bad. It means my nose is working. But then, there’s the brain fog.
Last spring, after we got over the whatever-it-was, my husband and I seemed to take turns saying, “You know…” or “Hey, um…” or “Oh!” Then we’d just sit there, waiting, because whatever it was would vanish. This would happen three or four times a DAY to each of us. We were good-natured about it. We thought maybe it was related to age, or the lack of input in our new home-bound lives, in which there was nowhere to go and nothing to do besides work, watch TV, or sit on the back patio.
As we hit the year anniversary of him getting sick, I’m happy to say that he no longer does this. I still do it, but very rarely. But sometimes, more often than I want to admit, I have to stop and wait for specific words.
I know some of this comes with age and with menopause. During the worst of menopause, six to eight years ago, I lost a lot of basic vocabulary. For two years, I was reduced to saying things like, “The stuff you put in the washing machine to get your clothes clean,” or “The thing you put toilet paper on in the bathroom.” But that was temporary. It’s been five years since I had anything like that going on.
Guess what. It’s back.
The other morning, I spent two minutes trying to remember the word “cantaloupe.” I could only come up with “cauliflower.” But I was patient, lying in the dark before I got up, thinking, come on, Karen. It’s right next to honeydew, or muskmelon, or orange flesh melons, all of which you love, but you don’t like the one that makes the inside of your mouth itch, and that’s…cauliflower. Cauliflower? It’s not cauliflower. Its something else.
Finally, cantaloupe appeared. I felt such triumph. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. Cantaloupe! Which I don’t like to eat because it makes my mouth itch! But I’m so glad to have the word for it!
I’ve never been good with names, ever. But I can generally remember the names of people related to me, and the names of my friends and coworkers. Over the last year, I’ve had to reach and wait for the names of people I know very well. I lost my friend Guy’s last name. I love his artwork, and hadn’t seen it in my Instagram feed. I was wondering if the algorithm just hadn’t shown it to me, or if he’d stopped posting, so I needed to look him up. But I couldn’t remember his last name. I knew his sister’s last name, but that’s a married name. Guy’s was a blank. Finally, I got out my phone to scan my contacts, and thought, “Will it be under Guy? Or Edwards?” There you have it, his name was back.
And here’s his art, if you’re curious: Guy the brilliant Edwards
This is lessening, thank god. I think my brain is healing itself. Distant memories will come flooding back out of the blue. Especially first thing in the morning, I’ll be overwhelmed by the feel, smell, angle of light, birdsong of a childhood backyard. Song lyrics I’d thought were lost to time will bathe my brain. I’m once again able to sing the entirety of “Free Man in Paris” (and most other Joni Mitchell songs) without a gap. My theory is, parts of my memory were disconnected somehow by COVID, and it’s all returning. I’d like to believe I will get it all back; my memory, my sense of taste, my sense of smell, my stamina.
We shall see.
Currently, the CDC estimates there are three undiagnosed cases for every confirmed case in the US. My guess, rooted not in science but in my gut instinct, is that there are probably ten unconfirmed cases for every confirmed positive. Our testing ranged from unavailable to unreliable during the times it was most crucial to know our numbers. I also think massive amounts of people tested negative when they were positive. How else to explain people like a coworker of mine who quarantined with his COVID-positive 12 year old child. He was alone with his asymptomatic kid for two weeks, and he got deathly ill, and he tested negative (he has recovered, though he can’t run up the stairs easily right now).
I’m not a scientist. I don’t know everything. But I’m pretty sure my coworker had it. As did I. As did my husband, and my daughter, and another daughter I haven’t even talked about here who might have had it in December of 2019.
But I still have friends who don’t believe I had it, because I have no positive test for the virus or its antibodies to prove it. Some of them have grudgingly accepted that the virus might have been here in February, but when it comes to me having it, the most I’ll get from them is a “maybe.”
Except, there’s this news: It appears that COVID antibodies were present in the Red Cross donation samples in Oregon last fall. You can read about it here: COVID-19 antibodies in donated blood Blood donors on the West coast (including Oregon) had COVID-19 antibodies last fall, which means, of course, that they were sick with up to four months earlier.
COVID-19 was very definitely present in Oregon in January and February of 2020.
When I couldn’t possibly have had it.