Notes from the COVID-19 house

Notes from the COVID-19 house

‘We failed to lock our daughter in the tower and disinfect the entire castle. We are in for a penny, in for a pound. That’s what family means.’

BRATTLEBORO — March 25: It's official! We have The Plague.

Our daughter, Maxine, tested positive. As soon as we found out we were exposed, we went on house arrest.

Maxine's friend's mom works in the New York/New Jersey metro area and came home to the area last week. She did not know she had it; her daughter passed it to us unknowingly.

COVID-19's first symptoms are headache, body chills, body aches, shortness of breath going upstairs. Not much of a fever. Just overly “warm” sometimes.

It's like a body flu without the head congestion and more lung constriction. The rest of us have no symptoms, but we assume we have it - and we are seeing no one.

Despite the fact that Maxine was exposed and had symptoms, we had to beg to get her tested. The shortage of testing is ridiculous. This is a federal issue, and federal guidelines are to save tests for hospital use.

It's difficult to get tested, so they are telling people “assume you have it and stay the eff home.” (In medical speak.)

* * *

March 26: Maxine is absolutely fine, with symptoms of body aches, fatigue, and headaches. She's young and healthy, so we are not that concerned, but we are keeping a watchful eye on her lungs.

COVID-19 is all about the lungs, so any of you out there with asthma and such ... please be extra careful.

Being on the front lines, I thought we could tell you our experience so you know what to watch for. Of course, your mileage may vary.

1. Headache. An insistent one. It's annoying.

2. Small fever. Not a huge one, just warm. Comes and goes.

3. Chills. Like your very bones are cold. I read about a guy who slept with his parka on - hood up! - under three blankets. Maxine had a night last week where she slept in fleece jammies under three blankets, and the heat was like 70 degrees in her room.

3. Take a deep breath. You will feel like some parts of your lungs are not cooperating. I felt this last night. I took a walk today (alone and remote from anyone, I promise!), and I was short of breath on the easy slope. The bottom of my lungs feels a little thick/stuck.

4. Fatigue and body aches. This evidently carries through the whole course of the illness.

5. Interesting symptoms: Some people lose their sense of smell or taste.

6. We have not yet had any coughing.

I say “we,” because I am assuming all of us have it and are in various stages and responses to the virus. My husband Jim and my son Zane are showing fatigue; I've got headaches and that weird lung thingie.

We're just swimming around in our COVID-19 petri dish, and you can watch us like a fascinating fish tank.

Please don't tap on the glass.

* * *

March 28: The state of Vermont just opened up testing for peeps with mild symptoms. So here's what happens.

You call your doc and explain your symptoms. (You don't have to beg and plead like I did, which will save you a lot of annoyance and eye-rolling.)

You drive your sick person to the back of a building and park the car, as if you're doing a drug deal. (I don't know this personally, I just have watched too much TV, and this is how they show it.)

Two nurses come out in full SWAT gear - oops, full sterile protective gear - and they have you roll down the window. They are very kind. No secret code word is necessary, although I think the phrase “the eaglet has landed,” was heard to pop out of my mouth, because I really can't help it, apparently.

Back to the drug deal/testing site. The nice nurse takes out a swab the length of a tree branch and puts it gently up your nose.

Warning: Do not tell your eaglet about this part. They will just obsess and dread and anxiety the situation. (Yes, that's new usage. Yes, I did make it up. Let's just move along.)

So they stick that cotton-covered tree branch up there pretty far, like they are probing to the Hubei Province itself. And we are not mentioning this to young people, OK?

Then your young person starts to tear up and say, “Wow, they really put that thing up there.” And you say something soothing like, “You'll probably never have to do that again, like ever - it's all done now.” And your mom instincts go nuts 'cause someone just made your kid feel pain, but you are so grateful to those kind nurses who are out here on the front lines, so you sincerely thank them for being Brave and Wonderful Angels.

And you drive home and sit on pins and needles for two days, until they call you.

You endlessly check your phone for the time, you play countless games of 4-Suit Spider Solitaire, because time goes faster that way, because those mindless games have some kind of temporal distortion effect and part of your thinking brain can be sent to this useless hamster wheel, spinning away, going nowhere, but it feels like you are doing something to make the time go faster without your thinking-brain torturing you and making it worse. Thank god for a good hamster wheel to put your pesky brain on.

Then your doc calls you and says, “It's positive for COVID,” and you have a weird, complicated mix of feelings. Your mileage will definitely vary.

Then the doc tells you to put your kid in their room, isolate them from the rest of the household, clean and scour everything in the known universe, approach your kid only with gloves and a mask, disinfect all dishes going in and coming out of the room-

My chuckling cut him off in midstream.

“You've got to be kidding, right?” I asked.

He paused.

“Doc, we've been swimming in the same germy petri dish for five days now. That. Ship. Has. Sailed.”

Doc: “I know. (Sigh.) I'm just supposed to read you this.”

Me: “That ship has not only sailed. It has gone up the river, got hit by lightning, then burst into flames, and then sunk to the bottom of the river.”

Doc: (Big sigh.) (He evidently understands science and petri dishes also, which is good.)

Me: “Disinfecting this house now is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” (I cannot seem to let a good boat metaphor alone. Seriously, I could make up boat metaphors all day long.)

Doc: “Yeah. I get it.”

We go over realistic strategies like: See no one. Stay home. Watch everyone's lungs. Call if she can't catch her breath. The doctor recommended a few good articles on the care and feeding of your COVID-19 patient.

Then the Vermont Department of Heath calls you and asks if you need any help notifying people you've come in contact with, and you say: “I've already done that.”

And the guilt is crushing.

They send you more articles in your email.

Then you wait anxiously and watch the symptoms roll in. Thank god we aren't hit that badly. At this point, we are mostly through the worst and heading out the other side.

So we failed to lock our daughter in the tower and disinfect the entire castle. We are in for a penny, in for a pound.

That's what family means.

* * *

March 29: Today, I'll write about our experience with waiting around for symptoms. It won't be as funny as yesterday, because it's kind of harrowing.

After you find out that you're positive for the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, notify everyone you've seen, and hunker down for a long haul, then you pick your approach to the household. Are you going to integrate the person or keep them separate?

Based on articles saying that we are much more contagious before we actually break out into symptoms, we just assumed we all were already exposed and contagious ourselves.

We assumed we all had it, and frankly, I'd rather we all suffer at the same time, than to suffer one after the other for eight weeks. As if we had some kind of choice. We didn't.

The first stage - watching, monitoring, self-scanning, searching for symptoms - is really nerve-wracking. There's nothing scarier than the unknown. It's hard to describe the slow motion of waiting. First, you wait for the test to come back, and then you wait for the symptoms to roll in, and then you wait to see if they worsen or improve.

In the evenings, I read lots of articles: like the one about the tourists on the Diamond Princess cruise boat - where 46.5 percent of the people tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 but were asymptomatic. And an estimated 80 percent of COVID-19 patients have mild or moderate symptoms.

Math and statistics soothe me and remind me about what is probable. It's how I talk back to my fears. I looked at the death statistics in Italy, where the median age of death was 80 years old. I thought about how my kids were in more danger of car accidents than this disease, and they drive around every day. (Well, not so much lately. Sigh.)

During the days, I walked the neighborhood streets, worked on taxes, cooked healthy meals, and scanned my body for signs. I pestered the kids three or four times a day to check for headaches, loss of smell, warm forehead temperatures (check in the evening), their ability to take a deep breath, and any shortness of breath when going up the stairs.

Anxiety is always worse at night. I would wake up in the middle of the night worried about Maxine. Just as I did when she was an infant, I had to creep into her room and check her breathing. Even though I knew - rationally - that she was doing well, I still had to check.

I'd wake at 2 a.m., and I could feel my worries start to creep in. I'd check Maxine, then read for an hour. Make sure you have some trashy fiction (gothic mysteries, hot Scots in kilts, people who turn into dragons) on hand to take your mind off the here and now. I tried to read Henry James and books on neurofeedback, and my worries would just hang out on the side, whispering to me from the margins. Only junk food books would let me go back to sleep.

Maxine is the frontrunner, and she has the most symptoms: headaches, physical tiredness, chills, light fever, feeling flushed. One night where she couldn't get warm, even under blankets, and one night she slept really hot. She is sleeping 10 or 11 hours a night and takes naps. The rest of the time, she's up and about, eating, drinking, talking with friends, doing homework, but she has a lot of body aches. She's currently on day 10 of symptoms, and the body exhaustion has not gotten better. Her lungs were only moderately affected before today.

This morning, I was bopping around feeling greatly relieved that we had come through to the other side. However, today, when she woke up at the crack of noon, Maxine's lungs had gotten worse. She can't breathe as well or deeply, so we are on lung-watch again.

Evidently, around day 10 to day 12 of symptoms, things can take a turn for the worse. That's exactly where we are.

Jim has been telecommuting, working regular days, mostly attending video meetings. It took about five days for the virus to incubate and for symptoms to appear. A mild sore throat came and disappeared, but intermittent headaches continue. Around day 6, he got noticeably tired in the evenings (which has still not improved) and he's sleeping more. He's holding steady at “tired” - not getting worse or having any lung issues.

Me? I rarely get headaches. I had an insistent, pressing one on day 3 of my exposure. And day 4. And day 5. And so on. But they are decreasing in intensity every day. On day 5, I noticed I was short of breath on my normal walks through the neighborhood. The hill felt harder, and my lungs weren't working right - I felt like I was exercising at high altitude.

When I inhaled deeply, it felt like little fibers were gunking up the bottom of the lung lobes, and by taking that deep breath, it broke them up a bit. That lasted a few days and is gone now. On day 6, I had some heaviness in my legs and arms, and that all went away. Except for a once-a-day headache, I am 98 percent recovered.

Zane: He's got a champion-level immune system, getting sick maybe once a year. He noticed a headache around day 4, and then he got a small “weird lump” in his chest/lung area, slept 12 hours that night, and then felt normal again. He's 100 percent recovered.

Things we've learned:

1. Sleep. Sleep. Sleep. Start sleeping as soon as you feel the virus making you tired. There were some nights we went to bed at 7:30. Sleep as much as you can. Then nap. Your immune system will thank you. And it's all about the immune system.

2. Use Tylenol (acetaminophen) for headache, which just worked better for us, even though we are usually an ibuprofen family. There are some unproven posts out there about Advil.

3. When anxious, remember that math, facts, and probability help. Most people will experience mild and moderate illness.

4. Many of you will get it and have no symptoms.

5. For our family, COVID-19 affected us exactly like regular colds/flu affect us. That's the exact order of how serious our symptoms were.

What to look for: Headaches. Body fatigue. Shortness of Breath. Loss of sense of smell.

Remember the math. Roughly 80 percent of the population will get it mildly or have no symptoms. Maxine has it moderately, and we are watching to make sure it doesn't turn more severe.

I am assuming that everyone will get it at some point - especially when many people carry it around as asymptomatic spreaders. You will have your own story of watching the symptoms roll in - watching, observing, scanning, checking your loved ones. I hope you find ways of handling the worry and the waiting. I hope your symptoms are mild and that you get plenty of rest. I hope the anxiety demons leave you alone at night.

And for those of you with asthma, heart issues, and complications, please take extra care.

* * *

April 5: Post-COVID Bliss, or “When can you escape (safely) out of the effing house?

After 12 days of quarantine, I could finally leave the house! Drive my car! Go to the weird new MaskWorld of the grocery store !

So what does safe recovery look like? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Vermont Department of Heath gives you a handy-dandy set of three rules to guide you. You must meet all three of the conditions:

1. Three full days of no fever, without the use of fever-reducing medication,

2. Other symptoms have improved, and

3. At least seven days have passed since your symptoms first appeared.

You're probably saying, “That's it?” and then reading it again.

I know, right?

Kind of simple.

That's how fast your antibodies get to work by stopping the ability of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus to make its evil little babies that have effed up your cellular world.

So by last Saturday, I was no longer infectious - meaning any virus that my body was still shedding was no longer able to replicate.

It feels very freeing to walk around knowing you have immunity for a while. I would like a T-shirt that says, “All Anti-Bodied-Up and Good to Go.”

There's a zigzag course of recovery with back steps along the way. Expect this. Your doctor will say, “It takes a really long time to get better.”

You might wonder: When do you take someone to the hospital? The CDC says: Watch for their lips to turn blue, like Smurf lips. (The CDC didn't specifically mention Smurfs, but you've got to admit it sticks in your brain better this way, right?) My doctor says it's really hard to tell if someone has blue lips; instead, look for subtle clues, like the person saying out loud, “I can't get enough oxygen.” They will tell you. Repeatedly. Then call the doctor.

If you've ever seen someone “sucking wind” at the end of a high-altitude race, or someone with breathing problems try to climb the stairs, you know what it looks like. They are laboring over extracting enough oxygen out of the air. Panting, struggling, wheezing. That concerned look in their eyes, like “Hey, getting oxygen shouldn't be this hard.” You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to see it.

It was helpful to ask Maxine, “What percentage of a deep breath can you get?” The worst she reported was about 50 percent. She's currently stuck at 65 to 80 percent, depending on the time of day; it's worse for her in the mornings. But she walks around and does things. She's slowly getting better, and her personality is brighter. Her senses of taste and smell have returned.

There was never any laboring, no wheezing. It's just darned uncomfortable to live this way. She understandably wants her lungs back. She can concentrate and do her homework, just not for normal, huge blocks of time due to her fatigue.

One more note on probability: This really is an older person's disease. There is the occasional young person who dies - and we all hear about it on the fricking TV news, which loves to alarm us with mathematically rare occurrences. Generally, the older you are, the scarier it is. I'm scared for my parents, my mother in law, my uncles and aunts.

If you are over 55 and you have heart issues or diabetes, and you are male, you need to be very, very, very careful. You need to involve your doctor every step of the way. But for those of us middle-aged and younger people with no health issues, please calm down.

Out in the world this week, everyone is running around with irrational fear in their eyes like if you touch that box of mac-'n'-cheese the COVID Grim Reaper is gonna come grab you by the throat and WWE you into the grave.

This social isolation thing isn't about permanently avoiding COVID - you might have had it already, you will probably get it at some point, and (unless you're 70 or older) your odds of dying are very, very low. It's all about not crashing our health-care system and making those poor health care workers face the horrible trauma of throngs of dying people on their hands - all of them begging for oxygen, absolutely terrified, and obviously in pain.

That is a war-zone kind of trauma, and we do not voluntarily send people into that situation just because we want to go socialize with our friends.If your spleen bursts, and the hospital is overcrowded with COVID-19 people, it will really suck for you.

So we all need to behave, all of us low-risk people. We need to lower the fear a couple of notches - but still follow the rules. Let's not break our health care system.

Some random facts before we go:

• At the end of the symptom cycle, just when you think you are better, you may get lightheadedness. Be careful when standing up.

• Some people report their pee smells weird or bad during the symptom cycle. For those of you with delicate sensibilities, I'll translate into polite-speak: ”The waters are brackish.” Also some people get diarrhea: “The springs run foul.” Everything will get better but (sing along with me) it takes a long, long time.

• Right now, there are so many people who have already had a mild case of COVID-19 and are wondering if they had it or not. It won't help to get tested. You'll test negative because you need active RNA to test positive, and your amazing antibodies have already done the job. No evil virus babies are in your nasal passages, and now we just all have to wait for the antibody testing (in our blood plasma).

• People, in general, do not like to be caged. Our country was based on rebellion, physical expansion, free-wheeling capitalism, and cowboy lawlessness. Culturally, we do not do well when asked to follow someone else's limiting rules.

We are all getting irritable, bored, itchy, and impatient. I could feel it in almost every person I talked to last week.

In some homes, it's a pressure-cooker situation. Be careful. Take deep breaths. If someone is irritable, picking a fight, being annoying, getting drunk, then leave them alone. Go for a walk. Watch your patience levels. Apologize if you snap or say annoying things or make mistakes. (I usually make 10 a day - on a good day.) Be nice. Say “thank you.”

Remember your manners - sometimes, it's all we have left in our bank account of tolerance.

Use your manners, because it shows that other people matter.

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