YourCareEverywhere’s Temma Ehrenfeld, who lives in New York City, shares her experience after contracting and being diagnosed with COVID-19.
People are always curious how I was infected with the new coronavirus. I’ll never know for sure, but there are two strong possibilities: the soup kitchen or the woman who cleans my house. On March 22, a Sunday after New York City had been shut down except for essential functions, I biked through the eerily quiet streets of Manhattan to the soup kitchen at a local church. I didn’t hesitate over this trip: we were getting sad emails saying it would close without volunteers and reminding us that it fed hundreds of homeless people.
I biked, I wore a mask, I didn’t touch anybody. But I joined a group of 10 people who weren’t wearing masks, and we put sandwiches into bags standing next to each other beside a long table. Then I handed the lunch bags to the people waiting in line for food. For five hours, I was well within six feet of many unmasked people.
The other possibility is a woman I’ll call C., who came to clean my apartment on Monday. We always talk and hug. When I called her to say I was sick, she told me she had three other clients who were ill.
By Thursday, I went to an urgent care facility in my neighborhood complaining of a urinary tract infection and fever. Did I have a kidney infection? The doctor asked me if I could be exposed, and I told her about the soup kitchen. She gave me the nasal swab to test for COVID-19 (coronavirus).
By Friday I had a headache and heavy chest and fever. On Saturday night, I was panting as I sat on my couch. I texted a friend who had already recovered from the virus: “Were you panting?” “No!” she texted. She called me and was alarmed. I couldn’t finish a sentence without catching my breath. “Go to the hospital,” she said. But I knew the hospitals in Manhattan were overwhelmed. I would be more exposed to the virus there or I’d infect someone else, and I might end up in a hallway on a gurney.
I navigated my insurance company’s computer interface for Doctor-on Call and at the end it said, “Call 911.”
So I called my own doctor, Dr. Leo Galland, who called me back in minutes, and timed how long I could hold my breath. I shouldn’t go to the hospital, he told me, unless I couldn’t hold my breath for 20 seconds.
Over the next days my helpers magically appeared. My friend Jamie called me from New Mexico every morning and every evening to take my “measurements,” how long I could hold my breath, how long I could stand, and my temperature. Later, when my heart rate shot up, we took my pulse. Steve in Massachusetts called every morning at 10 and gave me his attention for 15 minutes — we timed it (and I always went over). Sally did my shopping, David, the chairman of my co-op board, who I barely knew, texted daily with hilarious quips and picked up prescriptions.
I was afraid of being alone and falling unconscious, so I had a system: I would text every two hours and if I didn’t call, a designated helper would call me, usually Caroline in Philadelphia, and if I didn’t respond, David would come bang on my door, which I kept unlocked, and if I didn’t answer, call 911.
Dr. Galland was in touch every day. Over the course of my treatment, I took supplements he recommended, antibiotics, and two drugs that have shown some promise for this coronavirus but are unproven: the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and a drug for head lice, ivermectin.
I have a CPAP machine for sleep apnea that blows air into your lungs. I had stopped using it before getting the virus, but now I slept with it and stayed on it during the day.
After four days of panting in bed, I was more frightened. Dr. Galland and I decided I would go to the urgent care again and get a chest x-ray. I texted my board chairman that I was going out and using the elevator (he emailed everyone in the building not to use the elevator until it was disinfected after my return, though he kindly didn’t identify me by name).
My chest x-ray said I had mild pneumonia. I was prescribed antibiotics.
I hadn’t been outside in so long. It was Friday night, just before 7, when I left the urgent care. At a busy intersection that should have been thick with people, there were only about 20. The cars were honking, the people clapping and cheering. It was the nightly thank-you to the medical and essential workers, which I had only heard before from my window.
Over the next weeks I took antibiotics, and the hydroxychloroquine, but it made my pulse go up and is known for causing heart irregularities, so I stopped taking it. I stopped using the CPAP during the day and began sitting at my computer to write and read and watch TV and movies instead of sleeping.
Six weeks in, I went back for another chest x-ray. My chest was clear.
It was only the second time I had left the house, in all that time.
I was still having moments of fast breathing, waves of exhaustion, occasional nausea and diarrhea, and fevers. Yes, I was better than I was six weeks ago, but I still felt like I had a virus.
Dr. Galland is following my case closely. I also enrolled in a telemedicine service organized by the Mt. Sinai hospital network, which has, perhaps, treated more COVID-19 patients than any other healthcare system. I fill out a phone app questionnaire every day, and every week I speak to my doctor there, Alexander Ruvinsky, by video. He tells me that I’m not alone. Many patients like me, many of whom were not hospitalized, still have symptoms like mine. Another group is much worse. They are too exhausted to do much at all.
I now put in about two-thirds of my usual work hours, and I can walk eight flights to my apartment (yes, there’s an elevator if I want it!). I can walk in the park with a masked friend and his dog. But I get tired.
I was a person who easily biked 40 miles. Now it’s an effort to walk four.
I don’t regret volunteering at the soup kitchen. The church has changed their system so that volunteers aren’t packed together. The organizers simply didn’t know earlier in the virus pandemic how easily you could be infected. We all had gloves. They thought that was enough.
C., my cleaning person, wanted to keep working; she needed the cash. I begged her not to. It didn’t occur to her to ask the service company to pay her anyway. It turned out that when she opened up the conversation, they did, and she stayed home.
New York City has recently opened. But the problem isn’t over. If you get sick, you might feel nothing, you might be sick a week, or two, you might have symptoms for weeks or months, and you might die. You don’t know which group you’ll be in.
Besides wanting to know how I got infected, people ask me if I was tested. That test back in March turned out to be negative.
Should I get an antibody test? I’m too irritated at the chance that it will be negative, too. Even if I do have antibodies, we don’t know what they mean. Could I get sick again? Yes. Either way, I’m wearing the mask, I’m keeping my distance, and I’m getting the vaccine, when it becomes available.
June 19, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN