My arm struggled to fasten the deadbolt at the top of my apartment door. Finally maneuvering the door shut, I felt my body lean up against it for support. I crawled into bed. Maybe this pressure in my head and disorienting funk would lift by the morning. “I am young. I am healthy,” I repeated to myself.
Twenty minutes later, I awoke drenched in sweat. I threw my duvet off. Unable to lift myself, I curled into the fetal position while shivers racked my body. My joints seized, and my rigid body shook in the damp halo that surrounded me on my dark sheets. I was too frail to overpower the elephant in the room.
“I have coronavirus,” I said over and over, shaking my head.
Doubled over, I tried to get tap water. Bracing myself with my hands on my knees, I finally made it. When I collapsed back into bed, my body and head throbbed. As an adult, there are very few moments in your life when you truly question whether you can take care of yourself. I ordered NyQuil, strawberry Pedialyte and a thermometer on a delivery app and pulled my laptop onto my bed. I just have to get through each day, I thought.
Days of symptoms
This happened in September, and for the next 48 hours, I could not discern whether I was awake, sleeping or Facetiming my mom. My temperature fluctuated between 100 and 104 degrees, and my delirium with it. Flattened on my bed, I Googled, “Can a fever kill you?” I couldn’t discern whether the tightness in my chest and palpating heart were from anxiety or a respiratory demise. I was convinced my skin was peeling off due to the prickling sensations under my skin, which acetaminophen could not suppress.
Then it started, the burning in my nose. I thought I smelled gasoline, mint, blueberry, pine trees — then, after a couple of hours, it went blank. No signal. This numbness enraged me. I didn’t have enough energy to throw anything, so I flailed and kicked a pillow off my bed.
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After two days, I could get out of bed. In fact, I felt invigorated. I must be regaining my health, I thought. Yes, this must be what medical experts mean when they say young people experience a bad flu and then they’re over it. I was only 24 years old. I gave myself a warm mental embrace, congratulating myself for weathering the storm. Finally having enough energy to get tested, I ventured out. But upon arriving home, the lonely aimlessness of self-isolation seeped in and I wandered back to bed and onto Netflix.
A day later, I woke tangled in wet blankets. The virus was back with a second, spiteful vengeance and, this time, it had settled into my lungs. My breathing was labored and shallow. The only lucid moment I had was receiving my positive COVID-19 results and feverishly forwarding them to all my medical school deans. I tried to shower and almost fainted. Despite not being religious, prayer was the only place my mind went when I lay lifeless on my bed for hours. I prayed hard and fast, “Please, make this end.” Something didn’t seem right, even Google agreed. I called my dad, a physician, and told him I was heading to the hospital.
First, second, third opinion
The emergency department physician assured me that my oxygen was perfectly saturated, that the fevers were completely normal and that I was going to be fine. I stared at the scuffs on my sneakers — I didn’t feel fine.
When I arrived home, I was drained. My dad called and said an infectious disease doctor at his Canadian hospital had offered to help me and would call today.
When my phone rang, the doctor's cheery voice boomed over the phone. He reassured me that he would oversee my care and do everything in his power to get me through this. He said that he was worried about viral pneumonia, and that I needed a chest X-ray and blood work done as soon as possible. After hanging up, my phone buzzed again.
A doctor from Georgetown Student Health Services was on the phone. She saw my discharge papers from the hospital and also recommended a chest X-ray immediately, explaining that the virus presents differently in young people with excess lung capacity. Within minutes, she scheduled me to go to the radiology department for an X-ray that evening. Winded from talking, I ran to the bathroom and hacked up orange and red phlegm.
When the Georgetown Student Health doctor sent me the X-ray results, she said they were consistent with pneumonia. The images that followed showed every recess of my lungs lit up like lightning. There was almost no tissue that the virus hadn’t worked its way into. I gasped for air, as sobs heaved through me.
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Shaking, I forwarded the pictures to my father's colleague. He jumped on the phone to reassure me that young and strong people like me do remarkably well with viral pneumonia. Without dismissing my fears, he calmly explained that we were going to proactively monitor my oxygen all weekend with my pulse oximeter, a small device that measures oxygen levels.
If my saturation continually trended downward below 94%, I might be going into acute respiratory distress syndrome. He assured me that ARDS was not a big worry for him and that, if it did happen, I would go to a hospital, be put on dexamethasone, a steroid, and likely be just fine then, too.
“I can’t tell you how much your help means to me,” I managed and quickly hung up before tears spilled out again.
Coming out of the COVID fog
I used to read the headlines about young, hospitalized individuals and think that the "alarmist" coverage was simply a tactic to control the throngs of college-age partyers, who seemed unfazed by the idea of a pandemic. Despite my background in public health, I considered severe COVID-19 sickness for a young, healthy person as more of an empty threat than a reality.
We’ve been in this pandemic for half a year. It’s natural for our hand-scrubbing, mask-wearing, sanitizer-dosing vigilance to slip and for us to cling to the rosiest of outlooks — that we’re over the worst of it. Unfortunately, with cold weather forcing us indoors, flu season coming and the timeline for a safe, evidence-based vaccine extending into 2021, we still have much of the pandemic ahead of us.
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To this day, I struggle with balancing my medical school studies with some of the long-term side effects of the virus, such as vertigo, shortness of breath and brain fog.
I am almost back to my pre-COVID self, but, not unlike President Donald Trump, I was extremely privileged to have access to the knowledge and medical resources that I did during my illness. If people don’t have access to health care providers or mental health professionals, know how to strengthen their immune system, or understand the importance of monitoring their oxygen and temperature at home, their experience could be even more anxiety inducing and medically dire.
Perhaps news outlets, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other public health resources should tailor more of their advice to young individuals, who will likely have to monitor themselves at home.
Each day, we make several decisions about the risk level we want to assume with COVID-19 — where to go, whom to see and what hygiene to practice. When making these decisions, I hope other young people hear my experience and calculate the potential of experiencing the worst days of their life on the off chance that they do contract COVID-19. And, if you do contract the disease, I hope you know you’re not alone and there are countless health care professionals out there who will care for you like family.
Ashley Andreou is a student at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has a master's of public health from Yale University.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Age isn't immunity: Young people catch, suffer from COVID-19 too.