Coughing in the Time of Corona

“Primary symptoms include loss of smell and taste, a dry cough and fever.”

According to the incessant avalanche of news regarding the Coronavirus we’ve been getting buried under since the beginning of the year, these three symptoms are the ones you really have to watch out for and avoid collecting when we’re talking about the Corona virus. I ended up collecting two of them without however contracting the virus itself, which my doctor later confirmed to be ‘quite the feat these days’. The self-effacing half smile on her face nonetheless revealed that she wasn’t quite sure how I’d managed this ‘accomplishment’. But before digging into this I need to provide some more details on why we’re here.

I am not part of a minority. Consequently, I have never felt the shameful, degrading looks minorities of all kinds get subjected to from people who erroneously fancy themselves better for some reason. Until a few days ago.

The reason for this sudden change? A cough I developed. Much like the one every news outlet has been warning you about for weeks.

It’s a weird thing to be coughing when there’s a global pandemic raging throughout the world. Especially when like me, you’re never ever sick. I can’t remember the last time I ran a fever or needed antibiotics. And then this. What would in the best of times not even get an inquisitive look from most people, is now to be considered as an open act of war if you do it without pulling down a ziplock bag over your head prior to coughing. One cough gets you the furious looks. Two coughs gets you the overly exaggerated gesticulations where people try to cover their entire bodies with just their hands. Three coughs and they’re just about ready to pick up the pitchforks and chase you down the streets.

On the Ides of March (the 14th, to be precise) our country, like many others before it, entered a national lockdown phase in an attempt to contain the corona crisis. Weeks of speculation finally came true, and ten million of us suddenly found themselves stuck at home and in dire need of toilet paper. The problem with a pandemic of this magnitude is that when you’re stuck at home you can’t go an hour without getting some type of news update from outlets you hadn’t even heard of ever before. The incessant overdose of information has been overwhelming to say the least, and one of the unfortunate, less desirable side-effects it has is that it’s turned Jill, Jack, John and Joe into a DIY-medical physician. Spend a second on Twitter reading tweets about the coronacrisis and you’ll want to hang yourself. With all this time on our hands we humans inevitably end up scouring every square inch of our bodies in search of even the smallest signal – sign of God even – that something inside us might be wrong. In the best of days I am not someone who panics quickly, in fact shit has to hit the fan pretty hard before you’ll hear me gulp so I wasn’t too worried about maybe having contracted this coronavirus. But then – as it often does – it came, as unexpected and surprising as a genuinely good movie being released on Netflix.

The first sign on the wall that something might be wrong was the headache I woke up with on Monday the 18th. The headache was accompanied by a little voice in the back of my head : This is it. Get your affairs in order. You’re about to become a statistic.
Now as I said before, I don’t panic quickly and as such I immediately reassured myself that this was nothing. I’ve had headaches before and I’ll have then in the future too. Then the headaches went on for three subsequent days, accompanied by an overall fatigue and aching joints and muscle pains.

See, there it is. Now with pain in the muscles and joints? That’s your body telling you it’s done for.
  Shut up.

Still, the panic didn’t set in. I reassured myself that these were side-effects associated with the fact that during this first week of lockdown I had gone from an average daily step count of 11,000 to no more than 2,000. If there’s a thing as too much sport, surely there’s a thing as too little sport. I cruised ahead with work that week, needing naps to push through the day as if I were closer to 80 than 30, but nevertheless hopeful that a weekend’s rest would bring the required solace and feelings of being in better health.

Then the fever came. And the night-sweats.
This. Is. It. Shut up. It’s not. Yes it is.

I woke up that Saturday morning feeling like a wounded dog that had narrowly escaped the clutches of a live-animal food market in Wuhan. Headaches, fatigue, muscle and joint pains, and now a fever and night-sweats. I quickly pulled up the checklist of symptoms to watch out for and crossed off two more that I had now managed to collect. I felt like improving the world’s worst stamp collection. The important badges I was still missing were loss of smell and taste and a cough. I somehow sourced a weird, mistaken feeling of mental tranquility from this. As if everything was still alright, as long as I lacked those two symptoms. Like a gunshot victim counting his blessings that the bullets only hit a normal artery and not a carotid artery. Alive, but barely so. And so, following the protocol and guidelines laid out by the government I locked myself in and started bingeing gram after gram of paracetamol and chasing it down with Aquarius, much like a college freshman the morning after an all-night rager. At first the paracetamol worked wonders. As soon as I had ingested it I would eagerly count the minutes down until it would take effect, and I’d resort on my fever-free cloud of bliss. Then after a couple of days of this repeated routine, the countdowns became longer and the fever-free cloud of bliss dropped me before I could recite the alphabet backwards. Something was wrong.

Even paracetamol isn’t working anymore. That’s a sign, if any. Shut up.

If by that point any confirmation was needed (it wasn’t) that something was wrong, the coughing came. The penultimate badge of (dis)honour. The membership card to the club you never want to be a part of.
This is it. Pack your bags Dorothy, you’re going to CoronaKansas.
It’s around this time that I really started to question whether or not I, who is never ever ever sick, had really contracted this corona virus somewhere in the last few days before the lockdown. I’m sure the delirious night-fevers played their part in trying to convince me that I was done for.

Over the next few days, the fever came and went like the tides. It would come as soon as the gram of paracetamol I was surviving on stopped working, and recede like the waves from the shoreline once the next gram would kick in. For days I felt like a broken fridge with a bad cough. Hot/cold, hot/cold, hot/cold. Sometimes cold/hot, cold/hot. My fridge door slamming open and shut every time I coughed. This fever had me in its grip like a pesky, unsolicited instagram ad. I didn’t know where it came from, but it was always there, never far away. Lurking in the shadows, ready to strike a blow at any given time. A lack of available Corona tests meant that I couldn’t get tested for the virus straight away. I needed to consult doctors over the phone x-amount of times who would need to refer me to the ER room as soon as they could feel my fever over the phone. Let me tell you something about medical consultations over the phone : they’re about as useless as diet water. I could’ve trained a parrot and he would’ve been diagnosed as ‘probably corona positive’ after this brief phone conversation. It’s also very weird. As if you were ordering something shady from the delivery menu of a restaurant you’ve never eaten at before.

On the seventh day of consecutive fever – and when I mean fever I don’t mean 38 degrees Celsius but very much nearing 40 – I decided enough was enough and I went to the Emergency Room of the ‘specialised’ Corona virus hospital in the neighbourhood. What? God allegedly created the whole world and universe in seven days and I couldn’t get rid of this stupid fever? Come on.
Your time has come. Step aboard the train.  Shutupshutupshutup.
Stepping into the ER room was like going back in time and walking onto the movie set of the 1995 blockbuster ‘Ebola’, which- as the slightly revelatory title might suggest – is a movie about an Ebola pandemic that ravages the world. A doctor dressed in the exact same yellow biohazard suit briefly examined me – by which I mean that she took my temperature and asked me to walk six metres as if I was a geriatric patient looking for his walker – and then declared that I just had to suffer the fever a little longer at home and wait it out. This is not the diagnosis you want to hear when you feel like you might spontaneously combust at any given time. Reluctantly I went back home and returned to the couch in which I had nearly fossilised over the course of the past week.

Needless to say the fever did not die down as the biohazard-personage had predicted. And so on the morning of my tenth (10!) day of fever – unwilling to bear another day of fever, night-sweats and all that came in between – I gathered what was left of my strength and slouched over to the ER of another ‘not corona specialised hospital’ close to where I live. The doctors here weren’t dressed as extras of a movie set, but immediately set to work and ran a battery of tests on me. Blood-work, ECG, CT scan, the works. The ER doctor entered the examination room I was in carrying a clipboard in her hand and even though I had ECG-wires strapped all over my chest and going everywhere much like a car-engine being repaired in a shop, I didn’t fail to notice that she was checking things off a list. Crossing them out. To this day I don’t know what it is that she was checking off, but it had to be the list of symptoms I had collected because when she finally sat down next to me her first words were ‘Well you’re a bit in a rough shape, buddy.’
She was right about that.
Pack your bags. Here it comes.
Shut up.

The last thing she did before leaving me in the examination room was the infamous Corona test. I was finally getting one. The test itself is about as pleasant as having a 15 centimetre rod jammed up your nose sounds like. As she approached me with it I couldn’t chase the images away of me a couple of years ago, on my hands and knees over the shower drain with a stretched-out metal coat hanger prodding the drain-plug in a feeble attempt at unclogging it.

After the CT-scan and the chest X-RAY – for which I had to pull myself up on a bar like a monkey at the zoo – they started me on a dose of antibiotics and liquid magic, in the form of a paracetamol IV. Certain that I had contracted Corona – because with all these symptoms in my bag how could I not? – I was moved to a transit ward where you had to wait for the outcome of the corona-test, depending on which you’d be wheeled to a normal ward or a containment ward. I spent the better part of the afternoon in a secluded chamber in that transit ward watching daytime TV (I don’t see any reason to keep this TV thing going. There’s literally nothing interesting on, ever.) awaiting the results. I was then told I’d spend the night because the test results would only be available in the early morning, a decision that I welcomed with open arms because it implied they were going to keep filling up my paracetamol IV every time it ran out. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of experiencing the wondrous workings of a paracetamol IV drip, it’s sensational. Works twice as fast and four times as well. I’m definitely getting one for the next time I have a hangover.

At 4am I was woken by the night nurse who entered my room with something I had seen before : a corona testing kit.
“Your first test came back negative, but the doctor’s not buying it.” were her first words. “Not with your symptoms. So we gotta run it again. This might be unpleasant.”
Before I properly realised what was going on my drain-plug was being prodded left and right. That’s a hell of an alarm clock.

The second test came back negative as well, thus confirming that I hadn’t in fact contracted the virus. The doctor who announced this to me was so surprised by the outcome of the second test I’m quite sure she wrote down my name on a list of medical anomalies to be contacted later, once all of this is over. So similar were my symptoms. The verdicts however was a bilateral bacterial pneumonia. For someone like me who is never ever sick (have I mentioned that I’m usually never sick?), one can’t help but wonder at the odds of contracting this thing, that resembles the Coronavirus so much it could pass as it’s weird cousin who sits too close next to you at the family reunion. What was pneumonia anyway? I always thought it was something octogenarians contracted at the turn of the last century after being caught in the rain while riding their open chariots, but alas I was wrong.

Thankfully however, they kept me on a healthy mix of antibiotics and paracetamol and within a few days my fever had gone and I could walk around fearlessly again, not having to worry that my cough would attract the fury and storm of degrading looks from strangers. When my doctor came to discharge me, there was something about the way she looked at me that persuaded me that she wasn’t altogether sure that I didn’t really have Corona. That I had somehow managed a magic trick and had fooled the test twice. I left the hospital after five days with a renewed appreciation for antibiotics, paracetamol drips and direct sunlight.

Fine it wasn’t that. You didn’t catch it. For now. There’s still plenty time.
Sure didn’t. Now crawl back to wherever you came from.

Now there’s still a chance that it was in fact Corona. Testing kits have a 30% error margin, and that error margin excludes any type of errors related to the execution of the test itself, so even a double test could in fact have been erroneous. Knowing this generates a certain feeling of unease when being released from the hospital, the idea that you might actually still be contagious to other people. Surprisingly, the tables had turned : I wasn’t getting looks from people anymore now that my cough had gone, but I still felt some kind of ignominy at the idea that I might pass this on to others.

Let me tell you friends, as Gabriel García Márquez himself would agree with : much like love in the time of cholera, coughing in the time of corona is another beast altogether. Stay home and stay safe until all of this blows over.

2 thoughts on “Coughing in the Time of Corona

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