At this point in the pandemic, nearly everyone knows someone who has experienced COVID — if not a close friend, co-worker or family member, at least a casual acquaintance or friend of a friend. Some of us may know a handful or a long list. And unfortunately, some of us know a person who has died from COVID-19's complications.
I’m one of those who has had the virus. I’m an example of how you can be super careful and still get it. And how despite not being in advanced age category, you can really be knocked down hard. And how it might not be something that leaves its mark in lingering symptoms weeks later.
The first real bad effect I had was Nov. 2, when I developed a bad headache. I chalked it up to election day stress and hoped it would go away the following day when we had a clear winner of who our next president would be. The next day we still weren’t any closer to knowing for sure who won the election and the headache didn’t go away. It got worse. Much worse. It was so bad that I couldn’t open my eyes. Any bit of light was excruciating, as was any sound. I spent most of the day in my dark, quiet bedroom taking Tylenol around the clock with a wet, warm rag across my eyes. With the pain in my head also came nausea.
After the whole ordeal, I thought back and realized my first symptom actually probably showed three days earlier. I woke up Halloween morning and realized I’d slept more than 9 hours and didn’t wake up until 11 a.m. That was very unusual. I usually am up earlier, after a usual 6-7 hours of sleep. The following night I slept even longer. I just felt tired and lazy.
The headache continued for several days, joined by dizziness, muscle aches, weakness, cough, sore throat, congestion, diarrhea, stomach cramps, chills, a slight fever. I also had a loss of appetite and wasn’t eating more than a couple bites a day, but what I was eating didn’t seem to have much taste, which isn't uncommon when you’re congested.
It was on the third day that I thought perhaps it could be more than a migraine and put in a request with my primary care doctor’s office for a referral to be tested. I looked up symptoms on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and had every one, except for loss of smell and shortness of breath at that point. By the time I got a referral to get tested, I was too miserable to leave the house. I was so weak I could barely lift my head off a pillow to get a drink of water or lift my arm to look at my phone.
I recalled a friend telling me that she knew she had it when she grabbed some fresh herbs from her garden this past summer and she couldn’t smell them. I started sniffing lotions, perfume and candles several times a day to see whether there was a scent. When I put a candle to my nose and there was no aroma, I figured I probably had the virus. That same afternoon my husband got a positive confirmation to his test taken for work. If he had it, I knew I had it. It wouldn't be until day 13 that I was tested while in Franciscan Hospital in Munster.
I continued to get worse and scheduled a virtual appointment with my doctor. I did the video call on my phone from my bed. I could barely sit up and open my eyes for the call. When she asked if I had experienced any shortness of breath, I told her I had. She recommended I go to the emergency room.
After that virtual visit, my physician, Dr. Maneka Kaul said: “During the video visit I could see you looked pale and exhausted. You seemed short of breath even talking to me. COVID is a devastating illness which can worsen your condition very quickly from having just flu like symptoms to respiratory failure leading to ICU admission.”
I was hesitant to report that for a couple days it had felt like someone had laid a brick on my chest and I was getting winded just walking across the room. The thought crossed my mind that if I was admitted to the hospital, there was a chance I may not come home.
At the ER, the doctor advised me that I had pneumonia and said they’d treat me and send me home. I suspect that may have been because there were no beds available. A few hours later after getting antibiotics and steroids through an IV and a shot of blood thinner into a my stomach, a nurse came in and said they’d move me to a room and started oxygen. I soon heard music in the hallway and the song "Fight Song" played. I had seen on television that they were playing it to celebrate when a COVID patient was being released from the hospital. When I heard that play, I thought to myself, 'I guess a bed just opened up for me.' I was there for four days and then went home not feeling a bit better than when I was admitted.
I had a number of other symptoms that ranged from insomnia to extreme hair loss to earaches to toe pain to leg cramps to bloody noses - some perhaps a side effect of medications I was taking or ripple effects from other symptoms. At one point I made a list of all the physical and mental abnormalities I’d experienced during COVID. There were more than 50.
It’s been two months now since my first symptoms arrived. It took at least five weeks for me to have a day where I could say I felt good or somewhat normal. I’m still having shortness of breath when walking for a bit or standing too long in one spot. I haven’t walked more than a half of a block at one time since before COVID appeared. A long or intense conversation leaves me struggling to catch my breath. It’s more difficult to go out and do errands or do shopping in-person because standing in line too long gets me winded and lightheaded and wearing a mask makes it feel worse.
So, I'm spending 99% of my time at home. The times I leave the house are primarily to do curbside pick-ups or drive-thrus where I can stay in the car. I’m hoping that as time goes on the breathing situation improves and I'm trying very hard to be patient.
I spent the first half of the pandemic so far getting out to forest preserves and other scenic spots in the Region — some days walking up to 4 miles. Now I can’t even walk around the block. And all I can do right now is wait and see what happens and take it day by day. Still, I know I'm one of the lucky ones.