I’m looking forward to smelling my lilacs this year. I couldn’t catch even a whiff last spring. Photo ©Erika Burkhalter.

Pandemic Reflections

It’s Been Exactly a Year Since my Husband and I had COVID-19

As they say, “In sickness and in health”

I’m really looking forward to smelling my lilacs this spring. Last year, I was recovering from COVID and, try as I might, I couldn’t catch even a whiff. Although my sense of smell mostly came back within a few months, it’s taken a year to really fully return.

This time last year, on March the 12th of 2020, my husband wiped down his computer keyboard and his doorknob with a bleach wipe, slipped out of the office and came home. He had felt a little “off” the night before and felt increasingly more so as the morning progressed, but he couldn’t put his finger on what exactly was wrong.

We had just returned from vacation five days before. And while we were cognizant of the fact that COVID had begun to wreak havoc on the world while we had been enveloped in the warm waters and endless skies of the Dominican Republic, how incredibly unlikely could it be that we could have been infected with this strange new virus which had hardly touched American shores yet?

We didn’t have access to a test, or to treatment, in March of 2020 and, although we, and our doctors, were certain that we had COVID, we didn’t get confirmation until the first antibody tests came out. We’ve had multiple antibody tests since then and every single one has come back positive, which is good news for us, and also for the vaccines, because it means that immunity is probably long-lasting

On March 1st, right before we left for our trip, the United States reported the second confirmed death in Washington state. The first cases in Rhode Island, Florida, and New York were confirmed. The authorities confirmed 21 more cases in total, bringing the number to 89.

It’s so weird to look back now and realize just how few people in the United States actually had the virus back then — and how bizarre it is that we were among them. On March 8th, 2020, the day we were likely infected, CNN reported a total of 550 cases of the coronavirus in the United States.

Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Italy’s borders and the University of California system

While we were away, my anxiety had begun to escalate. Italy closed its borders. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced that they had contracted the novel coronavirus. And the day that we flew home, the University of California system announced that they would be taking their classes to an online platform.

Before we left, out of an abundance of precaution, I had bought bleach wipes to sanitize our area of the plane. And I had worn a face mask through the airports and during the flight, although my husband had not.

Oh, how reckless we all were back then. If we knew then what we know now, would this whole pandemic have taken a different trajectory?

But what had really seemed like a nebulous threat before we left was rapidly becoming a much scarier situation. I was quite ready to get back to California before this virus escalated out-of-control.

The return flight was a completely different experience than the flight out. Many more people were wearing masks, and an air of fear rippled through the airports.

On the flight from Miami to LAX, I couldn’t stop listening to the guy who had been coughing nonstop a few rows behind us on the flight. And there had also been that kid who had greeted us at the airport to take us to our hotel. We ran into him again at the airport on the way home and he had reached out his hand to my husband, who had reflexively shaken it before he realized it was a bad idea.

As they say, “In sickness and in health.” I’m glad we went through it together.

Looking back at this whole experience, and the bizarre year that followed, I have to say that the one blessing in the whole thing was that my husband and I went through it together. As they say — “In sickness and in health.”

It turned out that the Dominican Republic, because of the cruise ships going in and out, was already becoming a hotspot for COVID. And, because of the cruise industry, I’m sure that many of the travelers in the airports and the greeters of the tourists, and many others in the hospitality industry were already unknowingly infected.

And, as it also turned out, we were both infected on that travel day as well.

The day we flew into LAX, March 8th, was also the same day that COVID was later traced back to a traveler arriving into Los Angeles International Airport, so it is possible that we were infected at LAX. However, I think that it is much more likely that our exposure happened somewhere between leaving our hotel in the Dominican Republic, arriving at the airport, transferring flights in Miami International and arriving home to LAX on a Sunday night.

On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared that we had entered a global pandemic.

I will forever regret going to the doctor’s office

It was Thursday, March 12th, when my husband came home from the office. On Friday, I was scheduled to have stem cells injected into my fingers to fend off some arthritis. I called in to the doctor’s office and told them that my husband was feeling achy but had no fever. “Come in,” they told me. “We’ll take precautions.” How likely was it anyways, at that time, that he could really have COVID?

Oh, how reckless we all were back then. If we knew then what we know now, would this whole pandemic have taken a different trajectory?

Going to that doctor’s appointment that day was one of those things I have replayed in my mind so many times in the past year. I wished I could have unwound that decision. I was sick to my stomach worrying that I had infected someone, and I was terrified to make the call that I thought we probably had COVID.

Fortunately, nobody did get sick at the doctor’s office.

We think that my husband probably got the virus first and then passed it to me, because my symptoms did not show up until a couple of days after him. So, it is possible that my viral load was just not high enough yet to infect anyone. That is my hope, anyways.

From playing with my kitties to passing out against the front door

The night of my stem cell treatment, an epic lightning storm blew in, something of a rarity for Southern California. I was playing “peacock feathers” with my kitties on the rug of hallway floor when I stood up to go the front door to look out at the rain.

A few seconds later, I woke up, slumped against the glass. I had passed out. Stem cells or virus? I will never know for sure. The pain in my fingers was intense. At the time, I attributed it to shock. But these episodes of passing out plagued me throughout the entire time that I was sick. Looking back, we’re pretty sure now that I had low oxygen levels.

My fingers actually hurt so badly that night that I took a Norco, left over from a prior surgery, when I went to bed. And I took another one in the middle of the night. And, in the morning, I threw up. I was sure it was from the Norco. I was really tired that day, but neither of us had a fever yet, so we weren’t too worried yet.

It wasn’t until a bit later that nausea and diarrhea were really listed as a symptom of COVID-19. But, looking back, I’m sure that these were early symptoms for me. And they continued to escalate as I grew sicker and sicker.

In the following days though, we were gripped with all of the now “classic” symptoms — lungs that felt like they were lined with shards of glass, loss of smell and taste, high fevers (104.7˚for me), and intensified nausea and loss of appetite.

I think my cat, Emerson, probably caught COVID-19 from me

I get a monthly newsletter from Tufts University about cat health issues. At the time that we were sick, veterinary scientists were pretty certain that cats could not catch the virus from us. But, about a week into my illness, my Emerson developed “goopy eye,” diarrhea, and was very lethargic.

I am pretty certain that he caught COVID-19 from me. Fortunately, my little “Lovey Bug,” Emerson, never got super sick though.

Since then, the world has watched multiple house cats, Big Cats in Zoos, Chimps, minks and many other animals catch COVID from their caretakers.

In March of 2021, several bonobos, orangutans were the recipients of a brand-new vaccine developed especially for them. I am so happy that these vaccines are being made for the animals.

Our kids thought we were hypochondriacs

At the time, we felt almost ridiculous telling people that we were pretty sure we had COVID. Most people, including our kids, thought we were being hypochondriacs — until about a week later when I had an unrelenting 104.7º temperature.

As you might recall, there were no tests available back then for anyone except the people who were so ill that they might have to be put on a ventilator.

And you might also remember this. Back in the beginning of the pandemic, we were told that if we thought we had COVID, as long as we could breathe all right, we should just stay home and ride it out so that we did not infect medical personnel, who were facing a severe shortage of personal protection gear.

Even when I was at my sickest, during the second week of my illness, the triage nurse I was connected to told me to stay home unless I felt like I couldn’t breathe on my own. They just didn’t really know what to do for treatment yet, and it wasn’t worth infecting anyone.

Because we weren’t able to actually “see” a doctor (other than with a zoom call with my rheumatologist and a telemedicine call with my doctor) we had to wait until the first antibody tests came out in early April to find out for “absolute certain” that what we’d had was COVID-19.

Autoimmunity and COVID-19 — I was a lot sicker than my husband. I’ll be forever grateful to him for taking such good care of me in such a scary time.

When I was thirty-eight, I developed a rare disease called Guillain Barre, in which my immune system attacked my own cells and I ended up with temporary partial paralysis and loss of feeling over much of my body. Now, at fifty-four, I have to take medication (Otezla) to suppress my immune system because of psoriatic arthritis (another autoimmune disease).

But my husband, who, at the time we were infected, was sixty-one, does not take any medication at all.

We were both actively sick with COVID-19 for about 16 days, but, because of my overreactive immune system, I had a much rougher time battling COVID-19 than he did. The worst of it was my fever, which kept going back up to 104.7.˚ Every time it did, he’d make me get into the shower to cool my body back down. I will be forever grateful to him for taking such good care of me.

Is it better to suppress the immune system in people who have over-active immune systems, or to let the body just fight the virus naturally?

In the early days of my symptoms, my rheumatologist’s office told me to stop taking my Otezla, because of the fear that it would suppress my body’s ability to fight the virus. I didn’t go back on it for about a month. The first week that I was sick, my symptoms were about the same as my husband’s. But by the second week when the Otezla was leaving my system, I was getting sicker while my husband was feeling better.

After I was recovered, my rheumatologist asked me to participate in a study of patients who had had COVID and who had been taking Otezla. It was just a simple questionnaire. But, since then, several of the companies making immune-suppressing medication for conditions like psoriatic arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis have been examining the effects of these meds on the course of COVID.

For many patients, what ends up making them so sick is the cytokine storm (an escalated immune response to the virus), which often results in high fevers, difficulty breathing, pneumonia and even death. People with over-reactive immune systems (like me) are more likely to end up with these cytokine storms.

So, the question is — is it better to suppress the immune system in people who have over-active immune systems, or to let the body just fight the virus naturally? And is it possible that immune-suppressing medications might save lives?

I wonder now if I would have gotten so sick if I had continued to take my Otezla into the second week of my illness. I’ll never know for sure. And there really aren’t any clear answers yet, although Amgen, the maker of Otezla, is “studying Otezla in a variety of settings” including hospitalized patients who don’t yet need intensive care — to see if the drug can prevent progression to more serious disease, as well as those with more serious disease.

And, a new study has shown that COVID-19 patients with psoriasis who take biological immunosuppressants for their condition are less likely to be hospitalized for the disease, according to a new study.

My mother spent her 80th birthday alone in her room in the nursing home and ended up getting COVID anyways

My mother, who lives in a nursing home, has been isolated since last March. Fortunately, she has a single room. I can’t even imagine being confined in a single room with another resident for all of that time. I think even my husband and I would have driven each other insane being in that close of quarters.

In a bizarre twist of events though, most of the residents received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine before finding out that the weekly tests they had just taken that very morning would show that many of them, including my mother, were already infected with COVID-19.

She spent her 80th birthday, in October, alone in her room. She was able to get her favorite meal from her favorite restaurant delivered to her. But I really wish she’d been able to celebrate a big birthday like that with friends and family.

The home did such a good job of keeping COVID out, until this January, when it swept through the entire place, infecting nearly everyone. We’ll never know, but my suspicion is that one of those new, more transmittable strains found its way into the home.

In a bizarre twist of events though, most of the residents received their first dose of the Moderna vaccine before finding out that the weekly tests they had just taken that morning would show that many of them, including my mother, were already infected with COVID-19.

We’ll never know if just getting that first dose very early in the disease progression affected the trajectory of the disease. But, interestingly, most of the residents (including my mother)had only mild to moderate symptoms.

And now, they are back to bingo and chimes and occupational therapy and eating in the dining room again.

Antibodies — we’ve still got them, a year later. That’s good news for us and also for the efficacy of the vaccines.

Since we didn’t have access to a test, or to treatment, in March of 2020, we didn’t get 100% confirmation that what we’d had was actually COVID-19 until the first antibody tests came out. We’ve had multiple antibody tests since then and every single one has come back positive, which is good news for us, and also for the vaccines, because it means that immunity is probably long-lasting.

My husband and I are not yet eligible to get the vaccine. And, in truth, I’m not sure that we really need it just yet since we still have the antibodies to protect us.

But my rheumatologist says that I should take it when it is available to me. And I will. But I also feel like there are so many people ahead of me in line who need it more than I do that I really don’t mind waiting a bit.

A return to normalcy, whatever that is

My best friend, Rebecca, just had her toes done for the first time in a year. My neighbor, Bev, and her husband, celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary with dinner at a local restaurant, followed by a trip to Home Depot to look at cooktops. My other neighbor is planning a trip to Denver to see the grandkids she hasn’t seen in a year. They’ve all gotten their vaccines.

Like bubbles rising from the depths of a champagne glass, we are starting to mingle with one another again. There will be some turbulence on the journey, but I can’t help but think that we, as a society, may emerge better and brighter than we were last March.

All around me now, I see people breathing a sigh of such relief when they get the vaccine. I’m not sure they even understood how much tension and fear they were trying to suppress until after they got that first dose.

It reminds me a bit of how I felt when I learned that my husband and I had antibodies to COVID in April of last year, except that now I am so happy that so many other people can do “normal” things again too. In the year since we were sick, we’ve walked through a weird world where everybody else we knew was terrified of getting sick, but we had (and still do now have) antibodies.

My husband and I were so glad that we went through this crazy time together. I can’t even imagine braving those uncharted water all alone.

I don’t think that any of us really know what the new “normal” will look like yet. I do know that it will not look much like it did before the pandemic. We have all been transformed by this year. We’ve been touched with isolation, depression, and an inevitably deeper glimpse into our own psyches.

Like bubbles rising from the depths of a champagne glass, we are starting to mingle with one another again. There will be some turbulence on the journey, but I can’t help but think that we, as a society, may emerge better and brighter than we were last March.

Erika Burkhalter is a yogi, neurophilosopher, cat-mom, photographer, and lover of travel and nature, spreading her love and amazement for Mother Earth’s glories, one photo, poem or story at a time. (MS Neuropsychology, MA Yoga Studies). Erika is also an editor for Mindfully Speaking.

If you’d like to take a peek back through time, you might also enjoy these articles, which I wrote last year, while we were recovering:

Story and photo ©Erika Burkhalter. All rights reserved.

Photographer, yogi, cat-mom, lover of travel and nature, spreading amazement for Mother Earth, one photo, poem or story at a time. (MA Yoga, MS Neuropsychology)

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