“I have a headache,” I said, reaching for the bottle of ibuprofen in our cupboard.
“Should we take your temp?”
“Maybe later, I need to start dinner.”
“Let’s just take it,” my husband handed me the thermometer. He had read a few days earlier that frequent temperature checks were now commonplace in China and had been taking his on the daily ever since.
“Is that bad,” our eleven-year-old asked, his eyebrows squeezed together. “Are you sick, Mom?”
I looked my husband. He held my gaze briefly before we both turned to look at him.
“Nah,” I said. “I’m probably just hot from cleaning the bathroom or something. I’ll take it again after dinner.”
By the time we finished dinner and the ibuprofen had kicked in, I was feeling better and my temperature was 98.9. Just a fluke, we figured, and when we woke up in the morning, we had all but forgotten about it.
But by 11am, as I sat on the couch attempting to write while our boys busied themselves with online classes and practicing Spanish and working on yo-yo skills, the fever was back. And this time I knew it before I even reached for the thermometer.
I told my husband I was going to go upstairs and take a nap. But I didn’t tell him that my chest hurt. And I didn’t tell him that I had been feeling a strange and painful spidering sensation in and around what I assumed were my lungs for the past few days. I didn’t want to worry him. And besides, it was probably nothing. I’d take a nap and we could reassess when I woke up.
But I couldn’t sleep. When my husband came upstairs to check on me a couple hours later, I told him about the pain in my chest and we took my temp again. It was 100.5. My breathing was shallow as we sat wordlessly on the edge of the bed together but whether it was anxiety or illness, I couldn’t say.
We knew I should move my things downstairs and quarantine myself but it was still hard to make the call. Hard to believe it was necessary. Hadn’t I just made everyone pancakes for breakfast? Surely everyone had already been exposed to whatever I had.
I threw my toothbrush and some clothes into a bag, tossed in a stack of books and grabbed my blanket. While my husband explained the situation to the kids, I opened our only bottle of Clorox wipes — the ones I’d been saving for an emergency — and wiped down the counters in the bathrooms and every surface between my bedroom on the top floor and the guest room on the bottom. It seemed pointless, considering all the ways I’d already exposed everyone, but I figured it couldn’t hurt. And besides, it was the reason I’d been saving them in the first place — for just such a moment.
I moved downstairs on Thursday, April 2, and that first night felt endless. Elastic. It seemed to stretch and pull out in front of me into some unknown, infinite darkness. Not because I was sick, really, but because I was scared. Was this the coronavirus or could it be something else? There was no way to know but I rolled the possibilities around in my mind in an endless loop. Aside from my daily walks I hadn’t left our house in a week except once to get groceries and once for a bike ride but it did seem a very strange time to come down with a respiratory illness featuring a fever, chest pain and shortness of breath.
My husband tells me it was a never-ending night for him as well. Our boys camped out with him in our room upstairs and he laid awake for a long while after they had fallen asleep, staring at the wall in a sort of mute terror.
I searched endlessly for online articles and first-person stories about people who actually had Covid-19. There were surprisingly few. There were plenty of posts and memes about beating the boredom of quarantine which I’m sure I would have found funny a few days earlier. There were state-by-state statistics, symptom checkers, and endless speculation about how to calculate the R nought.
But I felt so alone and so afraid as I passed hour after hour after hour in a feverish haze, worried that I had an illness that was sending some people to the hospital and some to the morgue and I was reaching for something beyond the latest tallies and viral videos of dogs talking about toilet paper shortages (as funny as they were when I was well). Eventually I stumbled on a prayer someone had written as a prelude to Easter in the time of Covid and I thought I had finally found something meant for me, something that might soothe my shaky spirit.
But it didn’t. The prayer mentioned frazzled parents trying to homeschool unruly children. It mentioned the fear of losing a job. It mentioned those worried about making rent and maintaining good mental health and fighting boredom and loneliness and panic. It mentioned waiting for a new season of Succession. But it did not mention the sick. It was a good prayer and I found countless blessings and benedictions, blog posts, messages, essays and articles about how to survive and thrive through this trying time but there was nearly nothing for the sick.
The first few days are fuzzy now, in my mind’s eye. Clouded over and cached, almost inaccessible. I know that a close friend dropped off chicken noodle soup late in the evening the first night. I know that my boys were often found loitering in the doorway to my room. I know that friends and family were texting and checking in. But even with Tylenol around-the-clock, my fever just wouldn’t break. It didn’t feel like any flu I’d ever had. I only got out of bed to use the bathroom and it winded me to take those twelve steps to the toilet. I didn’t develop a significant cough — though I did have one that was weak and unsatisfying. My breathing was so shallow that the nurse at the doctor’s office noticed it over the phone and my head ached constantly. The pain in my chest was severe.
My doctor listened to my symptoms during a brief phone call, asked a couple questions and then told me to eat well, get some exercise (exercise!?) and wait it out. I relayed the 5 minute phone call to my husband and we stared at each other, realizing, I think, the same thing at the same time: we were on our own.
A close friend of ours who works for the CDC offered to help. He phoned a friend — a doctor in New York City who works with coronavirus patients in one of the hospitals. Despite the devastation she was — and still is — witnessing during every hour of every shift and a weariness that even now I can only guess at, she found the time and energy to send us several voice memos.
She told us what to do and what to watch for. She told us when things were likely to take a turn for the worse and how I would know if I needed to go the hospital. She told me which medicines to take, which ones to avoid and what position to sleep in. And she told me to get tested.
Having found my own doctor unhelpful, I called a public health clinic that was listed in The Seattle Times. I was approved for a test within minutes and an appointment was scheduled for a drive-through pop up near downtown.
I made my way to the testing site on Monday morning, April 6th and it feels nearly impossible to articulate the feelings I had as I made my way through the traffic-less city. Everything about the pandemic had been out there until I got sick. Reading about testing sites and looking at pictures of health care workers walking around in hazmat suits was nothing compared to pulling up alongside one of those tents with signs that said, “DO NOT OPEN YOUR DOOR.”
Easing my car into the coned-off line on the normally bustling block, I gazed down the deserted Seattle street. I had never seen the International District so still, so quiet. It was eery. I concentrated on the car in front of me. There were two people in it — a couple, it looked like. Older than me — maybe in their late fifties. One in the driver’s seat and one in the seat behind the driver. They were both being tested. As they pulled away from the tent and I rolled forward to take their place, the woman in the back seat turned around and we locked eyes. She was crying, same as me.
The nurse motioned for me to inch forward a little further. After looking at my driver’s license pressed against the glass and confirming my appointment, she gestured for me to roll down my window. When it reached the midway point, she stuck out her palms. “That’s enough.” Then she reached through the opening to stick the obscenely long q-tip up my nose and twist it — first to the right and then to the left — up the right nostril for Covid-19 and the left for flu testing. I watched through my rolled-up window as she slipped the swabs into a plastic bag and dropped them into what looked like a shoe box. Then she told me I would receive my results in 3–5 days and I went home to wait.
Three days later, after being downstairs in the basement for a full week, my fever finally broke. I had lost 8 pounds but I felt immense relief to finally be free from the fog of fever. Still, though, the searing pain in my chest would not abate. I woke in the middle of the night a few hours after my fever broke — after thinking I was over the worst — and could not get a full breath. I repositioned myself. I sat up. Propped my pillows. But no dice. I remember looking at the clock. It was 1:37am.
I watched a Chris Cuomo video in the dark and listened as he said his doctor had told him he needed to move around. I got out of bed and windmilled my arms. I shuffled to the bathroom just to have something to do, something to distract me. I read a book and checked my oxygen levels. They were lower than they had been earlier in the day but still in the safe zone. I finally fell asleep a few hours later and the next day my results were in.
“What?! How could it be negative?” my husband asked.
I shrugged, baffled.
“But… if you don’t have Covid, what do you have?”
“I don’t know,” I shook my head. “The flu? But maybe I don’t need to quarantine anymore…”
Just as my husband raised his eyebrows, nodding, and reached out an arm to put his hand on my shoulder, our CDC friend — who is quarantining with us and had moved heaven and earth to find me a pulse oximeter at the suggestion of NYC Doctor — shouted, “NO!”
I was in my n95 mask, breathing hard, and we looked up at him, eyes wide. My husband was standing closer to me than he had in over a week but CDC was shaking his head. “No,” he said. “You probably still have it. It’s probably a false negative. Let’s wait until the flu tests come back. That will tell us more.”
Deflated I trudged back downstairs. I was confused and frustrated and exhausted. The test said said I didn’t have it. What are the odds for a false negative? What are the odds my results were wrong?
Pretty high, it turns out. False negatives occur up to15-30% of the time in Covid-19 testing, depending on all sorts of factors, including timing of the test and limits of detection. Still, though. It seemed pretty far fetched. It had to be the flu.
But the flu tests came in the next day and they were both negative as well. I called my doctor’s office for advice but I was only allowed to speak with a nurse who said she would relay my questions to the doctor. I needed a chest X-ray, she told me an hour later when she called back. But I couldn’t come in to the clinic. It was too risky with my symptoms. I’d have to go to a walk-in clinic downtown for people with symptoms of Covid-19. There was no phone number, no website, she said. You just show up.
The thought of driving myself downtown to some undercover Covid operation overwhelmed me. It seemed risky and besides, I was too tired to make the trip. CDC had another doctor friend — this one in Seattle — who agreed to come over and examine me, listen to my lungs, and offer another opinion. So we sat on the front porch, masked and gloved, and she put her stethoscope to my chest, moving it here and there, front and back, listening carefully for several minutes. Finally, satisfied, she said she thought I could forego an X-ray for the time being but she would check in again the following day.
So that’s what we did. NYC Doctor and Seattle Doctor and CDC conferred several times a day and we took things hour by hour. When I had been fever-free for a full 72 hours and my symptoms were improving, I was allowed to come back upstairs. It was Easter Sunday.
We made all the requisite jokes about resurrection and rising from the dead and coming out of the tomb and it really did feel like a coming back to life, of sorts. We lingered long over our breakfast and someone seemed to be touching me at all times — a small hand cupping the back of my neck or a forearm resting on my thigh, gentle fingers stroking strands of my still-wet hair— as though we needed to reassure ourselves that I was really, truly there. In the afternoon my husband drove me over to a street lined with magnolia trees in full bloom a few blocks away — I had been worried about missing all of Seattle’s springtime flowers while I was downstairs. We got out of the car and stood with the sun on our upturned faces, holding hands and wiping away tears while our boys whizzed by on their bikes.
Nine days later Seattle Doctor stopped by the house again. The lab where she works had developed an antibody test and she brought one for each of us. We took turns sitting at the counter while she pricked our fingers and then we waited for the results. Everyone’s test — my husband’s, both our boys’, and CDC’s — was negative except mine. Mine was positive for the Covid-19 antibodies.
So my swab had come back negative when really I was positive. I’m not counted in the official tallies for King County, Washington State, USA or the world. But I did have Covid-19 and I’m guessing there are probably many more like me — people who had the virus but didn’t know it because their test was a false negative
I’m not an expert. I’m not an epidemiologist or a doctor or a politician. I don’t know what all of this means. I only know that talking about the virus and the stay-at-home orders and making predictions and pointing fingers is one thing and actually being sick is another. Being sick, being isolated — worrying about whether I would have to say goodbye to my kids and my husband over an iPad and feeling like I was poisonous, radioactive, like anything I touched could disintegrate and dissolve before my eyes — was unlike anything I have ever experienced.
I’m better now. Mostly. I’m back to bemoaning the hardships of being at home for all eternity. I’m back to brooding over my graying roots, scrolling through social media and worrying about whether or not we’ll run out of hand soap.
But I remember what it was like to be sick. I remember listening to the footfalls of my family upstairs while they readied themselves for bed and I sat alone downstairs. I remember sitting up through the long watches of the night and wondering if anyone else was feeling what I was feeling; if anyone else sensed the same squeezing in their chest; the unbearable weight of it all as they lay upon their bed, afraid that it might never ebb but push and push and push until their very body was cleaved in two; torn, ruptured, rent like our lives, our connections, our common tables, like the atom — exploding, flying, obliterating everything we thought we knew about the world.