corona (or something like it)

Alright friends. Time for some real talk on corona virus (or something like it.) Consider this my virtual coming out of the “maybe I had COVID-19” closet. I might never know for sure because there was no test made available to me, but here is what I do know. I have been terrifyingly ill for the past two and a half weeks, and if you aren’t taking this seriously, you should be! I’m writing this in hopes it will provide help and insight in responding to this awful illness.

I’ve divided this blog into sections: Questions Everyone Asks; Suggested Ways to Respond to a Person who is Sick; My Experience with COVID-19 (or Something Like it); My Home Care Practices; and Supporting Your Friends and Family if They Become Sick.

Throughout, I will reflect on places where I think we can learn to be more mindful of our own judgement biases and the impact they can have. Having a background in mental health and somatic psychology-and personal experience with illness in this time—I’ll be sharing best practices for crafting our interactions with those dealing with illness or COVID-19 from a trauma-informed perspective. These practices embody the goal of minimizing projections of shame, fault, and criticism. I encourage everyone to reflect on what judgements you might be holding about COVID-19 and how they might come out subconsciously. It also goes without saying that the “isms” (racism, classism, ableism, heteronormativity, etc.) are at play on the global stage (“Hello racist president, who insisted for weeks on calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.”) As an able-bodied cisgender white woman, I am not personally confronted with these types of dynamics in an ongoing way, but that does not mean they are not at play, so keep that in mind.

I expect that at some point in your time reading this, you will feel uncomfortable, particularly if I mention a behavior that is harmful to COVID-19 patients and it is something you have done with the best of intentions. These things aren’t easy to sit with, and most of us are just doing the best we can! If you are interested in being the best friend and ally you can be to those in your communities dealing with COVID-19, I encourage you to try and stay in your body, sit with the discomfort, and keep reading. Take breaks if you need to pause. It can help me to feel my feet and notice my breath when I’m triggered.

The Questions Everyone Asks

1.Do you know where you got it from?

I have no idea, and I’m willing to bet most people who are sick right now don’t know either. COVID-19 is highly contagious and we still don’t fully understand the route of contagion. At the end of the day, without this understanding I expect more and more people are just going to “get” sick.

For some, this question might feel a little offensive. I don’t think there is anything wrong per se with asking this question, but context is everything. Without a close relationship, a question like this might reflect shame and fault. Consider how you are asking this question and why. Could there be an implied subconscious reflection that a COVID-19 patient did something they shouldn’t? Went somewhere they shouldn’t? Didn’t wash their hands enough? Exposed you to COVID-19? Be mindful of how you ask these questions, what you are implying, and how a simple question like this may be heard.

2. Did you get tested?

I did not get tested and it’s my impression that aside from Tom Hanks (rest up buddy!) and a slew of wealthy politicians with no symptoms, no one’s getting tested. That doesn’t not mean I haven’t been dealing with serious illness. If your friend did not get tested, emphasize rather than minimize.

The last I heard from Kaiser is that due to the insufficient supply of tests, I did not qualify for testing because I do not have diabetes, a heart condition, obesity (please note I do not agree with the medicalized use of this term), asthma, or recent travel. I was also told that I would not be x-rayed for pneumonia because the risk of “exposing me to radiology staff and equipment wasn’t worth it as I could infect medical staff and contaminate equipment.” To digress for a moment, I’m bringing this up to illustrate the shaming language your friends might be experiencing from even the best-intentioned doctors. People aren’t risky, viruses are. Just because this language is normalized, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have impact. I felt my heart drop when my doctor told me this. Please be careful how you talk to your friends around issues of exposure.

With that, there are new test centers popping up everywhere, and tests are becoming more accessible. This is great. However, unless you are willing to risk exposure and drive a sick friend to Hayward and wait with them through apocalyptic lines, please don’t pressure a friend to get tested. They might not have the means to bring themselves to a site if they don’t have a car (remember these people are under quarantine and can’t use public transportation). Or, if their symptoms are anything like mine were, they might be unable get themselves to a test without complete assistance (which is hard to find while limiting risk of exposure and maintaining 6 feet of distance). If for whatever reason your friend chooses not to get tested, don’t discredit them. Accessibility is more than what meets they eye and many sick people still do not have access given their symptoms and limitations.

3. I went to your classes before you got sick! Could you have gotten me sick, Emma?

I really hope fear does not lead to any stigmatizing of me or my studios. Whether or not you came to my classes over the past few weeks you should already be taking precautions, just the same as everyone else who should be taking shelter in place. With that, unless we had physical contact, your risk of being infected by me is probably the same as being exposed from a BART seat. If you’re still wondering however, I feel confident that I took every precaution I could with hygiene and hand washing, no touching, and even bringing my own props from home to the studios. For your peace of mind, my boyfriend, who was staying with me until the first day I felt sick, is still healthy two weeks later.

It’s natural when you learn someone close is sick to become concerned about your own exposure. This doesn’t make you a bad person nor does not it make you selfish or self-centered. This is how we are wired. We only know our personal experience and perspective, so our train of thought will go there. With this, we already know that if we are exposed to someone with Corona-like symptoms we need to quarantine, so why ask? People with COVID-19 are feeling enough guilt and shame, and if their illness is anything like mine was, they already feel all sorts of shitty. Ask your doctor these questions. 

4. Are you sure it’s not just a cold?

Ironically, for some people COVID-19 actually does manifest more like a cold. For me, my illness was more like severe bronchial pneumonia. With that, doubt doesn’t make anyone feel good. If you’re friend tells you they are sick just listen.

So, to recap:

Suggested Ways to Respond to a Person who is Sick

Suggested best practices on how to respond if a friend tells you they are sick:

  • Trust their wisdom
  • Remember that tests are not a hallmark of validation
  • Don’t doubt or minimize
  • Reflect before you act and ask questions
  • Talk to a different friend, a therapist, or a doctor about your concern around exposure and not your sick friend. Your sick friend is dealing with enough!
  • Remember your friend isn’t the problem, the virus is. Be very aware of language that is shaming or places them as responsible.

Here are some further responses I would encourage:

  • Emphasize rather than minimize
  • Just listen without trying to change, fix or offer solutions
  • Do not look for the bright side
  • Check in briefly and frequently (along the lines of ‘hey thinking of you”, “hope you’re feeling better”). Don’t take it personally if you don’t get a response. Your friend might be very sick.
  • Be mindful of language that labels someone’s experience “you must be feeling like this”. Instead let them tell you how they feel and honor what they tell you
  • Be aware of your own reaction, language, and body language
  • Work to notice your own implicit layers of judgement and shame around COVID-19
  • Reflect on race/gender/social economic status/etc. and how these identities affect your access to care in ways that are different from others
  • Offer concrete favors if you know you have the capacity to do

My Experience with What May Have Been COVID-19 (or Something Like It)

There’s a lot of different accounts out there about COVID-19. Some are rather mild, some people show no symptoms at all. With that, most accounts I’ve found read about are more in line with my experience, which was quite scary.  For me, symptoms set in for me over the course of a few days. I noticed on a Sunday night that I was feeling a little run down and had a cough and a bit of a sore throat. When I woke up on Monday morning, I felt pretty sick, but was at a point where it could have been a bad cold. At this point I had a low fever, sore throat and cough. I took a bunch of Tylenol and tried to carry on my quarantine business as usual. Tuesday morning was when I knew I had something serious. I woke up at around 5 am with a fever around 102 and was wheezing. The wheezing was horrifying and like no sound that ever came out of my body before. It sounded almost metallic, like someone was running their nails on a chalk board or forcing a rusty wheel to move. At this point, I knew whatever I had was serious. I was lucky to be able to talk to a nurse and get booked for remote doctor’s appointment within a few hours. I was prescribed an inhaler – something I have never used or needed before—which became my saving grace and one of the main reasons I was able to stay out of the ER.

Over the course of the next four days, my symptoms got worse. My fevers were consistently around 100 (or 102 if I was even a few minutes late taking Tylenol). There were many points when I could feel my lungs convulse and had to act in the moment to use my inhaler, take hot baths, steam hot tea, stick my head in hot bowls of water filled with essential oils, or doing anything else that would immediately clear my breath. During the height of my fevers and breathlessness, I felt as though I could feel every cell in my body fighting. It was absolutely terrifying and if you feel this way, you’ll know. I called loved ones crying in complete fear, just needing someone to stay with me on the other line. In reflection, I probably should have gone to the emergency room, but like many other sick patients I was told to try to manage symptoms at home and not to go to the hospital unless my fever got past 103 or I couldn’t breathe at all. In any other circumstance, I would have taken myself to the ER. Being sick on quarantine with a new virus no one knows anything about is terrifying.

As I became more vigilant about my self-care, I was reassured that I was going to be okay. My scarier symptoms only lasted four days. I’ve heard that 4 days tends to be the turning point in one direction or another. I still spent another week and a half unable to do anything because of severe bronchial pneumonia symptoms and severe stomach pain (which is now understood as a COVID-19 symptom). I did get better though and am now at about 60-70%, which feels HUGE. In true reflection, I feel like I literally needed to put my life into my own hands. It sounds dramatic but this is what it felt like, being in a place where I was responsible for managing an illness this severe with only home care. So, with that, let’s talk about what worked for me.

My Home Care Practices

Things that kept me out of the ER

  • Alarms for Tylenol. If I was even a few minutes late on a dose of Tylenol, my fever would get to scary levels. During the height of my illness, I used alarms every 4 hours even in the middle of the night to make sure I didn’t miss doses of Tylenol.
  • Alarms for inhaler use. Same, same.
  • Timed dosage of Mucinex and Robitussin for chest congestion
  • Drinking a shit ton of water
  • Calling my doctor at the first sign of illness. I can only imagine the infection in my lungs would have been so much worse if I didn’t get an inhaler at the first sign of respiratory infection.
  • Advocating for myself fiercely even when it got uncomfortable (anyone else have Kaiser?)
  • Letting people help me! (I struggle accepting help and favors but there is no way I could have gotten through this if I didn’t let others help!)

Things that helped:

  • Hot baths! And freezing baths when my fever got high.
  • Steam
  • Hot showers
  • A humidifier
  • Eucalyptus essential oil
  • Vitamins and zinc supplements
  • Gatorade
  • Hot liquids (tea, soup, ect.)

Supporting Your Friends and Family if They Become Sick

  • Go to the pharmacy and pick up prescriptions
    • For Kaiser members, make sure to have your friend’s id and medical record card before going to the pharmacy. Also, be prepared that getting through the Kaiser pharmacy has become much like going through airport security. Wear a mask, bring a book, etc. 
  • Picking up their groceries
    • Extra points if you throw in something small and thoughtful. My grocery requests were solely about what I needed to sustain myself. One friend threw in a nice lip balm and crystal. I actually cried when I put on the lip balm because it hit me—I was in such survival mode I didn’t realize I wasn’t doing anything for the sake of feeling good. 
  • Make them soup
    • When I’m sick, I don’t eat dairy. My two soup deliveries were perfect for me! Vegan lentil and miso ginger.
  • If cooking isn’t your thing, venmo your friend the cost of a tom yum.
    • This one’s great. When people ask me if I need money, I usually say no just because of my own stuff around accepting money/help. When people just sent me money however, I couldn’t say no, and I was sure grateful to not worry about cooking.
  • Bring them cold supplies and tissues!
    • My choices were Robitussin, Mucinex, Tylenol, Tissues, Zinc Tablets, Vitamin C, Throat Coat Tea, Peppermint Tea, Ginger Tea.
    • In some cases, friends brought me things they had at home because many stores were sold out. This was huge!
  • If you don’t live nearby to your sick friend, you may be able to offer tons of help by sending supplies that are sold out in metropolitan areas.
    • My mom in Oregon sent me lots of cold medicines and personal care supplies that were totally out of stock in the Bay. This was HUGE since it was impossible to find Mucinex and Tylenol anywhere near me.
  • If you’re a doctor and feel comfortable, let your friends reach out to you.
    • Waits were ludicrous to reach my actual doctor. It was amazing that I had a doctor friend, a friend whose partner is a doctor, and a doctor friend of my dad’s whom I could reach out to directly. All three gave me permission to call any time night or day. That gave me so much relief and reassurance that I was going to be safe because even if I had an emergency because I could reach doctors in real time.
  • Brief and frequent check ins
    • Being sick, I didn’t have energy for long phone calls or texts. Check ins along the line of “hey friend, how you doing?” or “thinking of you” were wonderful.
    • If you do check in, keep in mind that your friend might be very preoccupied with their current state and it isn’t personal if they don’t respond. It was hard to keep up with all my texts especially during the peak four days of my illness.
  • Take their medical phone calls
    • Of course, this is only for people you are VERY close with and have lots of established trust. One night when my fever was so bad that I was nearly delirious. My boyfriend volunteered to wait on the phone for a Kaiser advice nurse so I could sleep.  For someone who is seriously sick, waiting on hold and staying alert and awake until a nurse picks up is may feel impossible. He was on hold with Kaiser for 5 hours and there is no way I could have stayed cognizant for that duration.
    • For Kaiser patients, you will need to give your advocate your medical record number and of course any pertinent information.
    • Kaiser requires you to be someone’s “Civil Partner” to talk to an advice nurse on their behalf. Hint, hint. ?

To Conclude

Thanks for taking the time to read about my experience and what I learned. This experience is mine and mine only. I am happy to have conversations about anything I’ve written here, but that doesn’t mean everyone who is sick wants to. I am also not a doctor and you should talk to one, not me, if you are concerned about symptoms or getting sick and need medical support.

Emma Stern

Movement and Somatics