COVID-19 has killed more Americans than the Vietnam War. With numbers so devastating, it’s hard to remember the other side—those who survived the disease. So far, it’s estimated that more than 150,000 patients have recovered in the United States. We’re living through terrifying times, but it’s worth remembering that while serious and often deadly, COVID-19 isn’t a death sentence for most people. Many people have stories of recovery to tell.
Everyone I spoke to believes they contracted the coronavirus in early-to-mid March, just as states were beginning to implement social distancing guidelines and before anyone had a clue how this pandemic would impact our lives. Most of them are feeling much better now, though some are still experiencing lingering symptoms. These are their COVID-19 recovery stories.
Two daughters and their 92-year-old mother
In the days leading up to her illness, Francine Cuomo, 56, was still out and about. A teacher at P.S. 32 in Brooklyn, Cuomo fell ill one week after New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio closed schools. Many teachers were working that week to attend meetings and distance-learning training.
Cuomo (no relation to New York’s governor) lives on the top floor of a three-family home, and her 92-year-old mother lives in the unit below hers. “I said to my mother, ‘I need to stay away from you,'” she says. “I saw too many people before work had officially closed.”
“I said to my mother, ‘I need to stay away from you.'”
On Saturday, March 21, Cuomo went out to run errands with her 65-year-old sister and a coworker. Later that evening, she had a fever. The coming days brought a terrible sore throat, exhaustion, chest pains, shortness of breath, and a loss of taste and smell. She and her sister were tested for COVID-19 on March 24 and 25, respectively. Her sister tested positive, but Cuomo says her results never made it back. Just when she was at her worst, her mother began feeling sick. “I couldn’t even function to even think about it,” she says. “We would keep in touch with the phone and we stayed totally isolated.” Cuomo felt scared when her mother began having difficulty breathing, but she proved resilient, relying on hot showers and steam from boiling water to keep her airways open.
Because they all got sick and were recovering, they felt it safe to spend Easter together. Cuomo’s sister posted a picture of them on Facebook sharing their recovery story. A friend reached out to her and said “Everyone just thinks they’re going to die if they get COVID-19,” she says. “But to see the three of you, that you’re well and you look great, it gave people so much joy.”
Fresh off a flight from Austria
When Brandon Munson, 39, and his two buddies left for a ski trip to Austria on February 29, COVID-19 was on their minds, but not at the forefront. The flight over was uneventful, and after a week of fun and relaxation, the trio was hit with reality during their flight home on March 8.
“People were wearing masks, there was so much coughing and weird things happening,” says Munson. “The lady directly behind us, she was crying and inconsolable. The gentleman behind us, he had lost his voice and was complaining to the flight attendant that he needed more water, that he couldn’t breathe. I was sitting next to my best friend and we looked at each other like, ‘What is going on?'”
“We looked at each other like, ‘What is going on?'”
Munson mistook the exhaustion he felt the next day for jet lag, but he knew something was up when he started feeling achy. Then he developed a fever and a dry cough. He reached out to his doctor a few times, and was told not to come in. Munson, who lives in Portage, Michigan, says there were no drive-in testing sites near him at the time. He was never able to get tested, nor was one of his travel mates. But the third one, who lives in Colorado, tested positive. Munson says the illness ran its course, and luckily, neither his wife nor their two young children caught it.
Asthmatic in the Bronx
Brad Walrond, 49, first came down with flu-like symptoms in late February or early March. The chills, aches, and fever went away for a few weeks, and then came back on March 16. By the following week, Walrond says his lungs felt like they were on fire. “The scariest part is the cough and the progressive challenge with breathing.” But because he has asthma and a seafood allergy, he says he had an inhaler and a nebulizer on hand. “Asthma saved my life,” he says. “Without having an nebulizer readily available, and experience using it, I don’t know how the cough attacks would have gone.”
Walrond has recovered, but the Bronx resident could have had a much bleaker outcome. It’s estimated that residents of the Bronx are twice as likely to die from COVID-19. The borough, the population of which is predominately people of color, has some of the worst air pollution levels in the country, and the asthma hospitalization rate for Bronx children is 70 percent higher than in other New York City neighborhoods.
“As the data started to emerge on how significantly populations of color were disparately impacted, for someone like me, it’s almost a non-story.”
“I worked in HIV prevention, and when you do that work, the notion of health disparities and comorbidities is readily apparent,” he says. “As the data started to emerge on how significantly populations of color were disparately impacted, for someone like me, it’s almost a non-story. This is the actual environment we have been living in, and the pandemic just brings it into a bold relief.”
Dayan Marquina, 33, and her 37-year-old husband were extremely cautious in the days before they got sick. “We stayed home, we didn’t go out, we were being very careful with the hand sanitizer, and washing our hands,” she says. Her symptoms began on March 19, a week after the NYC-based digital designer began working from home. “I kind of felt like I failed,” she says. It started with fogginess and fatigue. The chest pain began a few days later, the same day her husband started feeling ill. Then came the shortness of breath. “Instead of getting 100 percent of the air into your lungs, it felt like I was getting 25 percent,” she says. “It’s really scary.” A Google search convinced her to visit the hospital, which is a few blocks from her Bushwick apartment.
“We stayed home, we didn’t go out, we were being very careful with the hand sanitizer, and washing our hands. I kind of felt like I failed.”
“My husband walked me there, they took us in, and I started crying. I was a mess, I was hyperventilating, and I was transferring my husband all of my passwords for my bank account,” she says. “I was like, ‘Okay, if anything happens all the money is here, here are all my passwords to my computers, and just sell everything.’ I was kind of being dramatic, but at the same time, all of these things come to your head like, ‘Okay, shit—I think I may die.'”
Marquina didn’t have a dry cough or a fever, and so she says the doctors wouldn’t test her for COVID-19. After a few X-rays and a night at the hospital, she was sent home. Over the next few days Marquina and her husband felt they were on the mend, until they both woke up with horrible fevers, chills, chest pains, and upset stomachs. The couple, who married in September, are now feeling much better. Though they were both sick, they managed to support one another. “We were both there for each other for mental support. He would just be like, ‘Calm down, every thing’s going to be fine, you know, we’re healthy we’re young,'” she says. “He’s definitely been there for me through the whole thing.”
Case 121 in Denver
If anyone was going to get COVID-19, Catherine, 32, knew it’d be her. “I would say I have a pretty weak immune system,” says Catherine, who asked me not to use her last name. “I mean, I don’t have any underlying health conditions, but I get things.” But even so, the weird feeling she felt in her throat and chest on March 18 didn’t sound any alarms. “I thought I must have swallowed my oatmeal wrong,” she says. A few days later she woke up in the middle of the night sweating. The morning brought a terrible sore throat, headache, deep coughs, and chest pains. “It felt like a belt around my chest,” she says. Her doctor directed her to a COVD-19 testing center in a repurposed office building a 30-minute drive from her home in Denver.
“It felt like a belt around my chest.”
“You get out of your car and [the staff] meets you outside, they give you a mask and gloves, and then they spray you down with [a solution similar to] hand sanitizer. And then they tell you to keep your hands up so you don’t touch anything,” she says. She walked in, and the staff looked like they were prepped for surgery. “There were hallways that were made out of tunnels of trash bags to try to keep all the germs, I guess, off of even the walls and everything,” she says. She was sent to a room and sat on a chair covered with a trash bag. Multiple doctors questioned her about her symptoms. After a flu test came back negative, doctors administered a COVID-19 test. She got a call relaying her positive results three days later.
Catherine self-isolated in her bedroom away from her fiancé. Luckily, he never got the virus, but Catherine was lonely. “As an extrovert, I don’t know how to manage being alone for a week,” she says. So they came to an agreement—she was allowed to cuddle with one of their dogs. Her fiancé refrained from touching that dog until Catherine felt better.
Although each person I spoke to had a different experience with COVID-19, they all shared the same sentiment—it was nothing like any illness they’d ever had before. It knocked them out, stripped them of energy, and brought them face-to-face with their own mortality. As scientists learn more about the virus, COVID-19 testing becomes more widespread, and effective medications and vaccines become available, hopefully our reality will begin to feel less frighteningly uncertain.
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