I am a 43 year old woman with no pre-existing health problems. I am writing this essay because none of my Australian friends and family know anyone else who has had a coronavirus. It took me so long to get constant medical care because I was considered a “mild case” when front line health care professionals were busy managing an epidemic.The past four months have taught me, time and time again, to believe healthcare professionals when they tell us they don’t know or understand how this virus behaves, what impact it has on our body and what we can do to deal with it when we catch it. I want you to know that this virus doesn’t just kill people – it can give healthy people a chronic illness that lasts for months.
In March, the Dutch government advised us to stop shaking hands (the Dutch shake hands with everyone), wash your hands regularly and cover your mouth if you have a cough. I wasn’t really cough – I gave a pathetic little cough once or twice a day, and my chest did not feel congested, there was no phlegm to eliminate. I just felt like an electric blanket was working on the highest level of my chest. I had never felt anything like it.
My symptoms did not match the list on the National Institute of Public Health and Environment website but to be sure I stopped meeting people in person and went to the supermarket once. per week. When I went there, I wore latex gloves and kept my distance from other buyers. I did not cough, sneeze or sniff. I could still walk to the store and take my purchases home, a 20 minute walk each way. On March 16, the Netherlands was in a “smart” lockout.
Once that happened, I was working from home. As the month went on and the fire burned in my lungs, I became more and more tired. I woke up around 7:30 am after nine hours of rest feeling good, but at 11:30 am, I needed to sleep.
“This thing wants to control my lungs,” I told a friend over the phone in Australia as April approached. At the end of March, all I could do was lie down, take a nap, read, and eat. I drank a lot of fresh ginger tea. The fire in my lungs continued to rage, I was only breathing at the top of my lungs, I couldn’t breathe deeply. I was not sleeping as well as usual, and when I was very tired (usually in the afternoon), I had developed a spectacular case of tinnitus. I lay in bed listening to the phasing of high frequencies in my ears with curiosity and apprehension. When a friend called me to check on how I was during his evening walk, I sometimes had to ask him to repeat what he was saying three times because I couldn’t hear his deep voice over the screaming high notes in my head. . I was worried. I had not occupied physical space with another human being for three weeks. And my body was getting very weak.
On March 28, after a particularly stressful night, I called my doctor and he agreed to send me to a respiratory clinic to have my lungs checked. I walked very slowly towards the clinic. When the doctor picked me up, she was wearing full PPE. She checked my temperature (normal), the oxygen saturation of my blood (also normal) and listened to my lungs. She could hear the infection there. “I think it’s a coronavirus,” she says. “But I can’t test you. You can still walk and talk. Go home and rest and call us if it gets worse.“The Dutch did not start general testing until June, so to date I have still not been tested for the virus.
When I spoke to my doctor the next day, he told me that a version of the coronavirus seemed to do this – giving people a long-lasting lung infection that could last for up to six weeks. “So you probably still have about three weeks,” he suggested.
I took sick leave from work and lay in bed with shortness of breath, burning lungs, ringing in the ears and total exhaustion for another three weeks. The weather was blurry. People dropped off their groceries every few days. I could barely stand in front of my open door and have a conversation with them. I was too tired. My lungs burned and burned.
Ten days after my visit to the clinic, still with burning lungs and shallow breathing, I called the emergency doctor. I have described my symptoms. He looked at the notes from my visit to the respiratory clinic.
“They think I have Covid-19,” I said. It was 2 a.m. I was awake in the middle of the night. I was afraid.
“I’m sure you do,” he replied. “Your symptoms are consistent with this. But you can talk to me in full sentences on the phone, so I’m not too worried about you. Take paracetamol and try to rest. Call us if you can’t go to the bathroom, if your breathing gets worse, or if you’ve had a fever for more than two days. “
My doctor’s prediction was correct. I had burning lungs, exhaustion, and shallow breathing for a total of six weeks. In mid-April, the burn started to subside and was replaced by tightness in my chest and a weight on my lungs. I started to cough; after walking up the stairs to my apartment too fast, or chatting animatedly to a friend on WhatsApp for too long. I was so weak that I couldn’t get around the block. Breathing was hard work. On April 23, I was sent back to the respiratory clinic and checked again. No temperature. Oxygen saturation very well. This time the nurse couldn’t hear evidence of an infection in my lungs when she listened to them.
“So why can’t I breathe?” Why am I coughing? ” I asked her, crying in frustration.
“We do not know. There may be inflammation. I’ll give you a steroid to inhale, it might help.
After the burning pain was replaced by these new symptoms, I spent the month of May and the first half of June trying to regain my strength and give in to my total exhaustion. My lungs got tired and ached after walking for 10 minutes or talking for more than 20 minutes. I would fall from a cliff into total exhaustion without seemingly any warning and I would have to spend a day in bed. But slowly, with two steps forward and one and a half steps back, I was able to regain enough strength to be able to walk with a friend (at half my usual pace), sit with them and talk. This part of my recovery seems consistent with healing from pneumonia, but I have never been diagnosed with pneumonia.
Around this time, the media began reporting on “long distance” virus cases. It was reassuring to see that I was not alone. The medical profession began to question whether people like me were in fact patients in need of continuing care.
As June progressed, my fitness continued to improve, but my lungs still ached and my chest was still tight. Bone crush fatigue has been replaced by fatigue.
I realized I was doing something that I came to think of as “Covid Breathing”. Short, shallow gasps. After six weeks of recovery and 12 weeks since the onset of the problems, my lung strength has hardly improved. I discussed this with my doctor, who suggested I see a physiotherapist specializing in pulmonary rehabilitation.
Two weeks ago, someone showed me how to breathe. It’s a weird experience having to relearn how to do something that you never had to learn in the first place. At the beginning of July, I am almost able to breathe normally, but only when I give it my full attention. As I type these words for you, I breathe shallowly.
I am writing this because we are four months away in the pandemic and we are all tired and some people are wondering, because they do not have the direct experience of anyone infected with the virus, if it there really is something to fear. I caught the virus very early on, and I can’t tell you how long it takes to recover from it because I haven’t recovered. I’m telling you about my experience with Covid-19 so far to help you maintain your strength during this time of uncertainty and restrictions.
I have a long way to go, but after four months I think it may be possible that I will fully recover. Medical researchers also have a long way to go. The discipline and patience they use to understand the virus is not that different from what I must lean on now, and what you must lean on as you continue to face restrictions on your personal freedoms. , to fear losing your job. , stress that you think your zip code could be the next where an outbreak of the virus occurs. It might help us to recognize that we are all long-term cases.
• Anna Poletti is a writer, researcher and teacher based in Utrecht, the Netherlands