I am a physician well on my way to recovery from COVID-19, the coronavirus, the same virus that is tearing apart families, communities, whole nations and our global economy. The fear of this viral terror is palpable.
I likely acquired the virus in the small ski town of Ischgl, Austria: not on the glorious powder-filled ski slopes but rather in the uproarious, festive, après-ski bars. When I began to have fevers and a mild cough a few days before flying home, I assumed I had a local flu. I remained housebound, and when flying home I wore a mask and washed my hands frequently.
By then news of Ischgl being a hotbed for coronavirus was in the media and I knew I had to get tested. I did, and then self-isolated – with whatever advice and information I could organize from the Internet.
My fevers and chills and coughing had increased once I returned to Canada – after four days of gradually getting better while in Europe, I got worse at home. The Public Health nurse called me confirming I had COVID-19 when I was already beginning to heal, five days after my return.
For some, COVID-19 feels like nothing. They have no symptoms, but may become “healthy helpers” who unwittingly become an unidentified source of transmission. For me, COVID-19 felt like a really bad flu. Night and day feverish sweats were drenching, my muscles ached, the coughing left me weary. For three days the cough was relentless although I was fortunately never truly short of breath. I lost five pounds in the first two days I was home. I had no appetite and felt nauseous.
I was also alone; my partner was still in Germany and my 15-year-old daughter was safely sequestered with her dad up the street.
At no point did I wonder about my own ability to survive what I was experiencing, but after three days of unchanged symptoms I realized how much of a physical toll this would take upon someone with much less robust health. I did plan to call 911 if I worsened, but mostly I dealt with my fear by realizing that my healthy friends and family were far more terrified of my illness than I was. Immobilized on my couch, reassuring others that I was going to be fine, I could see that I would be.
Seventeen days after symptoms began I was still in isolation but virtually symptom free. The public health department informed me that I could have gone out into the community 10 days after symptoms began if I were symptom free, while my extensive online research suggested that some people still shed the virus up to 20 days after initial symptoms. Since my province is no longer testing for recovery, even in confirmed COVID-19 cases, how can they know if I stopped shedding at five or 20 days? As the well-being of my daughter and community was at risk, I remained in isolation, erring on the side of caution.
Even as a physician, I could not access any of the medications that theoretically might decrease viral shedding. Instead, I added higher doses of vitamins D and C, zinc, quercetin, magnesium and extra antioxidants such as curcumin and resveratrol.
What else did I do that helped? Lots and lots of sleep and rest. I only watched milder Netflix shows as I found violence and discord overwhelmed my nervous system. I drank endless fluids with sea salt to replace the electrolytes I lost in the sweats. I lived on chicken- and beef-broth soups. I made sure to eat some protein daily but oranges and green apples were all that tasted normal to me for two weeks. I drank pots of tea made from fresh lemon, ginger and honey. Then I made sure to get more rest and practised gratitude daily. Sunshine and fresh air helped immeasurably.
I know how simply lucky I am, and I have learned from my personal experience that many of us who acquire COVID-19 will be fine without accessing formal health care and by managing our symptoms at home. Where I have been most fortunate is in my community of friends and family who have dropped food and supplies at my doorstep. Many calls, texts and e-mails have kept me connected. I am grateful for the outpouring and of love and good wishes. My friend Val reminds me that, “when you have a life changing experience, let it change your life.” And so, I have become a COVID Ambassador: Teaching, reassuring, calming, instructing my network that this is survivable for most of us.
We can contribute to the communal good by dealing with our fears and our worries realistically, and leaving the health-care providers’ time, energy and limited equipment to those who are significantly short of breath with the virus or who develop secondary illnesses. Try not to judge others.
Even when I was coughing and sweating alone, praying my symptoms would not worsen, I marvelled at this amazing human body and mind, and its ability to tolerate, heal and grow strong from the challenges faced. I could have focused upon why I got sick but the greater miracle is how I got well and how we mostly stay well. I know that more lives will be tragically lost to this virus, but we also need to recognize and celebrate survival.
This global virus binds us in our humanity. When there is nothing else to “do,” call an elderly neighbour or someone self-isolating, buy someone some groceries, share your hoarded toilet paper, write, draw, laugh, create and talk to each other. There remains so much to be grateful for as we slow down and appreciate what we were previously too busy to notice. We are changing. We need to evolve. But most importantly we need to know we can thrive through this pandemic.
Dr. Anita Tannis lives in North Vancouver, B.C.
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