I’ve gone back-and-forth about posting any of this info. Unfortunately, I can’t say for certain what I experienced was COVID-19, but after talking things over with my family, I’m going ahead and letting folks know about this as a kind of PSA; a way of letting folks know what they may or may not be in for if they do get sick right now. Looking around on the internet, I’ve seen plenty of info about how to prevent getting sick and how to quarantine oneself, but very little about what the symptoms physically feel like. I’m hoping this will help clarify some of the mystery. That being said, read this with a grain of salt and read as many accounts as possible.
I got sick last week. Quite sick. For context’s sake, let me state that in the past I’ve thankfully never been cancer-sick, but I have had: strep throat (as an adult, several times), an emergency appendectomy and countless bouts of the flu. So, I have some experience at being ill. And last week was something special (by which I mean absolutely nightmarish).
The symptoms started on Saturday, March 28th, but had really set in by the 29th. These included 1.) headache 2.) joint ache 3.) fever and 4.) exhaustion. What I did not experience much of was shortness of breath (it did happen, but I couldn’t figure out if that was due to the exhaustion or the physical pain of trying to take deeper breaths). Nor did I experience loss of taste or smell. These four symptoms increased in severity over the next 3.5 days and took about as many days to diminish.
The headache was pretty excruciating to be honest. It was right behind my eyes and it felt as if needles were trying to force their way out of my eyes. This meant sources of light (lamps, sunlight, screens) were incredibly painful to experience. Any stimulus of my eyes was the pits.
The joint aches started in my knees but by Sunday evening had traveled up to my hips. It meant lying in place was painful, seating was painful, standing was painful. There really wasn’t any particular body position that didn’t include some form of minor to major physical pain. So, if I wasn’t asleep, I was changing position as often as I could muster.
My fever ranged between 101-102.7 from Sunday until Wednesday morning. I’ve had higher fevers, but this one still induced what doctors call “rigors.” Basically a very extreme kind of teeth chattering that extends throughout your entire body. If I was out of bed for more than two minutes and wasn’t covered head-to-foot in two layers or more, I had to quickly get back under the covers where my entire body would shake and tremor for three to seven minutes. So, leaving bed was a fairly involved expedition like preparing to go mountain climbing in the Himalayas.
But the most brutal of all the symptoms was the exhaustion. This was of a type and degree that I’ve never experienced before. I was constantly overcome by a deep wave of exhaustion. The closest I’ve felt to that level of exhaustion was driving all night somewhere to play a concert, taking a twenty-minute nap, then playing the concert and then driving several hours to where the evening’s sleep would occur. But I felt like this all the time. I felt like this after sleeping for twelve hours, I felt like this after walking to the bathroom, I felt like this after sitting up in bed. It was constant. And combined with the joint pain, it meant every time I did wake up, I felt like I had just been used as the rope in a game of tug-of-war between a couple of Samoan families. Like I had just been slapped and punched in all the places that wouldn’t show bruising but still caused pain. I don’t think I’ve ever been as exhausted in my life.
Combined, my symptoms just made me stay in bed and try to sleep. Sleeping was the only time I wasn’t exhausted and in pain. If I was lying in bed not asleep, then I was building elaborate paranoid nightmares about the (to me) imminent apocalypse. About every six hours I would take a couple of Tylenol for the fever. By day two I was alternating with Advil to help with the joint pain. I have a family member who is a doctor who had assured me that taking Advil wouldn’t be any worse for me than Tylenol, and in my experience he was correct.
Talking to this family member and his wife (also a doctor), it seemed that I had a MILD case of COVID-19. Let me stress that again, THIS WAS A MILD CASE, NOT A FULL-BLOWN ONE. This brings me to one of the takeaways I’ll be coming back to: YOU DO NOT WANT TO GET THIS VIRUS. YOU ABSOLUTELY AND POSITIVELY DO NOT WANT TO GET IT. IT IS NO MORE LIKE THE FLU THAN PNEUMONIA IS LIKE HAVING A COLD.
By the end of Wednesday (about four days after onset of symptoms) my temperature had gone down to about 99 and the joint pain, headache and exhaustion were beginning to diminish (they were still present, but manageable). I wasn’t well enough to do much more than lie in bed (still didn’t have the energy to read, listen to music or watch a screen), but at least I could do that peacefully. But a new symptom had crept in by this time: pain whenever I swallowed. This hadn’t been there before, but will be important to the story later.
By Friday, the primary symptoms had pretty much gone. There was just a little bit of a headache, but that was all. But the pain in my throat had if anything, increased slightly. Along with this, sleeping at night had become very, very difficult. Now, I’ve always been a night-owl. It’s hard for me to fall asleep at a normal hour (i.e. before midnight) under ideal conditions, but this was something different. I still felt tired and physically drained, but I simply could not fall asleep. Under typical conditions, I’m simply not that tired late at night, but this time I around, more than anything, I wanted to sleep, but simply could not will myself into sleep. I would take my temperature in the depths of the night and I still wasn’t showing much of a fever, so this didn’t seem to be caused by the COVID, it seemed to be something else.
I was really hoping to come out of self-quarantine by Sunday, but to do that, I had to go seventy-two hours of being asymptomatic. And while the primary symptoms seemed to have gone away by Friday, I was really concerned by this swallowing and inability to sleep issue. I created fairly elaborate rituals to get myself to fall asleep on Friday and Saturday nights: making sure I was in bed by 9:30, giving myself two full hours to fall asleep, coming up with a variety of meditations to help calm me, a specific herbal tea, everything I could think of. It seemed to work, but on Saturday night I still didn’t fall asleep until about 3:00 AM.
Nevertheless, I left self-quarantine on the evening of Sunday, April 5th to physically rejoin my family. To celebrate, we ordered some hamburgers from a favorite place that night. And while I thoroughly enjoyed that burger, it took me almost forty-five minutes to eat it, I had to use such small bites and chew it that completely. Clearly, my throat was getting worse. And that evening’s attempt at sleep proved something was still wrong. I lay down in bed, next to my wife and for the next seven hours I proceeded to completely not sleep. I thought I was going to lose my mind. I was supposed to be better at this point and now it seemed pretty clear I wasn’t and I had therefore put my wife and daughter in harm’s way as well.
It was a shitty night, but I did manage to finally nod off around 5:00 AM. I awoke around 2:00 PM pretty bleary and with my throat feeling like a noxious mess. Basic swallowing was absurdly painful and it felt like anytime I talked, I had a wad of moist cotton shoved somewhere in the back of my throat. At this point, there was no choice except to go to an urgent care center.
Everything moved quickly then (well, as quickly as it can in a major metropolis in the midst of a pandemic), but it turned out that I now had strep throat, and that the strep had caused an abscess to grow around my right tonsil (for those who want to be completely grossed out, feel free to google “peritonsillar abscess”). I got shuttled around to a few more medical centers and hospitals and by 5:00 AM on Monday (well, technically, Tuesday), I was home in bed, abscess-free.
Things are finally better now. The family-member doctor now thinks I had strep throat all along. The doctor who drained the abscess thinks I had a mild case of COVID-19 which decimated my immune system and left me susceptible to Strep Throat. I don’t know which one is the answer. I do know that the symptoms I felt at the beginning of last week felt nothing like strep throat (which, again, I’ve had several times as an adult), and that untreated strep isn’t supposed to result in one’s fever disappearing (like it had by the previous Friday). But I also know that very little is known about C-19, and since I wasn’t admitted to a hospital as a C-19 patient, I never got the luxury of a test and since I live in the U.S., and given how truly shitty our healthcare is, I might never know if I had C-19. And the biggest shame about that is that if I did have a mild case of C-19 and I got over it, then I probably have antibodies that could be of help to others with this virus as well as doctors and scientists studying it.
My big takeaways from this? My reason for writing this PSA? DON’T GET SICK. For real, anyone saying that this thing feels just like the flu couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve had the flu countless times, and this was infinitely worse. Combined with the psychological terror that the virus you’re sick with might kill you and/or your loved ones, this is a super serious virus that I wouldn’t wish on anyone *. It’s pretty unrelenting and quite miserable. In addition to that, it completely shreds your immune system and makes it that much easier to get sick from “little” things. I’m in my late-40’s and reasonably healthy and this has to be in the top 5 of “Sickest I’ve Ever Been” (if not top 3). That being said, I hope that the description I’ve given will help shine a little light on what to expect if one does get sick. Stay healthy out there
*Let me be clear, there is one particular group of people that I think should get this virus. And that is the small select group of people who have the power to help prevent the spread of this virus, but do not help. And even worse, in some cases cause even more people to get sick. Those folks should all get the virus to see what they’re condemning others to. Sadly, this group includes 90+% of Republican lawmakers in the U.S. and I wish that were not so, as that’s an indication of just how broken and wrecked our two-party political system is.