I Spent My Entire Life Preparing for COVID-19 and it Didn’t Make a Difference
On the morning of March 25, I woke up with a vague discomfort in my chest. It was nothing more than a small ache when I breathed and the feeling that my lungs weren’t quite filling to capacity. If I hadn’t already been on high alert due to the mounting panic over the recent news cycles, I probably wouldn’t have noticed anything at all. Even so, I knew instantly, without the slightest hint of doubt, that COVID-19 was beginning to take root in my system.
For the first two days after my initial symptoms, I didn’t have much trouble going about my daily tasks. By the third day, my chest stung uncomfortably with every breath, and the thought of moving my body in any strenuous way inspired waves of fatigue. My brother and his roommates, with whom I was temporarily living upon recently returning to the country, had also begun to show a variety of symptoms ranging from cough to fever to loss of smell. On the fourth day, my own fever hit for the first time, just barely surpassing 100 degrees. The four of us ordered a few weeks’ worth of groceries and prepared to hunker down. However, I was still uncharacteristically calm, and not because of the erroneous, widely-spread reports that the virus only posed danger to the elderly and immunocompromised. Rather, I had unknowingly been preparing my body for a deadly virus for as long as I could remember.
What followed my initial fever were three days of near delirium, a strong aversion to food, muscles that ached when I moved, lungs that burned every time I breathed. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to watch an episode of television. When the hammer finally came off of my chest about a week after the symptoms first started, I was confident the ordeal was behind me. However, what I thought was the beginning of a swift recovery turned out to be a mere respite from the discomfort. Over the next few weeks, I came down with several bizarre symptoms that included headaches, dizziness, bouts of nausea, neck soreness, and loss of smell. Most persistent, though, was the shortness of breath. I couldn’t walk more than a few minutes without gasping for air, and even the slightest movement sent shooting pains through my lungs. The progression of symptoms didn’t seem to follow any pattern, which I would soon learn was a hallmark of the disease. In the early days of the virus, my quick decline in physical ability seemed almost inconceivable. Up until just a few weeks ago, I had walked over a combined hour to work every day. In college, I had spent the majority of each year participating in strenuous conditioning sessions for my softball team. How was it now that a simple walk up the stairs sent my heart pounding out of control?
As the weeks passed, my brother and his two roommates returned to their normal lives. I watched them come into the house, panting after working out in the yard. I went to the park with them and looked on from a bench as they ran laps around the trees. And yet, I still couldn’t move without pain. Little by little, the prayers and well wishes from most of my friends came to a stop. I had well passed the two-week benchmark that the media was putting forward as the average timetable for the illness, so it was only natural to assume I had made a full recovery. I began to develop the steadfast belief that I didn’t deserve what was happening. I was barely 23 years old, with no pre-existing conditions. For the past several months, I had made a concerted effort to be physically active, eat as well as I could, and maintain a balance between work and rest. And for what? Why was my health slowly deteriorating while my brother and his roommates, relatively the same age as me, were going about business as usual? I was sure that my prior devotion to health should have afforded me something better, that my body was breaking a predetermined agreement by turning against me.
My sense of entitlement regarding health dated back to elementary school. At age eight, I began checking all processed foods for partially hydrogenated oils after learning of their detrimental health effects. By age 12, I had permanently given up soda when a nutritionist told me that one bottle held 16 tablespoons of sugar. Throughout my early teenage years, I measured out exact portions of sunflower seeds to note the percentages of fat, carbohydrates, and protein I was ingesting. As an anxious young child, I had somehow internalized the number of ways that a person’s body could malfunction. Taking precise care of my health was my way of climbing out of the wreckage, of building walls around myself that no illness or injury could penetrate. If anything like COVID-19 ever came for me, I would be ready.
In my freshman year of high school, I joined the Cross-Country team and made it to the top tier of runners by the end of my sophomore season. Over the next few years, I participated on three varsity sports teams, never taking more than a few days off from physical exertion. The more I excelled in fitness and athletics, the more I began to construct an identity around my ability to keep my body in an optimal state of performance. What I didn’t realize at the time was how my emphasis on rigorous exercise was warping my mindset to view smaller, leaner bodies as superior based on the superficial ideals I’d internalized. As I ran laps around the park near my house, I silently judged those I saw on the sidewalk who looked different from me, positing them as examples for what I never wanted to become. My athleticism was a badge, something I had worked hard for and rightfully earned.
Throughout my years of participation in athletics, it never occurred to me that I would ever lack any semblance of control over my health, that I would someday lose the ability to manipulate my body in a way that reflected my movement-driven mindset. It speaks volumes on our society’s twisted ideals that, when it first became clear that my COVID-19-induced respiratory symptoms would linger indefinitely, one of my most immediate concerns was how my lifestyle change would affect the physique I’d long associated with strength and athleticism. When people saw me, would they immediately assume I lacked the motivation to care for my health, just as I had judged others before?
In the months leading up to the pandemic, I was living in Spain and working as an English teacher at an elementary school. To combat the uncertainty that comes with being in a new environment, I dove even deeper into my obsessive pursuit of health. I transitioned to an almost completely plant-based diet, planned my meals out days in advance, exercised multiple times a week, and made sure to sleep at least seven hours a night. During one of the last workouts I completed in Spain before returning home to the states in March, I held a plank on the floor of my bedroom and listened to my heart rate accelerate in my ears. We had been on complete lockdown for just over a week at that point, and my workouts had transitioned to running up and down the stairs in my apartment building and doing stationary exercises on a yoga mat. In my mind, I was expanding my lung capacity, strengthening my respiratory system in case my blood vessels soon had to endure the onslaught of virus. Within the week, I would be back in America and in the beginning stages of a steep decline that seemingly couldn’t have been stopped or avoided no matter how I had behaved prior to my infection. My years of preparation, it seemed, hadn’t made a difference.
From the very beginning of the virus’s spread, a specific refrain has dominated the common narrative: the young and healthy have nothing to worry about. Not only does this perspective trivialize the lives of the elderly and immunocompromised, but it also assumes that those who get seriously ill must have indirectly done something to bring it upon themselves. When it comes to health in general, we tend to think that people get what they deserve, that those who eat well and exercise and follow an agreed-upon set of guidelines will live without pain, without chronic illness, without any sort of disability or physical hardship. Those with any number of conditions, however, must have made a series of decisions that landed them in their circumstances. This belief is only natural; we long to create a sense of order in seemingly random events, to assuage our fears regarding the possibility that illness or injury could befall us at any time. There’s no doubt that eating in certain ways and participating in different forms of exercise can increase life expectancy and decrease the chances of chronic, degenerative diseases. Yet, when we consider health in terms of something that we either fairly earn or willingly surrender, we disregard the outcomes that happen due to factors like unequal access to healthcare, racist medical practices, genetic makeup, and simple unexplained misfortune — none of which have to do with individual willpower. Our country’s emphasis on privatized insurance and lack of universal healthcare also places the onus almost entirely on the individual to mind their wellness needs. Millions of uninsured Americans have no safety net in case of an emergency. The way that our society stigmatizes alcoholism, addiction, diabetes, and even eating disorders demonstrates how health is not, and never has been, politically neutral. Rather, we attempt to pinpoint personal shortcomings to direct blame back towards the victim instead of the environmental forces that produce certain ailments. This aspect of our culture sends a strong message: if someone gets themselves into medical trouble, it’s their job to get themselves out. The devastating fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized, among many things, the need for a less individualized approach to medicine and a more communal system that provides support and understanding rather than punishment.
If the pandemic has clarified anything besides the need for more equal access to quality healthcare, it’s that medical mysteries abound. In one of the COVID-19 Long-Hauler support groups on Facebook, in which many thousands of people detail their myriad of experiences with the virus, there are athletes, vegans, smokers, parents, those with chronic illnesses, and those who have hardly been ill a day in their lives. Some have found treatments to their symptoms while others remain inexplicably trapped in an unpredictable state of confusion and misery. Based on preliminary research, doctors can’t seem to find anything about an individual’s health profile before contracting COVID-19 that would predict them becoming a Long Hauler. A recent study conducted in Germany reported that 78 people out of 100 who had recovered from the virus had some sort of residual heart abnormality such as deformation or myocarditis. All of these patients were under 53 years old, and most of them had no pre-existing conditions or serious health concerns before COVID-19. Thousands of anecdotal stories report previously healthy individuals who now reckon with a cytokine storm, or an overactive immune response that essentially causes the body to attack itself, triggering symptoms like asthma, heartbeat irregularities, and crushing fatigue. The only common thread among each of these cases was a virus that resulted in a number of debilitating effects, wreaking havoc on victims’ hearts, lungs, kidneys, brains, and nervous systems and presenting the very tangible potential of long-term disability. There is no logical explanation for why my brother’s condition improved in a matter of weeks and mine plateaued over the following months. There is no logical explanation for any number of perplexing afflictions, no matter how hard we try to find reason in arbitrary events.
I’m still anticipating recovery almost seven months after my initial symptoms. As I reflect on the dozens of doctors’ appointments, blood tests, breathing contraptions, prescriptions, and procedures, it’s hard to reconcile my new reality with the active lifestyle I once led. I’ve made it my mission to serve as a cautionary tale to my friends and family, warning them of the potential consequences that can happen to those who least expect it. And yet, sometimes it feels like I’m screaming into a void. While our community of Long-Haulers is loud and vibrant, it is also mostly ignored. People seem reluctant to acknowledge our existence because, in many cases, there’s not much separating us from them. The death of an elderly person, while tragic, fits into the logic that has largely been circulating throughout the pandemic. Meanwhile, it’s a lot more uncomfortable to accept a young person watching their health decay. No matter how often I relay accounts of chest pain and labored breathing, my daily struggle to walk even a few blocks without fatigue, I constantly ram up against the same offhand reactions, the people who turn up their noses and seem to say, It simply won’t happen to me.
Since the start of the pandemic, people have been imploring themselves and others to look for the silver lining, or consider the ways that this mass disruption of routine can reap unexpected benefits. For me, this process has involved unwinding the previously rigid concept of health that I had fostered for as long as I could remember. I’m learning how deep these beliefs run in our society, that it takes more than awareness to even begin to dismantle them. More than anything, I’m learning to lead with compassion rather than judgment, to hold my assumptions on what someone may be experiencing. As long as people continue to view COVID-19 as a disease reserved for the elderly and unwell, many thousands will find their lives irrevocably damaged in the wake of the virus’s insidious hold. The sooner we recognize that health isn’t a matter of not working hard or being smart enough, the sooner we’ll begin to honor the struggles of people who manage afflictions that are invisible, disruptive, and wholeheartedly undeserved.