It takes a village to fight COVID-19

When you’re sick and scared, reaching out to friends and family can be the best medicine.

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My symptoms first arrived on a Thursday at the end of May. I was dizzy and unable to focus all morning. My partner, Ben, was out with our 3-year-old daughter, Poppy, so I had some time to myself. I was trying to focus on an editing job, but I couldn’t make heads or tails of the chapter in front of me. Sentences seemed to grow and shrink as I stared at them. I’m usually adept at imposing order on others’ writing. But not that morning.

I’ve gotta take a nap, I thought. I drank a beer instead. But the drink made me woozier than any wheat beer should, and by early that evening, I was in bed. I had a low-but-miserable fever, complete with chills, body aches and random stabs of pain in my limbs. The next morning, I was worse. I met Ben in the kitchen and told him I was feeling bad. COVID-y bad. And that I didn’t know what to do.

Usually, I have an answer for everything. Want to break up with your boyfriend? Here’s what you should do. What should you feed your infant? I’ve just done five hours of research on that. Trouble getting your life together? Here’s a spreadsheet I made with your personalized five-year plan.

But that day, I needed someone else to manage my life. Ben helped me back into bed, had me call the El Rio health clinic and made me a doctor’s appointment for that morning. Between my symptoms and the fact that I’d had a known coronavirus exposure, I was presumed positive, but was told I should get tested the next day.

My symptoms worsened over the next 24 hours, and by the time we were all in the car driving to the test, I was almost in tears with anxiety and discomfort. I was terrified of the test itself — the aggressive nose swab. As the nurse got ready to administer it, Ben held out both of his hands to me, and I clung to him. The test itself wasn’t as bad as I’d expected, but I wouldn’t have made it through even that hurdle without him.

Reaching out

As the days crept along, I listened to Ben and Poppy playing and stewed feverishly in bed, thinking that they sounded a million miles away. I was getting bored and lonely. Ben had his hands full with Poppy and me sick. Work was out of the question, and even a pulpy mystery novel wasn’t holding my attention. I picked up my phone blearily for the hundredth time, and decided it was time to tell others about my state. I had already told my parents, my sister, my close friend Marita, and a few others. But it was time to tell Facebook.

I don’t usually share about my personal life on Facebook, but I needed more connection. Feeling too sick to talk on the phone had added another layer to the isolation of months of quarantine. So, I wrote a one-line post that was meant to be funny. Humor always makes it easier for me to draw attention to myself. What I received in return were heartfelt and personal comments, direct messages from friends around the world, get-well cards a few days later, and a special delivery of medicinal elderberry syrup to my doorstep. An old boss in a faraway city offered to send me fire tonic.

“Anytime Poppy needs to be entertained, give us a FaceTime call and we’ll do our best to occupy her,” my mother and sister texted.

“Please know that I am sending healing energy your way, and that I will keep you in my thoughts,” my editing client wrote.

After that, someone checked in on me just about every day. Because I’d reached out, the loneliness scampered away.

Friendship to the rescue

Sometime in the middle of my sixth day of symptoms, the fever broke for good, and was replaced with a sore throat. No fever meant I could think clearly at last. But that, in turn, meant I had more attention with which to scour the internet for COVID information. Everything I read indicated that I may very well experience a resurgence in symptoms. And if I followed the same pattern as a friend of mine, who’d also had a weeklong, mild-but-miserable fever, the worst — those dreaded breathing problems — was yet to come.

Surely, I thought, the coronavirus was inhabiting my throat only until it could find its way to my lungs. I’d read the story of the 27-year-old woman who’d had a double-lung transplant to save her from the ravages of the virus. It was not comforting.

It wasn’t long until I found myself fully panicked once again. Ben tried to talk me down, but he was emotionally burned out. Besides, we still couldn’t have a serious, private discussion without our little third roommate reminding us of games to be played and water to be fetched.

On my eighth day of symptoms, I was particularly upset. It was about 8:30 p.m., and Ben was putting Poppy to bed, so I hid my tears and stepped onto our back porch. I had my phone, but who to call? My family — all of whom live on the East Coast — would be asleep. Marita in California would be awake. Sheltering in place on her own, she almost always picked up the phone. It wouldn’t be the first time I had dialed her number since this began. But could I really bug her for support, again?

I could, and I did. And when she picked up, my fears streamed out. I was worried that I would die or have COVID-19 forever. That the wheezing and coughing was coming for me. I don’t remember quite how she did it, but she calmed me down. And then she helped me process the historic protests that had erupted across the country while I was laid up. And finally, after an hour or so, we were bantering and goofing around like we usually do. The next morning, I woke up to a bouquet of magenta gerbera daisies and a load of get-well snacks she’d had delivered. Friendship to the rescue.

My first instinct after talking to Marita had been to apologize for calling in tears. But looking at the pile of snacks sitting under the flowers, I realized that a “thank you” would be more appropriate. Her actions were truly appreciated; she had helped a great deal. I had to trust that she wasn’t just putting up with me. I had to accept her acts of friendship with grace.

Teaching empathy

Remember when I was about to get my nose swabbed, and I was freaking out in the passenger seat of Ben’s car? Something else happened in that moment. I recall Poppy chiming in with her dad from the back seat: “It’s OK, Mom, it’s OK.” I remember feeling a wave of guilt for letting her see me so panicked and needy. But now, I believe that she probably learned something really important in that moment: Adults have a hard time too, sometimes. But we can all face our fears if we have a hand to hold.

As I write this, three weeks exactly since I first fell ill, I have finally overcome my sore throat. I never developed breathing problems. But even a mild case of COVID-19 can be unpleasant and scary. Running a household when the coronavirus has caught you is an intimidating prospect. My latest pandemic preparedness advice? Be ready to let others in with grace and gratitude, and leave the guilt behind.