Life

What I Learned From Spending Two Weeks Battling The Coronavirus

The last half of March was not great for any of us. Myself included. I had the misfortune to accidentally answer my editor’s request that I write an explainer about “what to expect if you get the coronavirus” by, well, getting the coronavirus. And though I knew that the actual effects of COVID-19 vary wildly — from asymptomatic to mild cold-like symptoms to severe flu to possible pneumonia and death — that didn’t exactly make it less scary. Especially when the illness really took hold.

A few weeks down the line, there are still a lot of unknowns. I’m under house arrest by doctor’s orders for at least another two weeks so that I don’t a) spread the virus, and b) don’t get it again (which we’re learning might be a possibility) or get something else, considering that my immune system has basically been wrecked by all this. Still, with numbers climbing dramatically in the U.S., it seemed like the right time for me to reflect on my experience with COVID-19, up to this point.

Before we dive in, some context. Before I got sick, I was running outdoor 10Ks every day. I was fasting for 18 hours per day. I was only drinking alcohol on Fridays and Saturdays. I don’t smoke (or vape). My diet was basically proteins and greens for lunch and dinner with an orange and a banana as a post-run snack. I was also taking a multi-vitamin every day since late-January (I usually don’t take vitamins). I hadn’t traveled since early January. For the most part, I was healthy — albeit a little overweight. I occasionally suffer from allergy-onset asthma but it’s super rare. Otherwise, I have no underlying health conditions. Generally, I go years without getting the flu or even a cold.

Secondly, I live in Germany. Germany has a good healthcare system that’s trying to stay afloat with the virus tearing across the country. I was not allowed to go to my doctor or a hospital during this ordeal unless my breathing nearly stopped or my fever peaked dramatically. Basically, the Germans are containing the virus by keeping ill people off the streets and out of the hospitals at all costs, unless it’s an actual health emergency. My doctor checked in on me daily during this time and gave me an over-the-phone diagnosis and treatments.

Lastly, I just want to reiterate that COVID-19 symptoms vary wildly. This is what I went through as a fairly healthy 40-year-old.

Related: Cooking Through The Quarantine: It’s Time You Knew A Great Chicken Soup Recipe

How It Started

Zach Johnston

Yeah, so as I mentioned, I used to run a 10K every day. That became my first red flag. Some days it’s hard to get after it, but once you’re out there it’s all good. On March 16th, I was just tired all morning. I remember putting on my running shoes and thinking, “Hum, this shouldn’t be wearing me out.” I foolishly went for my run anyway.

I barely made it through. Generally, I can run a 10K in around an hour plus five to eight minutes. It took me ten more minutes that Monday. By the time I got home and showered, I had a tickle in the back of my throat and a slight headache.

My muscles ached very differently than every other day. Usually, the ache after a run is more like a rubber band that’s been stretched but is working its way back to its natural shape. The pain fades out fairly quickly. This was different. My legs and hips hurt from deep within. It was more of dull throb.

I got through the rest of the day and went to bed around my normal time (11 pm-ish). The next morning, I woke up thanks to a cough that seemed like it was deep in my lungs. It was dry and hacking. My head was heavy and pounding. My ears felt clogged — in the sense that I heard the ocean instead of regular noises. My deep muscle pain had deepened further still. It was a bone-ache now. Luckily, I didn’t have a fever.

I called my doctor and she diagnosed me and isolated me in my bedroom. She had me do a few breathing tests and check my temperature, then she quizzed me about my symptoms. From there, she told me to monitor my breathing and take my temperature every two hours. She asked that I please not come to the office or the hospital unless my breathing became severely labored or my temperature rose dramatically.

That was it. I was ordered to ride it out at home.

The First Week

Kamil S, Unsplash

Looking back, the first week was hell but, weirdly, not as bad as the second — though the overall symptoms were more severe. Let me explain: I was full, knocked out sick the first week. I’d wake up in the mornings fairly lucid and get some stuff done. By noon-ish, I’d be out of it. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. The coughing would increase until it was nearly constant. I would get very short of breath and need an inhaler. My headaches entered “splitting” territory. My body felt like it was melting. I was so out of it, I couldn’t even watch TV. I’d just pass out until the coughing woke me up for a short spell and then pass out again.

On Wednesday, I had a slight fever but nothing too severe. It peaked at 100F. I never had a fever again. I did have pretty harsh breathing issues every night. Some nights they were severe enough to keep me awake but I never felt like they were severe enough to call an ambulance. Basically, my inhaler was in my hand as I slept, instead of sitting on my nightstand.

Thursday was more of the same but then diarrhea started. I kind of attribute that to my change in physical activity and diet. I was mainlining ramen spiked with chilis, gochujang, sambal olek, and ginger. I was drinking YETIs full of green tea, fresh ginger, and honey. Every time I woke up, I made sure to drink a glass of water. I was only really having one meal a day as I was not getting out of bed for a meal in the evening — I was too exhausted and in too much pain by that point.

By Friday, the symptoms ebbed a little. I was feeling like I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. I still had a severe cough and headache but my muscle aches had subsided.

On Saturday, I was feeling better still. The headache was half of what it had been the day before but the cough remained. I could think straight again and hold an actual conversation.

Then everything shifted.

The Second Week

Rex Pickar, Unsplash

By Monday, I was coughing so much that capillaries in my lungs were starting to burst. My snot was speckled with deep red blood. I was coughing up thick and almost hard chunks of phlegm with speckles of blood in them. On top of that, my body started to ache in more pinpointed ways. My neck was almost stone — to the point that I had to turn my whole body to look around. My lower back was also a mess. I couldn’t even lie down. The kicker was that I completely lost my voice.

At this point, the doctor ran some more lung tests on me over the phone and started checking in multiple times daily. The main concern was this: My lungs were shredded, my immune system was likely obliterated from fighting through the previous week, and now I was in real danger of getting pneumonia — a big reason that people are dying from this virus. My doctor also attributed the pinpointed muscle pain in my back and neck to not running anymore and being bedridden for a week. My doctor decided to put me on a very high dose of azithromycin for three days to stave off pneumonia. The drug is also being looked at as possible defense against COVID-19.

I was now experiencing pain in my chest/lungs, but my breathing, while not ideal, wasn’t terrible. The headaches would come back as I got more tired. I would have hard coughing fits when I woke up and when I’d get tired again. Like, full-on, ten-minute long coughing sessions that’d usually end with a little blood.

I carried on with my diet of ramen, spicy soup, and ginger and green tea. I drank as much water as I could. My soup consistently got spicier throughout the week as my sense of taste and smell basically disappeared. By Thursday, I was putting a full tablespoon of each gochujang and sambal olek along with an entire red chili into my soups, plus a full thumb of diced ginger, and still not thinking there was enough spice. I added some Ben and Jerry’s into the mix to soothe my throat from all the coughing.

I also started taking 400mg of Aspirin cut with vitamin C every four to six hours. I just couldn’t deal with the constant pain anymore. I was starting to get mentally frustrated. Aspirin at least took the edge off and let me sleep until coughing woke me back up.

This basically carried on until Friday morning.

Recovery

Dominik Martin, Unsplash

Last Friday morning, March 27th, was basically the first morning since March 17th that I didn’t wake up to a coughing fit. My cough was gone. My headache was basically nil. My back and neck were still stiff but getting better. I wasn’t tired by 9 am. My voice was still shot but it was improving.

By Saturday, my voice had finally returned along with a sense of smell and taste. My body aches had almost gone entirely save for my lower back and neck.

But it’s not over. Things have changed.

One, my lungs are obviously damaged. I’m out of breath at least six times a day. I’m not allowed out of the house under any circumstances. So, I’m trying to do a little exercise, but my lungs can’t support it yet. I can get about ten push-ups out in one set before my lungs say, “stop, asshole!” and I need a hit off an inhaler.

My tastebuds and nose have changed. Cilantro — which I love and use constantly — tastes like soap right now. Red meat and especially venison (I eat a lot of wild game) taste far more metallic. I’ve been eating high-probiotic cheeses to rebuild my gut biome, and the ones with the most mold (brie, gorgonzola, etc.) cause my mouth to numb and my lips to tingle. The laundry detergent we use suddenly has an unbearable smell, to the point where I have to go on the balcony for fresh air to avoid it. I’m craving sweets and chocolate desperately right now. I also need way more salt on food at the moment. If it’s a salty snack, I could kill it. I had to stop myself from eating a whole bag of chips just yesterday. I don’t know. I am hoping all of these things are just my body readjusting post-illness. We’ll see, I guess.

The hardest part now is not knowing. Can I get it again? I don’t know. Am I safe from getting a secondary virus or disease? I don’t know. How long will these changes in my body, palate, and senses last? I don’t know.

Then there’s the psychological aspect. As I started fully recovering in earnest, my social media feeds started filling up with death notices directly related to COVID-19. I know I’m lucky but that sense of luck and elation at having recovered comes with a real sense of survivor’s guilt.

As for where I got it, well, there are two options there. One, both of my sons go to a school that had two teachers get the virus in early March. It’s very possible they carried it home to me (though they have shown zero symptoms). Two, I was the one going out to grocery stores and stocking up since February. It’s very possible I got it at a grocery store. It wasn’t until very recently that strict protections arrived regarding gloves, masks, and social distancing. In fact, most of that arrived in Berlin the day I actually got sick.

And… that just about covers it. With so much news out there, I think one thing that kind of gets lost is what this virus does to you if you do get it. Even if you have a mild case, like I did, it’s far more miserable than any flu I can remember. Of course, there’s no real advice to be found here. Nothing you can do better or worse once you have the virus.

Except for the advice we all know but our natural human impatience might be leading us to double back on at this point in the quarantine: Stay home as much as possible.

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