The day before I got sick, I ran 3 miles, walked 10 more, then raced up the stairs to my fifth-floor apartment as always, slinging laundry with me as I went.
The next day, April 17, I became one of the thousands of New Yorkers to fall ill with COVID-19. I haven’t felt the same since.
If you live in New York City, you know what this virus can do. In just under two months, an estimated 24,000 New Yorkers have died. That’s more than twice the number of people we lost to homicide over the past 20 years.
Now I worry for Americans elsewhere. When I see photographs of crowds packing into a newly reopened big-box store in Arkansas or scores of people jammed into a Colorado restaurant without masks, it’s clear too many Americans still don’t grasp the power of this disease.
The second day I was sick, I woke up to what felt like hot tar buried deep in my chest. I could not get a deep breath unless I was on all fours. I’m healthy. I’m a runner. I’m 33 years old.
In the emergency room an hour later, I sat on a hospital bed, alone and terrified, my finger hooked to a pulse-oxygen machine. To my right lay a man who could barely speak but coughed constantly. To my left was an older man who said that he had been sick for a month and had a pacemaker. He kept apologizing to the doctors for making so much trouble, and thanking them for taking such good care of him. I can’t stop thinking about him even now.
Finally, Dr. Audrey Tan walked toward me, her kind eyes meeting mine from behind a mask, goggles and a face shield. “Any asthma?” she asked. “Do you smoke? Any preexisting conditions?” “No, no, none,” I replied. Tan smiled, then shook her head, almost imperceptibly. “I wish I could do something for you,” she said.
I am one of the lucky ones. I never needed a ventilator. I survived. But 27 days later, I still have lingering pneumonia. I use two inhalers, twice a day. I can’t walk more than a few blocks without stopping.
I want Americans to understand that this virus is making otherwise young, healthy people very, very sick. I want them to know, this is no flu.
Even healthy New Yorkers in their 20s have been hospitalized. At least 13 children in New York state have died from COVID-19, according to health department data. My friend’s 29-year-old boyfriend was even sicker than I was and at one point could barely walk across their living room.
Maybe you don’t live in a big city. Maybe you don’t know anybody who is sick. Maybe you think we are crazy for living in New York. That’s fine. You don’t have to live like us or vote like us. But please learn from us. Please take this virus seriously.
When I was at my sickest, I could barely talk on the phone. I’d like to say that I caught up on some reading, but I didn’t. I’m a newswoman, but I couldn’t look at the news.
Instead, I closed my eyes and saw myself running along the New York waterfront, healthy and whole, all 8.5 million of my neighbors by my side. I pictured myself doing the things I haven’t gotten to do yet, like getting married, buying a house, becoming a mother, owning a dog.
I stared at the wall of photographs beside my living room window and promised the people in them over and over again that we would see each other soon.
I watched movies, dozens of them. I rediscovered “Air Force One” and fantasized about what it would be like if Harrison Ford were actually president right now. I stayed up late at night doing breathing exercises and streaming episodes of “Longmire,” a show about a Wyoming sheriff in which the good guys always win.
One thing I learned is how startlingly little care or advice is available to the millions of Americans managing symptoms at home.
In Germany, the government sends teams of medical workers to do house calls. Here in the United States, where primary care is an afterthought, the only place most people suffering from COVID-19 can get in-person care is the emergency room. That’s a real problem given that it is a disease that can lead to months of serious symptoms and turn from mild to deadly in a matter of hours.
The best care I received came from my friends. Fred, an emergency room resident treating patients at a New York hospital, called me on his bike ride to work, constantly checking in and asking about my symptoms. Chelsea, my college roommate and a physician assistant, has largely managed my recovery from pneumonia. Zoe, my childhood friend and a nurse, taught me how to use a pulse oximeter and later, the asthma inhaler I now use.
Through them, I became an amateur expert. This is the advice they gave me. Here’s what I’m telling my family and my friends: If you can, get an oximeter, a magical little device that measures your pulse and blood oxygen level from your fingertip. If you become sick and your oxygen dips below 95 or you have trouble breathing, go to the emergency room. Don’t wait.
If you have chest symptoms, assume you may have pneumonia and call a doctor or go to the ER. Sleep on your stomach, since much of your lungs is actually in your back. If your oxygen is stable, change positions every hour. Do breathing exercises, a lot of them. The one that seemed to work best for me was pioneered by nurses in the British health system and shared by J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series.
Nearly a month later, I’m still sleeping on my stomach and still can’t go for a run. But I will be able to do those things, and much more. For now, every conversation with an old friend brings a new rush of love. Every sunny day feels like the first time I saw the ocean as a child and wanted to leap right in.
Many of my neighbors didn’t make it. I know because I heard the ambulances come for them late at night. The reports from the city’s heroic EMT force suggest that for many of these New Yorkers, it was already too late.
Why are more people dying of this disease in the U.S. than in anywhere else in the world? Because we live in a broken country, with a broken health care system. Because even though people of all races and backgrounds are suffering, the disease in the U.S. has hit black and brown and indigenous people the hardest, and we are seen as expendable.
I wonder how many people have died not necessarily because of the virus but because this country failed them and left them to fend for themselves. That is the grief for me now, that is the guilt and the rage.
As I began to recover, others died.
There was Idris Bey, 60, a U.S. Marine and New York City Fire Department EMT instructor who received a medal for his actions after the Sept. 11 attack.
There was Rana Zoe Mungin, 30, a New York City social studies teacher whose family said she died after struggling to get care in Brooklyn.
There was Valentina Blackhorse, 28, a beautiful young Arizona woman who dreamed of leading the Navajo Nation.
Theirs were the faces I saw when I lay on my stomach at night, laboring for every deep breath, praying for them and for me. Those are the Americans I think about every time I walk outside now in my tidy Brooklyn neighborhood, stepping slowly into the warming spring sun amid a crush of blooming lilacs and small children whizzing blissfully by on their scooters.
I hope the coronavirus never comes to your town. But if it does, I will pray for you, too.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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