It started with a sore throat. Pain clenched inside me, mild but notable. It was the kind of sore throat one would normally ignore, were it a normal time. One might think, “Oh I’m allergic to something” or, “Maybe I'm getting a cold.”
Then there was the fatigue. I awoke already tired, with no energy to work out on the elliptical or to walk the dog. I didn’t want to do laundry. I didn’t want to do anything.
My husband started having symptoms the night before me. He had a sore throat, fatigue, a mild headache, a bit of a cough. In his alarm, he slept in the guest room, trying to protect me from whatever he had caught. But it was no use; I awoke in the morning with the exact symptoms.
I have never called the doctor for a mild sore throat and fatigue before. I am not so easily cowed, health-wise. As a burn survivor, I have endured countless surgeries and the worst pain known to mankind. It is hard to get my attention for cold symptoms. Fatigue? I push on and grab a nap later. Sore throat? I drink some tea with honey. Aches? I gulp two ibuprofen and return to work.
So, it was unlike me to have a (virtual) doctor’s appointment within six hours of developing symptoms. But this is no ordinary time.
“Do you have a fever?”
“Has your sense of taste or smell changed?”
“Are you having chills?”
The doctor looked at me, blinking through the computer screen. “I think you are probably OK, but we just don’t know these days. Many people think they are having allergies, and it turns out they are COVID positive. People can have coronavirus with no symptoms at all. Would you like to get tested?”
“I don’t want to waste any tests, if we are in short supply, or if you think I’m overreacting.”
“It’s fine. We have enough tests in Pennsylvania right now. And we have paid a heavy price for not testing enough. Go get it done.”
My husband and I drove to the local test center in a soaking rain. The center had a pop-up, transient feel, like a political campaign office that springs up six months before an election. One day it had been an empty office near the mall, the next day it bustled with grim-faced people in masks. A young Black woman ran to our car in her protective gear, her bright smile somehow evident behind her mask and plastic face shield. We completed the paperwork and waited to be called.
My husband got tested first, and then it was my turn. As I walked up, Doug stayed to hold my hand.
“It takes longer than I thought. She has to really get up in there and dig around.”
“You will be OK. It doesn’t hurt. It just feels weird.”
The woman pulled out the swab and I leaned my head back. That swab went so far up my nose I thought it would emerge out my left ear. She waved it around inside me, in a way which felt . . . overly committed (but was probably necessary.) There is no way to wave a swab high up in your nose and make it feel fine. It didn’t hurt though.
When she was done, she carefully loaded my swab into a tube. “You will get the results in two days.”
“Oh, OK, thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” She smiled a beatific smile. I marveled at her bravery, her commitment to helping strangers, striding out in the rain with her mask and face shield.
Unplanned, I blurted out, “God bless you” as I returned to my car.
Forty-eight hours is a long time to wait if you might possibly have a life-threatening illness. It was also a long time to think.
I traced every step and each contact. There weren’t that many, in the past 14 days. It’s not like I go out much anymore, and I do wear a mask. Still, I had been to my office, to the hair salon and to the nail salon (four months of quarantine does nothing for a middle-aged woman’s appearance). We had had windows replaced, and I had seen two friends, mostly outside. In addition, I had visited my mother in law. I thought of every one of those contacts and shook my head. Had I endangered them all?
Why did I visit my mother in law in her home? Yes, she wanted us to come. Yes, it made her happy and we had a lovely visit, sharing dinner and watching Hamilton. But was that visit worth it? If I were COVID positive, there seemed impossible that I hadn’t infected her. We stayed in her beach house overnight. I didn’t hug her and I tried to keep my distance, but her house has only three small rooms. If I gave her COVID 19, there were multiple medical reasons why I might have imperiled her life.
Then there was my best friend, Susan. Why had I hugged her? I didn’t mean to. In fact, I had studiously avoided hugging her this spring, to the point that she teased me, mocking my caution. But the last time she came over, we ventured indoors, and I played a special piano medley for her. Susan knew this medley because she also was my best friend when I acquired it, four decades ago. My musician father had arranged it for me as a birthday gift, but the piece was so challenging that I had never been able to play it through. Now, four decades later, after months of diligent quarantine practice, I played this medley triumphantly. My fingers flew all over the keyboard, ending in a cascade of thumping chords. Susan grinned when I finished, and I felt such joy that I spontaneously hugged her around her waist. We both dropped our arms quickly, remembering that we shouldn’t touch. But still, I had hugged her.
Darker thoughts came. What if I died? Who would look after my daughters? I don’t mean practically; my 23 and 21-year-old daughters run their own lives, intelligently and independently. I mean emotionally. Who would tune into them? Who would even remember to check on them? There is so much hard learning to do in your twenties. There would be professions to start, partners to marry, children to bear, mortgages to acquire. Young adults need attuned parents to offer a caring, soothing safety net. And yes, they had a father and a stepfather too. But, wouldn’t my daughters need a mother?
Two days later, at about 48 hours exactly, I received a message from my doctor. “Good news: your results are negative! Congratulations!”
I woke my husband from his nap. “We are negative!” We beamed at each other and breathed a long sigh of relief.
What did I learn from these two days of fear? I could say I’m going to be more careful now. But honestly, I’ve always been pretty careful. I wear my mask and I keep my distance. When opportunities arise to socialize with a group of people indoors, I smile regretfully and decline. I do not travel. I do not dine at restaurants. I do not hug (except that one time!) I give myself a B+/A- in COVID safety.
What this experience really taught me is how calamitous it would feel to be positive. The fear, the regret, the guilt; it was overwhelming. This experience fully recommitted me to caution, despite the psychological fatigue of these past months. Now, when I don my face mask, or back away from a person, I feel peace. I am glad to take these actions and I do them with intent and commitment. I’m content to be careful, for myself, my family and for everyone around me. It is no problem. In fact, it is an honor to protect people.
It felt awful when I thought I had COVID.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.