“This is going to sound strange,” my care provider said, “but you have COVID lungs.”
Relieved, I replied, “That doesn’t sound strange at all.”
In late January, my whole family came down with what we thought was a terrible cold. It bowled over three-quarters of the household; me, worst of all. No matter what I did, took, or tried, I couldn’t catch my breath.
One evening, with my husband and older son out at a youth meeting, things got so bad that I decided I’d call an ambulance if they weren’t back in two minutes. I texted my husband, “I legit feel like I am drowning in phlegm :(“
I soon followed up with, “ I mean it … I feel panic welling every time I try to swallow or clear my throat. If asthma by itself is bad, this is a million times worse.”
They got home moments later. I did not call an ambulance, but still feared I might not awaken if I did manage to fall asleep.
In February and March, my asthma was worse than ever. I assumed the problem was environmental allergens; even as news of COVID spread, it spread under the premise of limited U.S. transmission up to that point.
It didn’t apply to me. Obviously.
By April, my husband was suggesting that we’d had COVID. I considered it a real possibility, but also an abstraction–a point that had no ongoing bearing on our lives.
If we’d had it, we’d lost it and were done with it. The End.
As I later started reading about “long COVID,” or suites of symptoms many COVID survivors experienced for months after purportedly recovering, my tune started changing.
Maybe we had had it. Maybe it was continuing to impact me even though the acute worst had passed.
A June article in the Los Angeles Times increased my estimate of the probability we’d had COVID-19. Writing about a “cluster of mysterious deaths” in SoCal in early January, the authors used words that chilled me to describe a young man who’d died on January 7: he’d “drowned by fluid in his lungs.”
Those were almost the exact words I’d used in my late-January text to Anthony: “I am drowning in phlegm.”
In August, my asthma prescriptions stopped. If I wanted them refilled, I had to come in for a check-up.
Suspecting I’d already had COVID, but still struggling and thus not wanting to risk possible reinfection with a much-weakened immune system, I started rationing the medicine I did have.
In September, a new Los Angeles Times article reported that “The coronavirus may have reached Los Angeles even before China announced its outbreak”: “Researchers from UCLA and their colleagues at the University of Washington documented an unmistakable uptick in patients seeking treatment for coughs. The increase began the week of Dec. 22, 2019, and persisted through the end of February.”
Wrote the article’s authors, by mid-January, “UCLA doctors may have treated dozens of COVID-19 patients without realizing it.”
My estimate of the probability my family had had COVID-19 increased further still.
But was I about to risk going outside to test it just to move from high-ish probability to near-certainty? Was it worth it, just to Know?
Last month, I finally caved and scheduled an appointment with my care provider.
With that appointment still several days away, I mentioned to my sister that my oxygen saturation was periodically dipping into the mid-80s. Never fear, though! I followed up: A few minutes of breathing exercises routinely brought me right back into the safety zone.
My brother-in-law, a third-year medical resident, had a different take—namely, that I needed to get myself to urgent care, pronto.
I really, really did not want to expose myself or my family to that which may lurk in clinical settings. I recognized, however, that my situation was getting so bad that I could either walk into urgent care on my own two feet that morning … or end up in the ER via a stretcher before much longer.
I went to urgent care. I got treatments that enabled me to breathe relatively clear for the first time in months, and also refilled prescriptions for medicines for which I’d long since used my last dose.
I felt … good!
I’d felt bad for so long, I’d forgotten what “good” felt like.
When my care provider listened to my lungs a few days after my urgent care visit, she said, “This is going to sound strange, but you have COVID lungs.”
“That doesn’t sound strange at all,” I replied. “It confirms my suspicions.”
She told me that she’d listened to thousands of sets of lungs before March, but never heard what she’s heard many times since. Crinkling the paper bed cover in example, she described it as bunches of paper rubbing up against itself.
“It’s what the lungs of all these COVID survivors sound like, and it’s what your lungs sound like.”
She asked, “But didn’t you feel really bad? Didn’t you notice the difference?’
I told her about my family’s late January illness. I explained that COVID wasn’t a known thing when we were sick, and that “long COVID” wasn’t something on our radar until a few months ago.
I’d felt bad for so long, I told her, I’d actually forgotten what “good” felt like.
I grew up seeing—and thus believing—that to be a woman, and especially a mom, meant always finding a little bit more to give. No matter how tired. No matter how depleted.
I’ve spent the last year or two working on reprogramming those early messages for a healthier life. And yet: After that conversation with my care provider, I could see how those early programs were continuing to drive me.
I also saw that I could not keep it up. That I’d really, truly have to acknowledge the severity of what I’d been up against in order to ever possibly recuperate. In order to be able to give my best to both myself and those who depend upon me.
Since then, I’ve worked conscientiously to slow myself down. I’ve been (pretty) diligent about taking my medicine timely, making moments to pause, and napping when I feel exhausted. Far from being time-sinks, these pause-points make it far easier for me to keep going.
What’s funny is that doing these things was mostly always in my power. Yet: Despite strongly suspecting I had long COVID, I needed an authority to say the same thing before I gave myself permission to act as if it were true.
Indeed, when the urgent care doctor asked if I needed a doctor’s note so that I could take it really, really easy the rest of that day, I first said no; I work hard, I explained, and simply saying I needed some time would suffice. The moment I said those words, though, I realized they weren’t totally true.
There was someone who needed a permission slip to rest: Me.
I held that permission slip and exulted: There was A Reason,
a real reason, I’d felt so bad for so long.
When my care provider told me I had “COVID lungs,” she thought it would sound strange to me.
Instead, it sounded like relief. It sounded like affirmation. It sounded like …
permission, to give myself further permission to simply rest.
What a difference that has made, and continues to make!
I wish, though, I’d written about this sooner, when my estimation of the probability I’d had COVID-19 was lower;
that I’d written about my suspicions about long COVID and what it meant in my day-to-day life before the United States reached the current point of rampant transmission.
The outcomes of COVID-19 aren’t binary: Live or die. Within the “live” category, there’s huge variation in the quality of the living that follows; I’ve already experienced some of that range myself.
Alas, we USians are where we are with high transmission and all that flows from it. My sharing this portion of my experience, then, can’t much impact transmission, but maybe … just maybe …
it will help inspire someone else to give themselves permission to rest when needed,
and thus make life, with or without COVID, ever so much kinder.