The first time I read about the coronavirus, I was lying in bed perusing the New York Times on my phone. It was January, before my Cornwall neighbors and I were talking about what was to come. But my daughter was in Japan, with China the next scheduled stop on her Semester at Sea college student program.
That’s how I became an early and avid follower of all things corona. With dark fascination I absorbed every detail of the disease: how it began, how it spread, the symptoms, the risk factors. I worried about the ship (even though the China visit was canceled) and about Italy, where I had spent lots of time as a kid.
By the first week of March, I was washing and sanitizing my hands obsessively. I stopped playing paddle ball. I shopped with new purpose. I called on my 93-year-old mother at her assisted-living facility, keeping my distance and aware that it would probably be my last visit for quite a while.
I was definitely worried. But at least I was in Cornwall, where there wasn’t a single confirmed case of Covid-19. I hadn’t been to China or Italy, and hadn’t knowingly been in contact with anyone who had.
Then, on March 20, I learned the limits of being ahead of the curve. I developed a dry cough. The next day, the fever started. I felt shooting pains around my eyes and ears. I lost the ability to smell and taste. Meals became joyless bowls of chicken soup accompanied by Gatorade and Tylenol. There were a couple of short visits with my daughter, finally back from Asia, through masks, gloves, tears and the glass of a storm door. They didn’t last long; I was too tired.
For the next four days, the symptoms surged, retreated, then surged frighteningly again. It was early enough in the pandemic for my doctor to think it was wise to write a prescription for a coronavirus test, but late enough so that the testing sites I contacted said I wasn’t sick enough to qualify. Finally, on March 25, I secured a testing appointment in Pittsfield. And that’s how I became the only official Covid-19 case in the town of Cornwall.
I felt obligated to reveal my identity to the town at large, which I did by posting my news on Facebook. I wanted to assure everyone that I was doing well, and also that I had self-isolated well before I got sick and therefore was probably not going to infect anybody else. In response, many comments trickled in, offering support and encouragement. I was never made to feel ostracized by my community, but rather embraced and fortified.
Improvement came slowly. First, the fever diminished. My chest kept hurting, but the cough abated. I napped a lot and cried a little. My daughter moved back in; the disinfection process in preparation for her arrival gave me some focus and perked me up.
By now, there was palpable panic everywhere. I thought it might help to send out a video to demystify the virus. One video became three as I vlogged about my experiences and offered advice where I could. The reaction showed that in a time of unrest and uncertainty, seeing me alive and coherent, “a survivor”, provided comfort. The videos are public and can be found on my Facebook page.
By April 5, I could taste and smell again. My kids were safe. My mom’s assisted-living facility had shut down its dining room and taken other protective measures, so I knew she was well cared-for. Body and spirit were healing.
Which gave me the strength to wonder: How and where did I catch the virus? Maybe it was at a dinner party in Columbia County on March 8. The hostess also tested positive. Or perhaps during shopping sprees in Great Barrington alongside second-home owners fleeing their cities. Did viruses lurk on packages I received in the mail, or on bags from the store? In early March, I’d had coffee with a friend from Westchester who was sick but tested negative. There’s no way to know. But I do feel pretty confident that I didn’t pass the germs along. I did my contact-tracing, and all the news was good. Even my daughter is doing fine, and it’s been three weeks since she moved back in.
Another murky issue is when it is safe for Covid-19 survivors like me to emerge from isolation, given that it is almost impossible to get a second test. The initial recommendation was seven days from the first onset of symptoms, or three days from the last fever. Updated recommendations say 21 days from first onset, or even 28. In the absence of a scientific consensus, I’m going to stay home or mask up for a while longer. The more I understand about the struggle, the isolation and the fight for survival among the critically afflicted, the more seriously I take my obligation to act responsibly.
I’ve signed up to participate in several studies of recovered Covid-19 patients and have arranged to donate some of my antibody-rich blood plasma. Convalescent plasma, as it’s called, was also used during the 1918-1919 flu epidemic. I’m told that one donation can help save up to three lives, and that for the next eight weeks, my antibodies will be at their strongest.
I drove to New York on Thursday to make my first donation. The process is daunting but not painful. An automated machine draws the blood, separates the convalescent plasma from the other components and then returns my red blood cells and platelets back to me, all in about 45 minutes. I’m pleased to be able to help. Time is one thing I have on my well-washed hands.
—Tory Estern Jadow