An Odyssey of Hurting, Healing and Hope
Nights were the worst. Hour after hour, I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of panic and dread as the fever raged and the sweat soaked my clothes. Every inch of my body ached to the bone. I couldn’t bear to lie down but I was too weak to walk. Wrapped in a blanket, shivering, I sat on the edge of the living room couch in the dark and told myself over and over to breathe. Just breathe.
When I got sick in early March, the coronavirus was ravaging China and starting its rampage through northern Italy but there was not yet a single reported case in my home state of Colorado. I may have been the first, or one of the first. I’ve always been a very healthy person, but for three weeks the coronavirus dragged me through a netherworld of confusion, fear, frustration, exhaustion, guilt and pain.
Now, fully recovered, I feel a fierce relief at having survived—and a flood of other emotions, too. There’s the indescribable joy of my ten-year-old daughter leaping into my arms after the end of my quarantine. There’s the guilt and worry of having infected my wife and possibly others. There’s also the dread of knowing a fearsome contagion is infecting hundreds of thousands and it may be months or years before the virus is vanquished or controlled by vaccine.
With all that on my mind, I feel compelled to tell my story. Why? First, I want you to know there is hope. You and your loved ones will likely survive the virus. I’m 57, on the brink of being considered a high-risk patient, but I suffered through it and got better without hospitalization. While the media is understandably focused on the rising death toll and other catastrophes like the overwhelmed ICU’s of New York City, I believe there are too few stories about those of us who have had virus and recovered.
Secondly, my experience underscores how little we know about the virus. Even doctors and nurses on the front lines are admittedly ill-informed and equally as frustrated. Because I didn’t have the most common symptoms of coronavirus, namely respiratory distress, most doctors and nurses dismissed the possibility that I was infected.
Thirdly, I want to sound an alarm. If your family or your business does not have a contingency plan in place for how to handle an outbreak, do it now. At the worst of my illness, I was profoundly comforted by the fact that my daughter and my extended family were safely quarantined away from me and that my team at work was working diligently to take care of every one of our clients. Our service was so seamless that few clients were aware that I was sick until I was back at my desk.
First Symptom, a Headache
Wednesday, February 26, I was on a 5:00 p.m. flight from Phoenix to Denver that seemed uneventful, departing on time and arriving two hours later. I was happily on my way home after a productive day of meetings. Weeks later, I would learn from state health authorities that that’s probably how I picked up the virus: at the airport or on the flight. I’ll never really know, though that’s the likeliest scenario.
Four days later, on Sunday, March 1, I had a vague sense that I was getting sick. I shrugged it off because, well, I’m rarely sick. By Monday, I had a splitting headache which was unusual for me. I tried to power through my day with the help of Tylenol. Over the next few days, my symptoms worsened: fever, headache, fatigue, mild abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and, strangely, a mild nausea that worsened when my stomach was empty.
On Tuesday, March 3, I made my first visit to an urgent care clinic in Denver. Staffers gave me a flu test and sent me home but brushed aside my concerns about having the coronavirus because I didn’t have any respiratory symptoms. I had no cough, no difficulty breathing, no sore throat. The flu test came back negative, but I was getting sicker by the hour. My fever was 101 degrees despite successive rounds of acetaminophen and ibuprofen every four hours. Every muscle in my body ached. Every inch of my skin felt inflamed, especially my scalp.
Sicker by the Hour
I made two more visits to urgent care that week, but doctors still wouldn’t test me for the virus. They were sympathetic but not alarmed. My complaints were typical of a particularly unpleasant gastrointestinal bug. They ran blood tests. They seemed to consider every possibility but coronavirus. (Only weeks earlier, researchers in China disclosed that half of coronavirus patients complain of gastrointestinal problems in the early stages of the virus.)
My condition continued to worsen, and I began to notice other odd symptoms, too. One was a feeling of pressure on my sternum. The other symptom—and it seems strange to admit this aloud—was an ominous feeling of panic and dread that would come over me in the middle of the night. My heart would start racing unexplainably. At times, I found it hard to breathe, not because of a problem with my lungs but because of an overwhelming sense of desperation. What was wrong with me?
On Tuesday, March 10, I drove myself to the emergency room. My family stayed home. A nurse gave me a mask and ushered me into a tiny room with a bed. After a few hours, mine slipped off – they’re uncomfortable – and no one asked me to put it on again. I underwent more tests: blood tests, another flu test, a CT scan. They still didn’t run a test for the coronavirus.
After six hours in the ER, a doctor yanked aside the white curtain surrounding my bed. Your tests, he said, are all normal. There’s no evidence of pneumonia or flu. Go home, he said, rest and drink plenty of fluids and follow up with your primary-care physician if you don’t feel better in a day or so.
Back home, I spent the next few days fitful and feverish. I slept but only for brief periods because the agony of the bone- deep pain throughout my body would wake me every half-hour or so. I tried to rouse some interest in a movie or a book but I was too weak to concentrate. I shuffled to the bathroom, then back to bed as my wife hovered nearby apprehensively watching me to see if I was developing any difficulty breathing.
While we still didn’t know what was wrong, we suspected it was coronavirus. We’d heard stories on the news about patients who, after a period of improvement, suddenly and inexplicably took a turn for the worse. By then, we knew we had to inform our extended family about my serious but as-yet undiagnosed illness. I called my older sister in New Jersey. It was a difficult conversation. We’ve always been very close, and her anguish was palpable.
Finally, a Diagnosis
On Thursday, March 12, I went back to the emergency room; the hospital finally had agreed to test me for coronavirus. Five days later, I learned I was positive. I was flooded with relief. From that moment, my recovery was fairly rapid. I felt as though I was being lifted out of an abyss. Those are strange words, I know, but there’s no other way to describe it. The aching subsided, and I slept deeply, ten or eleven hours at a time, like a teenager.
Most of my symptoms subsided over the next week, including the abdominal cramps, the diarrhea and the headaches. I’d lost eleven pounds during my ordeal. I still suffered from fatigue, though. After a conference call with my team at work, I was so tired that I’d need an hour-long nap.
Once diagnosed, I became a medical curiosity. The Colorado Department of Public Health assigned a caseworker who undertook a detailed investigation over the phone in an effort to track the potential sources and dates of my infection. She said the likely period of incubation was four days, pinpointing the date of my exposure to February 26.
Incredibly, the total number of reported cases that day in the U.S. was a mere 60. Almost all of those infected were on the West Coast. No one, it seemed, would have imagined that the virus was already snaking into every corner of our nation.
A Daughter’s Joy
My relief at having a diagnosis, though, was also clouded with worry. I’d been in the office in late February. Who might I have infected? I updated my team and my colleagues at TCI with the news. I also contacted everyone I’d seen and met with in late February and early March, including the dogwalker. Thankfully, to date, no one has gotten sick but my wife, Laura. She became ill almost three weeks after me with most of the same symptoms. Presumably, she has the coronavirus although, because she hasn’t had respiratory distress, she hasn’t been tested. She has also now made a full recovery.
One of the most powerfully emotional moments after I’d recovered was seeing my daughter for the first time in three weeks. She was staying nearby at her mother’s home and hadn’t seen me since early March. To prevent infection, I had to wait for three days after my fever had subsided before I could see her. Every night, on the phone, we’d count down: “Just three more days … just two more days … only one more day!” On that third day, I walked over to her mother’s house and rang the bell. I was standing in the foyer when my daughter burst out of her bedroom upstairs and, halfway down the stairs, leaped into my arms clinging to me tightly, crying with joy. I cannot think of that moment without choking up.
Life, after coronavirus, has a heightened intensity to it. Even now, as the memory of my illness recedes, I’m still overwhelmed with gratitude for the simplest of freedoms: walking the dog, exercising, talking to a client or my team at work.
I’m telling my story not to frighten you but to give you hope. My experience with the virus was early in the pandemic’s spread in the U.S. Testing was very limited and most healthcare professionals had minimal experience in treating patients. Some health experts believe that soon most everyone in our nation will be infected with the highly contagious coronavirus, but they also say that most cases will not be life-threatening. I’m urging you to be prepared. When I got sick, we had in the house a three-year- old bottle of Tylenol, long past its expiration date, and a digital thermometer so old we weren’t sure of its accuracy or when the battery might sputter out. As it turned out, we were fortunate to get the supplies we needed. We won’t be caught off guard again.
I have one last thought for you to consider. We are being urged—even in some places required by law—to distance ourselves from each other for the greater good. But, thanks to technology, we don’t have to face this crisis alone. Reach out to your family, your colleagues, your neighbors by phone, by text, by video and let them know you care about their safety and well- being. We may be separate in this global crisis, but we can still be together, providing each other hope.