SALT LAKE CITY — During the first week of July, I started experiencing severe fatigue, a sharp uptick in headaches, and a feeling of significant discombobulation (i.e. brain fog). To top that off, my seasonal allergies were having a veritable hay day.
A logical person would add my symptoms to a worldwide pandemic to the road trip I took in June and conclude that I had probably contracted COVID-19.
Logic isn’t necessarily my strong suit. Road tripping, for all its awesomeness, has exacted a requisite toll on me ever since I suffered a brain injury in an accident seven years ago. I always pay a physical price and need a week or two to "recover." This price generally involves my brain not functioning well, having severe headaches, and needing lots and lots of sleep.
So I figured I was just paying my road-tripping price, albeit for much longer than usual. Brain injury recovery is anything but predictable, so not much surprises me anymore.
But by the end of that week, when I realized my food was tasting like bland oatmeal and I couldn’t smell the rolls baking in the oven, my COVID-19 red flag finally raised (I can be remarkably slow on the uptake). So, I scheduled a test for Monday, July 6.
The doctor, standing in the parking lot at my car door listening to my symptoms, said, "I’m highly suspicious (that you have COVID-19). So far, everyone who’s tested positive (from this office) has reported a loss of taste and smell."
The doctor’s message was clear: a pandemic, by its very nature, doesn’t always allow for us to know where we pick up the virus. With a theatrical sweep of his hand, the doctor’s parting words to me were, 'Welcome to the pandemic!'
Then, in an effort to figure out the origin of my particular case (which I was still really, really hoping was negative), the doctor and I discussed details. It turns out that my road trip was too far in my rear view mirror to be a likely source. As far as we were aware, no one in my family had been exposed to the virus or was exhibiting symptoms. And my habits of mask wearing and hand washing — although highly recommended and commendable — can never be 100% virus-proof.
The doctor’s message was clear: a pandemic, by its very nature, doesn’t always allow for us to know where we pick up the virus. With a theatrical sweep of his hand, the doctor’s parting words to me were, "Welcome to the pandemic!"
Isolation: Hovering on the outside of life
My family members were tested Tuesday, July 7.
On Thursday, July 8, my results came back positive.
On Saturday, July 9, my family members’ results all came back negative.
To be honest, my feelings were mixed about my family’s test results — a part of me wanted them to be positive. Had that been the case, I thought we could have all quarantined together and been “done” for the foreseeable future — hopefully. If at least one of them had tested positive, I would have actually known my COVID-19 origin story. But they didn't, and I don't, and I never will.
In separate phone conversations, both the doctor and a nurse from the state of Utah instructed me, among other things, to self-quarantine away from my family. After a minimum of 10 days from the onset of symptoms and an additional three days of being symptom-free, I would be considered no longer contagious.
What was it like to self-isolate for two weeks? Knowing I was carrying a lethal virus was like nothing I’d ever felt before, and I was determined not to even come close to exposing anyone.
This meant never being physically close to anyone. Spending all my time outside or in my bedroom. Wearing gloves and a mask if I ever walked through the house. Seeing my kids pull their T-shirts up over their noses and mouths when they saw me (my husband, bless him, refrained). Having my meals “delivered” by masked, gloved family members who may sometimes have been holding their breaths.
I was hovering on the outside of life, observing others live their lives, halfway living mine.
Physically, I had zero taste or smell, no energy for exercise beyond a stroll around the yard, seriously impaired cognitive function, nagging headaches, and constant mild congestion. Beyond those persistent symptoms, I spent several hours one evening with unrelenting muscle pain in the back of my legs. The longer it went on, the more panicky I became, seriously concerned that I may end up in the hospital. Fortunately, the pain began to ease off; once gone, the leg muscle pain never returned.
To be clear: I was absolutely, beyond a doubt, one of the lucky ones. My heart constantly aches and often breaks for the hundreds of thousands — along with their families — whose cases have been tragic.
For better and worse, I had lots of time to read. Why not find out all I could about the very virus I was carrying? Well, because ignorance, my friends, can indeed be bliss. After several days of going deeper into the online COVID-19 woods, I decided it would be best for my mental health to start reading books that didn’t require much mind space. Once my intense anxiety about COVID-19’s possible long term effects subsided, I eventually went back to a moderate diet of daily news consumption.
Beach reads, in all their delightful frivolity, saved my sanity.
Recovery ... and a 2nd test
Once my 10-plus-three days were over, I was still having a difficult time determining whether I was symptom-free. I had regained much (but not all) of my kaput energy, my headaches had decreased, and my brain function seemed to be improving (less confusion and memory loss, for example). I had been told not to expect my taste and smell to return after two weeks (they hadn't), and I assumed the ongoing congestion was related to that. But how could I determine whether my ongoing symptoms were from my brain injury, allergies, or COVID-19?
I had read that a second test that comes back negative was a surefire way to determine lack of contagion. So, to ease my mind and the minds of those around me, I decided to be tested again on Monday, July 20 (a full three weeks since the onset of my symptoms and 14 days since my first test).
While waiting for the results of the second test, I ended my self-isolation and moved out into the big world of my entire house. In a word, heavenly.
When I woke up on Saturday, July 25, and saw my second positive result on my phone, I felt like throwing up.
My husband saw my phone, paused, and said, "I was afraid of this."
Late the night before, he came across a statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (posted July 22) announcing new findings and updating its testing recommendations. In summary, the statement says that because COVID-19 is now known to be detectable long after persons are no longer contagious, second tests are no longer recommended. Later that day over the phone, the doctor confirmed this information while at the same time reminding me that I'm not necessarily exempt from getting reinfected or possibly infecting someone else. The doctor advised me to please wear a mask in public if I chose to go anywhere.
Being told by multiple sources that I’m definitely, almost for sure not contagious while also knowing that the virus is definitely still kicking around inside of me can best be described as living in a COVID-19 twilight zone.
Later that night, we celebrated my son’s 23rd birthday by ordering from the Cheesecake Factory. I was so excited to eat that cheesecake, momentarily forgetting that I wouldn’t actually be able to taste what is my favorite flavor of all time. That tasteless bite of cheesecake ended up being my proverbial straw.
Those pre-COVID days can’t come back soon enough for me. Days when I can hug all my friends and family — with impunity. Days when I can invite dozens of people to my house just because. Days when I can smell rolls baking in the oven and taste my favorite all-time foods. Days when I can walk into a store and not feel anxious, wondering if one ill-timed touch might transfer the virus to someone I love. Days when I can stop worrying about the tragic possibility of an immunocompromised loved one testing positive for COVID-19.
Moving forward: I can't stop living
We truly, truly don't know what we have until it's gone.
Whether those days will ever return as we knew them is yet unknown. But in the meantime, I can't stop living.
I can give my family and friends virtual hugs — with impunity — every day. I can invite dozens of people onto a Zoom call just because. I can bring rolls and cheesecake to anyone I want, anytime I want. I can pray for and talk to my immunocompromised loved ones, day or night.
I'm one of the lucky ones. My life is still before me, and I'm going to live it — one bite of cheesecake, one beach read, one cry, and always one prayer at a time.