My COVID-19 Experience: A Story of Recovery and Death
It all started with a mild sore throat and back pain.
Masood and I have been careful ever since the pandemic was announced last year. We hardly leave the house unless it was extremely necessary, take all precautions when we’re outside, limit our socialising to two other families, and distance ourselves from family members at home at the first sign of cold or cough.
Like everyone else, we’re both fiercely protective with our health and our family’s. We’re even more careful because of Nani, Masood’s almost-90 maternal grandmother. She’s diabetic and bedridden, and we needed to protect her from this virus.
India’s second wave: the worst COVID-19 surge in the world.
On February 10, at the start of the second wave, India confirmed 11,000 cases. In the next 50 days, the daily average was around 22,000 cases. But in the following 10 days, cases rose sharply with the daily average reaching 89,800.
The sudden spike in cases brought the nation’s overwhelmed healthcare system to its knees: no hospital beds, no medicines, no oxygen. People turned to social media with desperate SOS messages: hospitals tweeting about dwindling oxygen supplies and physicians watching helplessly as patients died. The suffering is a human tragedy on a vast scale.
Phone calls from people we knew started pouring in. Either someone is down with COVID-19 or a family member has died. There was only news of despair and suffering.
Then just last month, my family and I got infected. This is our COVID-19 experience.
The first symptoms are mild. You’d never think it could be COVID-19.
Masood first noted a sore throat, thought he was coming down with a cold, and promptly kept his distance from the rest of the family. He developed a dull upper back pain next, which he assumed was caused by the mattress. We meant to change it for sometime now.
Two days later I developed a mild headache that persisted for a couple of days, followed by a runny nose that lasted less than a day. I paid little attention to it because for someone who gets seasonal allergies, headaches and runny nose are pretty common. I felt fine.
The back pain persisted, so we went to see a doctor.
We wanted to make sure it wasn’t his lungs. A CT scan was ordered. “I have COVID cases that start with only a back pain,” the doctor explained. Masood’s scan came back normal.
“There’s no need for the RT-PCR test at this point. But just to be certain, isolate yourself for two days and observe for other symptoms. If you develop cough or fever, get yourself tested,” he said, jotting down a prescription for antibiotics and an analgesic in case he became infected.
We returned home and informed the family that we were both isolating for two days.
Little did we know that those 2 days would turn into a complete 14-day isolation.
An excruciating pounding headache kept me awake later that night. It was unlike any headache I’d experienced before. I took a paracetamol during Fajr and went back to bed. The headache persisted the entire day.
Later that night—at the end of our two-day-doctor-advised isolation—just when we were getting ready to join our family downstairs for dinner, my sense of smell was gone.
To be more specific, that was when I became aware of the anosmia.
Next day, when trying to trace back our symptoms, was when I recalled not being able to smell the detergent while taking out the laundry the previous evening. I just didn’t pay much attention to it. Neither did I notice it strange to inhale the pasta sauce and not being able to smell the tomato paste and spices in it.
It was during a shower that I realised, with quite the shock, that I could neither smell the fruity scent of the shampoo nor the floral fragrance of the soap. I then applied perfume on my wrist and asked Masood to smell it. “What is it? I smell nothing,” he said.
Knowing we’d gotten infected was scary at first. The first question was, “But how? We’ve been so careful!”
Nervously, we went around the house inhaling ointments, talcum powder, ground coffee, and even the ginger-garlic paste in the fridge. Nothing. It’s the strangest thing.
The 14-day isolation began.
The sudden loss of our sense of smell could mean only one thing: we were both infected with the COVID-19 virus. We were already in isolation, so I saw no point in getting ourselves tested to confirm the diagnosis. And since we can’t determine the exact day when our symptoms began, we counted this as Day 1.
It’s a privilege and blessing to have the space and rooms to isolate yourself in. Ours is a 3-storey house. Masood’s mom, aunt and grandmother live on the ground floor. Masood and I occupy the first floor. We have our tenants on the second floor. And the aunt’s husband occupies the room on the terrace.
Phone calls were made so that we could inform family members, close relatives, the tenants upstairs and a few friends about our situation. Mom and aunt would send us warm food. They would either leave it outside our door or on the stairs. We would not see them for the next two weeks.
One of the strangest symptom of COVID-19 for us was feeling febrile but not actually having fever. My body would ache all over and I’d feel hot, but the thermometer always showed a normal temperature. “Perhaps there’s something wrong with that thermometer,” Masood suspected one day. But no, our temperature remained normal, though we kept checking for fever multiple times a day.
My sternum, ribs, and upper back felt so sore. It feels as if I had been hit by something. My entire body hurt. My fingers felt arthritic. My wrist and ankle joints were painful.
Fatigue set in next. I would wake up, get out of bed, and immediately be hit with exhaustion so bad that I would get right back in bed. I wouldn’t be sleeping. It was mostly resting, just lying there in bed, unable to read a book or check my phone.
We could no longer taste the food. Soups tasted like hot water. Oranges tasted bitter.
On Day 6, my hip joints hurt so bad I had to apply a hot pack over it in order to get some sleep. I typically don’t take analgesics, but this pain had me take paracetamol every day for the next 3 days. The chest pain and slight breathlessness also began during this time.
We bought a pulse oximeter and kept checking our oxygen saturation levels multiple times a day. Our SpO2 levels were mostly between 95-97 range. We were both fortunate enough that our case was “mild”, which meant we didn’t need to be hospitalised, alhumdulillah. But don’t let the word “mild” mislead you though. The body aches and fatigue hit even the young and healthy. And the chest pain gives you anxiety; you’ll often start imagining the worst.
Both Masood and I didn’t have a fever, cough, or diarrhea. There’s this bitter, metallic taste in the mouth, though. This made me nauseous. I couldn’t even finish a glass of water.
By the way, it was during this COVID infection that I experienced brain fog for the first time. I had to stop my online work/projects because thinking made my brain hurt. It was hard to focus. There were times when I’d go get something from the kitchen and then forget why I was standing there. Sometimes I’d stop in the middle of a conversation because I couldn’t think of the word to complete the sentence. I was filling up an online application form and forgot to attach a document. It was frustrating.
We both began feeling better by Day 7.
Symptoms, their intensity and duration vary from person to person. Some people, like my mother and sister, had their symptoms last for 2-3 days only. Some felt weak even after 2 weeks.
By the second week, both Masood and I felt our strength returning. He was delighted to notice that on Day 5 he could smell the leaves burning in the neighborhood.
There’s a pattern, however. We’d mostly feel stronger and better upon waking up in the morning, but then by evening the fatigue would set in. It’s like, “Yay, I feel better this morning!” to “Ugh, I’m so exhausted I can’t take another step.”
The aroma of pakorey that the folks upstairs were frying wafted through my windows, and I was jumping with joy that I could smell again. I regained my sense of smell on Day 8. I would never take my sense of smell for granted again! My appetite returned and I could finish a glass of water without feeling nauseous.
Ramadan had begun and we started fasting at Day 12.
Our strength has not completely returned but we could carry out household chores without running out of breath. Staying away from the rest of the family was tough, but I’m grateful that I had Masood with me. I can’t imagine how lonely it could get for those who had to isolate alone. This takes a toll on one’s mental health.
We tested negative on Day 14.
We booked an appointment online and drove to Vijaya Diagnostics to get ourselves tested. I was nervous being around people, scared that I might still have the virus and infect someone. We both wore N95 masks and kept our distance. We waited for about an hour, but the test itself took a couple of minutes. It was definitely uncomfortable, but not painful.
The rest of the family tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.
A day after we tested negative, the ladies downstairs all tested positive. We learned that Masood’s aunt had been coughing for about 4-5 days now and had body pain. Her face was puffy. There was no doubt that it was COVID-19. Mom and Nani were asymptomatic, but we had them tested, regardless. Reports came back positive.
Two days later, Mom started coughing and complained of body pain. Nani was almost 90-years-old, diabetic and bed-ridden for a couple of years now. She doesn’t talk much so it’s difficult to access her symptoms. I was worried about her the most.
The rest of Ramadan was spent caring for the three of them. It was one of the most challenging months of our lives. It was the peak of summer, we were fasting, and were hoping to have developed enough antibodies to keep us from being reinfected because wearing a mask all the time while caring for our family wasn’t possible. I was already getting breathless without the mask.
Nani’s condition deteriorated.
She actually began showing signs of recovery: no cough, no fever, no congestion. We actually believed she was finally out of the woods.
The first sign of breathing difficulty manifested itself on Day 9 of her infection. It was subtle. She wasn’t in distress, but it wasn’t her normal breathing pattern, either. Her SpO2 dropped on Day 10. Masood somehow managed to find and order an oxygen concentrator online. It was near-impossible to get one; there was a shortage of oxygen concentrators in India. We wanted to get a 10-litre concentrator but could only get our hands on a 5-litre one. It was still better than nothing.
Nani breathed through a nasal cannula hooked to the oxygen concentrator. Her SpO2 levels returned to normal levels.
6 hours later, her oxygen levels dropped again. She needed more supplemental oxygen.
Her children gathered at home, discussed her condition at great length, and unanimously made the decision that they preferred for her to get oxygen support at home. Considering her age and medical history, everyone thought it best that her own family cared for her. Besides, hospital beds were fully occupied and there was an acute shortage of oxygen all over the country.
Her room resembled a hospital room with the oxygen cylinders, her medications, and then the CPAP machine. Soon, a full face mask replaced her nasal cannula.
The struggle for oxygen cylinders.
During the five days that Nani struggled to breathe, our minds were consumed with just one thought: she shouldn’t run out of oxygen. A 50-litre oxygen cylinder or tank would only last for 6 hours or so.
There became a daily routine: hook Nani up to the supplemental oxygen, call up the guy who helps refill cylinders and pray that he’s been successful in doing so (refill centres would close without prior notice due to oxygen shortage), make frantic calls everywhere to find the next oxygen cylinder no matter that it costs 5x more during country’s second wave, drive for several hours to get said oxygen and bring it home, check how much oxygen is left in the cylinder that Nani’s currently using, replace when it’s empty … repeat cycle all over again.
Two days post-COVID, a nasogastric tube was inserted because she could no longer eat. Her SpO2 levels remained below 86 and, without oxygen support, it would immediately drop below 80.
Three days post-COVID, her pulse grew weak. While listening to Surah Al Rahman through earphones and her family gathered around her, she breathed her last on May 12.
While our COVID-19 experience ended with the loss of a family member, remember that it is not the case for everyone. The COVID virus can be defeated.
If you’re reading this because you or a loved one has tested positive for COVID-19 the first thing you need to do is stay calm and collected. Based on current local statistics the recovery rate is 90%.
WHO does not recommend self-medication with any medicines, including antibiotics, as a prevention or cure for COVID-19. We took zinc supplements, multivitamins, and Vitamin C, took steam several times a day to ease congestion, ate a lot of fruits, and rested as much as we could.
Speaking of antibiotics, they do not work against COVID-19; they only work on bacterial infections. Physicians will sometimes prescribe antibiotics to prevent or treat secondary bacterial infections which can be a complication of COVID-19 in some patients.
If you’re young and do not have a prior medical condition, you will most likely recover from COVID at home. But if you or someone else is showing any of these signs, seek emergency medical care immediately: trouble breathing, persistent chest pain, inability to stay awake, or any other symptoms that are concerning to you.
A recent study has reported that 95% of the studied candidates had retained substantial immunity six months post COVID-19 infection and getting yourself vaccinated 90 days post infection is advised.
This post is the hardest one for me to write. It’s recent so the memory is fresh, the pain still raw. During my 14-day isolation I read a lot of personal blogs and YouTube videos about people’s COVID experiences. I could relate to them and they kept me reassured in some way. This is why, after the initial hesitancy, I’ve finally decided to share my story with you. This is not meant to scare you. The recovery from COVID-19 is both physical and mental. Being isolated is not easy. I hope my experience would help reassure you that you or someone you love can defeat this virus.
I tried to write this post as detailed as possible but if you still have questions, please leave a comment below.