Day 9: Dread

When my husband told me on Wednesday that the hospital would need him on service, after all, this week, I asked if he’d be on the COVID ward. “No,” he assured me, and because I wanted to, I believed him.

Gullible me. There’s no such thing. There’s only patients. And now, he’s seen two of them. The first, yesterday, was a man in his 60s. My husband thought he probably had the coronavirus, but he wasn’t sure.

The woman today was 58, which happens to be my husband’s age. After he saw her X-rays and listened to her lungs through his stethoscope, he was almost certain her results would come back positive. Then he left the room and called me. I know him well enough to know the sound of him feeling nervous.

There’s a new phrase I can’t get out of my head these last few weeks. It’s like when I had a root canal a couple of months ago and my tongue kept sliding over and over to that one spot, pressing against that temporary crown. Not because it felt good, but because I kept wondering if it would still hurt. It always did.

The phrase is viral load. Two words so spiky with meaning I can neither swallow them nor say them. They refer to the amount of virus one person is exposed to over a short period of time.

“Healthcare workers don’t necessarily have a higher fatality rate, but do they suffer, disproportionately, from the most severe forms of the (coronavirus) disease?” asked Siddhartha Mukherjee, a Columbia University physician, in this week’s New Yorker magazine.

He interviewed, among others, a German virologist named Rik de Swart, who wondered if what we know about the measles virus could also hold true for the novel coronavirus. “In measles, there are several clear indications that the severity of illness relates to the dose of exposure,” he told Mukherjee. “And it makes immunological sense, because the interaction between the virus and the immune system is a race in time. It’s a race between the virus finding enough target cells to replicate and the antiviral response aiming to eliminate the virus. If you give the virus a head start with a large dose, you get higher viremia, more dissemination, higher infection, and worse disease.”

In other words, with enough exposure to really ill people, you can be truly fucked.

Two days into five days at the hospital, and my husband may have already seen two COVID-19 patients ill enough to get admitted. Yes, he was wearing protective gear, but viruses are small and wily creatures. Plus that’s potentially only the beginning of his exposure. There’s all the people he’s seen at the clinic over the last couple of months, since the precautions and the mostly-telephone visits started, but there’s also the patients before that, too. Of course, no one he’s seen has gotten him ill, but we also don’t know how this virus works. Can it build and build in your body, like a tower of Jenga blocks?

These are the questions that come flying like arrows at me when I jolt awake at 5 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep.

But here’s the one that really haunts me: is his load heavier because of me?

I’ve tested negative for the coronavirus, but in the chaotic storm of these early viral days, when we’re still struggling to pin down the who what where and why of COVID-19, a negative result turns out to be less meaningful than your symptoms. There are so many ways that a test can miss the virus. From what my husband and another physician friend of mine tell me, that is particularly true of the sputum test I took.

Anyway, four days after I got my test results, I’m still in bed half the day. I’m getting better slowly, but still unevenly — two good days, followed by a bad day or two. All of my symptoms — the fatigue, the headache and body aches, the chills and cough that are mostly gone now — track closely with those of the virus. All three of our kids eventually got minor versions of my illness. Only my husband has stayed well.

On the one hand, when I call what I had the coronavirus, I breathe a sigh of relief. Phew — that’s in my rear view mirror. No more worries about fever, breathing, ICU for me. I wear a mask out walking the dog (my only outings in this still-recovering time), but I also consider myself (tentatively) done.

I read somewhere that in Italy, 20 percent of all healthcare workers got sick with the coronavirus. That means 80 percent did not. I’m hoping that whatever we had in this house gave my husband a leg up on the infection. His body had a chance to see it, build its defenses, figure out how to efficiently shrug it off.

I hope I never have occasion to berate myself for not wearing my mask enough, for not spraying enough Lysol, for not scrubbing my hands long enough, with enough soap.

I’m so proud of him every day. He’s scared. He knows all about viruses and loads. But he keeps going to work, keeps seeing patients, keeps providing care. Like medical assistants and EMTs and techs and nurses and other doctors, he makes this choice each day that potentially brings him face to face with the enemy. Meanwhile, until I got sick, I wore a mask to Trader Joe’s and left with a pounding heart.

Still, this whole situation is unimaginable. I didn’t marry a soldier. I married a doctor. I didn’t know there would be a war that would put him on the front lines.

I’d like to report that I’ve found some way of using meditation or prayer or even long hot baths to banish my worries. Mostly, though, I just pretend this isn’t happening. Until I get those calls from the hospital. Then pretending becomes a lot harder.

Day 2: Invisible

Is it in me? Is it all around me? Or do I exist in a cocoon of safety? Where is this virus and how do I even know if it’s showing its face?

As I wrote yesterday, I’ve been living the Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa life since Friday, neither fully upright nor totally knocked down by illness. Well, I did spend part of Sunday on the floor of my bedroom, to tired to pull myself onto the bed. But thankfully, that extreme exhaustion has passed. So has the cough that felt like it was dragging me along towards a feverish sea (if that makes no sense, just wait until the cough hits you, and I think you’ll see what I mean).

On Monday, thanks to having a physician husband, I got tested for the novel coronavirus. But test results are taking a week or longer. By the time I get mine back, hopefully, I will be recovered, or close to it. In the meantime, I long for things that are out of reach. A hug. A kiss. Even a hand on a shoulder. I live with four people — a husband, two college-age sons, and a 16-year-old daughter — and no one can come within six feet of me. Really, they should be leaving me locked up in my room, and bringing things to my door. But without major outward signs of illness, we are not that kind of organized.

I see my friends on Facebook posting about how they wipe down packages and toss out wrappings and wash and wash and wash their hands. They’re doing that because their home is the safe space. We don’t know what our home is anymore. It may be slick with germs. It may be an oasis.

I wish this stealth intruder would show his craggy, cowardly face.

Meanwhile, my husband sleeps in our younger son’s room. He rides his bike first thing in the morning. In a few minutes, he’ll leave for work at the clinic, where he’s an internist. Most of his visits these days are over the phone. But patients are still rolling in and out of the building, the droplets of their coughs and sneezes wafting through the vents, lingering in the communal air.

A tube of off-brand alcohol wipes stands next to me on the desk as I type. There’s a spray bottle of Lysol in the kitchen, another in the bathroom. I wear a mask anytime I enter shared space. My hands have never been cleaner.

But I don’t know anymore what I’m trying to banish, and who I’m protecting.

Day 1: Waiting for test results

I’ve got articles to report. A dog to walk. A novel to write. Kids to soothe. A house that’s gathering grime.

But as I go through my day, there’s this ticking in the background. Sometimes it’s so loud I practically can’t hear anything else. It’s the sound of the clock counting off the minutes, hours, days until I get my test result.

On Monday, three days after a walk that so exhausted me that I spent the rest of the day in bed, I got tested for the novel coronavirus. I had a cough, weakness and dizziness, but no fever. No breathing issues. No cancer diagnosis or other official underlying health issue. Not one item on the short checklist of conditions that should make me eligible for one of these precious tests. What I did have was a husband who’s an internist, who the system decided needed to know if he had the disease in his house.

I know, it’s not fair. But it’s also not fair that we have to live with the fear of him wading every day into an ocean of disease, exposing himself to illness every minute he’s at work, possibly bringing germs home with him when he returns.

The next day, after our 16 year old daughter came back pale and shaky from her walk, my husband couldn’t take the stress anymore either and got tested, too.

Three days later, I still haven’t heard anything. He got his results back in 16 hours — negative. Again, fair-not fair.

So I wait. We wait, my husband, me and the three kids, all five of us. I shuffle along in a netherworld, not quite well, not quite sick. I can walk the dog, as long as I only go two blocks (usually, I shoot for 1.8 miles). I can do my freelance writing work, as long as it’s only an hour or two at a time, and I lie down in between. I don’t have the energy to cook or clean, but that’s okay because no one wants me puttering around the kitchen.

Just in case.

I wear a mask whenever I leave my room. Just in case. Mostly I stay in my room. Because, you know, just in case. My husband’s sleeping in our middle child’s room. Out of an abundance of etc etc. And yet he still uses our bathroom. And no one follows me around with a spray bottle of Lysol, wiping away the virus I may be shedding. I mean, I do emerge from time to time. I need tea. Lunch. And someone’s got to change the laundry from the washer to the dryer.

(For those of you who are wondering, our oldest, L., has gone from kitchen novice to nightly chef in the blink of an eye, and we are all so very grateful. E. and S. are crushed with schoolwork, helping out where they can. B. comes home from clinic and does a second shift of dishes, laundry and general household management. More on these efforts in a later post)

In other words, we are half in and half out of COVID-land. We don’t know what to believe, and what not to believe. And I don’t know what to wish for, when that damned result comes back.

If I have the coronavirus, we will all be quarantined. My husband may not be able to save the world — his favorite endeavor — but be stuck at home, doing telephone visits. And I will find myself on a trajectory that is both universally known and individually uncertain.

But if this isn’t coronavirus, then why can’t I get through a day? And if I don’t have COVID-19, what would happen if I do get it, as fatigued as I currently am?

Tick, tock. Tick, tock.