I got the call on a Tuesday that my COVID-19 test came back positive, and my mind raced to two places: my kids and my heart.
My kids because I feared they, too, were infected. (How could they not be? I work from home, they school from home. Laughing, singing cheek-to-cheek dance parties are standard in our kitchen.)
My heart because I already have a heart condition brought on by a virus. I had viral meningitis in 2011 and, a cardiologist surmised, my body sent fluid to my organs to protect them. The sac of fluid near my heart never reabsorbed, so I live with a pericardial effusion that has neither shrunk nor grown in the past nine years. It’s a minor inconvenience, but a nagging reminder that viruses can do unexpected, lasting damage to your organs.
The positive test was a shock. We’ve avoided crowds and restaurants, and we always wear masks when we leave the house. My daughter and I got tested together because we planned to host three of her friends from school for a birthday celebration, on the condition that her friends got tested and we got tested. Neither of us had symptoms.
Her test came back negative, but I worried it was false — that her viral load hadn’t reached a detectable level yet. I assumed my son, who was getting tested the next day, would also be positive. I assumed my husband, who was tested the day after my daughter and I were, was also infected.
But those tests, and two subsequent rounds, were all negative.
So I isolated in a spare bedroom, donning a mask and covering my hands in newspaper bags when I needed to emerge. My symptoms grew a little worse each day. My whole body ached. My head throbbed and my eyeballs pulsated. I would lose my train of thought mid-sentence and forget simple words.
“This virus can hang out in my brain for a while,” I texted a friend. “As long as it stays clear of my heart.”
I ordered a pulse oximeter to keep an eye on my heart rate and oxygen levels, and I took comfort in their steady levels.
I waffled between gratitude that my symptoms weren’t worse and fear that they would become so at any moment. I felt newly determined to protect my kids from experiencing this thing I now had a taste of, and powerless to live up to that task. I felt guilty that they were downstairs, already navigating their eighth month of life without the comforts of in-person school and favorite sports and easy contact with friends, and now doing so without my help.
Nine days after my positive test, the symptoms started to lift. Someone from the Chicago Department of Public Health called to ask how I was feeling and help me contact trace. She said I was cleared to come out of isolation on day 10. To be safe, she said, I should get re-tested 14 days after my initial positive test to make sure I was truly clear of the virus.
The morning I was scheduled to be sprung, I woke up feeling the worst I’d yet felt. My headache was severe. I was too dizzy to sit upright. I spent the day lying flat.
I woke up the following day feeling worse. I couldn’t stand or walk without leaning my back against the wall and inching my way toward the bathroom. I called my primary care physician, who directed me to the emergency room.
After an initial triage and electrocardiogram, I was given a blood test for COVID-19 markers. One protein that doctors check for is troponin, which tells them the virus has damaged your heart. My troponin levels were more than three times the healthy limit. They checked again in a few hours to see if they’d gone down. They’d gone up.
COVID-19, the ER doctor explained, goes wherever your blood vessels go. And your blood vessels, of course, go everywhere.
The cardiac injury was enough to get me admitted, but it didn’t necessarily explain the headaches and dizziness. The doctor suggested a lumbar puncture, since hospitals have been seeing the coronavirus cause viral meningitis in some patients. My prior bout with meningitis didn’t make me more or less likely to have it, he said. It’s simply a condition — painful inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membranes — that can tag along with COVID-19. He stayed in the room and talked to me about books while another doctor performed the spinal tap.
It’s hard to find words for the swell of emotions, as visceral as the pain, in that moment.
Immense gratitude for these brilliant minds, working furiously to keep the damage to a minimum — day in and day out, patient after patient — and risking their own health in the process.
Rage that the wisdom and experience of scientists and doctors and other experts have been dismissed or downplayed since the beginning of this pandemic.
Sorrow for the hundreds of thousands of lives lost and families shattered and rituals upended and joy deferred since March.
It was all there, swirling around in my slightly broken heart.
The spinal tap was inconclusive. I had the proteins that indicate meningitis, but not the white blood cells. I was moved to a room in the COVID-19 unit, where I saw a series of doctors for the next three days.
I was given blood thinner shots in my upper arms to prevent a stroke. A nurse drew my blood every four hours to check my troponin levels. I had another EKG and an ultrasound of my heart. I had a CT scan and MRI of my brain. The MRI took place at 1:30 a.m. because that’s when there was an opening.
As the MRI technologist wheeled me back to wait for hospital transport to return me to my room, he asked when I was first diagnosed. I told him my positive test was 12 days prior.
“You’re lucky,” he told me.
I didn’t feel lucky. Everything hurt. My arms were covered in bruises from the IVs and blood thinner shots. I was lonely and worried about my kids, home and worried about me. I was tired in a way I had never experienced.
But he was right. I was lucky. I went home the next day. My troponin levels were starting to decrease and a neurologist gave me the all-clear. I was ordered to rest and avoid stress as much as possible.
The next eight days at home I had to wrap ice packs around my head and secure them in place with a stocking cap to dull the headaches. I didn’t move much from the couch. Slowly, I started to add activities back — walks with my family, card games at our kitchen table. I had a follow-up MRI of my heart to check for myocarditis and none was detected, meaning the cardiac injury is likely acute, rather than chronic. I feel pretty good now, seven weeks after I was diagnosed.
I am lucky.
And I’m scared — about how many more infections, hospitalizations, deaths lie ahead of us, about spikes across the country, about folks gathering for Thanksgiving.
I wavered about writing this. I hear a lot from the COVID-is-overblown crowd and I hear a lot from the (screw)-your-feelings crowd and this story is an invitation, I realize, for blowback from both.
But this virus is far from done with us. And it serves no one for me to keep an experience with it shrouded in mystery. Too much about COVID-19 has been shrouded in mystery.
I wish we had a national testing strategy and a national mask mandate and daily, credible briefings about the latest coronavirus science and statistics and strategies. We have none of those things.
But we have each other. And our fates are intertwined. That’s never felt more beautiful or more terrifying. I still believe we can rise to the occasion, especially with principled, kind leadership nudging us, guiding us from the top. I have high hopes for presumptive President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 task force.
I have high hopes for our ability and willingness to protect one another. It is, in fact, our only option to defeat this virus, which has already stolen so much.
Heidi Stevens writes for the Chicago Tribune.