Something was off. By day two, I knew something was definitely wrong. My body felt exhausted and heavy, my thinking was clouded and my nose was both runny and congested. All I wanted to do was shut my eyes. Around me the country was two weeks into lockdown, the State of New Jersey was creeping into record-level unemployment figures and North Bergen was both panicking and silent. I didn’t know why everything was so blurry in my head, but all I kept asking myself was: Have I been infected?
The news was constantly streaming in and out of my house: new facts, figures, infections, deaths and information on the virus. For some time it seemed like everyone was preparing for the apocalypse and I can’t say that it didn’t affect me. I had just gone shopping a week and a half prior and refilled my water containers. I thought I was ready to sit tight for the next few weeks because I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Everyone on social media was panicking over toilet paper and shortages on hand-sanitizer. I was making a bleach-based disinfectant that I’d gotten from the Clorox website and with some wash rags was wiping down my door handles, my car steering wheel and doors, all purchased items and my house in general.
Masks weren’t the biggest deal yet but they were sold out everywhere, including online. All I could do was wash my hands often, disinfect everything and stay away from people and places. Cool, I thought, I can definitely do that. As I saw work places in the area slowly get pushed into lockdown status, I started seeing more and more people out and about during normal “business” hours. There were families on the streets, couples out biking together, teens walking around in groups with their stereo backpacks, dogs being walked and petted. Mixed with the sunny weather days, it kind of looked like people were on vacation. People weren’t doing any of the social distancing we now know and follow. I guess CoVid wasn’t too serious yet.
A week went by and the time came for my work place to shut down. The state had put us all into lockdown and the CoVid-19 cases were growing daily. The people outside with their kids and friends started to slowly disappear. The first cases of people dying in our area started to emerge. I remember the day there were 19 total cases in Hudson County. Everyday, when I looked out my windows, I would see more and more people wearing masks. It started to look entirely normal. The buses going by on Boulevard East had less and less people. Soon they were almost entirely empty except for the bus driver. We were at the beginning of April and little did we know the number of cases of infected people was about to explode…and so would the number of deaths. Little did I know I would soon start to feel sick.
It was a Tuesday and I was out of groceries. So was my elderly neighbor. I decided to go to the store to pick up both of our grocery list items. I knew exactly where I was going and was on a mission to do it as fast as possible. I took my disinfectant, my scarf as my temporary mask, and tied my hair up into a tight bun. When I got there, I noticed that hardly anyone had masks on, in fact, some people seemed entirely oblivious to anything going on during this pandemic. It was business as usual. Kids grabbing everything, strollers, no sanitizer, no social distancing. The cashiers had no masks or gloves on. As I got around to the produce section, I noticed there was a man working with a white face mask. I was looking for a produce bag when he approached me and asked if everything was okay. I said yes. I noticed he was an older man, small in size, and coughing up a storm. It was a deep cough and a cough that said something was wrong. I stepped back without trying to seem rude as he adjusted his face mask. He continued shuffling items around. I felt tense, got what I needed and made a bee-line out of the store. I Clorox’d everything when I got into the car.
That weekend I was doing a bit of spring cleaning. I was sneezing so bad that day that I thought the pollen from outside had probably flown in and all over my furniture since my windows were open. My mind started wondering if this was seasonal allergies or something else. My throat was itchy. By nightfall I had both a runny nose and a congested other side of my nose. Incredibly annoying.
The next morning I woke up feeling like I weighed a thousand pounds: that tired, sore, exhausted body feeling inside your bones and muscles that you feel when you get hit hard with the flu. I made myself get up and act as if nothing was wrong and went about my day at home reading, researching, cooking, cleaning, talking to friends on the phone. I would call around and find out that most stores, including Walgreens on JFK Boulevard were sold out on all vitamin C products and multi-vitamins. That first day would be the beginning of the strangest sickness I have ever felt in my life.
For the next three days I had an exhausted body, cold sweats at night, a half congested and runny nose and what felt like a migraine coming on. But I had no cough. Isn’t that what makes Covid, Covid? The coughing? This can’t be that.
On day four, I got out of bed and it felt like nothing had happened. What was this? I was full of energy, back to normal and buzzing around my house. Perhaps that was nothing more than a common cold that hit me at a strange time? Who knows, but it was over.
Day five. I woke up feeling miserable again. On days five through seven I was mentally confused, disconnected from reality and felt like I was inside my eyeballs. Does that sound strange? It was. It was like nothing was real and my little eyes were the only things that were actually seeing stuff as if my brain was not connected to them. There was a stiff feeling in the back of my skull like I cannot describe and a feeling of something in my head. I would later learn that CoVid-19 was able to pass the blood-brain barrier and actually mess with our brains. And now, the coughing started. All full breaths I would take ended with automatic coughing. I would purposely take deep breaths in to see if I could hold my breath without coughing…and I couldn’t. A dry and sharp cough, I panicked about potentially being unable to breathe. The horror stories of people on ventilators started to get to me.
In between day five through seven, I lost my sense of smell. I couldn’t smell my perfume, the skunks that rummaged around my street at night, my breakfast eggs or anything else. Somewhere in those days I also lost my ability to taste food. I not only was not hungry, but when I did eat, it was like chewing on flavorless gum or slightly tough Play-Doh with no scent. When I drank orange juice, it had the consistency of whole milk with no flavor. All of it was unappetizing. For the first time in my life, there were no smells or flavors to anything. I had zero energy, my stomach was acting up and I felt so detached from reality, I knew I needed to go in for testing.
I sluggishly got on the internet and found a bunch of unreliable numbers and articles about testing sites. Only open on certain days. Only open at certain hours. No answer. Wrong hospital. I couldn’t find a direct line to call. I gave up. It was the next day after I asked for help on social media that I found the drive-thru testing site in Secaucus that was open and running. All I had to do was schedule a time to come by. I gave the hospital a call immediately. Hopefully I can go in tomorrow.
An automated voice answered. After pressing a series of numbers I was to be connected with someone. 20 minutes waiting on the line and a woman answered the call. She told me that in order for me to get tested I had to answer the following questions: “Do you have a fever of at least 98 degrees? Are you coughing? Do you have diarrhea?” I was so mentally and physically exhausted I couldn’t stand it anymore. “I am really sick and I need to get tested, please,” I told her. “Yes, but you need to have these symptoms in order to be tested.”
I said yes to everything.
She continued to take down my information on paper. I could hear the pages turning. First my name. My number. My social security number. My address. My symptom check-box answers. My health insurance and policy number. Thirty minutes later, I had an appointment.
“Five days from now?” I asked her.
“Yes, this is the soonest we have available.”
My mind immediately thought of how long that wait time was and how scary that could be for people with complicated immune systems. She let me know that a follow-up email would be sent to me to confirm my information and the appointment date. If I didn’t click on the email link, the appointment wouldn’t be scheduled. What she didn’t tell me was that the email was going to ask me for the same information that she already had asked me for: my name, birthdate, phone number, social, address, insurance policy, symptoms, etc. I was frustrated but completed the process and couldn’t wait for that Friday morning appointment. During those five long days, Theraflu became my best friend.
Appointment day. This should be nothing more than a quick Q-tip swirl in my mouth and that’s it. I arrived and the patrol officers told me where to park while I waited to pull up to the hospital entrance. All cars had to be distanced by two parking spots. An officer shouted: “Do not exit the car. Do not lower your windows! Wait for us to give you the OK to drive up.” I looked around at all the cars waiting. I looked at all the people like me and wondered what they were going through. I saw a lot of elderly folk sitting in the back of cars. It made me sad. Ten minutes past my appointment time and the officer indicated for me to drive up to the hospital entrance. The nurses were wearing full hazmat-looking suits. A nurse with a thick Jersey accent came up to my window and asked me to lower my window halfway down. She asked me for my name and birthdate and had a small vial in her hand that looked like a little white toothbrush with a red cap. “Is that a Q-tip swab?” I asked her. “No, this is going in your nose.”
And just like that, she swabbed the inside of my nose five or six times and my left eye teared up. It wasn’t painful but it was uncomfortable. The images online make it look scarier than it is, really. The nurse let me know I would have my results in 3-5 business days. By the time my results came in, it was day 15 of my being sick. I was already feeling so much better. My taste and smell were not fully back and wouldn’t be back for another set of weeks but my body didn’t hurt anymore. I could think clearly again and my cough had slowly faded away. That Thursday afternoon, a random text message came in with the words: COVID-19 RESULTS, POSITIVE.
And that was it. I really had had Coronavirus. A few days after the first test result came in, a random volunteer from the North Bergen Health Department called me to ask about my symptoms and experience with the virus. While he had the same questions the woman who scheduled my appointment had, he did ask for any other information I thought was important for them to know. I didn’t hold back and told him everything.
CoVid-19 has taken us all by surprise and is still showing us what it is capable of in each and every individual it infects here in North Bergen and beyond. I many times sit and wonder about how I contracted the virus. I think about the community laundry room in my building, the bananas I forgot to wash with soap previous the lockdown, my scarf which maybe wasn’t wrapped tightly enough, my car keys that I overlooked. I guess I will never really know. But in the back of my memory, as clear as the day I saw it, is that coughing man in the produce section of the store, working his everyday shift.
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